Learn what it takes to become a rolling officer
By Roy Wallack
When you reach for your water bottle, which hand do you use? If you are like 18 of the 20 people to whom I asked this question, you'd reply, "My right."
And, like them, you'd be wrong. Keeping your right hand on the handlebar lets you access the rear brake in a panic-stop situation. If you brake suddenly with your left hand, and therefore activate the front brake only, you risk flying over the bar and landing directly in front of traffic. So, always use your left to grab a bottle, a snack, or to signal traffic. I know this method works. The day after I switched to my left hand, the door of a parked car was suddenly flung open in front of me, and it saved me from a sure accident. I never would have imagined who I'd have to thank for teaching me this: cops.
I admit I had a bit of an attitude when I showed up in Scottsdale, Arizona, last spring to attend--and try to pass--the International Police Mountain Bike Association's Police Cyclist Certification Course. The four-day class, held at annual IPMBA conferences since 1993 and required by many of the 43 percent of U.S. police departments that now have bicycle officers, consists of 12 hours of classroom instruction in traffic skills, diet and bike mechanics, and 20 hours in the saddle, working mainly on slow-speed riding skills.
Our "final" would be a two-part test: on-bike skills that everyone must do and a written, multiple-choice test--score 76 percent on it and you pass; score 90 percent and you can be an instructor. I snickered when I read the bold-print warning on the application form, "Be prepared to work hard." For years, I hadn't given cops much respect as cyclists--or as lawmen. I am fit enough to whip off a dawn-to-dusk ride at a moment's notice, but figured that the average bike cop would need an oxygen mask to survive a Spinning class.
That's not off the mark; one cop in an advanced class, Mark Johnson of the Scottsdale Police Department, told me that he loses fitness on the job because an average workday includes real riding time of just two or three hours and covers 15 miles, max. "We're off the bike so much, I ride a Lifecycle for half an hour before my shift to get my cardio in," he said.
Beyond bikes, I've had "issues" with the police for decades--a bitter legacy of a dozen lazy-cop speed-trap tickets on downhills, ticky-tacky 1-mph rolling-stop violations, a night in jail in high school for resembling (not being) a neighborhood mugger, and a chokehold placed on my neck while I was in grad school by a zealous L.A.P.D. officer offended by my vigorous questioning of his manhood over a $30 jaywalking ticket.
Given my lingering animosity, imagine my thinking upon discovering that our head instructor, Jeff Brown, 38, of the Dayton, Ohio, P.D., an exceedingly smart, funny, bike-loving man, is nonetheless the physical antithesis of Lance Armstrong. In fact, it looks like the beefy Brown might have recently swallowed Armstrong.
"Come on," I thought to myself. "We have 32 inexperienced cops here to learn how to ride, and they send us Boss Hogg? I may as well take the test now and go mountain biking for the next four days." Brown wasn't looking at me as he made his opening remarks, but responded to my thoughts with eerie clairvoyance. "Being able to hammer in a straight line for hours at 85 percent of VO2 max won't help you here," he said.
Bike cops are most effectively used in downtown business districts, college campuses, airports, crowded inner-city neighborhoods, tourist areas and other pedestrian zones, where it's important to have ballet-like, slow-speed bike-handling skills--and look good doing them. "The goal here is to stay cool, composed, and professional for eight hours, not to get sweaty," says Brown. "This is a whole different ball game."
The scent of marijuana drew him like a homing pigeon. "In a car, you're too distant to smell anything, and too visible to catch people," says instructor Chris Whaley of Orillia, Ontario, who has been a bicycle cop for four years. "But on a bike, silently cruising at 5 miles per hour, you ride right up to them. Most of the time, you catch the perpetrator so off-guard that he doesn't resist." But even though this pot-smoking perp bolted into the crowd and lost Whaley in traffic, the man on the Trek police mountain bike with police-only Shimano Nexave Silent Clutch hubs wouldn't be denied.
Fifteen minutes later, quietly threading his way through groups of people, around fire hydrants, over curbs and down stairs, Whaley rolled up to a street corner and stopped right beside the small-time dope dealer, who was too surprised--and now too stoned—to resist. "Hey, aren't you the dude who was chasing me a while ago?" said the man, who this time went peacefully.
In the ongoing war of the streets, it was another success for the modus operandi that bike cops call Stealth Mode. Stealth Mode is the hottest thing in law enforcement today. It's why Whaley makes multiple drug busts nearly every time he rides, cheaply and effectively catching creeps selling crack, breaking into stores, lighting up joints in their cars.
Stealth Mode is the reason that the number of bike-trained cops in the U.S. has grown from zero to 30,000 since they first hit the streets in Seattle in 1988, and why bicycles are now found in more than 13,000 police departments across the country. There are 210 active-duty bike cops in Houston, 350 in Los Angeles, and 3,000-plus in New York City. Now, bike cops are catching on in Australia, Britain and Holland.
What Stealth Mode is to bad guys is High-Exposure Mode to law-abiding folk. Bicycles humanize police in a way that patrol cars can't, so neighborhood kids often know the officers who pedal their streets by name, ask them for cool bike-patrol stickers, and pass along hot tips about criminal activity.
Of course, you don't achieve Stealth Mode solely with a special non-clicking rear hub. After a ho-hum morning in the classroom learning how to pronounce "derailleur" and watching the 20- year-old film Effective Cycling (key points: avoid puddles, because you can't tell how deep they are; beware intersections, where 80 percent of bike-car accidents occur; and for general safety, "drive" your bike on the street as if it were a car), we headed into the parking lot to learn the foundation of Stealth Mode: slow-speed riding skills.
The Epiphany of the Cones
I never thought I would consider a rotund man perched on a narrow bike seat a thing of beauty.
