The Police Unity Tour. What a simple yet perfect way to describe this years cycle ride supporting the charity COPS. Police….yes; Unity….. most definitely; Tour…. as close to riding in a peloton as you will you get!
The Police Unity Tour UK has been going for several years now but it was only this year that I got to hear about it. As a keen armchair cyclist and always up for a challenge I would probably fail at the first hurdle. I thought where do I sign up? Talent vs expectation was never my strong point!
Thankfully, though late in the day I managed to secure a place. My heart was relieved but the “cold light of day” part of my brain reminded me that this was no walk over. In fact looking at the route and the time splits together with the fact that I had not done any training whatsoever made me quickly realise whether I would make it to the finish line at all!
I have known Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis for several years now. One of those friendships where you cant really put your finger on when we exactly became friends, but I remember both Irene and her husband were relatively new to cycling. As an ex club cyclist I gave advice. Both Irene and her husband have obvious talent. Whilst I remained sedentary, Irene and Mr Curtis clocked several thousand miles and got very fit indeed. In fact, in all likelihood it was Irene that got me hooked into this tour.
And so it was that Irene kindly arranged my travel down to New Scotland Yard. The day very quickly came and I took my bike and my backpack down to London, minus the cat and certainly not looking for streets paved with gold.
On the train down, I met two infectious ladies whose humour defied their age. Pat and Carol you are two beautiful women who on being nosey, managed to extract more information from me than a tier three interviewer. The end result though was not a charge but a crisp Scottish ten-pound note placed gently in my hand. “It’s a good thing you do Son” I will never forget that random act of kindness.
And so I landed at Euston, briefly two hours after leaving Lancashire. I wheeled my bike outside and exchanged my trainers for my cycling shoes. With my smart phone in hand I punched in the route to New Scotland Yard and began what I was to discover was the most dangerous part of the ride. Road closures, diversions meant I gingerly spent a lot of the short journey on the pavement. I got to Trafalgar Square and asked a Met cycle cop the quickest route to NSY. He then sent me on my way by saying “Don’t cycle on the pavement mate or you will get a ticket!” Smiling at the irony and yet suitable chastised I walked and cycled to the Yard.
Remarkably as if by magic I was met by Gavin (MPS) who directed me to the garage where I dropped my bike off. Not having time to book into the Union Jack Club before the safety briefing I stayed at NSY and made my way up to the briefing room. The room outside containing hand painted portraits of current and previous Commissioners. I sought out the painting of my old boss Sir Paul Stephenson which brought back memories of him pushing a shed of a vehicle in the pouring rain in Blackpool whilst I stayed behind in the section van providing safety cover. (Little did I know that I was born to be a traffic officer, even then!)
Soon we all convened into the briefing room for the safety brief and a short time later I met up with Irene. “Hello Ma’am” I said. She said there was no rank in here. That was to set the tone for the entire ride.
Briefing done I walked to my hotel ready for the start the next morning.
I will not bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the first days ride. But I will share with you the highlights. The first highlight was that it rained, boy did it rain! Nearly 87 miles of bloody rain. Assistant Commissioner Helen King attended the start of the ride at the police memorial on The Mall. There was a bag piper scoring the dark sky with his shrill melody. A short service ensued and AC king wished us well. A very nice touch, which was appreciated.
This Lancashire lad still hasn’t got over this! A police escort as we all cycled down The Mall under Marble Arch and past Buckingham Palace. How many people can say they were a part of that!
We continued out of London, which included several stops. A note to the organisers. It was bloody freezing when we had to stop, so if the weather is going to be the same next year, a nice big tea urn would be appreciated. Us Lancashire lads and lasses like a good strong cuppa!
We arrived at Milton Keynes Holiday Inn within half an hour of the scheduled arrival. A lovely hotel. Each room had a balcony that looked out into an atrium. It was easy to spot the unity riders as they had laid their wet cycling kit out on each balcony for all to see. Indeed, the clothing was that wet that the atrium developed its own weather system!
