With several months’ experience of riding a blood bike behind me now, my perspective has changed a bit – for starters, it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “I’m just going out for a few pints”. It’s also changed how I ride.
It’s a long time since I first read the advanced biker’s bible, Motorcycle Roadcraft: The Police Rider’s Handbook to Better Motorcycling, but it’s a book I revisited recently if only to remind myself that I haven’t forgotten some of its fundamental lessons. Its prose may be drier than Ghandi’s flip-flops and written in factual, formal English, but it’s no less effective for that. Re-reading it, I’d forgotten how much I’d forgotten, if you know what I mean. One thing it has done is force me to slow down again, a concept that I’d lost in the ether while couriering. Despatch riding is a job where the mantra is ‘speed is everything’; combat filtering is the order of the day, and the skill of gap chasing becomes honed to perfection. Despatching, and then road-testing bikes for magazines led to me picking up some bad habits – habits that I wanted to leave behind.
One of the tenets of Roadcraft is ‘The System’ of machine control – Information, Position, Gear, Speed and Acceleration. I’m back to using it all the time now, both when I’m driving and riding, and it’s made me much smoother in terms of making progress, and bizarrely, despite the fact I rarely exceed the speed limit now, it’s also made me faster. Riding a fully-liveried blood bike means setting an example, but using The System doesn’t mean we’re not quick – reading the road further ahead and taking in all available information on potential hazards means your average speed tends to be higher because your riding is more consistent and you’re not in a pointless cycle of accelerating and braking. It’s about making safe progress; cutting corners increases the risk of an ‘off’ and, let’s face it, that’s really going to slow you down.
Riding on blues-and-twos doesn’t give me carte blanche to exceed speed limits and ride like a demon, either – the lights and siren simply broadcast our presence to other road users so their use means we make progress far quicker when riding at appropriate speeds because other traffic (generally) makes way for us, and red traffic signals are treated as a ‘give way’. That said, it’s astonishing how some drivers fail to see or hear you, even when they’re directly in front of you or pulling out of side roads. You have to be hyper-aware at all times when riding on blues and twos – more so, even, than when riding normally because there’s more information for you to take in and process. You never stop looking for other road users’ mistakes, and the same rules apply – being in the right is meaningless when you’re dead.
Setting an example extends to how we’re dressed too, so that means full protective clothing at all times, together with a plain white helmet and gloves – no stripping down to a tee and going without gloves, even when the mercury is nudging 30°C as it has been these few weeks (by mid-July, Northern Ireland bizarrely had the UK’s highest temperature for the year to date – a whopping 30.1°C which is something we don’t see here very often). Comfortable it isn’t. It makes a change to be putting on a motorcycle jacket wet from the last time you wore it only instead of being damp through persistent rain, it’s damp with fresh sweat. Nice.
The bikes we ride are exemplary too although it’s hard to believe that the iconic Pan European ST1100 that is the mainstay of the Blood Bike fleet is 15 years old, because it’s still so capable and bullet-proof; even the styling and design has held its flair. Honda got it so right with that bike, which is why it was the chariot of choice for almost all of the UK’s police forces, paramedics, chauffeur bike companies and others during its production run. It’s the perfect bike for blood running – dominant on the road, big in stature; it has great torque and power from that venerable 1100cc V4 engine, with its smooth, linear delivery. In police spec, it can light up like a Xmas tree – one button on the control cluster sets the headlamp to flash between high and low beam, another switches on the twin rear reds, and a third activates the twin blue lights on the front, plus the one atop the pole at the rear. Oh, and if other road users can’t see you, the 110db Tri-sound siren cuts through traffic noise like a knife through butter.
Although Blood Bikes in the UK have a Home Office-approved and specified colour scheme of red and yellow for their Battenberg marking, from the front and rear, all emergency services vehicles share the same colours – red and yellow. Consequently, we can be mistaken for police by other road users here. The white helmets and hi-vis yellow jackets we wear all contribute but the major factor is that, until we came along, the PSNI was the only agency in Northern Ireland using bikes with blues-and-twos. Even now, there are no motorcycle paramedics (while I’m on the subject, there’s no air ambulance in NI either but that’s another story). The Fire Brigade here don’t use them and neither do any of the civilian agencies such as the AA and RAC – nobody bar us and the PSNI use bikes, so it’s a Pavlovian response; hi-vis jacket and white helmet plus the Battenberg markings on a Honda equals police. Which has its positives, but like so much else in Northern Ireland, everything has a subtext so we need to be careful, especially when we ride through certain areas of the city.
