A car had lost some fluid. The road was slick. Pittsburgh police Officer Kevin Head was zipping down Route 51 on his motorcycle at about 70 mph, cutting through oil, gravel and grass.
Some would have tried to brake. But Officer Head knew better. He navigated himself over the changing terrain and across the slick road.
"I can think of at least 10 times the training saved me. You have to be reactionary," said Officer Head, one of 26 members of the Pittsburgh police bureau's motorcycle unit.
Starting at 7 this morning, Officer Head and about 45 others from 14 police departments will show off their riding skills in a less dramatic form while they attempt to raise money for the Special Olympics of Allegheny County.
One by one, they'll settle in on their bikes and make their way first through a skills course and then through a timed course to determine who -- according to the volunteer judges -- has the best riding prowess. Anyone is invited to watch as the officers make their way through sets of tightly wound orange cones in the parking lot at the corner of 26th and Sidney streets on the South Side.
It will mark the end of a three-day period of practice and competition that officers said acts as an extra form of training easily applicable to their work catching speeders in school zones or aiding in crowd control at packed events like concerts or demonstrations.
"This is all translating to the streets," said Officer B.J. McMullan, one of several training instructors for the Pittsburgh motorcycle unit.
The officers gathered in the parking lot between 7 and 8 a.m. Thursday, munching on doughnuts while they waited for the rain to subside so they could walk through the courses lined by bright orange cones.
Conversation hovered around technique, previous competitions they had attended, outings the night before and the LED headlight on the bike of an officer from Westlake, Ohio. Similar topics come up at other competitions.
"We get to know a lot of the same guys," Sgt. Terry Donnelly said. "When you get together, it obviously increases your skills ... you make a lot of good contacts and a lot of good friends."
About 9 a.m., the rain slowed to a trickle and Officer Adam Elardo, another trainer, drove through courses named the Snowman, the Cajun Craze and the Tiger's Den -- patterns the officers pulled off the Internet.
Competitors crowded around, looking for the best angle to analyze his technique and size up the course.
Immediately after the demonstration, the officers mounted their own bikes, sometimes scraping the rims against the ground while they made tight turns that ignited a spark.
To improve their skills, Officer McMullan said, police must learn in some ways to fight their most basic instincts. Just as it's natural to catch a baseball when it's heading toward you, it's also natural to want to put your foot down while leaning into a tight turn, he said. But in this competition, people lose points for that.
This is the second time the Pittsburgh police have hosted the Steel City Police Motor Unit Skills Competition. Sgt. Donnelly said he hopes the competition will continue in the coming years and that local agencies will take turns organizing it.
"We meet a lot of people that ride civilian motorcycles and say 'I could do that' and they see what some of these guys do and say 'I could never do that,' " Sgt. Donnelly said, adding that he "never realized how important it was to be a defensive driver" until he joined the city motorcycle unit seven years ago.
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published June 29, 2013 4:30 AM