The Miraculous Story of Babe the Blue Townie

A few weeks ago, while working at my bench on a Wednesday late morning, I read the following email from my building manager:

Juliayn,
We had another burglary last night or this morning. I didn’t see your bike with the saddle bags when I went down to have a look, so I wanted to check in to see if you’re elsewhere and your bike’s with you, or if you’re here.
Andrew M found that the hide-a-key (for use by a number of people who periodically need building access—washer-dryer repair, fire-extinguisher check, etc.) had been cut off, so I’m assuming that that’s how the burglars got in.

Well! That was chilling. This, only 5 days after a previous burglary of our locked basement space during which at least four bikes had been stolen. I started off at a walk, then ran down the stairs to the basement to discover the awful truth. The thief had left the lock and my helmet behind, but no bike. No Babe. I noticed several other bikes missing, and another broken lock on the ground. There was a spatter of burned, liquifed rubber around the area where Babe had been–had they used a blowtorch?? The lock had clean saw marks, though.

Babe was a godsend of a townie, but sometimes I removed the bags and took her on fun rides, too. Here’s a photo album of a ride John and I did in Coyote Hills just three days before the theft. There’s even a picture of her that John encouraged me to take, laying on a bed of poppies, the California state flower.

PoppyBabe

Poppies in the marshes at Coyote Hills

When I was looking for photos of my bike to post, to file an insurance claim, fill out the police report, and make flyers, I found that there were several to choose from. This bike was much more than a bike to me. Since John found her in 2014, I often took pictures of her while out riding. I’m not sure how normal this is. I mean, maybe people take shots of their randonneuring bikes or mountain bikes, but do people take pictures of their commuting bikes?

Babe the Blue Townie

Andrew Wyeth on the brain, just out doing a delivery for Book Island: 2015

An eye-catching townie is not actually a desirable thing, because it seems it would invite theft. For better or worse, though, I really adored Babe. A lugged steel 1980s production mountain bike with recently redone cables and housing, cantilever brakes, and perky gel saddle… with John’s later additions of upright bars, shiny steel Berthoud fenders, front and rear racks, kickstand, cool (and humongous) Dutch panniers, and dynamo front hub with wired front and rear lighting (super ultra spiffy tail light was a Valentine’s Day present from 2016!)… everything a commuting bike needs, on the foundation of a tough yet sporty frame with a classy blue paint job! I think my bf is pretty good at building bikes, but with Babe, John took it a step farther somehow. Babe answered a very deep part of my personality. John saw how I hauled stuff by bike, even when I had a bike with no racks at all. How many times did I carry a 30 lb. container of cat litter plus groceries… or huge bookbinding projects… or just the usual supplies for teaching workshops, on my back in my old messenger bag? I’d rather not recall! But no more of that. Now I had Babe.

Or not. Heavy sigh.

But! I was not giving up. I dutifully filed a police report in person. I contacted the insurance company and filed a claim. I planned to go to the Laney College flea market (though it was not being held when I went, so I went to the one at Ashby BART instead). I had a hard time posting the news about the theft because it just felt so depressing. But I went through the recommendations on the Stolen Bikes Bay Area webpage/message board, and did everything there and more.

The Return

Two weeks later to the day Babe was stolen, I got her back. How? Charlie at Lakeview Bicycles on Grand Ave in Oakland (about 1 1/2 miles from my apartment) acted on his suspicion that the new bike his assistant had just bought was probably stolen. He noticed the fenders, the racks, and the dynamo lighting, and told me later he thought to himself, “Someone’s got to be missing this bike.” Charlie looked up the details of the bike he saw on Bike Index, and found the entry I had made on Babe which contained Babe’s description, serial number, and my contact information.

There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Some ordinary person just plain did the right thing. And there was a network in place to allow complete follow-through. Sometimes it happens. You are all going to go and register all your bikes on Bike Index, right? While I go clean off the rest of the gold spray paint the assistant applied to Babe… kind of amazing, though, all the parts are still there. Both racks, head and tail light still work despite the total meltdown on the top tube from the blowtorch or whatever caused the explosion of the rubber on the old lock. Even the bell is still there.

Return of Babe

Return of Babe

Throughout the two weeks when Babe was stolen, I emailed my rando pal Jenny Oh for advice and support. I knew about her involvement in trying to improve the situation for people whose bikes have been stolen, so I naturally turned to her for advice, while trying not to be a burden. She gave me a lot of essential information for my particular situation with Babe, so I thought it would be helpful to ask her a few more questions for the blog here and give her a chance to expound on this topic for anyone who might want to learn a little more.

I’m so grateful to her, to Charlie at Lakeview Bicycles, and to everyone at Bike Index for helping me find Babe again. Now I can go back to carrying tons of crap no other bike could haul and do it in style. I hope for the same for any of you who have lost a bike due to the senseless crime of bike theft. I hope the following will be helpful in preventing theft, too.

Interview with Jenny Oh of Stolen Bicycles Bay Area

How long have you been moderating the Stolen Bicycles Bay Area message board, and how did it get started?

