Friday, April 20, 2007

Story - A Short, Hard Bike Ride

In a different life I was in the retail bike biz. It wasn't an easy life but it had its moments. One such moment took during a nice sunny summer day. People were busy shopping. Our shop was humming. As bike shop people it's hard to get out when the weather is nice because that's when things get busy. As it turned out I was still able to get out for a quick, couple mile bike ride.

In a bike shop (or probably any retail shop) you develop a feel for "trouble". Someone out of place, perhaps reeking of alcohol, or maybe a normal person with glazed eyes, whatever it is, alarm bells go off. Usually you make a subtle gesture (like the spy guys do in the movies - touch a finger to your cheek just below an eye then at the "target") to the other employees to let them know that the guy up front seems sketchy. And you go greet them and hope you're wrong.

Normally nothing happens. But when things do, it can be a doozy.

On said summer day, we were enjoying a quiet moment. It helped us catch up with repairs, build bikes, clean up a bit, and, like always, talk about stuff.

A guy walked in who set off every alarm bell I had. He simply did not fit our "normal customer" profile. But when I greeted him he was surprisingly articulate with some of the subtle points of a bike shop. He told me he worked in a shop that sold brand T and G but not C and he wanted to check out some C's. He talked to me at length about good and bad floor pumps. And at some point he asked if he could take a C out for a ride.

In particular he wanted to take a beautiful, polished, 21" (he was a big guy) front suspension bike for a spin.

Normally we ask for a license but he claimed he didn't drive and so didn't have a license. Not unusual for a young shop employee (we've had a couple like that) so I told him he had to stay right in front of the store. He agreed and carefully wheeled the bike outside.

I watched him circle a few times and walked back a bit to talk to the guys in back. One of them, Josh, piped up.

"That guy wants to steal a bike."
"Yeah, but he seemed to know about shops. I told him to stay in front of the store."
"I don't know, I don't like it."

I didn't know what to say. Alarm bells were still going off but the courtesy you extend to others in the biz sort of overrode them. I lost myself thinking about this when J ripped me out of those thoughts.

"There he goes!"

Oh *@#&$%.

Now what. I ran to the front of the store to grab a bike to chase him down. We had leaned a lot of new bikes up by the doorway, one on top of the next, bikes which had been test ridden earlier that day. I decided to grab one. The first bike I touched was some huge road bike. I rolled hard to the side. Think of a pro in a race who tosses his bike to the side as the mechanic is handing him a new one off the team car. Anyway, I rolled the bike like that. It would have crashed into I don't know what except one of the guys, TallJosh (not Josh), caught it and carefully leaned it across the front of the "non-chase" bikes in the stands (hybrids or kids bikes).

The next bike was a BMX bike. I briefly contemplated it but realized I'd be spun out before I got out of the parking lot. I tossed that. TallJosh caught it and leaned it against the big road bike.

I think a hybrid was next. Tossed. Caught. Leaned.

Then the piece de resistance. A beautiful Stumpjumper, 18" (my size), just test ridden so definitely in shape for some hardcore bike thief chasing.

I grabbed it, dropped the seat a bit, and rolled the bike out the door. Sneakers on clipless pedals. It would have to do. I squished my way to the street (the parking lot sort of has walls around it and there were a lot of cars going in and out) and looked down the road.


Back then it was a four lane road, one way (now it's three lanes) and we happened to be at the busiest intersection of the county or state or something (the landlord boasted about that all the time). So a lot of cars and a lot of different roads (5 roads). It was packed with cars trundling along at about 30-35 mph or stopped at lights. The sidewalks were packed with shoppers. There were people milling around everywhere. And I had no idea if the guy went down our road, down a different road, or cut through one of the dozen sidewalks around.

The view downhill.
I decided he wouldn't go uphill, and I hoped he didn't cross the street.
When I pulled up to the road from the FedEx van side, the guy was at the very end of this road, where it bears left.

