Why I was foolish to mock police bike training

I'm walking through the 1960s housing estate when a policeman, cycling furiously, overtakes. In a single elegant move he rear-wheel skids his bike to halt, drops the bike and approaches, arm held out: "Just a second, sir." I take an instinctive step back – straight on to the front wheel of another police bike. A burly arm pulls me backwards across the handlebars. Helpless, my collar is well and truly felt.

This is, luckily, a training exercise, but if the officers involved – PCs James Aveling and Mike Notley – had been minded to take me in for questioning you could understand why.

About three weeks ago I wrote what was, in retrospect, a slightly foolish post for this blog. Why, I wondered, did police in Northampton need 10 hours of training before they were allowed out on a bike? How hard could it be? A number of readers (including Secretcyclist a police cycle patrol instructor) put me right. Soon afterwards, London's City police, the only force in the UK with a full-time, dedicated cycling squad, got in touch. Their training course wasn't 10 hours, but four days. Would I care to try a condensed version?

And so it was, earlier this week, that I was wheeling my mountain bike through Snow Hill police station, headquarters of the force's cycle team. I feared the worst, but Aveling, a bike patrol officer for nine years and now head instructor, could hardly have been nicer.

We began with a ride through the streets, Aveling and Notley, a new recruit to the patrol, following behind and noting my mistakes. Despite years of commuting experience it seems I made several, not least glancing carelessly behind me using peripheral vision rather than twisting round for a proper look. Aveling even gently rebuked me for using the middle of a narrow cycle lane. I should have been on its far edge, nearer the middle of the road. He is, in fact, fairly sceptical about a lot of bike-specific road infrastructure.

Aveling also classes my failure to wear a reflective fluorescent vest a "mistake" – in fact my biggest – something we agree to differ about.

I'm given a taster of some of the many skills cycling police are expected to master. To start, there's a lot of fiddly riding in tight circles around cones to perfect low-speed handling skills.

More fun is going up and down stairs. Descending is fairly straightforward to anyone who's been mountain biking – weight to the back. Bum over the rear wheel – but going up is less intuitive. "It's easy," Aveling tells me. "Get some momentum going, stand up in the saddle and stop pedalling. Don't try and lift the wheels, just hit the first step straight on – treat it like it was a normal slope." It works – the bike bumps itself up the stairs as I cling on.

This is simple stuff for Aveling, who can chase a wrongdoer more or less anywhere. At 6ft 3in and 15 stone he is essentially your urban criminal's worst nightmare. Recently he pursued a pair of miscreants down a flight of steps into a Tube station. "They gave up when they saw I'd followed them," he says. "One of them told me, 'You're a nutter.'"

He and Notley then show me their method for tackling fugitives. With all the skidding about it's a bit like The Sweeney but with a mountain bike instead of a Ford Granada. Aveling demonstrates the various ways to deal with potentially violent ne'er do wells. The most dramatic involves propelling the bike forwards into them, handlebars first. This would hurt, given the weight of equipment the bikes carry in panniers.

Away from the excitement, Aveling stresses how difficult it can be when such training is mocked. Particularly damaging was a story in the Sun about a planned 93-page volume for training UK cycling police. The product of much effort, the mockery – including, I'm ashamed to say, also on this blog – led to it being dropped.

He points to the case of a police community support officer with no training who was killed by a skip truck on his first day of bike patrol in Wigan in 2007. "Police drivers get weeks of training, so do motorcyclists," says Aveling. "Why should the cyclists be different?"

• This week on the Bike Blog: why do police target cyclists jumping red lights? Why don't they bother with cars and motorbikes in advance stop zones?

From guardian.co.uk

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