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Picking a Patrol Bike

With so many models to choose from, identifying what your job requires from a bicycle can help narrow down the field.

April 01, 2005  |  by Mark Kariya

Lance Armstrong has it easy, by comparison. His job is very predictable-he knows what races he'll ride during the season, so he gears his training for those races. There are few surprises.

Now consider the "typical" bicycle patrol police officer. Like any law enforcement officer out there on the street, his job is very unpredictable. Like Armstrong, he or she will spend many hours a day on the bike, but that's where any similarity ends.

The cop often cruises a beat, talking to people, answering questions, simply furthering public relations for the department. But in an instant, he or she may be called into action that maxes his heart rate as surely as ascending L'Alpe d'Huez does for Tour de France competitors like Armstrong. The officer may have to launch down a flight of stairs en route to a trouble spot five blocks away. Once there, he may have to throw the bike down and restrain a suspect.

It's all in a day's work for a bicycle patrol officer and, like any other item in the department's inventory, the varied demands of the job make the police patrol bicycle rather unique compared to one a civilian might want.

Of course, like civilians, no two police bicycle patrol officers are alike and, when it comes to bike features required or desired, there are few hard and fast rules. In other words, a police patrol bicycle must be affordable, durable, and versatile, but beyond that, one sometimes gets into the realm of purely personal preference.

Police-Proof Models

Let's start with the basics. First of all, there are hundreds-if not thousands-of bicycle models available for sale. Even among mountain bikes (preferred for police patrol use because of their durability and versatility), you could practically fill a phone book with all the different types available, and they range in price from $150 bargain basement leftovers to custom jobs that go for $3,000 and up. Among the models we investigated that are marketed specifically as police bicycles, prices ran roughly in the $500 to $1,500 range. As Officer John Chapman of the Monterey (Calif.) Police Department points out, "With the current budget climate, it's all about getting as much bike for the buck as possible."

Chapman hopes his unit gets new bicycles next year and is pushing for a mid-priced model. Realistically, he notes, "It's not the cat's ass-WWLR (what would Lance ride?)-of patrol bikes, but it will get the job done very well for a reasonable price, right at a grand."

For those whose departments might be considering going the low-buck route, another bike patrol officer with an agency in Ohio cautions, "The main thing is, don't go out to Wally World and buy a bike thinking it will hold up to the rigors of police duty. I am a certified International Police Mountain Bike Association instructor. I taught a class two years ago where a department sent some officers with Huffy bicycles. I could not believe it. The officers were embarrassed but didn't have a choice. I did an inspection on the bikes and DQed them pretty darn quick. They ended up taking the course using a few bikes out of our department's inventory."

Don't take that as complete disdain for Huffy bicycles (or any other inexpensive ones). They have their place in the market and do a fine job there. Police work, however, is probably not their ideal place. That's because bicycles used for police work have to be durable-no ifs, ands, or buts.

An officer who works bike patrol at a police department in South Carolina knows that spending a little more money may not guarantee against things breaking, but after-sales service and warranties are likely to be more comprehensive. He says, "We purchase Treks. They are lightweight, use durable parts in their construction, and are priced fairly cheaply when compared to the civilian version. I don't know about the other manufacturers, but every time we crack a Trek frame, they send us a new one without any trouble," the officer says.

He knows from experience that a bicycle has to do more than look pretty if it's going to hold up to the abuse of the job.

"It sounds bad to crack a frame," the officer says, "but when you put 5,000 or 6,000 miles a year on a bicycle and throw in curbs, stairs, cobblestone streets, and bike throw-downs, I am not at all bothered by a little breakage."

Notice that "...curbs, stairs, cobblestone streets, and bike throw-downs" are common in 5,000 or 6,000 miles per year. That's not to mention the likelihood of having to traverse off-road conditions like sand or mud or maybe even crossing fallen logs or creeks if you patrol parks or are close to rural areas. A good mountain bike lets you tackle a variety of obstacles efficiently.

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