Recently I conducted an email interview with Jonathan Lomax. We here at Lancaster United pretty much have posters of the guy in our bedrooms (well, Horse does. I have a little picture of him in my wallet), and I’m so excited that we was willing to share some of his insight with us.
How long have you been playing Bike Polo, and has it always been with Pittsburgh?
I have been playing since the summer of ’08, and I have never been affiliated with a club other than Pittsburgh. When polo started in Pittsburgh, there were a lot of golf club shafts and 1.5″ OD, cellular-core, ABS mallet heads. The goals that we used were somewhere around 2.5′ wide by 1′ high. I’m not sure how that situation was established, but it didn’t last long. On their way to Pittsburgh for a friendly event in ’09, I believe, some guys from Cincinnati brought a set of four of the tall construction pylons and broke us of our odd ways. We still use them today when we don’t bring out our steel goal set.
What was your first bike? What have you learned about what makes a bike good or bad for polo?
My first polo bike was a 57cm Pake track frame with a Soma track fork. That was when I was a bike messenger, and that was my goto bike for work, at the time. I had toe clips with MKS double straps, 165mm cranks, a front brake, 23c tires, 36 spoke Deep-V wheels, bullhorns, and a 45t x 17t drivetrain. When I retired that bike from work, I dropped the drivetrain down to 34t x 19t, crafted some wheelcovers out of landscaping mesh, and swapped the bullhorns out for riser bars. Later, I went freewheel (30t x 22t), switched to platform pedals, got on the corrugated plastic bandwagon for wheel covers, and played around with various brake setups, eventually settling on a dual brake setup with a custom ordered, full length Odyssey gyro cable set (thanks again, Brian!). That Odyssey trigger lever was incredible, and the cable was perfect. The obvious downsides are that the cable is custom and any failure would require a full replacement, but over the year that I used it, it took everything I could throw at it.
Building the perfect polo bike is such an individual experience. That couldn’t be more cliche or absolutely true. A lot of the choices that can be made in setting up a polo bike, like braking, gear ratio, and cockpit, come down to personal preference. Fortunately, all of those choices can be changed or adjusted later as needed, but the most important choice to make is also the most expensive one to have a change of heart about: the frameset. It dictates hub spacing, wheel size, tire size, brake type, crankset type, handling characteristics, and center of gravity, to name a few. When I started, I stuck with the bike that I felt the most comfortable on.
The familiarity of a bike reduces the difficulty in learning how to ride one-handed while using a mallet. Once that hurdle is cleared, the bike can be tailored to fit a specific playing style. Like I mentioned, the unfortunate reality is that settling on a playing style may require replacing a frameset. At first, I was a straight line speed player, so my track bike was fine. When I started relying more on maneuverability, the wide turning and skinny tires were a disadvantage. The frameset that I am on now (http://www.rustbeltwelding.com/bike_frames.html or http://321polo.net/2012/02/bike-check-jonathan-lomax) has a short wheelbase and is built for 26″ wheels. It is incredibly stable and maneuverable. I would never say that equipment makes you a better player, but it can certainly enable you to become one.
I guess what I am trying to say is that while a group of people would probably agree on what is a bad polo bike, it would be a great deal harder to get the same group to agree on the best one. There are guys winning on every type of bike, but I bet that they wouldn’t swap bikes for the final game if you paid them. In a game that requires you to constantly stop, start, sprint, and turn around, you need a bike that balances acceleration and top end speed, stops quickly and reliably, and doesn’t washout every time you turn the handlebars. Anyone can build a bike that meets those needs, it just takes a bit of experimentation to find what does it for you.
Do you think you’ve moved more towards buying supplies (mallets, poles, etc), or do you stick with DIY?
I’m still a DIY guy when it comes to mallets. I don’t blow through thrift store ski poles much faster than the current offerings from polo-friendly companies. That’s not to say anything against their R&D in durability; you can sure beat the hell out of MKE and Fixcraft’s shafts. I tend to take care of my stuff, so I just use whatever is most readily available for mallets. I have a ton of plain, old HDPE lying around, but I will use UHMWPE or Canadian ABS when I have it.
I would love to get UHMWPE in a 2″ O.D. size (like standard HDPE or ABS) because it wears the best, and I have grown fond of the Eighth Inch mallet caps that are sized for 2″ heads. I got a handful of them when they were prototyping a new type of plastic, and I have stuck with them since. If I had to choose an ideal setup, I would go with the lightest thrift store ski pole that I could find, a single-capped, 5″ piece of 2″ O.D. Canadian ABS, and a connector that we call a Beech Connector (named for Chris, the inventor) here in Pittsburgh. It’s a roughly 1.5″ piece of 5/16″ aluminum rod that is drilled and tapped to accept the bolts used for clipless pedal cleats. It goes through the pole pretty near to the end, and the cleat bolts pinch the bottom wall of the mallet head. It’s the lightest connector that I’ve seen. Some midwest guys picked up on it and started making them when we brought them to the first St. Louis Lock-In in 2010, but I haven’t seen anyone else using anything like it.
