On Bike Theft and Boneheads

bike_theft.jpgFlickr Photo: Jym Dyer

Last week I did something wholly in opposition to the tenets of common sense cycling in a city: I left my quality bicycle locked up for four days in a high bicycle theft location, in this case on 24th Street right next to the BART station.

You see, last Thursday afternoon, I was late to catch the BART train I needed to get to an appointment in Oakland, and walking was not going to get me there in time. It was rush hour, so I couldn’t take the bike with me, so I locked the front wheel and frame to a parking sign with a U-lock and jumped on BART.

Problem is, on the way back, I forgot all about riding my bike and walked home to pack for a long weekend camping in Yosemite. Flash forward to Monday afternoon, 4 p.m., I needed to get to an appointment in 15 minutes, and when I got downstairs in my building, my bicycle was nowhere to be found. Forgetting my own actions from Thursday, I felt a knot double in my stomach, my face flushed; I was helpless and exposed.

My Surly Long-Haul Trucker was more than fabricated tubes of metal and rubber, it had sentimental value and a name (yes, I anthropomorphize my bike as much as any motorist does his car). I built it up piece by piece with a mechanic friend three years ago, so I literally knew it inside and out.

My mind raced with feelings of rage and confusion, so that for ten minutes I couldn’t think past accusatory thoughts toward my neighbors (who I assumed had hopped the back wall to my building and scaled it again with a heavy cargo-bike over their shoulder) or the contractor my landlord had hired to renovate the retail space on the ground floor of our building (both doors out to the street were locked and my landlord said the contractor didn’t have a key).

Then I remembered what happened on Thursday.

I was relieved that at least some of my bike might still be recovered, though I felt like an ass for assuming the worst of everyone around me, especially my neighbors.

I nearly ran the four blocks from my house to 24th Street and Mission, imagining any number of situations where my back wheel was gone, the handlebars and headset gone, some or all of the drivetrain gone. I had locked my Brooks saddle to the frame with a link of bicycle chain, though it could have been clipped with big enough bolt cutters.

When I got to 24th Street, I started across, then faltered, my heart in my throat. The street sign in front of the cell phone store where I left the bike was empty. Nothing on it, not even the skeleton of my bicycle, stripped of its essential parts. I nearly called out.

But, when I crossed the street and got to the sidewalk, I was stunned to see the Surly in front of me, locked to a different pole that had been obscured by a delivery truck unloading next to it.

And not just a piece of my bicycle, but every piece of my bicycle.

The back wheel ($150 retail) was still there, despite the fact that the quick release hub only had a hardware-variety hose clamp attached to it to deter theft (they can be opened with a fingernail or penny). The new Nitto Albatross bars ($90), headset and stem ($75), bar tape ($12), and bar-end gearing ($50) were untouched. The Brooks saddle and drivetrain were untouched.

Even my helmet dangled from the top tube, just as I left it. 

When I relayed the story to the mechanic at Valencia Cyclery who
installed my new handlebars, he couldn’t believe it. He was surprised
they hadn’t cut through the U-lock by then and taken everything.

I asked myself then what I’ll ask you now: How is that possible? Are San Francisco thieves asleep at the handlebars? Is bicycle theft not as rampant as I suspected? Do I have the dumbest luck of anyone you know?

And please don’t call me a bonehead, cause I already did, up in the headline.

  • Arley L

    Crazy good luck, I think. A Long Haul Trucker is such tasty bait that maybe it looked too good to be true. Lord knows that corner’s thick with thieves. I once locked my bike long enough to order a burrito at San Jose #2, and before I’d even paid, some moron was rifling through my microscopic saddle bag. I grabbed the skinny little guy, and he dropped the loot (a tube and some ratty patches!), ran, and turned to yell, “Thanks for not kicking my ass.”

  • Pat

    Bicycle thieves are not all knowing. They have no way of knowing that you locked your nice bike up somewhere or that you forgot about it for four days. They just steal bikes where they see bikes. It just happened to be the case that no bicycle thief in the mood to steal a bicycle passed by yours in that period.

  • Non-negative things happen around us all the time. It’s all about perspective.

    side note: that photo creates dissonance with the article.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    That’s nothing. I left my city bike on 2nd St between Mission and Howard from 9am to 5pm *unlocked* after I forgot it in front of a coffee shop. I had exactly the same mental process as you when I was leaving my office and my bike wasn’t there. But when I remembered where it was, I found it still there and completely intact.

    I think bike theft on the streets of SF is an overblown issue. I’ve had tons of bikes stolen out of my garage, off my fire escape, and even right out of my own office (three times) but I’ve never had one stolen off the street. Not even a wheel or headlight stripped. It seems that the bike thieves prefer to work out of the public eye.

  • J

    Weird. I live in NYC and locked my bike up yesterday under some big scaffolding because it was about to rain. I locked the front wheel and frame to the thick vertical pole. After the rain ended, I saw a bunch of bikes on their side next to the scaffolding, including mine. I just assumed they’d been blown over by the wind. However, when I got to mine, the lock was intact, just not connected to the pole anymore. The bike was fine, and only a little wet. Crazy.

  • I’m glad this story ended well. Count your blessings.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Why didn’t you just leave it inside the 24th Street BART station? I have left my bicycle there many times, even unlocked quite a few, and never had a problem.