But to see Jeff Brown inscribe tiny, 1-mph circles within a 10-foot square of traffic cones, then watch three more instructors enter the box with him and circle endlessly, felt almost like a religious experience.
Riding very slowly under complete control not only benefits cops in crowd-control situations ("Nothing wrecks a rock concert like being knocked over by a bike cop," they like to say), but it can help any of us perform trackstands at red lights and negotiate tight singletrack without putting a foot down.
The key--continually pedaling while braking to keep your center of gravity low--is simple, and now I use it all the time, even in non-crowded situations such as turning through hairpin switchbacks and riding at the same pace as my 10-year-old son while still getting a workout.
After warming up with a race in which the slowest wins, we practiced circling the box, graduated to a serpentine cone route, then moved to a skill-building drill Brown calls splitting the cone. It involves approaching a cone, then turning sharply enough that it passes between the front wheel and the down tube of the frame.
Coordinating the movement was frustrating, exhilarating, and surprisingly democratic. Fitness and body type did not determine who did best; coordination ruled. I was alarmed at my initial incompetence, but did manage to split a cone. To show us how it's done, Brown lined up two cones, then three, then four, and cleared them all. Then, for a big finish, he rolled just past the first cone, did a trackstand, slowly turned the bar, and inch by agonizing inch cleared six cones--5 solid feet passing between wheel and frame. The crowd exploded in applause. By then, the big man was drenched in a very un-cop river of sweat.
"Seven's my record," said the anti-Lance, which made me wonder: Could Lance do this? This jaw-dropping level of handling expertise was something you'd expect from Hans Rey, the globetrotting trials guru. Rey, in fact, told me later that he served as a bike coach for IPMBA from 1996 to 1999, teaching stair descending, controlled skidding, and other skills. He was pretty impressed by six cones.
In High Gear
On a cool November night in 2004, officer John Washington of the Philadelphia P.D. was cruising the University of Pennsylvania campus when he heard a woman's scream. Seconds later, he found a college-aged female near the corner of 41st street, bloodied on her head and shoulder, the victim of a pipe-wielding robber now running a half-block away. Washington bolted, yelling "Police! Stop!" The perp sped up. Hammering in the big chainring, the cop caught up and performed a crossover dismount, jumping off at full stride and tackling the perp in a highspeed bear hug. As the bike crashed off to the right, the bodies slammed into the concrete. "He was a junkie, slime, a bad dude," says Washington. "He'll be off the streets for a while."
Not everything at bike-cop school was in slow motion. We learned the running crossover dismount and the ghost rider, an unofficial IPMBA technique that involves stepping off and flinging the bike into the bad guy. We learned the power slide, a rear-brake hook-slide in front of a perp to end a high-speed pursuit. We rolled down 20 flights of stairs, learned how to climb curbs two ways: a handlebar lift or the more efficient pedal power-push, in which you lighten the front end and apply extra force on the pedal from the 11 o'clock to 3 o'clock positions. We learned the same tuck-and-roll technique that pro mountain bike superstar Ned Overend used to prevent injuries when he fell.
We had a chance to put many of the skills together one evening after a night ride. In the parking lot, Jeff Brown had built a 30-by-30-foot cone course of Rubik's Cube complexity with splits, 270-degree turns and wooden pallet "curbs." It was so intimidating that many of the cops didn't even try it. One who did was George Martin, a Mi'kmaq Native from Listuag, Quebec, who'd mountain biked with me that morning. On the 20-mile trail, Martin got winded and turned back a third of the way into it.
But on the Brown Cone Challenge, he was a master, clearing it with a surgical precision that left no cone askew. I, by contrast, barely got past the first split-the-cone cul-de-sac. Using the dumb-beast strategy of sheer force that has served me well in endurance events, I plunged in again and again, getting no better. Almost two hours later, most had gone back to their hotel rooms, but I couldn't. I hadn't failed a physical challenge like this in, well, ever. No one cared, but I felt humiliated. I had come here to learn, but hadn't.
The reason was clear: Relying on fitness and brute strength, I hadn't focused enough on technique. So I set up a cone, and worked until I could split it smoothly. Then I set up a second and, as it neared midnight, a third, and vowed not to put my bike away until I could split 'em all.
When It Counts
After a couple of days at bike-cop school, I began thinking of my classmates as bike buddies at summer camp. But during a pub crawl one night I was reminded that this is serious business for them. Cops talk about the same stuff we all do: sports, real estate, entertainment. Listening to them talk about their jobs, though, is an eye-opener. Drunks. Drug dealers. Robbers. Domestic violence. Murder. Endless interaction with nasty lowlifes. Constant threats on their lives.
On top of all that, they have to worry about PITs--Perpetrators In Training, bad kids who undo quick releases, change saddle heights, and put roofing nails in chainrings to tear into the cops' ankles.
Imagine the stress. What we non-cops might be unlucky enough to experience once in our lives, cops are directly involved in eight hours a day.
For the first time in a lifetime of antagonism toward the police, it struck me that it takes something special to remain as upbeat and unaffected as most cops do--to come off as regular dudes (there are few female bike cops, and none in our group) who like what we all like: a goodlaugh and a reasonable amount of civility from their fellow citizens. I'm a better biker because of what I learned at bike-cop school.
Not only did I split three cones, I passed the test--one of four in the group to score a 90 or above. But more important, I think, is that I am now far more appreciative of the perspectives of people who do the work most of us wouldn't, but count on.
Next time I'm pulled over for a 1-mph rolling stop at 2 a.m., I will try to smile and be understanding. The cop's probably had a hard day.
Roy M. Wallack, co-author of Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100, likes cops now, but still hopes this story will help him get out of his next dozen traffic tickets.
© 2005 Bicycling magazine. This article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Bicycling magazine.