That’s actually a fairly common question asked by new players and passers by seeing Bike Polo for the first time. A century ago, grass Bike Polo differed little from its horsey counterpart, and neither did player’s wooden mallets.
Hardcourt Bike Polo brought a new game, new rules, and new mallets; lighter, bespoke, and home made. Today’s mallets are put together with three main parts; shaft, head, and grip; and all three of these components are carefully measured and modified to match the player’s height, playing style, and personal preference.
While these components have traditionally been home built from salvaged and re-purposed materials, specially designed and polo specific components can now be purchased from a number of UK companies, such as Throw In Polo Co., Magic bike Polo, and US based Fixcraft.
Aluminium is light and strong, and shafts suitable for polo are easily come by in the shape of ski poles. The lighter your shaft, the less force needed to swing it towards the ball, but the key to an effective mallet shaft is length. As well as your height and bike position, there are a few other factors to consider;
A longer mallet will allow you to reach further for the ball, as well as intercept passes and win tackles which a shorter mallet may not stretch to. As well as this, longer length gives a mechanical advantage, amplifying the force put into a swing, as a function of distance from the fulcrum/hand to the point of force/mallet (Physics!). Additionally, a goal keeper will be able to stop an attacker from further away, effectively increasing the minimum distance from which an attacker can strike uninterrupted.
A shorter mallet on the other hand will be easier to maneuver quickly as well as being lighter, allowing faster passes and shots, as well as potentially offering greater control closer to the bike. When in goals a shorter mallet will have less advantage when reaching towards an attacking player before they have taken their shot, but can allow faster movement to stop the ball as it reaches the goal. Less length also means that weight of the mallet head is less important as the path of a swing will be reduced and its centre of gravity will be brought closer to your hand. (Disclaimer; my physics here may be a little shonky).
Ultimately, your mallet length will come down to what you find most comfortable, efficient and effective to play with. Keep in mind that you’ll also find yourself at times leaning on your mallet, for example while in goals or while initiating a wheelie-turn, as well as tackling, shooting, and shuffling. Experiment with other players’ mallets to get and idea of what might suit you before you start sawing! A shaft can always be cut shorter, but cannot be cut longer.
Mallet heads are attached to shafts with bolts. Older more haphazardly built mallets had bolts through the side face of the mallet and through the shaft at 90°, but a more elegant (and safer) design involves dropping a nut down through the shaft and threading the bolt into this from the bottom; a countersunk bolt leaving no protruding metal.
Many commercially available mallet heads come with mounting bolts, and these heads vary widely in materials. HDPE, UHMW, and other plastics are used, all varying by weight and durability. Home made mallet heads tend to be cut from industrial gas or electrical pipe, but must be of a material which is not brittle or it will quickly shatter during play.
As well as through material choice, weight can be saved by cutting out material, either with many small holes, or with fewer larger holes, which additionally change the ball handling properties. Be careful however, the more you cut, the weaker your head becomes, and it is worth remembering that cut-outs above a certain size, which aid controlling the ball, have been banned under some rulesets.
Also affecting weight and ball handling is mallet head length; a shorter head will allow easier maneuverability adding speed and accuracy to your swings, but a longer head with greater surface area will help with shuffling and tackling, increasing the chance of contact. A longer, heavier head will also lend greater momentum to shots allowing you to hit harder. There do exist creations known as ‘goalie mallets’ with heads up to ten inches long, and while these are often frowned upon by other players, they increase contact area and make goal saving easier (perhaps too easy).
Some mallet heads also come with an end cap, or can have one installed, which adds accuracy to shots at the expense of weight.
All mallet shafts must be capped at the top for safety, and players customise their grip according to preference. Specific grips are available for sale, but similar golf grips are also popular. Other materials are often used, such as handlebar tape, and shafts will often be wrapped in old inner tube, which is cheap and grippy but also heavy. It is also possible to wrap a mallet handle in para-cord, and intricate weaving can offer added texture and grip, and even make it possible to change the shape of the shaft to match the grip of the hand.
You should wrap your mallet shaft at the top with a materiel which offers you grip and comfort; thickness will vary according to preference, and as with heads and shafts, experimentation will ensure you find what feels right to you. It’s possible to add plugs and extra cushioning material to mallet caps as much of your weight will rest on it while in goal, and some players include the baskets from ski and walking poles to protect the hand during hooking and tackling.
What are Glasgow Playing With?
In Glasgow, we play with a good mix of home-brew and commercially bought components. The home-made spirit of Bike Polo is still alive, but we’re also taking advantage of new developments and possibilities custom-made equipment can bring.
Golf grips and paracord wrapped shafts are popular, with James’ weaving skills being put to good use. We’ve also been experimenting with mallet heads from Throw in, Magic and Fixcraft, and the consensus seems to be edging towards capped mallet heads as a more accurate configuration than open ended mallets.
Another trend of note is the construction of mallets with off-centre heads, as seen above. This is a configuration not very common in other polo communities, but is popular with Glasgow. I myself play with the above off-centre mallet, and find the striking surface sitting so close to the shaft allows me to better judge when the ball is in position for an accurate shot, while still maintaining length for use when shuffling and jousting.
What you play with will come down to experimentation and personal preference. Polo players are forever tweaking, altering, updating and improving their equipment, and go through countless mallets over their polo playing life. Have a shot of some of them before you build your own.