Still from The Bicycle Thief
When Vittorio de Sica, the Italian movie director, conceived his now classical film, Bicycle Thief, he was praised for his "neo-realism" in which a simple theme — the stealing of a bicycle — took on the proportions of economic disaster and family tragedy. Almost three decades later, and even in affluent America, the loss of a bicycle arouses in all of us a cri de coeur: why this happen to me?
The theavery of bicycles is at once the simplest and most commonplace form of rip-off one doesn't have to be the Artful Douger to achieve one's ends, and there is no correlation between economic need and acquiring a new set of wheels. True, the combination of a rising economy and the emphasis on ecology has made the bicycle a more valuable commodity to adults as well as to adolescents. But the fact that the theft of any bike worth more than $200 in considered gran larceny has not acted as a deterrent. The simple truth is that a bicycle, unlocked and unattended, brings out the avarice in the crudest amateur.
Last year, in the San Diego area, including the North County police division, the value of bicycles stolen exceeded that of the total value of auto thefts. In 1973-74, 40,000 bicycles were reported stolen. If the national averages can be applied to San Diego, that means that double or even triple that number were stolen but not reported.
Why don't people report the theft of their bicycles? Answers: unless the bicycle has been registered with the Fire Department, unless the owner has written down the number stamped on the frame, unless the owner can be accurate about the size, color, trim, type of seat, type of brakes, type of handlebars, location of the gear selection, and the kind of lock used on it, the chances of recovering a bicycle are nil. A great many owners fail to register their bikes; then, out of chagrin, they don't call the police. Or, the whole concept of dealing with the police is too formidable. Or, echos of la ronde, the bike was ripped off originally and then taken from its illiegal owner. In the period July-September 1974, 1431 bicycles were reported stolen. Of these about 225 were recovered. How was this achieved?
If you have registered your bicycle with the Fire Department, you have a slip of paper which provides all the pertinent information about your wheels, including the most important, the frame number. The police feed the information into a computer and every Monday there is a readout of bicycles reported stolen or missing. If you have visions of cadres of policemen stamping through canyons, brush, and tundra with this readout in hand, use it for a sci-fi fantasy. The police don't operate that way. Officer Jack Sutton, attached to the bicycle detail of the Juvenile Division of central San Diego, and Officer Donald Moore of the Northern Division both corroborated the fact that of the 20% of bicycles that are recovered or impounded, most show up in relation to some other crime or theft.
Example, someone may be picked up on one suspicion or another, and then when the officer visits the house, lo and behold there is an expensive bicycle stashed under a tree. The police call the computer center and within minutes, if the bike is registered, its true owner is identified. Another form of detection utilized by the police is to stop bicycle riders without nightlights, or those who are violating traffic laws, or those who are driving their bikes recklessly. If the rider of the bike claims ownership, and there is no registration at headquarters, then even if the bike is "hot" there is no way the police can prove it, unless the suspect breaks down and confesses on the spot. And very few do.
A large number of bikes are also recovered by the pawn shop detail — police check pawn shops regularly, and any bike that is pawned must have proper registration papers. If it doesn't, the bike may be impounded. It will be returned to its rightful owner, provided it is registered.
How do bicycle thieves go about their not too arduous business? First, a distinction should be made between the amateur and the pro. The amateur sees a bike outside a drug store, a supermarket, or even on the owner's lawn. The two most popular bikes are 10 speeds and sting rays (Evel Knievel has inspired many an adventurer who simply wants an additional bike on which to practice stunts). If these are lying around unattended, they are fair game for the one-shot, impetuous ripoff artist, or for the young swain in love, stolen bikes are one of the most common gifts for lovers, particularly since the ripoff of a bike does not carry with it the onus of thievery from a store. These newly acquired bikes may be used brazenly without altering a detail, or they may be camouflaged by changing the handlebars, seat, color, or trim.
