The IPMBA Police Cyclist Course

By Kathleen Vonk, Ann Arbor Police Department

The administration of a newly-formed bike unit is trying to decide whether to send officers to a bike patrol school.  They think, “I rode a bike when I was a kid; it didn’t seem that hard.  Why do my officers need five days of training to ride a mountain bike on patrol?  What do they do for five whole days?”  Plenty.  Skeptics, read on! 

Why Train?
For starters, bicycles have changed dramatically since today’s officers were riding around in their driveways and down the street to the park.  The technology has advanced and continues to progress.  How many police officers know how to shift a bicycle equipped with Grip Shifts?  How about with rapid-fire index shifters?  How many are comfortable with toe clips?  How many can list the components with which the department bikes are equipped? Unless they are avid riders, chances are slim that they have never heard of Grip Shift, rapid-fire or Shimano, and they don’t know how they work – and they won’t, until they are properly trained! 

Similarly, unless they are frequent bicycle commuters, the officers might not be sure how to negotiate congested traffic lanes on a bicycle in an urban setting.  Cycling in traffic sounds simple and may even appear pretty easy as one watches a bicycle commuter from behind the steering wheel of a car.  In reality, there are many factors that a cyclist must be aware of, consider, act on, and react to, while at the same time maneuvering in and around 3000-pound vehicles going much faster than they.  The consequences of poor skills and errors of judgment can be painful or even fatal, and the failure to properly train bike officers can lead to tragic results.

To date, there have been numerous police cyclist-involved foot pursuits which have ended with an exchange of gunfire.  In fact, 30% of the documented lethal force encounters involving police cyclists have occurred while a bike officer was chasing someone on foot.   Fortunately, only two officers have been shot, and none have been killed during any of these foot pursuits1.  The officers involved have cited how their basic police bicycle training helped them during the pursuit, enabling them to concentrate on officer safety.  They were able to focus on the suspect’s actions rather than thinking about negotiating curbs, stairs, gravel, and other obstacles.  A high level of cycling proficiency enabled these officers to react quickly, appropriately, and decisively when the deadly threat presented itself.

Finally, even if bike officers are knowledgeable and proficient cyclists, chances are they have never thought about cycling in the context of policing.  They must learn how to use their bikes as a complete tool for law enforcement, not just a mode of transportation. 

The IPMBA Police Cyclist Course
What exactly happens in an IPMBA Police Cyclist course?  Why is it a good investment of training dollars? 

Preparing for the IPMBA Police Cyclist Course 
Prior to the class, officers must pass a thorough medical examination that includes a cardiovascular stress test as well as an orthopedic exam, with emphasis on the knees and back.  Proper medical pre-screening, while necessary, is typically neglected. Why spend money on expensive pre-selection measures when budgets are more restrictive than ever?  Several officers might be willing to explain it, but they can’t – because they’re dead as the result of heart attacks suffered while in training or on duty2.  Even more officers who have suffered short- and long-term injuries can attest to the need for a proper orthopedic exam.   An officer with a pre-existing knee or back injury may feel robbed of a chance to be on the police mountain bike team; however, it is more beneficial in the long run, to both the officer and the agency, to exclude such personnel.

Once deemed to be physically fit for bike duty, officers must be properly equipped to safely complete both the school, and subsequently, their daily shifts.  Both a bicycle and a helmet which fit are essential, a topic covered on the first day of class.  Quality and style are just as important as fit.  Bikes from the property room, department store bikes, road bikes, and hybrid bikes are not suitable for the rigors of a basic police cycling course, nor are they acceptable for bicycle patrol duty. 

Because of their unknown history, inferior parts and/or inappropriate frame type or component group, the probability of mechanical failure is high.  “Retired” police bicycles are likewise unacceptable for training.  If they are not capable of being on-duty bikes, they certainly should not be used during a rigorous training class.  In several cases in which departments have sent “training” bikes to basic Police Cyclist Courses, the bikes have failed due to age and wear, causing serious injury to the officers.  Quality mountain bikes purchased from a reputable bike shop, and which have no more than four years on the job, are the best possible option.  Agencies should not cut corners when it comes to bikes any more than it should consider using compact cars for road patrol duties and old, retired patrol cars for EVOC training. 

