Bikes Lost, Bikes Found, Bicycles on the Edge of Abscontion

9 09 2010

Did you know that around 1500 bicycles are reported stolen in Edmonton every year? And that only a minority of bike thefts are reported?  I’ve been thinking a lot about stolen bikes lately, since finding a very nice bike crudely stashed, unlocked, and missing its front wheel, while walking around my neighborhood.

The scenario likely played out something like this: cyclist locks bicycle to something by its front wheel, which had a quick release axle, and goes about their business. Then, opportunistic bike thief removes aptly named quick release skewer and carries off the rest of the bike, leaving the front wheel, still securely locked for its owner, before stashing bike to pick up later. You don’t have to look far to find evidence of stories like this.

If the U-lock had been on the frame and the cable through the wheel, we never would've had this sad vignette. This is one of the better locks on the market, but no matter how much you spend, it's pointless if you don't use it properly. No lock's foolproof, but cables are easier to cut than U-locks.

The more I looked at the fleets of bikes parked around my high-bike-theft neighborhood, the sadder I became for all the cyclists’ potential sorrows, because only a tiny minority had secured their bicycles well enough to thwart a bike thief.

Even though this is one of the nicer bikes at this rack, this bike will be here when its owner returns. The U-lock securing the front wheel and frame to the rack plus the cable through the rear wheel will send potential thieves looking for an easier target.

So, if you have to leave your bike locked anywhere out of your sight, here’s how to make sure it’s still there when you come back for it:

  • Use a U-lock to lock the frame AND wheel to a fixed object.
  • Always lock through the inside triangles of the frame, not the fork or handlebars.
  • Use a cable lock only as a secondary lock to the U-lock, to secure the other wheel, or seat, or any other easily removable parts.
  • If your bike is so valuable that it would still be a profitable venture for a thief even if they had to go to a hardware store to buy a tool to cut your lock(s), you probably shouldn’t let it out of your sight.
  • Record your bike’s serial number. If it is ever stolen, you will need this to recover it.
  • If you keep your bike in a garage or on a porch, lock it down to something.

And now, here’s how not to lock a bicycle:

Scrawny cable lock over the handlebars, how could one steal thee, let me count the ways...

This bike's frame is locked but not its quick release wheels. Had this bike been here when the bike frame belonging to the wheel beside it was stolen, an observant thief could've taken the unsecured wheel off this bike and rode into the sunset.

A double sheet bend knot would work better. But seriously, do you know how easy it is to cut this cable (even the snipped cable in the top picture is, like, 10 times stronger), or how easy it is to take the handlebars & stem off? And I used to have one of those combination locks when I was in elementary school, until a bully picked the lock then rode my bike around me, mockingly, in circles. That's a pretty nice bike to be trusting to a lock that can be picked by a not-so-bright 10 year old.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve helped someone fix their bike and seen a crappy cable lock. I’d ask them if that was their only lock, and if it was, advise them to purchase a U-lock post haste. They’d usually assure me that their lock was adequate, even though they were regularly parking on campus or Whyte Ave, and that they couldn’t afford a more expensive lock, and that no one would want to steal their bike anyway. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the same person a month or two later, with a different bike and a brand new U-lock. Every time it happens, it makes me sad and angry, but it no longer surprises me. And after seeing so many badly locked bikes on such a short exploratory journey, I’m actually surprised that more bikes aren’t going missing.

With all this focus on locks, it should be noted that bikes are most commonly stolen when they are left unlocked in public and semi public places, yards, sheds, porches and garages. It should also be noted that no lock is unbreakable, and with the right tools even the most expensive locks can be defeated in minutes or even just seconds.

As for the nice bike, a friend and I went back for it, left a note where we found it, and brought it home. I ran the serial number through CPIC (any bike reported stolen to police Canada-wide will be in this database, provided the serial number is known), replied to a missing similar bike ad on kijiji, have checked out the online stolen bicycle registry and contacted a local bicycle registry. If the owner of this bike reports it stolen through any of these channels, I’ll so happily return it (with bonus cleaning and tune-up). Even without the serial number, a specific description of its unique characteristics will suffice for the latter two registries. In the meantime, is it wrong for me to build a front wheel for it and (ahem) ride it like it’s stolen?