I rolled down the hill (I figured he wouldn't go uphill, plus it's all residential up there) and boom - I saw him. He was about 550 yards away according to the gmap-pedometer site and sprinting furiously around a bend in the road. That's far. It's far when you're trying to bridge to a break in a race. But it's even further when the break can take any route it pleases and is trying to hide from you.

I sprinted across some traffic and down the road. I came flying up to a UPS truck. Thinking it was "our" truck, I pulled up to the driver's side and started to yell to catch the guy while I held onto the truck (hey, it was worth trying). I looked up and it was a different guy - he must have thought I was insane.

About where I left the UPS truck.
Note brown building at left, by the bend.

The view back from the same spot where I left the UPS truck.
I exited a parking lot by the 3rd car behind me.
Not the first car with headlights. Not the second. The third one.

I kept going and got to the bend where I last saw him. I was sure the thief was dumping the bike in the back of a truck or a van and I'd never catch him. I'd already passed a few parking garages which could easily hide a dozen bike thieves. And around this bend was a new shopping plaza.

The bend where he disappeared from view.
This is the brown building "at the bend".

The straight after the bend.
I didn't see him here.

Another bend coming up.
At this point I thought I lost him.

Sure enough when I got there all I could see was the mass of humanity sprawled out, scurrying from one shop to another, crossing the streets, and cars mixed up everywhere. I thought it was over.

Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a red flash turn down a side street, another 400 yards down the road. Big mistake on his part.

I gunned it. I sprinted down the road, cut across the sidewalk, almost plowed into a woman holding some shopping bags. You could tell this was real because she didn't throw her new goodies in the air - she just shrieked a bit.

I turned right through that little parking lot.

The turn was good for me - the next road borders an apartment complex, has good sight lines, and is reasonably quiet. When I got around the goodie woman I could see the thief in front of me, about 300 yards away, turning left down a main road.

Reverse angle view of same parking lot.
I came in from the right side of the picture, exited out the left side.
You can see that the next road is pretty quitet.

I started feeling better about being able to catch this guy. He wasn't going to get away now and I was definitely catching him. The only problem was what to do when I got to him. He was over 6 feet tall and outweighed me by perhaps 50-70 pounds. I figured I would close in and follow him - if I was near him, the cops would find us and take over.

I also kept in mind a cop's friendly warning. The shop's plaza normally had a cop on duty during the busy times to help with traffic and security. They would walk over to say hi and having never grown out of the "I want to be a cop" age, I'd ask them all sorts of questions. Among other things I learned a fully equipped gun belt weighs about 35 pounds (we weighed his), a lot of cops carry two guns (primary, paid for by the department, and backup, a privately owned gun), they pay for all their uniform gear, this one carried two sets of handcuffs (he showed me why, and it makes sense), and when they get a new car with fancy flashing lights, they go to a deserted parking lot and play with the buttons to figure out what does what.

Anyway, the cop's warning was about guns. Specifically, what to do if someone pointed a gun at me. He said a couple things. First, if I'm more than 20-30 feet away, I should run. Most shooters can't hit anything beyond that range. And if I'm moving (and they are too), my odds are even better. Moving shooters rarely hit their target. Second, he told me don't try and do anything heroic. If someone points a gun at you, you run or do what they say. Unless things look grim, heroics don't pay. Finally, if it does look grim and you basically have nothing to lose, he told me to get closer than 20 feet and attack him. Apparently at that range a gun-bearer will be hard pressed to kill an attacker before the attacker is on them. He pointed out that you'll probably either die or get severely wounded but at least you'll have a chance of living and you'll go down fighting.

So keeping these warnings in mind, I decided that if the thief pulled a gun, I'd simply ride away, perhaps across the street, another four-laner. But in the meantime I followed him.

He went left here. I followed him.

This is the reverse angle view of the left.
We came in from the left side, exited going against traffic on the sidewalk to the right.

End of apartment complex to the left.

Now it's office buildings to the left. Note that there's a merge lane, where the "X" is.

He seemed a lot calmer now, away from all the shopping hubbub. He was sitting, not sprinting. He rode with one hand on the bars, the other digging through his pockets. Not much except lint.

What would you do if you just stole a bike and had lint in your pockets?