IPMBA Police Cyclist Course:  Day 1
Because of the potential for injury and liability, cycling practices and street riding are covered first in the classroom.  Officers learn the legal definition of a “bicycle” versus a “vehicle” versus a “motor vehicle,” and why it is important to understand the difference.  They are taught how to select in which lane to ride when multiple lanes exist, based upon where they want to end up.  Does the officer need to turn right, left, or continue straight?  They are taught to ride in one of three positions within each lane, to facilitate harmonious traffic flow, maximum safety, and ease of movement, as well as to fulfill expectations of both drivers and cyclists.  They are taught when it is appropriate to make exceptions to these rules, such as when cresting the top of a hill.  Since cycling in traffic is potentially dangerous, officers are encouraged to become so familiar with effective street cycling that it becomes second nature, allowing them to concentrate on good policing practice.

The class then moves outdoors, where the pre-flight inspection known as the “ABC Quick Check” is taught.   This includes checking the air in the tires, as improper inflation can lead to flat tires, bent rims, or an uncomfortable tour of duty.   The brake levers and pads are inspected for maximum life and performance, and students are taught to make minor barrel and cable adjustments. 

The cranks are checked for tightness and the chain is inspected for cleanliness and excessive wear.  A worn or dirty chain is not only loud, which robs the officer of the “stealth” benefit; it also wears on the more expensive cassette assembly, leading to costly repair.  The quick releases are checked to ensure that they are tightly closed to prevent the unexpected lowering of the seat, or the loss of a wheel while riding.   A check of the headset for tightness, a check of the wheels for loose or broken spokes, and a check of proper gear function completes this process.  Officers are now ready to properly fit the bicycles to their differing body sizes.

Proper bicycle fit is essential to comfortable and injury-free riding.  If the frame of the bicycle is too large, the officer may experience difficulty in handling and maneuvering it.  If the frame of the bicycle is too small, the officer may experience knee discomfort. 

Once the proper frame size is verified, the officer will learn how to maximize muscle efficiency through three saddle adjustments:  height, fore and aft position, and tilt.  Proper saddle position is important because if the muscles in the legs are not allowed to work efficiently, the officer will fatigue rapidly and may develop an overuse injury.

With their bikes properly adjusted for best fit, the class moves to a grassy area to learn and practice proper landing techniques.  Students are taught to pull in their elbows and knees as they fall, allowing the bar end to absorb the initial impact, and then roll out of the bicycle to a standing position.  While the training is designed to prevent falls, most cyclists would agree that falling is inevitable, and that learning how to land properly can avert injuries as minor as scrapes and bruises and as serious as broken bones and death. 

A “fall” is defined to the students as occurring when any part of the rider’s body – other than hands and feet – touches the ground.  Each time an officer falls (without injury, of course), a “falling star” is placed on his helmet.  This tradition, which was begun by former Deputy Chief Penny Phelps in Bay City, Mi., has spread across the country.  On the last day of class, the “Falling Star Award” is bestowed upon the student who has earned the most stars. 

Having mastered the landing techniques, the class moves to a reserved parking lot area to learn and practice numerous basic cycling techniques.

First, they learn to shift the bicycle efficiently in response to changing terrain.  Although this may sound simple, there are four different options when shifting a bicycle, and these options are controlled by four different fingers, with each finger either pushing or pulling levers.  They are easily confused, and one wrong selection can mean the difference between catching a fleeing suspect and applying first aid to an abrasion.  Mastering the skill of shifting properly is only achieved after substantial practice; the goal is to develop the ability to make the right shifting decisions almost unconsciously.    