That said, being mistaken for police can, and does have, often amusing consequences, particularly when we’re out there minding our own business and not running on blues-and-twos. There are a couple of incidents recently that stand out and they both occurred on the same day. I was riding between our HQ (which houses the garage where we keep the bikes) and the hospital lab (which forms our base when we’re on shift). I’d left a section of motorway and, noticing a queue on the exit slip road, filtered my way to the front and pulled up alongside a Fiesta driven by a young woman. She had the window down and, as I came alongside her, I noticed she was busy texting on her smart phone. That is, she was – right up until I came to a stop and looked at her. She must have seen a blur of colours in her peripheral vision and thought I was a traffic cop, because as I looked at her, she threw her phone into the passenger side footwell and looked dead ahead. It was almost as if she was thinking ‘If I can’t see him, he won’t see me!’ She refused to meet my gaze even as the lights changed and I rode off.
I was working the following afternoon too, so I was taking the bike home with me at the end of my shift. As I approached a set of traffic lights on a main intersection, I noticed a Range Rover ahead of me at the white line. As I pulled up behind him, the driver suddenly floored the accelerator and shot the red light, making a swift left turn and disappearing into a housing estate. That pricked my curiosity – given that the driver must have assumed I was a cop, what had he done that warranted jumping a red light and, so far as he was concerned, triggering a pursuit by a police officer on a bike, linked by radio to the whole of the PSNI? I was left to ponder that one as I rode home. Of course, the reaction of other road users towards us also has an effect in skewing our perspective of them too, so we’ve become used to seeing vehicles in front of us suddenly slowing down to a sedate 30mph, or drivers reaching across to belatedly fasten their seatbelts.
There is a plus side to riding ex-police bikes though – they’re loaded with little extras that normal bikes don’t have. One of the most novel is the ignition override that allows you to remove the keys with the engine on and blues going. It saves precious seconds when we’ve run across town to another lab to collect urgent blood for transfer to one of the hospitals we serve. It’s a feature on all police bikes and is fitted to allow the rider (or driver – all emergency service vehicles have this) to leave the blue lights running on arrival at a scene without draining the battery. Security is not an issue though – without the keys in the ignition, the engine cuts out the minute anyone tries to depress the clutch lever and put it into gear.
It‘s been an interesting period in Belfast these past two weeks. Aside from the unbroken spell of bright sunshine and temperatures more frequently seen in Los Angeles or southern Spain, there’s also been a massive increase in activity by the PSNI to deal with ‘Loyalist’ rioters. It’s meant huge numbers of police armoured Land Rovers lining one of the roads on which we’re based, scores of officers in riot clothing waiting around for deployment, and an almost permanent soundtrack of sirens from speeding police vehicles as they cross the city from one flashpoint to another. Oh, and then there’s the three PSNI helicopters, which have been flying a holding pattern at around 700ft above us each day.
It’s meant for a tense couple of weeks, involving us having to feed our way through Loyalist parades to get to where we are needed, and navigating alternative routes as we discovered that certain main roads were blocked by local residents. Not something that our colleagues on the mainland ever have to worry about. We’ve also had to ride through streets with protesters on either side and a heavy police presence in the middle. So I guess it was only a matter of time until I would encounter a PSNI armoured Land Rover (known as a Pangolin) heading for the same piece of road as me, but from a different direction. I’m on a shout and running on blues-and-twos, so is the PSNI vehicle. The traffic signals ahead of me are red, so I slow to cautiously edge my way through them at the exact same time as the PSNI Pangolin does from my right. We hesitate – he signals to me to go first, at the same time I signal the same to him. We both stop. The Pangolin has right of way, so I wave it forwards with my hand, and the driver moves off, waving to me in thanks. I follow straight after him as he joins the motorway entry ramp, which is when he realises that I can move much faster than him, so the minute he has space to do so, he moves aside and I overtake him. I thank him and speed on ahead, musing on the fact that I’ve just overtaken a police vehicle on a shout and left it for dust. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to doing that. It’s something that never gets old!
If my column has pricked your curiosity and you’re interested in volunteering as a blood biker, then you can find your local group via the National Association of Blood Bikes website at www.bloodbikes.org.uk
To qualify, you generally need to be able to devote two nights a month or more between the hours of 19:00 and 06:00. Restrictions vary but most groups specify that volunteer riders need to be over 25, have held a full unrestricted bike licence for a minimum of two years and possess a current advanced riding qualification (ROSPA/IAM or Police Class 1). Go on… take a look. It’s the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do on a motorbike.
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