I created the Google group back in 2012, soon after I had my mountain bike stolen (http://www.plattyjo.com/my-stolen-bike-was-found-with-your-help/) – and then recovered – in just 4 days. I had spread the word on social media, cycling forums and even created flyers. A mutual friend of mine had spotted it at the Laney College Flea Market (she’d seen my post on Facebook) and recovered it for me.
But prior to getting it back, I realized there wasn’t much available online at the time, in regards to resources, as to what I should do. Some of it was obvious (file a police report, call my insurance company), but otherwise, I just felt rather helpless.
So after I got my bike back, I decided to help create a comprehensive online resource that could serve as both a clearinghouse of information and a place to share info about stolen bicycles. I decided against Facebook since not everyone had an account on there, and this was an easy, free way for folks to post and search for stolen bikes. I did find one website, the now defunct Stolen Bicycle Registry, that had been created by a guy named Bryan Hance. It was another free searchable database where folks could list their stolen bikes. If someone happened to spot it on Craigslist or at a flea market, they could look up the bike to see if it had been listed. If you wanted to get in touch with the owner, the site would send an email to that person and put him/her in touch with the would-be rescuer. It was also auto-tweet out info about the theft on Twitter.
We struck up a friendship and for several years, tried to build a West Coast coalition to tackle bike theft. Unfortunately, our efforts didn’t really get anywhere since the various institutions and companies we’d contacted were mired in bureaucracy, understaffed or had commercial interests. (I also served on the board of Bike East Bay for two years and tried to convince Laney College to ban selling bikes, but that went nowhere as well. Here’s another post where I’m trying to crowdsource ideas: http://www.plattyjo.com/bike-theft-prevention-what-can-we-really-do/) But Bryan ended up retiring his website and merging it with Bike Index, which I highly recommend now as the go-to place for registering bikes (and looking for it there if it’s been stolen. https://medium.com/@stolenbikessfo/what-to-do-after-you-bike-has-been-stolen-in-the-bay-area-e08e6b6f005b) And Bike East Bay, along with other cycling coalitions, share much more info on their websites now about what to do when you’re bike is stolen. BEB even held a few bike registry events in partnership with Bike Index, and they maintain an active page with a ton of resources, too: https://bikeeastbay.org/theft
I update general info posted in the introduction of the Google group when I can, and I also try and share info pertaining to stolen bikes via my personal Facebook page to my followers time permitting.

There were so many things I didn’t know about that a bike owner can do once a bike has been stolen. I think it’s so great that the info on the message board is pro-active, since when a bike has been stolen, you feel powerless. What are some things you wish more bike owners knew about bike theft that would make them feel more empowered to search for their bikes?

The number one thing is to spread the word as widely as possible! Number two, never lose hope and never, ever stop looking. I once helped a friend of mine recover a bike after 6 years: http://www.plattyjo.com/rescued-in-portland-a-stolen-de-rosa-bicycle-has-been-found-after-6-years/ I recovered a wheelset: http://www.plattyjo.com/my-usa-bicycle-wheels-have-been-found/ And there’s many, many more happy recovery stories that I’ve helped with or heard about over the years. Bike Index has a really impressive track record, and Bryan regularly blogs about their stats: https://bikeindex.org/news/bike-indexs-february-2018-recoveries.
You never know when you might get your bike back, so keep spreading the word! With the advent of social media, it’s much easier to do so. Thieves are actually moving away from Craigslist since it’s harder for them to sell stolen goods on there and using smaller sites or flea markets. And SFPD is using more bait bikes and also promoting their efforts.

A lot of randonneurs have bikes that are virtually irreplaceable. Are there special things one can do for theft of more high-end bikes, aside from prevention and good insurance?

I urge everyone to be proactive beforehand and to register your bike(s), take lots of photos and have a record of your serial number(s). If you’re reading this sentence, step away from the computer and DO THIS NOW if you haven’t already! It will help you so much if you do have your bike stolen. Unique bikes actually have a better chance to being recovered as they have details that stand out, so be sure to make note of any components, markings, etc. It’s much harder to retrieve a stock bike that looks so much like many others from a big box store. (And if your bike doesn’t have a serial number, etch something underneath the bottom bracket that can serve as one, or place a sticker inside the seat tube or someone else that’s hidden on the bike that’s a unique identifier.)
Also, NEVER leave your bike unlocked and unattended. I don’t care how safe you think it is, DON’T DO IT. I can tell you many snatch-and-grab horror stories. DO NOT leave your bike in your car, especially overnight. Don’t leave it locked anywhere in public overnight. There are certain areas in SF that are known “hot spots” (they’re listed in the Google group.) Every city has them, so try and familiarize yourself with where thieves will steal bikes. Bikenapped (http://bikenapped.com/sf/map.html) has data for SF.

When buying a used bike, what are some things to look for to ensure it has not been stolen?

Check Bike Index to make sure it’s not been listed as stolen. Try and buy used bikes from a reputable source (like from a bike shop that has obviously vetted their sellers, selling last season’s demo bikes, from a mutual friend.) If a post on Craigslist or another online site has glaring errors in the description, it’s a huge red flag. (One guy had his last name on a decal on the top tube; when it got stolen, the bike thief thought it was the name of the brand and listed it in his ad as such!)

One thought on “The Miraculous Story of Babe the Blue Townie

  1. Pingback: 2018 SFR Hopland 400k | Church of Rotating Mass

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