Exactly. He started picking lint out of his pocket.

I watched him carefully dig into his shorts and pull out lint. He'd rub his fingers to dump the lint and repeat the process. We'd passed a few pedestrians who gave me a weird look - I must have looked really mad, really focused, or just plain crazy. Or someone obsessed with the guy's lint or something.

He followed the sidewalk, went to cross from about where "St" is on the picture.

Eventually the sidewalk curved towards a crosswalk. And the thief must have seen a hint of me peripherally. He turned around, his jaw open in surprise. I didn't know what to do. My retail instincts kicked in.

"Rides good, huh."

I think Clint Eastwood would have been embarrassed for me.

"Um yeah."

And whoever plays bad guys, they'd be embarrassed for him.

"We called the cops. Why don't you make it easier for all of us and just stop."

We got to the crosswalk. He rode slower and slower. I started getting a bit worried. Maybe he was going to sock me one. I've never been punched and I figured if he punched me it would really hurt. I was trembling with adrenaline, ready for something dramatic.

But nothing happened. He slowed to a stop, got off the bike, and carefully laid it down. He stood up, gave me one last glance, and suddenly sprinted towards the shrub line near the road.


I had a choice. Lose the bike. Or lose the thief. And in the shrubs, with him on foot, I was definitely at a disadvantage. So I stayed with the bike.

I carefully rode back to the shop rolling the recovered bike next to me. The chase lasted just over a mile and left me physically and emotionally exhausted.

When I got to the store the cops were there. A couple cars were in front, flashing lights, the whole bit. The lights looked like they made sense - no yellow lights pointing to go left or some such nonsense - so those particular cops must have figured out which buttons did what. Flashing lights always gets my adrenaline going and this time was no exception. I was hyped up again.

The police had cars looking for him but couldn't find the guy. He just disappeared. There are a lot of places for this guy to hide so I felt no surprise. The cops asked me for a detailed description. Unfortunately it seems like adrenaline makes me forget everything. I wasn't much help in describing him ("Um, he was big and he wore a red shirt. And he didn't punch me.") and I just rode behind him for a good mile. Tom, TallJosh, we all had no clue.

But Josh... he was the 911 dialer and talked to the dispatcher. He claimed he didn't get a good look at the guy but offered what he had. Gave a physical description that was pretty accurate. He had it down to +/- an inch and +/- 5 pounds though. Red shirt (yeah, I got that too) with number 89. 89? Apparently it's some player's number. He noticed the color and brand shorts. And the sneakers, down to the specific model. What socks he wore. Stuff like that. He noticed everything about this guy. The cop said that if everyone was as observant as him things would be a lot easier on them.

Things suddenly seemed a bit better. The adrenaline, the rush, calling 911, it all hyped everyone up and got us revved up. We had the bike back unhurt. And a great story.

A few hours later a long time customer who hadn't been in for a while walked through the doors. Ex-military, tall, strong, funny, really nice guy. He was looking for a nice mountain bike. And he wanted it today because he wanted to ride it this afternoon. He needed a 21".

I pulled a beautiful, polished, 21" front suspension bike off the rack.

"This is a great bike. And it comes with a story."

He looked at me and smiled.

"A story?"

He picked it up that afternoon.


Anonymous said...

Aki, Rich and I wish that any one (of our MANY bikes) had a story as good as yours to go with it! Next, promise us that you will tell the one about the old lady that got knocked out of her shoes while crossing the street during a crit. Please????

Anonymous said...

I love that story!

Aki said...

I'll have to work up to the lady story - but the sound effects are hard to write. Maybe a podcast is in order.

Ali said...

Great post, but I would never buy a bike that had been through an attempted theif chase.

Anonymous said...

Hi CDR. Your #1 fan here. Love these stories. You should make a catalog of them so it'd be easier (I don't think searching the keyword gets all of them).

Aki said...

Anon - thanks. I was thinking of it. I can't search my own blog, even logged in as myself in the blogger interface, so I know it's hard to find things. I run across old stuff that I've written and think, "Oh, I forgot about that one. I like that one."