In the back parking lot of a Cabela’s, amidst scores of police officers and a labyrinth of 1,200 orange traffic cones, Zack and I were dripping sweat and drowning in frustration, feeling out of place and in over our heads. In way over our heads.
We’d come to Buda, Texas, to participate in the COTPMCO Chute Out, one of the nation’s largest police “rodeos.” These events see motor departments from across the country converge to test their skills maneuvering police bikes — Harley-Davidson Road Kings, BMW RTs, and the occasional Honda ST 1300 — through nauseatingly tight and convoluted cone courses.
The goal is to navigate the mazes quickly and cleanly, but Zack and I were doing neither. Marshals graciously righted the cones we toppled and officers waited patiently for us to clear the field after blowing a turn or dropping a bike, but it was obvious we were the greenhorns on course. And as the only riders not in uniform and on badged bikes, it was also obvious that we didn’t belong there. The Chute Out is for officers only, and as civilians we’d had to petition the event’s board of directors for access. They’d granted it, but only on the condition that our riding and filming activities didn’t get in the way or cause any delays. Whoops.
Thankfully, it was just a practice day preceding the competition, and Zack and I had already learned that practice, while initially aggravating, leads to competence. You see, two days prior we’d spent an afternoon in north Texas training with one of the most decorated rodeo riders in the United States, Donnie Williams, aboard a borrowed 2016 Police Road King and a well used 2013 R 1200 RT-P that we’d purchased back in California. Officer Williams was kind enough to give us a crash course in doing the two-wheeled tango, and while Zack and I can usually boogie down on just about any bike, at first we were dancing with two left feet.
The cone patterns Donnie put us through, and more importantly the techniques used to navigate them, were foreign and awkward to us, like writing with your non-dominant hand or driving on the opposite side of the road. For instance, when rodeo riding you keep the engine at a constant high idle and regulate power exclusively with the clutch, since that’s quicker and smoother than opening or closing the throttle. “If one means the lever is all the way in and five is all the way out, you want to be at two-three-four the whole time,” instructed Donnie.
Easier said than done. Keeping the Road King’s revs at about 1,800 rpm while practicing loose figure-eights and gentle weaves was soaking up an embarrassing amount of mental energy. I ended up putting my index finger against the front brake lever as a throttle stop, which was an effective stopgap until I’d overcome the temptation to open and close the throttle to trim speed.
Once Donnie moved us on to slightly more challenging maneuvers that called for sweeping the steering over to full lock at walking speed, he introduced another technique that pitted our brains against decades of muscle memory. “When you feel the bike falling over, don’t put your foot down, just let the clutch out a bit.” It’s true that a little thrust will thwart gravity and stand the bike up, but establishing that as an instinct is an exercise in trust, discipline, and repetition. Everything we practiced was vaguely familiar, but just unusual enough to challenge our brains in a tiring but satisfying way.
Donnie had to depart after a few hours of coaching, but he was willing to leave the patterns up so that we could keep practicing. So we kept at it, reciting “revs up, eyes up” to ourselves as we arced around the cones and occasionally blurted out “trust the technique!” as we forced ourselves to let the clutch out in response to our bikes folding in toward the pavement.
We had started the day feeling pretty sheepish, but by dusk we were banging out lock-to-lock figure-eights and even tackling some of the patterns nose-to-tail with only a few bobbles and downed cones. We’d come a long way, and our confidence was high.
When we arrived in Buda a few days later, that confidence evaporated like a light rain on hot asphalt. While Donnie’s dojo has used just a few dozen cones to form four simple obstacles, what lay before us in the Cabela’s lot was a sea of dizzyingly long and complex patterns with names like “eye of the storm,” “squirrel’s nest,” and “bleeding ulcer.” Not only was it all tighter than what we’d ridden, challenging our fledgling skills, it was laid out in sequences that demanded precise navigation skills, challenging our intellects. Zack and I had gone from the bunny slope to barreling down a double-black-diamond while doing a Sudoku puzzle, and our first few runs were absolute disasters.
I’m not ashamed of being bad at something if I’ve never done it before, but ostensibly Zack and I are decent riders, so struggling this hard was demoralizing. Our newfound skills were fragile, the nerve pathways tenuous, our focus easily overrun by pure, spine-tingling panic. “Ya just gotta get back in line,” was Donnie’s advice when we explained our overwhelm. He was right, of course, so we kept queuing up and crashing out, but the fatal mistakes were happening deeper into the course, which meant we were making progress.
Half of the challenge was hammering home which direction to go within the labyrinth, but that became easier as the race line was scrubbed clean by tires and critical apexes became scarred by crash bars, providing invaluable reference points in a field of cones. We also received verbal and visual pointers from helpful course marshals, and fellow competitors offered to guide us through especially tangled sections, alleviating the need to navigate so we had enough mental capacity to handle the maneuvers.
Little by little, run by run, amidst the smell of hot oil, drifts of tire dust, and the sound of scraping floorboards, we started to make sense of the course. It was a process of frustration, perseverance, and eventual (inconsistent) success that we would need to repeat two more times in order to learn the competition’s A, B, and C courses.
We would have liked more time to train, but practice was over. It was time to race. Over the next three days, each of the 150 or so competitors rode for time as they navigated each of the three mazes. The rules were easy: Rub a cone and one second is added to your time; knock a cone over and it’s a two-second penalty; put a foot or bike down, ride out of pattern or off course, and the time penalties get hefty.
When it was our turn, Zack and I did our best to implement all that we had learned about rapid direction changes, pinpoint steering accuracy, full-lean cornering, balance, and braking. Zack rode remarkably well on the RT, cleaning the A course on day one with an impressive time, and barely bothering any cones in the B and C courses the following days.
I struggled to string together good runs on the Road King, and while my speed was decent I incurred quite a few penalties for dirty riding (that’s rodeo-speak for hitting cones). Even still, we received applause and claps on the back after each attempt. The COTPMCO community is an encouraging and supportive bunch, and they’d watched us progress from being a nuisance to actually riding some respectable runs.
Across the board, there was a lot of talent and skill on display, and it’s reassuring to know that while not every motor officer is cut out for competition, they all receive training that enables them to maneuver their bikes in useful and practical ways that most riders wouldn’t know was possible. I certainly have a newfound respect for the agility of the Road King, and I can say with certainty that I’ll never do U-turns the same way again.
Better still, these skills are available to anyone who wants them, not just motor officers. Civilians can train with a pro like Donnie Williams via his North Texas Motorcycle Safety Course or dozens of other schools like it, and official police-training cone patterns are available online for anyone to download and set up in a parking lot.
I hope some of you will give rodeo ridin’ a try. And if you do, be prepared for a fair amount of frustration before you eventually taste success.