MORRIS – Ten years ago, when Joliet Police Department bicycle officer Jonathan Walsh was killed in the line of duty, a bike ride seemed a fitting tribute to the fallen officer.
And so the 325-mile, four-day Cycle Across Illinois police memorial ride was created by a small group of officers dedicated to honoring their fallen comrades.
“There was only about eight to 10 bicycle officers who made the ride that first year,” Joliet Police Officer John Hanke said. “We never knew that it would be something we’d do every year.”
This year, 54 cyclists and 15 supporters participated in the 10th annual Cycle Across Illinois. Their caravan of bikes and support trucks passed through Morris Saturday after the group had lunch at the Hager Memorial Home in Dwight.
The riders stopped off at Stratton Park for a break in their journey, which began Wednesday in Alton and ended four days later in Chicago, where the riders helped kick off the Chicago Police Department Memorial Foundation’s Pedal for the Police event.
It can be an emotional ride for the cyclists, – a group comprised of co-workers and family members of the dead officers – as they pause to remember each rider’s lost loved one.
The ride is organized by Illinois Concerns of Police Survivors and raises money for families of Illinois law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty.
The ride is COPS’s largest annual fundraiser, securing money to support the families of the fallen officers through counseling, retreats and memorials. In years past, they’ve raised as much as $60,000, but were aiming for $100,000 for this year’s ride, said six-year participant Terry McMillen.
McMillen, 60, and his wife Jane, 55, ride each year in honor of their son, Brian, an Illinois State Police trooper killed by a drunk driver several years ago.
“We’re an organization that is there mainly for emotional support. It’s about helping each other and building each other up so we can get back on our feet,” COPS President Toni Hardesty said. “The friends I’ve made in this organization, they’re not just friends – they’re our family.”
Along the way, the officers stopped at police memorials and the homes of surviving family members to read dedications to the fallen police.
On this year’s ride, they honored three Illinois law enforcement officers that died in the line of duty in 2013. They were Pontiac Officer Casey Kohlmeier, Illinois State Police Trooper James Sauter and Cook County Officer Cuauhtemoc Estrada.
Former Indiana State Police Officer Gary Dudley provided a special source of inspiration for the riders. Dudley was integral in the founding of Cycle Across Illinois, but was tragically killed in 2006 while biking in a similar memorial ride in Indiana, said Mark Hanan, a founding member of COPS and race organizer.
Dudley always wore a bright, red helmet on his rides. A red helmet is placed on the back of the lead support vehicle and has become a symbol for the riders, many of whom rode with Dudley those first few years.
“We tell riders on the first night, if you start having a hard time getting up a hill, or you feel tired or weak, use that red helmet as a source of inspiration,” Hanan said.