By Robb Murray
---- — When last we checked in with the unique band of individuals who play bike polo at the rink across the street from Mankato West High School, they were playing with makeshift mallets and any ol' bike would do.
Today things have, shall we say, been kicked into a higher gear.
It's still a sport for guys and gals who like to hang out, grill up some meat and sip a few beers. But nowadays the equipment isn't made from things they had lying around the house.
Mallets, bicycles and even the ball are all specially made for the increasingly popular sport of bike polo. There are regional, national and even international tournaments. The sport was even featured recently in GQ magazine. Plus, there are far fewer people these days who drive by the court and shout insults.
On Sunday the Blue Skunk Bike Polo League held its annual tournament. Five teams squared off in friendly competition. Bikes crashed, goals were scored and a good time was had by all.
"We've got lots of spectators, family, kids," said Bruce Wahl, one of the leaders of the local bike polo ring. "It's a pretty beautiful thing, actually. Give people a chance to get out, have a good time and have some beverages."
Mankato's bike poloists have a close relationship with a similar club in Minneapolis. Each travels regularly to each other's home base for matches. Wahl said he's traveled across the country to catch bike polo events.
As the participants' love for the game grows, so grows their organization.
On Saturday they teamed with Mankato Brewery on a fundraiser. They raised around $2,000 and hope to use that money to make upgrades to the court and complex. They'd like to get a shed for their equipment and spiff up the actual court.
The city has been cooperative. There is now a portable toilet on site, as well as electrical outlets. Wahl said the bike polo club doesn't have any ownership over the rink, but they're the ones who provide 99 percent of its non-winter use.
Rick Esser was at Sunday's tournament. He's a member of the board of directors, but he wasn't participating on the court. Instead he was in charge of grilling the pile of meat participants brought. He said part of the appeal of bike polo is the group of people that gather around it.
"It's great to see people coming together," Esser said. "It's a good thing for good people."
Both Wahl and Esser say they're confident bike polo is just beginning to take off. A quick Google search finds an array of companies catering to the growing demand.
"It's already growing," he said. "We're just at the foothill."