By Bob Mionske
What is it about a bike theft that brings out the incivility in us?
The same guy who is aghast at the thought of waterboarding willingly shares his bike thief torture fantasies on the internet.
Of course, it is probably just hyperbole in most cases, and even if you have a fantasy about beating someone, chances are you have never really been in a real fight. If you really managed to confront the thief, he is not likely going to be impressed with the fact that your fight record is an undefeated 1-0 because you stood up to that little bully Billy at day care 30 years ago, and it will give you cold comfort when facing someone who maybe be younger, bigger and stronger than you.
Or worse, crazier…
I sometimes wonder if these macho comments are simply braggadocio to get their bona fides in bikedom, a sort of street justice cred for a street rider.
I’ve been thinking about this, because it just happened to me.
Somebody grabbed my bike while I was distracted, and now the celeste-colored Bianchi café racer is gone. It's only worth a few hundred bucks, and it needed some serious servicing, but it also had emotional value to me.
I guess I should not have been so cavalier about not locking it. I went to buy Zookie some dog food, and would have been ok, if....
Super Zookie doing his thing
The sky was pouring and there was little foot traffic, and I knew I would be in and out quickly. And I actually thought about it getting swiped—a premonition?—but felt it would only take a moment.
Well, they use a REALLY slow system at Furever Pets. Like it takes FUREVER… and bad luck had it that the new employee who waited on me didn't know how to ring me out, or check my frequent buyer information so I can get a free bag of dog food after 11 purchases. Instead of a quick in and out, the transaction took 10 minutes.
In all the chaos I forgot about the bike.
Now the celeste beauty belongs to another. That free $30 bag of Zookie chow cost me my bike (but I like Furever Pets and the owner and all employees have always been great with me and have always let me roll my bike in when I requested).
And now I know why people have violent thoughts about bike thieves.
It’s not my first bike stolen mind you—probably my 6th or 7th—but this time I was ready to lump the sucker up a bit. But I guess I'm the sucker, and now I’m feeling my lumps.
The Crime Scene
When I stepped outside and the bike was gone I thought a friend had punked me by hiding it around the corner, as a few of them had done before. But no, it wasn’t there either. I could see the wet tire tracks still on the covered sidewalk. I looked up Broadway then the side street. Nothing. At first, I felt denial—then disbelief, followed by rage, anxiety, and a feeling of stupidity all mixed together. A strange cocktail indeed.
But I wasn’t going to let some thief get away with my bike, so I ran home and jumped in my car. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d taken back a stolen bike. One time, a guy rode by my house on a bike I had lent out to a friend, who had then ‘lost’ it at a house party. We were in the midst of a heat wave, and I had already done a long ride and was cooked. But when I saw my stolen bike go by, I knew it was my bike, and ran downstairs and grabbed the first bike I could and took off.
I barely saw him go around the corner, but at least I now knew in which direction he was headed. I made a quick inventory. Ok, I’m on my race bike—that is good. I don’t have a shirt and am in flimsy flip flops, not good. And no sunglasses, really not good. Worst of all, I am in super-short red shorts that looked like a 4th graders gym shorts. The shorts were the kind of item in your wardrobe you should have donated to charity years ago but keep around for a specific use—I used them for lounging on the back deck after a ride. Now they were the chief item of my attire and being bent over on a road bike meant they were now hiked up super high on my thigh exposing the fish belly white of my leg before it turned a burned red-brown just before my knee. But this was an emergency, no time for fashion concerns.
The biker seemed to be following a really direct route meaning he rode against traffic on sidewalks—a well-worn trail for him, it seemed. He started getting suspicious about me as I followed him on his custom route. He kept glancing over his shoulder at me. So I decided to pass him to throw him off. As I guessed, he sped up and retook me—which was good because I didn't know where he was headed! Eventually he turned up a short road and into an apartment complex. After 9 miles of heat chasing him he almost gave me the slip. He had disappeared into one of the units.
But then I saw his profile, my Red Kestrel mountain bike with grip shift on his shoulder as he carried it to the second floor. We met at his door way. He had paid 70 bucks for the bike downtown. I said “Sorry Charlie,” and then with my bike firmly back in my possession again, I had a long ride directly into the setting sun (by the way, you get a lot of suspicious looks when you ride with two bikes wearing shortie shorts). I later lent that bike out, and it was stolen again.
So I’d taken back a few stolen bikes before, and I was determined to take this one back too. But because it was rush hour, I basically crawled in traffic. If only I had been on my bike, I would have caught him for sure (according to the script of the street justice fantasy scenario playing in my head). But he was on my bike, and I was stuck in traffic.
I realized it was useless and solemnly returned home.
