There and back again

24 June 2012
1:37 PM

This is the story of how I stole my bike.

In 2008 I moved to Berkeley, California to start grad school. There are a lot of things that are nice about Berkeley, but driving is not one of them. The city makes having a car painful. Finding parking downtown is a nightmare and enforcement officers can spot an expired meter 2 miles away. Comparatively, biking is glorious. There are racks for parking everywhere. The city has designated certain streets Bicycle Boulevards, which run parallel to major streets, just a block removed from heavy traffic.

Even though I was on a student budget, I knew I wanted a bike to get around. Eventually I found my new steed, a Kona Dew Deluxe. After tax it set me back $706.86, which is a lot of money but I justified the price to myself because my last bike lasted almost 10 years.

For 36 days, life was good.

On September 18, I was running late for my 12:30 class in South Hall. I locked up my bike in the center of campus. Though I had been in the habit of using both a U-bolt lock and a cable lock on the rear tire, I opted in my haste for just the cable. Five hours later, I left the building and walked to the wrong bike rack. “I must have parked it over at that one. Hmm, no, I think I was right the first time. I must have just missed it.” It took a couple trips back and forth before I realized that my bike had been stolen.

I was devastated. When something is stolen from you it cuts twice: you don’t have it anymore, and you feel dumb for letting someone take it. How could I have been so irresponsible? Why didn’t I just take the extra minute to use both locks? I filed a police report and walked home despondent.

The next morning things looked brighter. I called my insurance company and learned that my renter’s insurance covered my bike, minus a $200 deductible. (As an aside, my company, USAA was amazing. I faxed them my purchase receipt and they called me to settle the claim while I was still in line at Staples to pay for the fax.)

Also, this wasn’t my first time at the getting-bike-stolen rodeo. In college I left my bike outside my dorm on a Wednesday afternoon, and come Thursday morning, I found myself walking to class when my bike had, you know, been stolen. Notre Dame has a relatively isolated if large campus—1250 acres, 27 residence halls—so I just resolved to visit every bike rack on campus until I found my bike. This was a slow job, one that would have been aided by the very thing I was searching for. I visited most of them, but I didn’t find my blue Schwinn Moab.

That Friday afternoon, on the way to anthropology in Hagar Hall, I saw my bike locked up outside another dorm. Locked up? The nerve. I ran to the classroom. “Hey, does anyone here have a bike lock? I need to steal my bike.” Amazingly, someone did, so I rushed back outside and added a second lock to my bike. I rubber-banded a note to the seat:

Dear bike thief,

This is my bike. Please remove your lock.

Regards, Ryan

A few hours later I returned to find my bike secured with just a single lock—mine—and I rode it home triumphantly.

Anyway, back to bike #2. On Monday afternoon I was browsing Craigslist when I found a suspicious posting:

Craigslist Posting for 2008 Kona Dew Deluxe

It was for an orange Kona Dew Deluxe with a 58cm frame. I stared at the photo trying to discern if this was a coincidence or my bike. Then I noticed a silver kickstand attached to the frame—just like the add-on I had installed. I was pretty sure this was mine.

I didn’t know how paranoid the person I was dealing with would be, so I tried to be extra cautious. I edited my blog and took down an entry about my new bike. I removed pictures of it from Flickr. Then I sent what I hoped was a really casual email.

From: Ryan Greenberg
Date: Mon, Sep 22, 2008 at 5:21 PM
Subject: 2008 Kona Dew Deluxe - $400 (alameda)

I saw your posting for the Kona Dew Deluxe and I’m interested in buying it. Is it still available? If so, drop me a line via email or give me a call.


Like a hunter waiting for prey I didn’t want to make sudden movements that would scare off the seller.

50 minutes later I got a phone call.

“Hey, I got your email about the bike,” the person on the other end said.
“Oh yeah. Is it still available?”
“Yeah.” OK, stay calm, try to sound like you don’t care if you buy the bike or not, I told myself.
“Cool. Maybe I can come check it out sometime this week?”
“How about tonight?” I was surprised how eager the guy on the other end was. We agreed to meet at a gas station in Oakland at 8:00pm.

My heart started pounding. I needed to find people to go with me to make a pretty shady rendezvous safer. After a bunch of phone calls I picked up Aylin and Mohit, plus our friend Ashkan would meet us there. My friend Nick offered the helpful advice: “Be careful. It would be great if you didn’t die.” Since I agreed, I also brought my checkbook thinking that, if things seemed dangerous, I would just buy the bike.

When we arrived, I told Mohit and Aylin to hang out in the car. I’d wave to them to get out if it was a match. Then I got out and I met Charles (not his real name), who was selling the bike for $400. He claimed he bought it a few months ago and decided that he didn’t need it anymore. Ashkan posed as my knowledgable bike-savvy friend which was easy because he’s bike savvy. While Ashkan chatted up Charles, I rode the bike in circles in the parking lot to try it out. Then I ducked around the corner of the gas station, jumped off the bike, and flipped it over. There, at the base of the pedal mount was the serial number I had memorized that afternoon: 20920800301. It was mine.

As I rode back to Ashkan and Charles. I waved to Mohit and Aylin to get out of the car. “Is it yours?” Ashkan asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“OK.” He turned to Charles. “We’re taking the bike.”
“Great!” Charles said.
“No, we’re not paying for it,” I said. “This bike is stolen.”
“What?” Charles said. “No, no, no. I bought this over the weekend at Ashby BART. I paid $100 for it.” I believed him. Charles was a heavy-set guy, and I got the feeling this wasn’t the exact guy who cut the lock. I even felt badly that he was going to be out the money he spent.
“Yeah, sorry,” Ashkan stepped in. “That’s a risk you take when you deal with people who sell stolen goods.”

We went back and forth as Charles denied that he had any idea the bike was stolen. “Well, why don’t we give the police a call and have them help us sort this out?” I suggested. I started writing down the license plate on Charles’s pickup truck and all of a sudden he was in a hurry to leave. Then it was just three friends, my bike, and me, at a gas station off I-80 on a Monday night. I drove home euphoric. I had cheated the gods of bicycle theft once more.

There were a few loose ends to tie up. I called the police and told them that I had recovered my property. I wrote a check to USAA returning the insurance money. I bought a new lock. I don’t want to have to steal my bike ever again.