The officers are introduced to a variety of techniques designed to keep them safe in traffic, including emergency braking, the quick turn (to avoid a car which suddenly turns into a cyclist’s path), the rock dodge (to avoid a small obstacle without swerving into traffic), and the rear scan (to look behind for approaching cars, without swerving into traffic).  They then move onto skid turns for rapid directional changes, skid stops for rapid deceleration, and kickstand dismounts for “low profile” and silent approaches.  They learn how to mount the bicycle from various “downed bike” positions, and then shift quickly as they rapidly accelerate.  They race each other to the finish line to simulate a pursuit.  

Before the first ride, group riding protocol for safety and ease of movement in a large cycling group is discussed, and the importance of communication is emphasized.  The legally required hand signals are reviewed and the students mount up to experience their first group ride.  They transition from single to double file, maneuver through simple traffic patterns and intersections, and communicate to each other and with other operators on the road. 

IPMBA Police Cyclist Course:  Day 2
Class begins at 3:00pm because so that effective night patrolling techniques can be experienced.  Students begin with classroom instruction on common hazards and crashes.  How to identify and negotiate a multitude of surface hazards, such as potholes, drain grates, railroad tracks, glass and other debris, is discussed.   It is important that the officer know how to plan in advance to overcome these hazards, and to avoid endangering other road users.  The importance of these skills is paramount, since the margin for error is slight and the injury potential is great, especially during high stress incidents!

The officers then make their way to the maintenance area where they learn how to change a flat tire.  This sounds like a simple task, but the equipment and products have changed since the days of a screwdriver and a patch kit!  They learn how to: use tire levers, convert frame and floor pumps for Presta and Schrader valves, properly patch the tire with traditional and/or glueless patches, and reinflate the tube properly, using a CO2 cartridge, compressor, or pump.  They also are taught how to adjust brake and derailleur cables, prevent and fix brakes from squeaking, clean and lube the drivetrain, change the pedals, and lube the cables.  They are shown how to fix a bad link in the chain, as this is one of the more common failures in an urban environment.  Then they top it off by cleaning and polishing the frame. 

With bikes in top shape, they move outdoors for some more physical skills training.  Because the bikes will be dropped to the ground, they are stripped of all frivolous equipment.  Students learn various dismounts, which will help them to quickly and efficiently exit and drop the bike without dropping themselves.  Once comfortable with the techniques, they move on to mastering curb climbs. 

Bike officers encounter curbs or curb-type obstacles on a regular basis, under all types of circumstances and at various speeds.  Therefore, they are taught the proper techniques for both ascending and descending curbs.  Much emphasis is placed on ascents because, due to simple physics, the majority of bike crashes occur during curb climbs.  If the front tire lands before it clears the entire curb, the rider will take a trip over the handlebars.  Prior to starting on an actual curb, however, they practice proper wheelie techniques over lines painted on the pavement.  When they can demonstrate proper form and technique, they progress to very low curbs, and then to standard curbs.  They approach at different angles to ensure proficiency, and then move on to rapid ascents and descents. 

Parking blocks are a little different than standard curbs, so they spend a little time on these urban obstacles until they are comfortable with their newly learned skills.  Both low- and high-speed curb ascents are learned and practiced.  Low-speed ascents, essential while riding through crowds, patrolling at a very slow “parade speed,” and conducting pedestrian surveillance, are actually more difficult than a faster ones. 

Low-speed ascents set the stage for low speed maneuvers, which are arguably the most complex skills used by bike officers.  The faster a bicycle goes, the more stable it is.  Conversely, it is less stable at slower speeds.  Although at times the need for speed is paramount, as when responding to emergencies or crimes in progress, the majority of patrolling is done at lower speeds to enable the officer to observe the environment and process information.  Mastering low speed skills enables the bike officer to perform patrol functions, including crime detection, target surveillance, and proactive patrol.  