However, professional bicycle thieves are another matter. Of these, the :opportunists" are those who scout an area for anything that is easily lifted. If an opportunist comes across a bike that is as simple to take away as any other item, then the bike may disappear. But one has a 50-50 chance with the opportunist that the bicycle will be less attractive than some other item which may fetch greater value. The amateur wants the bicycle for his/herself or friend of loved one. The pro wants it for bread.
The largest number of bicycles are stolen from institution — according to Officer Sutton, San Diego State and its environs, with its dense concentration of population is one of the areas highest hit by bicycle thieves. Bolt cutters are used to cut chains and the process is completed within a minute. Some thieves who concentrate in university campuses or school yards actually take the time to try as many combinations as possible on combination locks. They arouse no suspicion, even from security guards or school principals, because it is automatically assumed that the frustrated individual sweating over a lock must be the harassed, absent-minded owner.
On a larger scale, the police are aware of teams who operate with vans in the beach areas. Two or more late adolescents or young adults fan an area. They pick up bikes lying on lawns, or they use bolt cutters. Officer Moore claims that a "lock is only as good as the chain that it's on." Unless the chain is of case-hardened steel, it is worthless, unless the chain is long enough to lock wheels and frame, it is equally ineffective.
Van operators in the beach areas are swift, bold, ingenious, and they will swear, if confronted that the bike they are hauling off belongs to them, or that they are certified repairmen who were given this particular address for a pick-up. And they can zip in and out of alleys with their bulky vans as adroitly as if they were riding an outside set into shore. These pros will disguise stolen bikes as ingeniously as possible: some are stripped for their parts, some resembled with mismatched parts. The bikes are repainted, retrimmed, even partially mutilated, and all marking removed. The number on the frame can never be removed, but very valuable bikes, particularly racers that sell for $500 or more, are delivered to other cities where they disappear without a trace.
If the situation appears grim in light of the ubiquitous bolt cutter, a new lock is available on the market, called appropriately enough, Superlock. It is made of cryptonite, retails for about $18.95, and during its test run on New York's Lower East Side, ti withstood 23 bolt cutter wounds and other assaults. After 28 days it remained impervious to the most wily and undaunted thief.
Short of buying the Superlock, your best bet is to take your bicycle to the Fire Department, not merely to have it registered, but to have the seat, the handlebars, and any removable portion stamped with its serial number. This is the same procedure that is followed by sleazy hotels and motels who stamp every inch of their sheets and pillowcases with its name. (I shall never forget the Paradise Motel, outside of Reno, who followed that practice and whose sheets had the aura of prison uniforms. Unless you were a precursor of op-art, you wouldn't rip off these stamped beauties as rags.) Similarly, if all the parts on your bicycle are stamped and numbered, they will lack the esthetics so necessary for the bike buff.
Bikes should be locked and secured even in your garage, but in truth there are some thieves who chutzpah defies credulity.
Item: a young cyclist made a trip without mishaps from San Francisco to San Diego. But the batteries in his nightlight had gone bad. He told a local admirer about his trip, and explained that he was dashing inside the drugstore for fresh batteries. When he came out within minutes, both the bike and the admirer were gone.
Item: A family camped in a Mission Bay site with a rack of racing bikes, valued over $2000, attached to a special frame secured to the top of their camper. With the entire family asleep in the camper, the thieves managed to soundlessly make off with every bike. Gallantly, they left the rack.
Item: The owner of a $600 Raleigh returned to find his chain and lock in perfect condition — the thieves had simply saved through the frame and hauled away the bike in two parts.
But this last is the ultimate in ripoff roistering: a young man secured his bike with lock and chain to a four-inch thick tree. When he returned an hour later, the tree had been cut down.
Register your bike at the fire station; keep the number of the frame; have all removable parts stamped with serial numbers; buy a case-hardened chain and lock. Beyond that, a cheerful prayer will serve some purpose. After all, statistics, rather than any form of prevention, are on your side.