  • “It seems that the bike thieves prefer to work out of the public eye.”

    many thousand bikes sit unlocked on Caltrain daily, and I have heard only two or three theft stories. Why steal something in plain sight when there are so many goodies away from prying eyes.

  • Aaron B.

    I can’t get over how it’s possible that it was locked to a different pole than you left it on..?

  • Aaron B.

    Also, whenever I go to Berkeley, where there is definitely high bike theft, I see bikes and bikes locked frame-only with quick-release wheels. I jokingly think to myself that just on the principle of the rules of the “locking up” game, I should steal their wheels haha. Maybe the students are just too fresh from the suburbs and haven’t learned yet.

  • @Aaron B.
    Sorry if that was confused in the writing. I mistakenly thought I had locked it to the empty pole, forgetting that it was another.

  • Michael Baehr

    This brings to mind the principle of Schroedinger’s Bike. Unobserved, a bike exists simultaneously in the state of Stolen and Not-Stolen. There’s no point in running to where you locked it up to see if it’s still there… it will not collapse into one of the two states until you have it within sight.

    So don’t sweat.

  • I think that Berkeley is probably worse than SF for bike theft, if only for the reason that Berkeley thieves are incredibly bold–one guy on Sacramento in South Berkeley has a year-round bicycle yard sale going with a huge selection of nice bikes and every bike part that you possibly think of (all stolen, of course).

  • ZA

    I suspect theft is hyper-localized. If people started geotagging a GoogleMap of their theft experiences, the results might prove interesting.

    Lucky break MR!

  • Glad to hear it turned out well. I’ve never had a bike stolen from the street either, but that doesn’t help me stop worrying every time I lock up. Mine’s a Rivendell Atlantis – an equally likely seeming candidate for theft/stripping.

  • ZA

    @ William – thanks! It definitely needs more data though.

  • I had a bike locked to a meter outside Farolito on that same intersection. Went in to grab a burrito to go and came back out and my seat was gone.

    I had a beater bike locked with a cable (my kryptonite had been sent in to get changed out because of the bic’ing problem) outside of Osha Thai on Valencia. After dinner came out to a dangling bit of cable.

    2 weeks ago my wife had an old but serviceable Specialized “tank” bike stolen at New Montgomery at Howard. One of the older Krypto locks and cable. Can only think that it was bic’ed – if so first time I’d heard of an actual bic theft here in the City.

    So maybe your bike just looked to good to be true? I think you were just really really lucky.

  • RebS

    Daniel,
    Are you referring to Recycle Bicycle on Sacramento in Berkeley? People generally seem to think he’s legit, so I hope he’s not your guy…

  • That place definitely looks legit, but there’s a different guy down the street just off Sacramento who is certainly not. He just spreads all types of gears, tires, handlebars, and bikes across his lawn and has a yard sale sign.

  • bm

    Ride your bike more and you won’t forget it. ūüôā

  • glad to hear the damage wasn’t so bad…everyone makes mistakes, the fact is if we didn’t have such a “screw everyone over” culture, you wouldn’t have had to worry.

    it is not fascism to suggest that the majority live by rules of common decency and civility. that includes not ripping off your bike simply because you made the human error of forgetting to pick it up right away. you did nothing wrong, but in an urban environment simply a human mistake. we all do that, it’s just unfortunate there are those who take advantage of it because they are too stupid or lazy to make a buck honestly.

  • In 1998 I lived in the East Village/Manhattan and my bike was stolen about 50 blocks Uptown from my apt. and on the West Side. It was on the first day of a new temp job: I was nervous and may have not locked it or perhaps the lock was bic’ed. In any case there was nothing around when I got to the street after work.

    About six months later I was riding my crappy replacement bike about one block from the same apt. and saw a guy on the stolen bike going the wrong way on the same street… after a small amount of yelling I walked back to the apt. with both bikes. The guy had taken off but then offered some money for the replacement bike. I declined.

    In summary: “Bike salmoning” creates more opportunities for seeing more bikes then if all bikes go the same way, and even more so then when just riding past parked bikes (if only parked bikes had eyes).

    I expect more similar and related anecdotes from readers who have been embarrassed to share their theories on the benefits of contraflow cycling.

  • Aaron B.

    Wtf does “bic’ed” mean?

  • In 2004, Kryptonite Locks discovered to their great embarrassment that their “unbreakable” boron-reinforced hexagonal locks could be easily picked with a $.10 Bic pen. Doh!
    http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2004/09/64987

  • kit

    I’m still stupid enough to have the factory-issued quick-releases on my Surly LHT, which isn’t a problem for the back wheel since I lock it sheldon-brown style (http://www.sheldonbrown.com/lock-strategy.html), but I try to cable lock the front when I leave it for more than a jaunt into the burrito shop.

    Anyone have recommendations or success with the commercially available locking skewers, or is it hardware store all ’round?

  • Brandon

    Quick release wheels are a pretty terrible standard “feature” imo. Id rather carry a tiny wrench with me (not that i do anyway). Think of those cheap tiny erector set style stamped aluminum “wrenches” that you sometimes see come with things that need some assembly. They should just include those with a new bike.

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