I was billeted with an officer called Gareth Thomas (MPS). Sharing the same surname he said that we could be brothers, and in a sense he was right. He was one of the ride marshals and obviously a very fit man. We shared our stories, talked about our wives and our children. A lovely bloke and that was the first time I felt the unity of the tour.
The following day, before the start I took my bike to the tour mechanics. I discovered that the rim on my rear wheel was starting to split from the inside out, it could go at any minute! I asked the mechanic to squirt some oil on the chain. I would deal with that problem when it happened.
We continued our ride to Hinckley in weather far better than the day before. En route we stopped at Towester. The Chief Constable of that force standing in the road clapping us in. I have never seen anything like it. After a welcome food stop with cakes made by the staff at the nick which were truly marvellous we pressed on. That’s when things went wrong for me! Soon after Hinckley I blew up. My legs just wouldn’t do what I was telling them despite me telling them to shut up. I pulled up and got into the SAG wagon. I was distraught.
In the wagon were lovely support crew. Once of the ladies who was giving lots of encouragement throughout the tour I later learnt was a survivor herself. Once again the power of the human spirit left me in complete and utter awe and admiration. I travelled in that van for about seven miles before getting out five miles before we were due to meet to survivors families for lunch.
Perhaps at my lowest ebb all that we were doing came to a sharp point of light.
As I got into the van there was a lady sat in her cycling kit. To me she looked distraught. Every time we passed the main group this wonderful lady buried her head in her hands. I felt a failure as we passed them and wondered if she felt the same. I do not know her name or rank. The SAG wagon stopped every so often to get video and photos of the group as they passed. Every time this lady hid her face. I knew how she felt. BUT, I could not bear to see this lady beat herself up even though I had similar feelings of guilt. I told her that she had ridden over a hundred miles, raised money for our brothers and sisters. She was not a failure but a hero. I knew every other rider on the tour would have said the same.
The final day saw the group being joined by riders from South Wales and Norfolk. A brisk 14 miler until we stopped just outside the police arboretum.
We formed up and rode in together. People clapping as motorcycles led us in. I looked to my right and saw my Chief. To the right of him I saw my police Inspector and her husband police Inspector. Genuinely pleased to see them, a grin grew on my face. The cold rain suddenly didn’t seem so cold.
We crammed into the marque as the rain beat down. As though those we were celebrating were crying. But not for their passing but for their love of those that they had left behind. It was a very moving ceremony. A son describing his loss of a father; a father describing his loss of a son.
And so after the ceremony I walked “The Beat.” A tree lined grassed mall dedicated to all police forces across the country. I passed the police officers of all ranks, dressed in their number one uniform forming the guard of honour. Flags flying, men and women stood to attention. I have never felt so proud to be a police officer.
I found my home force tree and the memorials to the officers fallen within my own force. All the hard work I had done and that of every other rider within the Tour hit me. I broke down next to that simple chestnut tree.
I stood freezing and a few minutes later I was joined by the wife of the officer I was riding for, a brother from my own unit. I said to her “ I have something for you.” I took the engraved blue band from my wrist and gave it to her. I gave her a big bear hug and broke down again. I don’t how long we stood there.
So what have I learnt from this truly unique experience?
I have ridden with Chief’s, Dep’s and every rank in between. I did not realise it at the time. I have made friends with brothers and sisters I didn’t know I had. That we are a family. That family extends not only to us serving officers but that of their families. Most importantly, the families of those bothers and sisters lost are our families and will ever remain so as long as we have breath in our lungs and love in our hearts.
And I have witnessed bravery by officers I have rode with, only matched by the bravery of those survivors who chose not to lie down but to get up after being knocked down.
Perhaps though my final words are for the ride marshals. Working like trojans, leap frogging from junction to junction like SET motorcycle riders. Pushing weaker riders up those hills, giving encouragement to those that needed to hear it and stopping traffic, putting themselves at risk so we could ride through unhindered. Ladies and gentlemen I salute you.
See you in 2016.