There’s Something About Marjory

31 08 2010

Marjory Stewart Baxter is a 1982, Canadian built Raleigh Lenton that was rescued from a dumpster and resuscitated by some old friends, who left her to me when they moved away. She was always a sweet bike, but when I replaced her rusty steel wheels with modern alloy rims something magical happened, and she became as zippy as a roadbike while still comfy as a cruiser. She’s still my favorite bike (even if she’s not the one I ride most), and anyone else who rides her instantly falls in love.

Lately though, she’s been giving me some trouble. It started one night at the local bicycle co-op while I was teaching a bicycle maintenance course. I was getting all the participants to check their chains and drivetrains for wear, and it just so happened that out of 8 bicycles, not a single one had any chain stretch. Being unable to remember how long it had been since I’d changed Marjory’s chain, I wheeled her out, knowing I could probably demonstrate what some chain wear looked like. In front of the class, I embarrassed myself by pulling the chain completely off the teeth of the crank – so according to what I’d just told everyone, that means that I’d likely need a complete drivetrain replacement that could’ve been prevented by changing the chain before it got so stretched. Bad mechanic.

I threw a new chain on that night, but it was several links shorter than the old one, and it quickly became apparent that the freewheel was also worn beyond repair, so I replaced it as well. The ride seemed better, until she started throwing off the chain, which would then get jammed between the chain ring and the chain guard and have to be forcefully pulled out.

Oh Marjory, sweet and difficile, why must I get so dirty to ride you so prettily.

After this happened twice in one ride (number of dudes who asked if I needed help while I was unjamming the chain: two), I decided that I was going to return to EBC and not leave until I remedied whatever was causing Marjory’s distress. As it turned out, my next opportunity was going to be after I taught another bike maintenance class.

That day, I packed up a smorgasbord of tools for the class’s benefit and set off on my daily commute only to be interrupted by a flat tire. What’s most surprising about a flat is how few (like, one) I’ve had this summer. Luckily, I had all the tools I’d ever need (though I had the wrong spare tube with me – oops) in my pink tool bag.

Number of dudes who asked me if I needed help while I was waiting for the vulcanizing solution to dry: three. There were also a couple of other dudes who approached me like they were going to offer assistance and then backed off when they saw me spin off the axle nuts with one continuous motion and remove the tire with a flick of the lever and a single pull, respectively. Is it the skirt? Sure, cyclists are pretty awesome and look out for each other and I’ve certainly helped and offered help to many strangers, myself. But, the same day, when another dude’s wheel spontaneously taco’ed at the finale of Critical Mass, he didn’t get anywhere near this outpouring of help, even in the middle of a large group of cyclists. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from offering help when they see someone who looks like they need it, but would those dudes have perceived another man changing a flat, with a complete set of tools, in as much need of assistance as girly me?

To avoid the common mistake (when fixing a flat) of applying the patch before the vulcanizing solution is dry, I tell people to do something else, like have a snack & a drink or chat with riding companions, rather than watching glue dry. On this day, I took pictures and told well-meaning dudes I didn't need any help.

Honestly, some days I get a kick out of messing with people’s preconceptions and playing up the femme bike mechanic thing, but some days I just get fed up with people assuming I know nothing about something I do quite well, based solely on my sex. Even though this was turning into one of the latter sort of gender-warrior-grind days, I want to make it clear I’m extremely grateful for all the kind people who offered to help a stranger. What’s bothering me is how the perception of gender can be the only difference between “mechanic fixing bike” and “damsel in distress” to a stranger’s eyes.

Marjory, one bell adjustment from being ready to roll.

Patching and reassembling Marjory was no problem at all, and I was back on the road with little lost time (but very dirty hands – though that’s what the small vial of the magical green powder called Worx in the tool bag is for, at least as soon as I could find a bicycle accessible washroom).

Later that night, as the midnight hour approached in a surprisingly bustling bicycle co-op, I realigned her derailleur and lengthened her chain, and she was once again reborn as my best bike ever. Here’s to many more marvelous miles on Marjory.

When Shit Happens

4 07 2010

Some days you’re the bird. Some days, you’re the statue.

