Joshua Tehee

Smack in da Middle tournament brings competitive bike polo to Fresno

A scene from last year’s Smack in da Middle bike polo tournament. This year’s tournament takes place Saturday, April 23 and Sunday, April 24 at Cary Park in Fresno.
A scene from last year’s Smack in da Middle bike polo tournament. This year’s tournament takes place Saturday, April 23 and Sunday, April 24 at Cary Park in Fresno. Special to The Bee

Tea Gonzalez almost got locked out of playing in his own tournament.

That’s how quickly spots in Smack in Da Middle filled up. In less than seven hours, 24 teams had registered to compete in the fifth annual bike polo tournament, happening Saturday, April 23 and Sunday, April 24 at Cary Park on Fresno Street near Fashion Fair.

The overwhelming majority aren’t locals.

Smash mallets: the slang term for bike polo. “This weekend we’re gonna smash mallets at Smack in da Middle.”

In fact, Gonzalez is one of just three local players – one single team – competing. The rest are coming from across the state (Los Angeles, San Francisco), country (places like Alaska, Utah and New Mexico) and the rest of North America. There’s one competitor coming from Canada and she is a monster of a player, Gonzales says.

“I’ll be defending Fresno as best as I can,” says Gonzales, who organizes the tournament with his wife, Sara.

Bike polo is street hockey on bicycles.

Or maybe it’s actual polo, without the horses.

In his 2014 video, members of Fresno's Pedal Junkies team demonstrated the sport of bike polo. Each year, Fresno hosts the sport's Smack in Da Middle tournament.

It’s been around since the 1890s, but got a restart 100 years later from a group of bike messengers in Seattle. It’s played on rooftops, in parking lots and on tennis courts and is part of an emerging class of alternative sports that includes roller derby and also maybe competitive dodgeball.

Riders play in teams of three, working to five points, or 15 minutes, whichever comes first. Checking someone from behind is not permitted. Mallet-to-body contact is not permitted. Body-to-bike contact is not permitted, but it happens.

Saturday’s tournament play will determine seeding for Sunday’s double-elimination playoffs.

For those new to the sport, the tournament is a good introduction, Gonzales says.

For those familiar, it’s a chance to see the highest level of players. Like Red Beard, who’s coming from Seattle. That’s not his real name, just what he’s known as in bike polo, Gonzales says; what he does on a bicycle, “it’s almost like ballet.”

The tournament is an offshoot of the Pedal Junkies and Fresno Bike Polo, the two groups of local polo players that are helping grow the sport in town. They are working to get a dedicated polo court in west Fresno, but for now, the 20 or so players gather twice a week at Cary Park to practice, play and initiate new riders.

The players ride mostly road bikes with tiny gears (for quick acceleration) and specially outfitted with wheel guards (to keep stray mallets from getting caught in the spokes). Some play with wire face masks to protect their teeth. Yes, people have lost teeth on these courts, says Sara Gonzales. She doesn’t play herself, but she’s seen enough games to understand the sport.

The braver players here ride sans face masks (or helmets, though they’re required for the tournament).

During a recent match, one rider sped down the court, shirtless, with a bandana tied around his head, cigarette dangling from his lips, and attacked the orange ball with his mallet.

The tournament has grown in its five years, Sara Gonzales says. If not in terms of teams (it’s capped at 24 to make it manageable) or spectators, at least in terms of recognition. This year’s sponsors include big companies in the bike-polo world such as the lock manufacturer Kryptonite, wheel maker Velocity and Dodici, which is donating a bike frame that will be given away during the tournament.

The tournament has gained a reputation for being organized and highly competitive.

Mostly, that’s thanks to the Gonzaleses. They travel as much as possible to compete in and help organize other bike polo tournaments. Tea Gonzales did seven tournaments last year, even traveled to Puerto Rico. And everywhere he went he represented Pedal Junkies, Fresno Bike Polo and his hometown.

“People leave my city all the time,” he says.

They end up in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco or Portland.

Smack in da Middle is about getting people to come to Fresno, to want to come to Fresno; even if it’s just one weekend a year.

“We’re bringing these fools from all over, right here to Central Cali.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

Smack in Da Middle bike polo tournament

When: 10 a.m. Saturday April 23 and Sunday April 24

Where: Cary Park, 4750 N. Fresno St.

Admission: Free for spectators

Search: ‪#SmackInDaMiddle‬

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