By J. DAVID GOODMAN
Austin Horse thought he was just leaving his bike for a second when he ran into the lobby of an office building at 28th Street and Madison Avenue last Tuesday afternoon to make a pickup.
Mr. Horse, a messenger since 2005, expected a quick turnaround — run up to the desk, get the package, get back on the bike — and locking his bright orange track bike would just slow the whole process. “I had it fakie-locked,” he said, describing how he had placed a U-lock through the back wheel without closing it, as a decoy. “Normally, a pickup like that, it takes 30 seconds.”
But there had been some confusion at the company, and the package was not ready for him. Ten minutes passed, with Mr. Horse standing around the lobby, watching the bike through large glass windows, growing increasingly antsy. Finally, the package arrived, and he went to the desk to get it, turning his back to the windows.
A minute later, the bike was gone.
His immediate thought was “somebody’s playing a prank on me,” Mr. Horse said. He rushed outside, checking all around the planter where his bike had been leaning, half expecting at any moment to hear the sound of his messenger friends laughing. Despite riding daily for years, Mr. Horse had never had a bike stolen, and at first he did not believe it was happening to him.
Yet it is practically a ritual of spring — as the bikes come out in greater numbers, so do the thieves. Even with the recent police crackdown on one East Village shop for buying stolen bikes, anecdotal evidence suggests that thefts are seeing a seasonal rise. Even Bike Snob, the venerable, anonymous blogger, is not safe: on Monday, his handlebars — and all that comes with them — were stolen during lunchtime.
While it is too early to tell whether thefts are in fact increasing, new technologies are making it easier for riders to tap into the wider bike realm quickly when there is a theft. If three years ago, it took days to recover a missing bike via online message boards, Twitter has exponentially shortened the time.
(Of course, the amplification effect of Twitter can work negatively as well, and jokingly tweeting about a stolen bike can quickly spiral out of control, as Bike Snob also recently discovered.)
Back on Madison Avenue, Mr. Horse quickly realized his bike was gone and immediately took out his cellphone and posted to Twitter (“STOLEN BIKE! My orange gangsta just got stolen 28th & mad”). He then found a few pictures of the bike that he had shot previously and retweeted them. It was just after 4 p.m.
With the digital alarm sounded, Mr. Horse went back into the building to see if the security cameras had captured anything. Mr. Horse knew he had to move quickly if he hoped to see the bike again. While some bicycles are recovered long after being stolen, as time passes, the thief has more opportunity to stash, alter or resell the bike.
Security guards in the building were able to locate footage of the thief, he said, but all he could see was a “grayish-blackish blob on an orange blur.”
Meanwhile, his tweet was picked up by other local riders and reposted on several online forums, including fixed.gr/nyc, a members-only site for local fixed-gear enthusiasts. That is where Eddie Brannan, a freelance creative director for magazines and a friend of Mr. Horse, first heard about the theft. “They have a pretty good track record of recovering bikes,” Mr. Brannan said.
Bikeless, Mr. Horse headed downtown on foot — “I’m just not comfortable taking the subway” — to get a replacement ride and finish his day’s runs, which were piling up. And, he figured, “if the guy was going to go anywhere, he was going to go to the Lower East Side.”
Around 6:30 p.m., Mr. Brannan was with his wife outside the New Museum before an opening, feeling a bit peckish.
He strolled around the corner onto Stanton Street to get a snack and discovered, parked upside-down in front of the deli he was aiming for, a bright orange Gangsta Track bike, by Brooklyn Machine Works. “I noticed straightaway that it was Austin’s, and called him to tell him that I was with his bike,” he said. (Mr. Horse, remembering the conversation, attempted to imitate a happy British accent: “He said, “Hey, mate, I’m standing right next to your bike.’ “)
After waiting a few seconds to see if anyone would emerge from the deli, one hand placed on the bike, Mr. Brannan decided to flip it over and steal it back. “It’s completely unique, one of a kind,” he said. “I’d actually rode it a few years ago — it was a prototype model of the model.”
Mr. Horse rushed down and: “Boom, there it is. He reunites me with my bike.”
“I was kind of tempted to go back to the deli. … I don’t know, I’m curious,” he said. But there was not time. Almost immediately after he got his bike back, there was a call from the dispatcher: Triple rush, Midtown.
“I knocked out the triple on my recovered bike,” he said. “All’s well with the world.”