Low speed riding begins with a discussion of the concept of center of gravity as it pertains to an officer on a bike.  Gear selection is established and the officers progress from simple to complex skills while pedaling against the rear brake:  riding in a straight line, making a u-turn, riding a circle, and then performing a track stand.  Doing a track stand is like balancing a baseball bat on the palm of your hand.  As the bat starts to fall to one side, you move your hand to stay beneath the bat, and the bat stays upright.  You continue to make these minor adjustments with your hand to keep the bat upright.  This is what the officer must do on a mountain bike:  he must keep the bicycle underneath his body, and he uses minor adjustments with the pedals, gravity, or his brakes to do so. 

They move on to the cone patterns which are similar to those used in a motorcycle class, yet obviously tighter.  Advanced drills are provided for those who quickly master the skills; this keeps the better riders engaged, provides adequate time for others, keeps everyone interested in the activity, and eliminates down time.

They practice until darkness starts to fall, then regroup in the classroom for a night patrol discussion.  Topics include equipment – headlight, taillight, reflectors, and flashlight – selection as well as uniform selection, both for conspicuity and for comfort.  The dangers of patrolling at night, such as drunk drivers and reduced visibility, and how to minimize these dangers are discussed.  Officers then prep for a night patrol ride.  Group riding protocol is reviewed and they take off to see what they can find.  Because they are likely to encounter real-world crime situations, officers are expected to wear full duty gear. 

The class rides silently through alleys, parking garages, and dark residential areas while in the “stealth” mode.  They observe the uniform differences in their classmates while riding in the street with full lighting systems.  They learn that retro-reflective seams on their uniform do not give their positions away under ambient street lights, but that a metal police badge does.  They also learn that the retro-reflective seams light them up as motorists approach from the rear.  In many cases, the class happens upon some type of crime in progress, like an open intox, a marijuana possession, or a domestic dispute.  There has even been at least one bike officer-involved shooting during a basic class, in which officers interrupted a drug-related robbery and attempted homicide.

IPMBA Police Cyclist Course:  Day 3
Back in the classroom after an exciting night, the focus is on fitness and nutrition.  They learn the importance of eating well and monitoring their food and water intake.  They are reminded that it is easy to eat the wrong foods and to become dehydrated, and that they have to take into account the additional 25 pounds of duty gear they are carrying and the 30 pounds of equipment they are pushing.  The risks of physiological disaster and even death are discussed.   Officers are taught proper calorie consumption and the appropriate amounts and ratio of energy-providing nutrients.  Tips on eating out, packing a lunch, and reading food labels are provided.  The importance of both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning are stressed.  They are taught how to “spin” and at what cadence to maintain aerobic pathways.  They also learn about the relationship of heart rate to physical exertion and performance under stress.  Common cycling injuries and discomforts are discussed as well as prevention and remedies for same.  And, of course, bagels comprise the morning snacks instead of donuts!

Next on the agenda are legal issues, including the use of bike lanes, bike paths, sidewalk riding, and operating the police mountain bike as an “emergency vehicle.”  The state traffic law statute pertaining to bicycle operation is completely covered, as are local ordinances which affect officers in the class.  Because they will be perceived as “bicycle experts,” officers are encouraged to learn and thoroughly understand bicycle traffic laws.  Situations in which an officer should be allowed to disobey traffic code are covered, as well as whether a police bicycle can legally initiate a “vehicle pursuit.”  A sample bike patrol policy is covered to assist bike units with establishing appropriate guidelines for uniforms, equipment, deployment, definition as an emergency vehicle, training, in-service requirements, and more.

The afternoon brings more practice time on low speed maneuvers, curb ascents, and basic cone drills, followed by stair lessons.  Students are first taught the proper technique for ascending and descending a short set of stairs.  The instructors progressively demonstrate the skill, as they do all physical skills, and the students practice.  Spotters are used for this exercise, both for safety and to promote confidence.  Personal instruction and coaching is provided where needed or desired.  They move to progressively longer sets of stairs, until they can confidently descend a set of eight.  Optional exercises which include many more stairs are popular and voluntarily executed by most students.  Finally, they learn a fast and efficient technique used to ascend a set of stairs.  The day concludes with an urban patrol ride during which students negotiate traffic lanes, intersections, bike lanes, bike paths, urban obstacles, and whatever else they can come across.

