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On Biking: Lesson No. 1 is to lock that bike. Always.

Posted by Your Town  October 13, 2010 09:20 AM

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Earlier this summer I biked over to my friend and colleague Gordon’s house in Chestnut Hill. We had to be in Worcester at 9:00am for a meeting, and I was happy to accept Gordon’s offer of a ride. Pedaling there and back before lunch was a bit too much, even for a cyclephile like me.

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As I hopped off of my bike Romeo, Gordon’s 90lb. Bernese Mountain Dog, gave me his usual friendly greeting and then waited to be scratched. “Should I leave my bike in your garage?” I asked. “No, just lean it up against the back porch,” Gordon replied. “No one will take it.”

I admit I felt a little nervous: I had not brought a lock and was counting on leaving my bike indoors. Also, my last mountain bike had been stolen six months earlier even though I had locked it securely in front of Boston Medical Center. And then I realized that no thief could get past Romeo to get to my bike.

I wished I’d had Romeo 40-years ago to guard my bike when it was stolen from behind my elementary school. The combination locks we used back then were easy to pick if you just put your ear against the cylinder and listened carefully for the “click” of the pins as they tumbled into place. Now we use industrial strength locks to keep our bikes from being fenced on Craigslist or sold for parts. These high-tech clasps are not perfect, and what you really get is time: the better the lock, the more time it will take a thief to crack the code.

After my mountain bike was stolen I felt terrible. Misery loves company, though I was saddened to learn how much company I had. The F.B.I. estimates that over 250,000 bikes are stolen each year, though the National Bike Registry pegs that number at about 1.5 million. Even if the F.B.I. is right, that’s still a lot of bikes.

Romeo copy.jpg

(Photo by Nil Berkman)

Usually you’re not getting that stolen bike back. The reported rates of recovery are hard to pin down, but estimates are pretty low. In Sweden (where they keep data on these kinds of things), about 1% of all stolen bikes are returned to their owner.

By those standards Nicole Freedman, the director of Boston’s bicycle programs, is blessed with incredibly good karma. “In 1997 I left my unlocked bike on my front porch in California. It was stolen,” Nicole says as she recalls her shaggy dog story, “but I got it back 24 hours later. In 2006 it was stolen again, this time from my back porch in Boston.” Nicole laughs: “it was unlocked that time, too.”

“My bike had an unusual frame that looks like no other bike,” Nicole adds. “That’s how a friend was able to spot it in Harvard Square two years later. But by the time I got there it was gone. And then two months later he saw it in Harvard Square again. This time I asked him to secure it and I went right over.”

“It was my bike, but when I called the police they told me there was nothing they could do unless I could demonstrate proof of ownership. Of course I didn’t have those papers or a serial number from a bike I got years ago,” Nicole says. “And then I remembered: that police report from 1997.” Nicole called the California police department, which gave her the serial number from that report filed so long ago. And the Cambridge police? Nicole laughs again: “The serial number matched so they said I could have my bike back.”

Unless you have your own Romeo to guard your bike I suggest investing in a good lock. That way you’re less likely to need the services of Nicole’s friend to track down your missing wheels. If you’re a little rusty with your bike locking technique then check out MassBike or Streetfilms for expert and free instruction. And then register your bike on Stolen Bikes Boston. That way if it is stolen you’ll have documentation to help you recover it. Help I hope you’ll never need.

Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.

Readers: do you have a stolen bicycle story or other suggestions for preventing theft or recovering a pilfered bike?

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