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Frenzy a daily ritual at Amsterdam bike garage

The Netherlands has an estimated 20 million cycles

AMSTERDAM -- "I thought it was right here."

Mireille had that I'm-worried-but-I'm-not-going-to-panic-yet look on her face. It was 5:40 p.m., the top of the afternoon rush hour, and she had been searching for two minutes.

She lost her bicycle in the Amsterdam Central train station's high-rise bike lot, where 2,500 bikes were crammed pedal-to-pedal, handlebar-to-handlebar, on five soaring levels.

Mireille paced the row where she was certain she left her bike. The row looked like an impenetrable web of spokes and bars and wheels. She started to offer her full name, but thought better of it. She was embarrassed. Mireille is 39 and works for the city.

She confessed that she was in a hurry that morning and double-parked, jamming her bike into the narrow space between two legally parked cycles. She was unable to wrap her lock around the bike stand. At Amsterdam Central, that's an invitation to the owner of one of the other bikes to rip out yours and stash it in another illegal space 30 bikes away, just to teach you a lesson.

"It's here somewhere. . . . It's a gray bike," Mireille said , adding, "with a black thing."

A black thing? The flat metal seat over the back wheel.

The Netherlands, a country with flat terrain , has more bicycles than people: an estimated 20 million bikes, and just more than 16 million people . There are three times as many bicycles as cars. Virtually every road has a bicycle lane. Virtually no one wears a helmet.

The bike garage at Amsterdam Central, which won an architectural award for its winding levels of bicycle stands that jut over a wide canal, is one of the country's busiest.

Mary Frances Cullen sees the lost-bike frenzy dozens of times a day. Unlike automobile drivers, cyclists don't have keys with remote controls to sound off alarms . At Amsterdam Central, they have Cullen and her crew of bike attendants.

Cullen, 63, works in a kiosk on the first floor to help bicyclists in distress. Before this job, she spent eight years causing bikers distress: She was on the city squad that rounded up illegally parked bikes from bridges, lampposts, and sidewalks and hauled them to the bicycle pound outside town.

At 5:45 p.m., a woman with a briefcase and a wailing toddler was screaming at one of Cullen's colleagues.

Almost every Dutch bicyclist has had his or her bike stolen at least once. An average of 800,000 bikes are reported stolen every year.

Cullen said her first question is always the same: "Have you looked around?"

"They say, 'Yes, of course.' I ask them, 'What color is it?' 'Black, lady's,' they say. I tell them, 'There are 2,000 black lady's bikes here! Put something on the bike you can recognize -- plastic flowers, ribbons, anything.' "

Some bike owners do that. They twist plastic flowers around the handlebars, they strap black plastic milk cartons to the back, they stick goofy cloth flowers to the seats. A rare few venture from the classic black or gray paint job and go wild -- pink with red hearts, for instance.

Many lost bikes stay lost and become abandoned, another big headache for the garages.

Others end up that way because students take off for holiday and leave their cycles parked for months. People lose their keys and don't go to the trouble of replacing them or cutting the locks. Others simply forget they left their bikes.

Four times a year, Cullen and her crew mark every bike on the lot with an orange tag. Owners are told to tear off the tag when they pick up their bike.

After one month, any bike that has an orange tag is taken away. Cullen said they usually clear out 500 to 600 in each sweep.

At 5:50 p.m., a woman in a tan raincoat pushed her bicycle down the exit ramp, balancing a baby on the seat and an extra-large package of disposable diapers over the rear wheel. A man in a brown suit struggled to shoulder a cello and remain upright on his cycle.

At 5:51 p.m. -- 13 minutes after she started her hunt -- Mireille emerged from a tangle of cycles. She pushed a gray one with a thick lock snaked over the handlebars.

A broad smile crossed her face. "I found it!"