IPMBA Police Cyclist Course:  Day 4
The core IPMBA Police Cyclist Course does not include a day at the range; however, instructors who have the proper qualifications and facilities are encouraged to include one.   Officers are required to appear in full duty gear.  The class leads off with an explanation as to the role of live fire exercises within a police cyclist class.  One of the primary reasons is related to the effects of padded cycling gloves on a shooter’s performance.   The padded gloves pose additional challenges during the performance of fine motor skills, such as performing a magazine exchange, clearing a malfunction, or even handcuffing a suspect. 

The class also discusses weapon retention while riding the bike slowly through crowds.  They discuss the importance of physical fitness as it relates to riding hard to a scene, yet conserving enough energy to perform essential police functions, such as communication, physical altercation with a suspect, forcible arrest, or deadly force.  Real-life examples of deadly force encounters are covered, and officers realize that the most dangerous activities for them have historically been foot pursuits, drug activity, and motor vehicles. 

The class moves on to the range exercises.  For the first drill, all weapons are made safe and all ammunition is removed from the area.  Officers are shown the vulnerability of their equipment while riding through crowds, as the riding position exposes the tools worn on their gunbelts.  Officers take turns “running the gauntlet,” a drill which encourages officers to evaluate whether it would be more beneficial to park the bike and engage in foot patrol, or walk the bike through certain crowded areas, such as when alcohol and disorderly crimes are prevalent.  It also emphasizes the need for some type of retention holster.

Officers then begin live fire exercises in full bike patrol gear.  In addition to various weapon manipulation drills, officers perform stationary dismounts, moving dismounts, shooting while retreating, and shooting from unconventional positions.  Unconventional positions may include being on the ground, connected to the bike, and not being square to the target.  Officers might then have to disengage from the bicycle and move to cover quickly.  The cycling helmet can pose a problem while shooting prone, but a police cyclist might not ever know this until he is engaged in a firefight – hardly the time to discover such pitfalls! 

After a series of challenging drills on the firing range, it is time for off-road riding.    Why do officers ride a single track bicycle trail?  They do it to improve general cycling skills, including low speed, high speed, obstacle clearing, hill climbing and descents, unstable surface riding, and shifting efficiency.  Riding off-road is the best way to challenge each skill to the fullest extent.  Students fall in with the lead, the “sweep,” or somewhere in between, depending on their riding skills.  The rear instructor is the designated “clean-up” position, and is responsible for mechanicals, and lost or lagging students.  All instructors, regardless of the skill level they assist, stop at various locations and coach students through specific obstacles.  They all carry first aid supplies, tools, and communication capabilities.  Once everyone is back at the starting point and accounted for, they load up and call it a day.  Although completely exhausted, they are usually “high” on their newly acquired skills and can’t wait to come back the next day.

IPMBA Police Cyclist Course:  Day 5  
Finally.  The last day has been a long time coming!  The students are glad to be here because although the class was difficult and they have pushed themselves harder than they have in a long time, they have acquired valuable new skills, and they have a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride. 

They begin with a class discussion on Patrol Procedures, most of which they have already experienced during urban and night patrol rides.  One of the main topics relates to police cyclists in pursuit of suspects on foot.  Suspects soon learn that they are not likely to elude an officer on a bicycle, due to the tremendous mechanical advantage the officers possess.  Once a suspect figures this out, he chooses to either submit or turn to fight.  Among other tactics, officers learn to maintain an adequate distance from those they are pursuing, and to use caution while riding around blind corners and negotiating unfamiliar obstacles. 