So, what do you do when you’re on your way to work, and suddenly find yourself covered in more shit than you could picture coming out of an ostrich?

Regular readers of this blog may be interested to know that the avain offender was a common seagull, not a woodpecker. He got my skirt & head too.

Step one: scour E-ville’s unusually clean streets for something to wipe off the chunkage. I found a single piece of newspaper about a block away from the initial incident.

Step two: ride to city hall, pushing bike through the throngs of children (it was Canada Day, so there were literally thousands of families crowding the square), trying not to rub shoulders with anyone.

Step three: immerse entire left side of body in the cold fountain, regardless of the 15C air temperature, to remove any remaining gull residue. Splash around and rub hair & face manically, emerge half dripping, half dry, and shake hair to scare off any gawking tourists.

Step four: ride away triumphantly with the knowledge that having just been shit upon, the rest of your day will be better in comparison. I was smiling within 5 blocks, and dry by the time I got to work, 20 minutes later.

Living without a steel cage forces us to engage with public space in case we need a contingency plan if shit happens. On & near my regular commuter route, I’ve explored dozens of places to take shelter in case of a severe storm (ever been caught in hail?), escape routes if I encounter a bad scene, and public restrooms for obvious and not so obvious reasons. Life can be messy, and it’s nice to have places to clean up.

Last week, I had stopped to take some pictures when I heard my bike fall over. To my disgust, I found that one of my grips & brake levers were embedded in rotten apples.

Nope, don't like them apples. Notice the brake lever imprint in the top one.

Step one: don’t panic. Use leaves to wipe off as much apple chunkage as possible.

Step two: ride to a little used, bicycle accessible bathroom. A security guard actually directed me (bike in hand) to the brand new washrooms in Louise McKinney Park.

Cleaning up the bike in a lovely, though underused modern facility.

Step three: using water and TP, clean everything. Don’t forget to air dry to prevent corrosion!

Dry thoroughly.

Step four: ride to EBC to disassemble levers and clean out remaining apple bits. Swear off applesauce for the foreseeable future.

Step five: ride to 99th street to pick a rose and rub petals on hands, grips & gloves to cover any remaining odors. Ride away triumphantly, smelling of roses.

The moral of the story: there's no security like a bicycle accessible bathroom.

Hauling Foliage

28 06 2010

Marjory Stewart Baxter, my 30 year old Raleigh, has become my bicycle of choice whenever I need to carry anything bigger than my purse. It’s not because she’s a great cargo bike, but because my Bike Bins don’t fit on my new bike’s rack, and I haven’t bothered taking the studded tire off of Ol’ Nelli (my way-more-suitable-for-hauling-shit winter bike), Marjory’s become my default workhorse for groceries and whatnot.

Today, I rode out to the the Home Despot to find some sale priced plants to fill out my garden (especially for where my landlord mowed my perennial herb & flower bed – jerk) and pick up a couple of things for ECOS.


Right bin - small veggies & edible flowers tucked safely inside. I wouldn't put plants inside just any pannier.


It turned out that tropical plants were on sale as well, so I picked up a couple that will hopefully be cat proof, but it left me with more to carry than I had originally intended. Still, I managed fine. I put the smaller plants in the left bin and closed it, then bungeed the ECOS tool hooks on top, hooking one bungee cord so that it was holding the left bin open, where I put the taller plants. I dangled the remaining plants from my handlebars, in a maneuver that I perfected long before I ever knew what a pannier was. (Tip: if you ever have to carry something this way, tie the bag as tight as possible and hang the knot over the handlebar. The higher the bag hangs, the less it will swing and the the less likely it will hit your feet or the front wheel. I used to do all my grocery shopping this way.)


Bungees hold my other purchase as well as holding the left bin open so the larger plants aren't crushed.


I get a lot of comments about my Bike Bins, and overall I like them quite a bit. They are the best way to carry stuff I have ever used, but I still can only make a qualified recommendation about them. The pair I have is mismatched because one of the original pair broke, and I have scrounged every usable part off the broken one to replace broken parts on the other two. At $60 each for a chunk of plastic that might last 2 years if you’re lucky, you could get much better value spending a little more on something that’ll last you a decade, or could DIY something out of buckets or other large plastic containers.

