Just as they’ve done for 17 years, a bulky squad of D.C.’s men in blue straddled their bikes last Saturday and roared to the Mid-Atlantic Police Motorcycle Safety Competition in Gaithersburg, Md. Of course, the event is less about safety than it is about bragging rights. And these days D.C. is struggling. While it has always fared well overall, our underdog Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) hasn’t sent an individual to the winner’s circle in years.

Although usually hungry for resources and respect, D.C.’s macho men and their buffed-’til-gleaming wheels look downright brilliant on this September morning. One hundred and two motorcops, mostly local, are participating in the battle of the law enforcement stars. That’s 101 men and one woman—Sue Lamar from Fairfax County—navigating two long skill tests each divided into four trick-laden sections. D.C.’s deployment is by far the most intimidating. Twenty-one of MPD’s 36 motorcops are in attendance to strut their stuff. (Just who, one wonders, is minding the candy store?) And competitors up and down the eastern seaboard are quick to applaud Team D.C.

“If you took 30 of D.C.’s best motorcops and 30 of New York City’s best, the Washington guys would win,” says Al Ferriso, an N.Y.C. cop for more than 17 years and the lone representative of the Big Apple. “D.C. cops are the better riders because they’re more like true motorcops. Our guys only ride when they want to ride. In fact, most of the New York guys would rather take a car.”

Despite his generous praise, though, Ferriso is the man to outgun. He’s loud and cocky (“I’m probably the favorite. I’ll probably win it this year”), and has won the competition four of the last five years. D.C. may be pretty damned good, Ferriso grins, but New York still has the king of the hill.

The cops, broken down into Level 1 (badass) and Level 2 (novice), must negotiate winding, weaving courses of scattered cones without stopping or using their feet for balance. If they touch the cones, they are eliminated. It’s a strange coupling of grace and grit—sort of like watching football players figure-skate. For the best of the bunch, it will wind up being all about keeping the speed up. For first-timers and wishful-thinkers, however, it’s a simple matter of not tipping ass over elbows. Hell, most cops couldn’t jog through one of the courses without tipping a pin.

To be fair, few of the cops at this year’s event are doughnut-chompin’ hefties. Most are more beef than belly. And some of the men in blue—a few cruising up from as far away as New Orleans and Broward County, Fla.—could make one-time TV rebels Ponch and John look like chess-club chumps.

But underneath the badges and berths, motorcops are bikers first, cops second. It’s a way of life. The coolest of the cops, one from Fairfax County, even rolls through a course with the Beatles’ “Sun King” blasting from his radio.

And all that blazing bravado makes for a tense crowd as the games begin. “As far as getting tired, we could run these courses all day long,” says MPD officer Andy Silva, a confident novice, as he watches the first contestant of the day—fellow officer Matt Brinkley, a slick pro who glides through the first part of the course. “But it’s the waiting, the nerves that takes the most out of you.”

Brinkley manages the first three sections with stylish grace and a bright, easygoing smile. But as he confidently approaches the end of his initial jaunt, judges penalize him for carelessness at the very end of the course. “They said I hit a cone coming out!” Brinkley snaps, walking away from his group in shame.

Unless you enjoy watching (for seven or eight hours) an endless string of cops weave their bikes through the same complicated patterns, this is not much of a spectator sport. Much of the sparse civilian crowd seated in lawn chairs along the routes is pulling for D.C.’s entrants, even though the Montgomery County Park Police are hosting the event.

Bob Brewer, a local motorcycle aficionado—if you ask him about his ’49 and ’76 Harleys back home, be sure to have an hour to listen—says District motormen have the upper hand because of their home playing field. “Have you ever driven through the D.C. area?” Brewer asks, making the city sound like a DMZ. “Yeah, well, then you know these guys gotta be real good.”

Before continuing with his praise of District motorcops, however, Brewer points excitedly to wife Katie, saying, “You know, she can set the timing on a Harley, right here.”

“Oh, with a little help,” Katie blushes.

Bob proudly pats his wife’s hand; then, eyeing a D.C. rider dancing confidently through the course, adds, “You can tell the D.C. cops spend a lotta time on the roads.” He points knowingly. “I mean, look how old their helmets are.”

Harley-Davidson rules the arena, and only the boys from New Orleans straddle something different. (Don’t worry, they’re trading in their Kawasakis for Harleys next year.) As the day grows longer and the air thicker with the testosterone-boosting stench of spent fuel, a good percentage of Maryland’s leather set filters onto the Montgomery County Fairgrounds to cheer their hog-worshippin’ brethren. It’s quite a sight when Cop Land meets Easy Rider, and police badges and hemp patches come together in an embrace of two-wheeled solidarity.

As more and more riders complete the course, the horizon darkens for D.C. Once again, Ferriso seems to be the front-runner in the Level 1 overall category, and an officer from Arlington County is making a run at the novice level. But Washington’s Silva still has a shot. He’s already made it through the first round and is now navigating the second course with Bubblicious-blowin’ confidence. His partners in crime-fighting cheer him on, clapping and screaming with every narrow escape. He confidently hits the gas for a tight figure eight, but halfway through the maneuver his bike slips, chrome meets concrete in an ugly scrape, and his jackboot instinctively jerks to the hot blacktop. A silent “Shit!” pops from his lips, and the hope once swirling behind those slick Ray-Bans flickers out. He finishes the course slump-shouldered. Nearby, Ferriso grins in anticipation of his victory ride up the New Jersey Turnpike.CP