Biking for sport: There's more to bicycle-related competition than spandex and Lance Armstrong

There's more to bicycle culture than cyclists in spandex — though there is plenty of that.

This past Memorial Day weekend, one of the city's faster growing competitive bicycle subcultures held a regional qualifying tournament in Columbus. Thirty-two teams — from Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Minnesota — took part. Win the regional championship, and it's off to the North American one. Win that, and it's off to the world's.

Would you be surprised to learn the tournament was for bike polo?

Yup, it's about what you think it is. Instead of horses, they ride bicycles and play in a roller hockey rink. Oh, and it's way more badass.

All weekend, the Italian Village area near Second Avenue and North Sixth Street was flooded with the sounds of teammates barking instructions, mallets slapping a rubber ball, brakes suddenly and violently applied, bicycles crashing into plywood and crowds cheering. Off to the side, resting polo players drank beer, joked, played with dogs and lounged in hammocks.

It's that community aspect that first attracted David Frankhouser, 27, of North Campus, to the sport. When Frankhouser, one of the tournament's organizers, first started playing in Columbus several years ago, bike polo was a “chill” sport, often played while friends were just hanging out.

“Bike polo's been around in this form for about 15 years,” Frankhouser said. “It was originally played on grass in the 1900s and was an Olympic game at one point, but it's since been an urban thing.”

Columbus represented strong at the tournament, fielding five teams, with one team and two other local players qualifying for the North American Qualifiers.

In the last year, the local teams have grown from one female participant to six, and have added 12-15 new players total.

“We want to attract new people,” Frankhouser said. “We're trying to be open to new people. … We're happy to loan to people, too. You don't have to have all the equipment.”

Bike polo's not the only growing bicycle sport in town, either.

Alley Cat races

Think of Alley Cat races as 10-40 mile scavenger hunts. Bikers are handed a manifest with directions to each stop. Each checkpoint requires something be completed (e.g. draw a bike, sew something on to your clothing, carry a wheel to the next stop) before moving on to the next checkpoint.

“Even if you don't win, it's still fun,” said Sarah Elizabeth Krahel, one of the organizers of the Alley Cat races.

The races first began about two years ago and were mostly comprised of Krahel's friends. Most races see about 20-50 people participants, and prizes have included swag from Pattycake Bakery, Seagull Bags, Bodega and Paradise Garage, among others.

A race will be held sometime this summer, but a date hasn't been set yet, Krahel said.

Street Shark Sprint Series

The best way to describe a Street Shark race is to compare it to a drag race. The race lasts 0.8 miles and is an all-out sprint to the finish between two competitors. Racers must pay a $5 buy-in, winner takes all and there are men’s and women's divisions.

“The cool thing about Street Sharks is you have jean shorts guys racing spandex guys, mountain bikers versus fixed gear [riders],” said Andy Willis, one of the race's organizers. “Every facet of Columbus bike culture is represented.”

The first-ever race, held last spring, started with 15 racers and maybe as many spectators. The second race doubled those numbers, and by the sixth race, held last fall, there were brackets with 60 racers and more than 100 spectators.

“We turned the street we raced on in to a party,” Willis said.

This year, the race series begins July 26 and will only include four races (Aug. 30, Sept. 27 and Oct. 25). Locations are top-secret, so it’s best to follow on Facebook at facebook.com/streetsharkscolumbus.

Tour of Franklinton

This weekend brings with it the one bicycle sport that most people would probably recognize, the Tour of Franklinton, the first of seven races in the 2013 Ohio Criterium Cup.

The Tour of Franklinton is most similar to the Tour de France, but even that's not quite right. Often called a crit race, the Tour of Franklinton's course is much shorter and winds through closed streets surrounding the 400 West Rich warehouse and the newly opened Rehab Tavern, including parts of State, Town and Rich streets. Participants race against others of similar ability and are required to complete as many laps around the 0.8 mile course as they can during the alloted time, usually about 30-60 minutes.

That's what initially drew Shawn Aker to the sport.

“The neat thing about it is it’s so much more spectator friendly than the other races,” he said. “I feel bad telling people to come out and watch [at other races] because they might see me two or three times; with this one, they might see me 20 times. From a spectator standpoint, it’s definitely a lot more fun.”

Aker, 31, of Downtown, got in to the crit races through his interest in triathlons.

“I was always one, two or three in the cycling [leg of a triathlon],” he said.

So he decided to actively seek out a cycling race about two years ago. He won his first race.

“I kind of got hooked,” he said.

Specifically, Aker loves the strategy and quick-thinking involved with the crit races, but it’s also the community behind the races that appeal to him.

“It’s fun to get into those different crowds,” he said. “There’s a huge diversity of cycling roups [in Columbus], and it’s unique to be able to explore those easily.”