Bike polo - a tarmac tournament that's not for the thin-skinned | Matthew Sparkes

Even as a spectator, you can't take your eyes off the ball for a second. Not because of the speed of play, although it can be blazingly quick, but because the ball is commonly clouted over the stubby safety barriers. Standing farther back won't help – it'll just put you among the waiting players circling the court on one wheel and showing off increasingly unlikely tricks.

As far as sports go, bike polo is one of the more unusual to watch, but it is furiously competitive, easy to grasp and oddly captivating.

You may never have heard of bike polo before, but it's not a new game. Invented in 1891, and an Olympic event in 1908 (Ireland took the gold), the sport has a long and interesting history, but it's the recently revived fixed-gear scene that has given it a new lease of life.

Hardcourt polo, as its urban variant is known, is to traditional bike polo as streetball is to basketball: grittier, more easily accessible and, to be honest, more fun.

Players generally ride fixed-gear bikes with low ratios, to be as manoeuvrable as possible. Homemade disc wheels are common, often made from discarded plastic estate agent's signs. Mallets are ski poles or golf clubs, cut down to size and fitted with a short length of plastic waterpipe as a head.

The average casualty toll at the end of a game includes some skinned knees and elbows, perhaps a few spokes and often a bent fork or mallet. Despite this, many of the bikes are worth a small fortune.

For several years in the UK it's been played on any patch of tarmac that can be found (I began playing two years ago in a multistorey carpark in Peckham), but has now reached such popularity that a UK league and European tournament have been arranged.

Over the past two days, 40 teams of three riders descended on London for the first ever European hardcourt bike polo championships. All but 16 of those teams had travelled from outside the UK to compete.

Sadly for the hosting country, a Swiss team called l'Equipe Genève won, but there is a chance to regain some national pride at the world championships to be held in Philadelphia this September.

If you've never seen this sport, then drop by one of the regular games held all over the UK. You can also get involved – any bike will do, and you can borrow a mallet.

The best place to find information is the London Fixed Gear and Single Speed forum, which has a dedicated bike polo section.

• Matthew Sparkes blogs on cycling at Stop Reading This and Ride a Bike

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