The other times I've had my bike purloined by strangers, it was different. I could only guess about what time my bike became the thief’s bike. Somehow that made it somewhat impersonal, and easier for me to deal with. Our path crossing was separate in time, and because I didn't know when it was taken, I didn't think about that aspect. The unknown gap of time worked like an insulation from the affront for me.
But this was different. It felt like it was snatched right from under me.
I've never been a victim of a pick-pocket or sneak thief who snags your goods when you turn your attention, or who actually takes something off your body. That would feel different, more like assault.
When I realized she was gone, I felt my aggression rising. Stuff comes and stuff goes in our lives. I'm never that attached to things. You can always replace them and often, I realize, too much stuff is a prison. Ya gotta maintain it, clean it, fix it, store it, pay rent for it…the list goes on and on.
And having your bike stolen is not the same as having it destroyed in a crash. That would suck too, but you would have a chance to be a part of the end.
Having someone who has never ridden it, washed it, shared countless hours of fun—as well as suffering—take it is another thing.
It feels like a violation. It is not economic. If he’s just going to sell my café racer at 10 cents on the buck for beer money, I’d rather just shell out the beer money. If he just needs a bike, I might even give him the money to buy a beater. Once I saw an old beater of mine between the legs of some guy riding down State Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I rode alongside, said something like “Hey, how are you doing” in a cheerful way and put my arm around him like an old friend, which made him clearly uncomfortable, and we slowed to a stop on the curb, were we stood astride my machines.
He had been told he could take the bike from some brother of some friend of some roommate. I believed him. This was truly a hunk o’ junk. We would mismatch all sorts of components from broken bikes, and if the parts wouldn’t fit we would use clamps, and if that didn’t work, duct tape. These bikes were throwaways that we rode to class on the sprawling UW campus. In those days almost no one rode to class and we would get lots of laughs on our jalopies as we ghost rode our bikes ala Bradley Wiggins up to the side of building.
We would be walking up the steps before the rig came to an unceremonious stop against a bush or whatever. And they were ALWAYS there when class ended 50 minutes later. While the other students trudged down Bascom Hill, I would descend Observatory Drive like Bernard Hinault descending the Tourmalet in the tour, low as can be laying it out in the corners before the inevitable speed wobble and fear of disintegration overtook my hubris.
Col du Tourmalet
But now, my bike wasn’t there. Maybe the thief was laying it out in the corners, making his getaway as I was walking out the door…
In the end, I had to let rational thought dictate over emotion. Otherwise the feelings I had would take too long to get over and would put me in a low mood for a long while. And even when I thought I was 'over it' I would walk by the snatch site and get another rush of adrenaline, which would eventually reach my stomach and make me clench up and squint and scan for a deserving target of my anger.
This didn't feel like a theft, so much as it felt like a kidnapping. When my daughter was two this bike had a co-pilot attached to the seat so she could join me rolling through the quiet neighborhoods near our home. Then she rode around in a trailer hooked to the back rack, before graduating to a ride-behind trailer bike, and then, finally, she had her own bicycle and followed me around like a little pilot fish.
So, this was about something much more important than what my café racer cost me It was about something much more personal.
But my feelings of loss made me think: What were the economics of this? I googled the make and model: 300 bucks, maybe. Shit, I have phone bills bigger than that. The hot water heater breaks, $300, The computer crashes, $300. Winter power bill, $300.
I can get over the 300 bucks.
The café racer didn't start out with me, and I doubt it will end up with the bike thief either. Her journey continues. And so does mine. Only from now on I will always lock up.
And what a shame that is.
It’s not about the time to get the lock hooked up, nor the time to unlock before I can be on my way. It is having to acknowledge that I live in a place and time where someone will say 'I want it' and that is it.
For the last decade I mostly didn't have to think that way. One of the reasons I only ride around town with a cheap cruiser is the freedom of being light. Rolling up and, without losing momentum, throwing a leg over and rolling on one pedal right up to a spot and then seamlessly making the transition to walking. It isn't about being cool or image, though when I noticed, it always got attention. No, it was about being carefree and relaxed and trusting. The celeste Milano was kind of familiar around my hood. Parked outside the cafe, no lock, no one watching. No more.
I know some will think me a fool and that I got what I deserved. And you’re right. Surely, I received ample admonitions about not locking it. But before you stop at that simple math make sure you also factor in two decades of carefree neighborly glide.
So what will I do now, now that I’ve been burned? I think I will probably keep trusting and believing that there is a place, albeit within small coordinates, where a guy and his bike can glide in like a dream and before you can figure it out, they are rolling off in the distance.
And who knows? Maybe it will come back into my life. It wouldn't be the first time.