Next it’s back in the saddle and on to traffic stop technique. Officers are taught that contact with a moving vehicle should not be made under any circumstances.  A two-ton vehicle riding on four wheels is much more stable than a 180-pound officer on a bike.  Simply put, the vehicle will win every time!  Officers practice giving audible signals, moving their bicycles off to the side without taking their eyes off the occupants of the car, and maintaining adequate distance to the rear of the vehicle.  If the stop is made during hours of darkness, officers are taught to maintain a position of advantage.  They practice having the driver turn the vehicle off, turn the dome light on, and turn on the hazard lights, and then moving to a position of environmental cover or concealment to run the driver on LEIN and to issue a citation.

Subject contacts are next.  The contact-cover principle is applied, and officers are encouraged to evaluate whether or not the bike should be a part of the scene.   They practice techniques suitable for working alone or in pairs.  They participate in scenarios, taking turns acting as cover or contact in various situations.  Emphasis is placed on officer safety and the importance of the cover officer being properly positioned to render aid to the contact officer if it becomes necessary.  Officers learn the pros and cons of including the bicycle into an arrest scenario.  They are encouraged to evaluate the bicycle as a tool, and to not overemphasize the use of the bike in circumstances where it is not warranted. 

The final lesson of the day deals with foot pursuits.  They are given some tactical suggestions, always keeping officer safety first.  They are taught not to make physical contact with a running suspect from a moving bicycle because the potential for injury is high.  They practice dropping the bike a safe distance from the suspect before moving in for the takedown.  Then they practice with a partner and make decisions as to who will chase and who will hang back for more significant directional changes.  They experience the significant mechanical advantage of riding a bike versus running, but they also learn that the environment and tactics will dictate when it is appropriate to drop the bike and continue on foot. 

IPMBA Police Cyclist Course:  The Test
They ride back to the parking lot, where the final skills test is already set up.   They must achieve 100% proficiency on the skills test or they will not pass the class.  They are given plenty of time to practice, and then they test out, one by one.  With all of the physical challenges behind them, they move on to the final mental challenge.  They rack their bikes and enter the classroom to study their notes from the past week.  They take the 50-question exam and wait anxiously for the results.   After the tests have been graded and the answers reviewed, it is graduation time.  Awards like the “Falling Star” are given out, and each student is handed a certification of completion accompanied by a well-deserved hand shake.  They have put in a full 40 hours over the past five days, and although exhausted, they are proud of having passed a very difficult course.  They have improved their physical skills, mindset, and survival skills, and are ready to take on IPMBA’s more advanced training courses, including the five-day, 40-hour IPMBA Instructor Course.   And their agencies can rest easy, knowing that they have taken positive measures to reduce the risk of injury and the liability of failure to train.

Instructor bio:  Kathleen Vonk has been a street officer, by choice, since 1988.   She has spent the last 11 years patrolling and teaching on a bicycle.  She has been an active member of the IPMBA Governing Board for the last six years and is currently serving as vice president.  She has taught at several international conferences including IPMBA and ASLET.  She teaches for Heckler & Koch International Training Division, and for Team One Network.  She is the current world record holder for the LEOPARD Challenge (ESPN’s Law Enforcement Officer Performance and Reaction Drill), and was the overall Female Champion of the ASLET World Law Enforcement Skills Championship in 2001.  In addition to her road patrol duties she oversees the fitness programs for the Ann Arbor Police Department and the Washtenaw Public Service Training Academy in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She holds a BA in Criminal Justice and a BS in Exercise Physiology. She can be reached at:  kathyvonk@aol.com.


1. Hamblin, Lou Ann.  Van Buren Township PD, MI.  “Deadly Force Encounters Involving Police Cyclists.” IPMBA “Police on Bikes” Annual Conference 2002/2003.  louannblackwidow@aol.com

2. IPMBA “Police on Bikes” Surveys, 1998 – present.  (http://www.ipmba.org)

This article appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Law & Order magazine.

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