Polo on 2 Wheels : Games: Forget the ponies. For this new version of the centuries-old sport, you need a bike--preferably the fat-tired mountain variety.

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The image of the dashing, debonair polo player sitting nobly in the saddle may be replaced by a middle-aged hacker astride a fat-tired mountain bike if Lou Gonzales and Trice Hufnagel have their way.

They're the husband-and-wife inventors of Official Bicycle Polo, a game founded in the tiny town of Bailey, Colo., that is making its way its way into California.

"You and your bike don't need a pedigree to play this sport," says Tom Dolan, 34, a bike polo disciple, who plays Wednesdays and Saturdays at Palm Park in Santa Barbara.

Nor do players need a stable of ponies and a bank account the size of the national debt to enjoy this new version of polo--although the high-end $3,000 price tag for some mountain bikes may exceed the cost of some lower-priced nags.

All you need is a bike, balls, helmet and mallet to play the game better known among its frugal followers as "poor man's polo."

As with many of the world's great inventions, bike polo happened quite by accident. At a July 5, 1987, picnic in Crested Butte, Colo., Hufnagel was playing a slow-paced croquet match with some friends when she impulsively hopped on her mountain bike and started smacking some croquet balls around with her mallet.

A few days later, Gonzalez, still dumbfounded by his wife's weekend diversion, turned out some mallets in his home woodworking shop in Bailey, 50 miles southeast of Denver. He also visited the public library to research the sport.

"I mean bikes had been around 100 years. Surely somebody must have already done this," he recalls thinking.

While Gonzalez discovered that bicycle polo once served as a demonstration sport in the 1908 Olympics in Shepherd's Bush in London, he also learned the game basically died out with the British Empire. This earlier version was a rough-and-tumble, high-collision sport in which the wooden polo ball reached lethal speeds of up to 60 m.p.h.

So Gonzalez and Hufnagel's task was now clear: They didn't have to reinvent the wheel; they just needed to adapt the rules of equestrian polo--originated by the Persians 25 centuries ago--to a game played on bikes.

They organized an experimental match of their friends in a high mountain meadow near their home to test ideas and prototype mallets and balls. The results were chaotic.

"Riders were flipping over their handlebars or crashing into one another," Hufnagel, 39, recalls. "And the field was full of mole holes, brush, rocks and stumps. But everybody was having a great time."

Nevertheless, to steer clear of bent frames, broken spokes and busted knee caps, the couple continued modifying the rules all summer, trying to substitute civilized play for the rule of the jungle. For starters, they decided to implement a no-contact rule.

Their laboratory was a softball field off U.S. Highway 285 near Denver. "Drivers would pull right off the intersate to ask what we were doing," says Gonzalez, 37.

One curious motorist was Jim Murdoch, director of Crested Butte's annual Fat Tire Bike Week, who asked them to demonstrate their new sport at the mountain bike festival.

"We thought it was great excuse for another party," says Gonzalez. At the bicycle bash, Gonzalez, Hufnagel and the rest of the "Know Fun Club" members--as they loosely call themselves--erected a canopy, served tea, made mallets, handed out copies of the rules and, of course, played bicycle polo.

By week's end, about 100 riders were hastily assembled to compete in the first "Crested Butte Cup," with the winners guzzling gin and tonics from the trophy.

Today, there are 30 leagues organized under the umbrella of the World Bicycle Polo Federation (WBPF) in Crested Butte--the mountain bike capital of the world--with pockets of players in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, England, and, of course, California. Officially, the WBPF includes about 1,000 dues-paying members.

"Right now we're concentrating here in Colorado and in California," Gonzalez says, "because as everyone knows, if it goes in California, everyone will follow sooner or later. But it's still very much word of mouth. It's a grass-roots thing."

Bob Stuckenschneider, 40, a teacher and systems administrator for a computer lab, plays bicycle polo on a grammar school field next to his home in Leucadia. At first, he had to convince the school's skeptical principal and maintenance crew that he wouldn't hurt the field.

"We don't do very much damage at all," Stuckenschneider says. "If it's real wet and somebody slams on their brakes and skids, that's about the only time there's any real damage."

Stuckenschneider, a tall, burly and bearded man who strikes an even more towering presence on his bike, serves as the mentor and ringleader of north San Diego County's bike polo set.

On a recent Sunday morning, he dismounted from his camouflage-painted bike (in honor of Operation Desert Storm) to serve as referee and traffic cop for a match.

"The game looks like a giant game of (baseball) pickle--the way riders constantly loop around to play the ball over and over," says Stuckenschneider.

The game also looks like Sepulveda Boulevard during rush hour.

"As long as you stay in your lane, you're fine," he says, "but as soon as you start veering across the lane, you become very dangerous. It's like driving a car: You must always check oncoming traffic before turning, and you must look behind you before changing lanes."

There are numerous rules of the game, ranging from "Have fun! If you're not having fun, you're dangerous" to more serious guidelines governing field positioning and right-of-way.

For some players--especially newcomers used to the uninhibited pleasure of charging down hills on their mountain bikes--the layers of rules can feel like a pair of handcuffs.

"It seemed kind of stifling because there's so many things you can't do," says Evan Schaibly, 20, after his first match. "It's such an odd medium, but I can see that if they didn't stick to all these rules, the game would just fall to pieces, and we'd be out here banging around and not doing anything right."

Gonzalez describes bike polo as a "motion game more than anything else. It's not where the ball is now that's important; it's where the ball is going to be, so you have to look ahead. It's like chess on wheels."

Still, accidents do occur. Smashed fingers and chipped nails are common. Some riders complain about wrist pain from overuse of the mallet. Others do end-over flips. And then there's just being hit by the ball.

"One time somebody just whacked it real hard, and I had that ball (imprinted) on my leg for three days," says Kathy Stuckenschneider.

Lou Gonzalez seems proudest of the fact that from little Bailey, Colo. (pop. 150), the WBPF and the Know Fun Club are changing the way people play on their bikes. (He and Hufnagel serve as co-chairmen of the nonprofit WBPF.)

The potential audience is enormous, he says, because 42% of American adults, or about 70 million people, rode a bicycle in the last year, according to a 1991 poll conducted for Bicycling magazine by Louis Harris & Associates.

Says Gonzalez: "There's a whole new world to conquer with bicycle polo."

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