January 30, 2014

Patrick Symmes: "I am not done with this."

As a follow-up to an October post directing readers to check out Patrick Symmes's Outside piece about his exploration of the "dangerous underworld of vanished bicycles," I contacted Symmes to see if he'd answer a handful of questions for posting on BTB. He graciously agreed:

BTB: Are you still riding Bike Six [a black, single speed Symmes bought on a San Francisco street for $125]? And are you still securing it with the "11 pounds of chain" you mention at the end of your Outside piece?

PS: I still ride Bike Six daily. However, I stopped using the 11-lb chain. I have a Kryptonite U-lock, in my analysis those are more than adequate. A chain was helpful in New York and San Francisco, high-theft environments where I really worried about losing the front wheel or needed to secure it to elaborate structures, but in Portland where I live now, theft is less common.

BTB: What's your opinion on the crop of tech locks—LOCK8, for one—hitting the market? 

PS: This is welcome, and represents the future. The smart-phone features are exciting. However, current models are unimpressive to me. My Garmin GTU10 trackers continue to give me problems from a software perspective, they just don't work right sometimes. The LOCK8 seems to have all the right goals for notification and alerts, for sensors of various kinds, but it is large and very obvious—perhaps there is a deterrent value in that. But regular bike thieves are savvy about GPS trackers already, and will know exactly what they are facing with such an obvious lock. I like a subtle or hidden approach, surprise is always important for catching thieves. And I'll note, the cable they are using is obviously too small for certain high-theft areas. Basically, there are two kinds of locks—U-locks and all others. Many thieves simply won't bother with a U-lock, regardless of who makes it. My ideal lock would be a regular U-lock and a separate, built-in GPS or other tracker, preferably hidden inside the frame tubes, where a thief cannot see or remove it.

BTB: Have you seen enough of "America's bike-crime underbelly," or could you see yourself venturing into that world again sometime? 

PS: I am not done with this. I continue to keep a charged GPS tracker installed under the bike seat, in case the bike is stolen. I even skip using the U-lock sometimes, and lock the bike with only a wafer thin cable for children's bikes, a cable you could cut with a pair of nail clippers. Part of me wants to tempt robbers—less to get revenge or to chase someone down than to continue to investigate and expose how thieves work, where they take bikes, and particularly how a bike moves from thief to middleman to seller to customer. I want to expose it and write about it. I almost feel disappointed when I come outside and it wasn't stolen!

BTB: Do you keep up with bike theft news, and, if so, do any stories stand out? 

PS: I hear from a lot of people now. Clearly, emotions run very high on this matter, so high that I compare it to the way 19th century people felt about horse thieves. Sometimes a story about a bike thief goes viral—like the Facebook post by a Canadian woman who stole back her own bike after seeing it for sale online. She asked the "seller" if she could take it for a test ride. She just kept going. People cheered her on. This is a result of a the sense of impunity, the idea that criminals face really no consequences at all for stealing bikes. [BTB wrote about the incident Symmes is talking about.]

January 22, 2014

"As though the soul of a man had been filmed"

It's fitting that, with Oscar season upon us, I just watched the winner of the 1949 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: Vittoria De Sica's Ladri di biciclette. Variously translated as The Bicycle Thief or Bicycle Thieves, the black-and-white classic opens as Antonio Ricci, a jobless father of two, at last finds work—work that requires him to own a bicycle—only to have his oft-pawned Fides (I gather that this is a made-up brand) stolen his first day out. What unfolds in the film's 93 minutes is a drama that was heaped with superlative praise on the occasion of its re-release in 1972:

It wasn't Miller or Brando or a hankering for a bracing dose of Italian neorealism, though, that prompted me to check out from my local library the Criterion Collection's double-disc presentation of De Sica's masterpiece. I watched Ladri di biciclette after reading that the founder of the Portland-based band Bike Thief named his quintet of folk/alt-rockers after the film—stole its title, if you will. 

I also regarded the movie as a possible answer to a comment made by a mathematician with whom I was corresponding for my day job. I was questioning this fellow via email about a lectureship he once held, and I suppose he decided to investigate—or at least Google—his interrogator. The scholar's eventual (and quite lengthy) reply to my message began:

Reading your blog gives me the illusion of a personal acquaintance—from the intensity with which you are present even when writing about a subject as mundane as bicycle theft.

"Mundane"? "Dull and ordinary"? Bike theft is, sadly, the latter, but it is not the former. This is the stuff of high drama! Since when does dull material an Oscar earn?

January 15, 2014

How about "Wheel Leashes"?

Experts agree. In all but the most crime-free of neighborhoods, a cable lock provides piss-poor security against bicycle theft.

When I registered my (since stolen) bike with the Arlington County Police Department back in 2011, my decal arrived in the mail with the enclosure shown at left. Cable locks, you can see if your eyesight is sharp enough, "are not sufficient to deter theft." Exclamation point.

Might as well not even call them locks.

For to refer to the flimsy things as "locks" (noun pl.) makes it easier to be lulled into thinking one can "lock" (transitive verb) one's bike with one of them.

And this, as I discovered the hard way, is just not true.

So, since language has the power to influence thought, I suggest we re-name these glorified wires. The new moniker should reflect the reality, i.e. that while cables do have a place in a responsible bicyclist's ride security system, they should never be used solo. Something like "wheel leashes," perhaps? Suggestions?

January 9, 2014

After a 20-Year Wait...

Within a few days of my bike being stolen, when I hadn't tracked it down on Craigslist or spotted some shady character riding it around town, I resigned myself to its loss. But a story in The Local out of Sweden last week indicates that I may have given up hope too hastily.

Police reunited Karina Murén of Gävle in northern Sweden with the first three-speed she got in middle school, a bike that was stolen twenty years ago. Despite the bike's color having been altered during its time away from its rightful owner, the frame number was enough to identify the two-wheeler as Murén's.

Find and record those serial numbers, people, and never say "never" when it comes to stolen bike recovery.

January 6, 2014

I Stole Your Bike to Hit Festivals Soon

Thanks to Marcos for tipping me off to the December DCist post about a new documentary in the works. Southern Maryland brothers Christian, Stephon, and Joshua White shadowed an unnamed but supposedly quite active bike thief around Washington, D.C., filming his actions for a movie they're calling I Stole Your Bike. Check out the trailer:

There may be, as the Washington Area Bicyclist Association's Greg Billing says in the Fox 5 News story about the documentary, "a fine line between glorifying bike theft and using it as an educational tool," but the White brothers, who say their film "will reveal how to 100% secure your bike from future bike thieves," believe they're "going to aid a lot of people in the end."

I Stole Your Bike is slated to be finished this spring.