And we went. Twelve speeding bikes and 12 swinging mallets converged on the croquet ball. At first there were no rules except that you couldn't touch the ball if you weren't on your bike. There was no strategy, either, except to hit the ball in the direction of the opponent's goal.
From a distance, bike polo must have seemed like bedlam, which it was, but those of us who played soon developed a modicum of finesse. For example, during the face-off that began the game and occurred after each infrequent goal, we learned that it wasn't wise to send every member of the team after the ball. Two riders, whom I always called whackers though their position had no formal name, were responsible for this, and their job was to get the ball moving toward the other team's goal. The rest of the team, save one, rode past the site of the face-off like wide receivers, hoping for a pass from one of the whackers. Because it was inefficient to have a goalie riding back and forth in front of the tin cans, one rider circled halfway between the ball and his own goal, sort of a free-safety goalie. At any moment he might ride into the melee, if the situation merited, but it was his responsibility to anticipate and ride down any long shot headed for a goal.
Not surprisingly, the face-off action was the only thing that resembled a diagramed play. As the flow of action became established, you adjusted and played either offense or defense. Knowing if you were on offense or defense was confusing at first, and it wasn't until the third or fourth day of action that we discovered the difference. Then it was simple. The general rule was that you were on offense if the ball was closer to their goal than yours—otherwise, you were on defense.
Offensive and defensive plays—ploys is more accurate—soon developed and became known to the players, although I'm sure they remained a mystery to the spectators. The defensive ploys were by far the most spectacular.
Jim Stephens getting crowned by a mallet head that had flown off someone's handle is the prime example of something that happened many times—the accidental defensive ploy. He was unhurt and returned to the game. That same day we took up a collection and bought, for $12.95, a brand-new croquet set and retired all mallets known to be in poor condition. It was a big expense, but one we believed necessary to preserve some safety in the game. Besides, there were lots of unavoidable injuries.
One defensive tactic that impressed everyone and enjoyed limited status as an acceptable ploy was the rear-wheel check. Ah yes, the very effective rear-wheel check. One of the players accidentally (so he claimed) discovered this when his mallet head got caught between the chain and sprocket of my bike—immediately locking the rear wheel and causing me to skid violently out of control, the bike on its side, me underneath.
However, the rear-wheel check was gentlemanly compared with the front-wheel check. John Zillich invented this when he accidentally missed a swing and put his mallet head through the spokes of Jim Stephens' front wheel. Jim's bike braked abruptly, stood straight up on the front tire and threw Jim over the handlebars to the ground as though he had been tossed by a Brahma bull in a rodeo.
These tactics became known as "spoking," and a halfhearted attempt was made at discouraging them because of the obvious wear on riders, spokes and mallets. But the anti-spoking rule failed miserably. In the first place, spoking was basically accidental. It just happened, and the person with the mallet was as surprised as the person who used to be on the bike. And don't think for a minute that the mallet swinger was immune from bodily harm, either. The mallet was violently wrenched from your grasp, and there was always the possibility of a broken arm. At the very least you ended up with a sore wrist. But the anti-spoking rule failed mostly because of a quirk of human nature. I mean, what if you owed someone a front-wheel check, accidental or otherwise? You might, after all, manage to let loose of the mallet handle just in time.
A more acceptable defensive tactic was broadsiding. Broadsiding was the surest way to discourage a run on an unattended goal. Ron Kuberski executed the most memorable broadside when he took Charlie Johnson—bike polo star, not football player—out of a play and their bikes got stuck together for about five minutes. To this day, nobody can figure out how Ron's tire got wedged into Charlie's bike that way.
Blocking a shot with your bike was a lot surer than relying on the mallet. One of the neatest defensive moves was to approach a rolling ball just so and brake into it, causing the rear wheel to skid sideways at the ball. At other times, with both bike and mallet out of position, there was no option but to run directly over the ball with your front tire. Surprisingly enough, this was a very effective maneuver.