"Somebody's going to go down in that mud hole," predicts Officer Steven Hines, one of three instructors for the program. Fellow instructor Sgt. David Selander, who for more than a decade was a motocross racer in Texas and New York, heads down the hill to monitor who slips.
They didn't choose this tough trail out of spite. Hines and Selander are training the officers to handle bikes in any weather, in any wild part of Richmond, in pursuit or on patrol. The bikes can take the police officers where they previously couldn't go but only if they are properly trained. "As muddy and nasty as it gets," Selander says, "you've got to know how to do it."
The engines purr like a muffled chain saw as the eight officers approach the muddiest part of the path. "Through the mud! There ya go," Selander shouts, as one rider makes it through, splattered but upright. Two more follow, neck and neck. "Competitive spirit," Selander says approvingly.
Ramona Norwood, the only woman officer in the class, curses after she skids in the mud, loses control and runs into a patch of trees. Selander watches as she wrestles the bike back onto the trail and speeds away.
Norwood stands 5-foot-3, and while seated on the bike, she can hardly reach the ground with her toes. Her bike goes down more often than most hence her nickname, Tippy. But Norwood doesn't need any help setting the bike upright. Once she heaved up a 900-pound Harley, just to prove to herself that she could.
Selander's proud of his students, who have at last learned to handle their 260-pound motorbikes with confidence. "Before, we had to get the hell out of the way, because they would hit us," he says.
These officers are only the second batch to undergo training with a new police tool: red Kawasaki KLR250s, which are lightweight five-speed motorbikes designed for both highway and off-road use.
Richmond Police recently bought 20 of the bikes for about $4,000 each. Chesterfield bought two bigger bikes with a homeland security grant a pair of yellow Suzuki 400s with flashing lights, radio and siren. The two units teamed up to certify their riders.
The agile little bikes are well-suited for travel in remote areas such as backwoods, pumping stations, railroad tracks and construction sites, where neither standard patrol cars nor the highway-patrol Harley-Davidsons can go. Richmond Police recently began using them to patrol the Pony Pasture and Wetlands sections of the James River Park and may use them as well in Libbie Park and other wooded parks. "If you have good riders on them," Hines says, "it's really an unbeatable tool."
Turning novices into good riders in two weeks is the tough part. Hines and Selander begin with drills in the parking lot of Richmond International Raceway, where officers must learn how to start, shift, brake, balance and navigate cone courses. They must also learn to draw their weapons while stopping the bikes, a tricky endeavor they first test by using paintball guns as stand-ins.
Many officers find that the hardest part is simply starting and stopping with the unfamiliar five-speed mechanism, Hines says. If officers pass that part of the course, they advance to road- and trail-riding around Pony Pasture and a privately owned wooded lot behind the Forest Hill Avenue Wal-Mart.
"We start out pretty gentle," Hines says. Then, Selander adds with relish, they set their eager apprentices onto "some of the tallest hills we can find, and gullies and washed-out areas." The two instructors perform the most difficult jumps and runs just to demonstrate what the bikes can do, reassuring their students that it's fine if they don't want to try themselves. Thus far, Selander says, "they're all gung-ho."
The students laugh at each other's falls and scrapes. They lurk in puddles, rear wheels ready to spin mud on the unwary, and they shout in their best renditions of redneck accents, "Hold mah beer!" whenever someone prepares to go headlong down a hill. Selander and Hines indulge their good spirits while watching to make sure no one behaves recklessly.
"My only fear in this whole thing is if somebody gets hurt," Selander says.
He knows how easily it can happen. Injuries from his own racing days include a broken collarbone, dislocated elbow and torn knee ligament. Last week, Selander sported a sprawling, pink-edged scab on his forearm, a souvenir of a recent fall.
Two students from the first dirt-bike class visited the hospital, one with an injured finger and one with a broken leg. A student in the second class also broke his leg after colliding with a parked car. His classmates gleefully repeat his explanation to the instructors: "I saw the car. I looked at the car. I hit the car."
That's the phenomenon of "target fixation," the instructors explain: When riding a motorcycle, you tend to veer toward whatever you're staring at. So if something along the road catches your eye, be it a DeLorean or a dachshund, your bike will turn that way unless you correct it. "It doesn't take but a fraction of a second to make a mistake and have something bad happen," Hines says. For that reason, the central lesson of the course is simply how to accept and minimize the risks of riding.
The injuries haven't appeared to discourage anyone; about 70 officers already have signed up for the next class. Only a few will be accepted, Selander says, and each will have to get permission to be excused from regular duties for the two-week class.
The motorbike course counts toward Richmond officers' required annual 40 hours of in-service training, but students say it's far more challenging than other courses. Not only do they contend with bugs, copperheads, thorns, scrapes, bruises and mud (lots of it), but if they're not good enough to pass the instructors' tests, they're out.
Eleven Richmond officers enrolled in the most recent class. Eight made it through. By the end of last week, when the two-week course was near its end, they were triumphant but sore.
"Fell off a couple of times," confesses Sgt. John McRoy, a burly officer in the 4th Precinct. McRoy signed up for the motorbike course for two reasons, he says: As a supervisor, he was curious about how the bikes could be used in the precinct, and he always wanted to learn how to ride.
"I love it," McRoy says. Even though, he admits, "after a while, you get tired of picking that stupid bike up." S
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