I am really not too picky about mallet materials any more, though. With practice, it doesn’t matter what it’s made of. I like my mallets 39″ long, as light as possible, and with a little piece of cable housing in the grip for direction. Beyond that, I could take it or leave it.
You’ve spoken at length on our blog about the dangers in overly aggressive play on our site already – how does Pittsburgh deal with this issue, and why?
At home, we don’t have a lot of aggressive play. Some people refuse to stop giving a retaliatory slash when they lose the ball or feel defensive pressure, but it’s very predictable and avoidable. Other than that, there really isn’t a lot of unnecessary aggression here. The group of us that travels a lot just hasn’t brought that onto the home court. On the road, we still play positional, “ball first” defense, but we don’t exactly shy away from contact, either. We lean in, keep our forearms up to guard, but we don’t lay into people with blind checks.
We just don’t feel that it is necessary to injure each other in this sport.
Speaking for myself, polo just isn’t a contact sport. People are too vulnerable on a bicycle, the list of mandatory safety equipment is nowhere near sufficient for contact, and bicycles are too fragile to be constantly involved in cartwheeling crashes. Anyone that argues those points is a barbarian.
Polo is a game of speed, bike handling, and mallet skill. Any adjustments made to accommodate more violence take away from those aspects and the beauty of the game. I know that some people might immediately say that if you are paying attention and you know how to ride your bike that you should be able to handle contact, but I think that those people are just looking for a license to lay someone out when they are frustrated or when the game is on the line. It just doesn’t make the game any better.
What are 3 things you wish you knew when you first started playing polo?
I wish that I knew that hitting the ball hard wasn’t the most important thing in the world, that I was eventually going to play freewheel forever, and that lacrosse gloves are amazing. If I could have back those first year of playing fixed and swinging for the fences, I would be miles ahead of where I am now in terms of stick handling and accuracy. As for the gloves, avoiding hand pain is worth any price. I can’t tell you how many times I nailed my hand on my bars on a follow through or took a slash to the fingers before I got those gloves. They are worth every penny.
Any horrific injuries?
No! Don’t jinx me!
What was the best tournament experience you had – or why would you recommend clubs going to as many tournaments as possible?
I really couldn’t choose. Any time that I’ve been to Kentucky has been amazing. Polo Camp in Frederick is worth it just to sit by the fire with everyone at the campgrounds. The St. Louis Lock-Ins have all been outrageous. If there was one memory that will stick out forever, it would be game one of the Midwest Champeenships in Dayton, OH. That was my first tournament, and we had the first game on Saturday. We played some guys that will remain nameless (partly because I forget exactly who was on the team) from Columbia, MO on the big court, and everyone else watched. No one had ever seen us before, and we battled those guys to 4-4 and took it in the end. Hearing a crowd like that was intense. It was a great way to be welcomed into traveling polo.
People should go to every tournament possible because it is an experience like nothing else. When you step back and look around at almost 200 people from all over the place that play the same crazy game that you do with your buddies back home, it is pretty amazing. That instant, unspoken bond is nothing to be taken lightly, either. Also, traveling is the best way to get better. It is too easy to fall into habits at home when you are so familiar with how everyone plays. It’s not until you play with or against strangers and test your fundamentals that you truly make progress.
Where do you think the sport will be in 5 years?
I hope that it has gone to 9 person teams by then. I could speculate about sponsorships, rulesets, schedules, and whatnot, but I think that deeper benches are the logical next step. If that happens, I think that polo will progress as a legitimate sport more effectively. 3v3 pick up games to 5 points are great, but I don’t see that as a proper model for a competitive sport. Timed games with substitutes will benefit the tournament environment greatly. Then organizers can focus more on the game than how they will accommodate an overwhelming number of travelers.
Do you think there will be a point where Polo has regulated pads, mallets, and soforth?
It will have to. I think that bike safety checks will become more of a factor, I think that mandatory pads will properly reflect whatever level of contact is eventually deemed to be acceptable or unacceptable, and mallets will finally be given a defined range of acceptable lengths, diameters, and materials. These considerations are necessary in the ruleset of a legitimate sport to maintain a safe, level playing field for all competitors.