But I didn’t pay full price for them. Altogether I’ve spent $60 on all three (two from EBC, one on clearance at MEC) and I’d say I’ve got my money’s worth (even though only one in three has a working lock). They’ve survived daily use through Edmonton winters and remained perfectly waterproof (which is awesome squared, unless you pack ’em too tightly and puncture a can of pop). Additional benefits include a flat surface on top you can strap even more stuff to, rigid sides that protect delicate cargo (like plants) while asserting your space on the road, and an audible warning system when they’re empty and it’s just the pump & tire levers rattling around in there.

I would love to see a second generation Bike Bin with more durable components. If I could count on them to last for, say, twice as long, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at paying full price and wholeheartedly recommending them.

This post is an entry in the Let’s Go Ride A Bike Summer Games, in the carry a load on your bike event.

Please Be Aware & Careful Out There.

22 05 2010

Sad news that a cyclist was struck and severely injured by an LRT train on Thursday. To Wesley John Haineault, best wishes for recovery, my thoughts are with you, and your family and friends. You sound like the kind of person our communities need more of, and I really hope you pull through.

News story here.

The news reports say that he waited at the railway crossing for a southbound train, and then crossed while the crossing arms were still down, not knowing that there was a northbound train coming down the other tracks, which hit him. In a slight twist of the usual blame the victim spin the media likes to take whenever a cyclist is injured or killed, it has been widely reported that he was wearing headphones. How headphones can drown out the sound of a train is beyond me, but do you know what can drown out the sound of an approaching train? Another train passing! I must admit, though, that I am glad that they haven’t been reporting on whether or not he was wearing a helmet, because I don’t think it would make much difference being hit by a train.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met Wesley, but this story still strikes close to home. I rode through the same intersection minutes before this accident happened, and waited for the ill-fated train at the next crossing. I’ve been quick to cross the tracks after the train passes but while the signals are still on (heck, I’ve done it at least twice this week) and have had a near hit in a similar situation where there was a second oncoming train. I cycle with music all the time (and I don’t wear a helmet, in case anyone cares). For 99.99% of the time, cycling is pretty safe, but it could’ve been my, or anyone’s, number come up in the shit lottery.

Before anyone chides me for risk taking, please consider this. The most important piece of safety equipment we possess are our brains. Alertness, patience, awareness, good decision making and reaction time are more critical than any gadget we can buy or what we wear or don’t wear. Take this reminder to reflect on the chances we take and decisions we make everyday, and please be alert and careful out there.

And to my friends, I promise I will never enter an active train crossing again, no matter how clear it seems.

Falling Down (in a dress)

9 01 2010

One of the reasons I began this blog is that I want to share how fun, healthy, hip, and safe a bicycle lifestyle can be. Even in Edmonton. Even in the winter. This is kind of like my rebuke to the “WTF, you crazy bitch?” I get when people find out I cycle 20km a day in all weather, and like it, and haven’t been killed yet. It’ll be a way to share the little adventures and moments that often make my daily commute the best part of my day.

So, yeah, that in mind, I crashed today. First time this winter.

I knew better than how I was riding. First mistake: I hopped onto the sidewalk where I spotted ice on a slanted part  (south side of downtown police HQ, for those who know E-town). I know that the proper way to successfully ride up an icy incline is straight on because if you try to ride it at an angle, gravity will have it’s way with you and your bike can go sideways underneath you.

Second mistake: I tried to ride up it at an angle anyways. Predictably, my bike went sideways, out from underneath me. My thigh met the handlebars in a most ungracious manner, and other body parts hit the ground.

I have a huge bruise on my thigh that is so swollen I can see it through two layers of thick tights, as well as some soreness and jarred feelings, but am otherwise OK. I doubt there will be any long term effects except perhaps skipping out on tomorrow’s tobogganing party. The handlebars on my bike were twisted out of alignment, but luckily I had an allan wrench in my purse (doesn’t everyone?) and I quickly fixed them before riding off triumphantly.

My lap is temporarily off limits to the kitties.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t ride their bikes in the winter is fear of falling. Like in other winter sports (skating, tobogganing, skiing), falling is part of the experience of winter cycling, it’ll happen sooner or later. The good news is that it’s not so bad. Snow covered surfaces, unlike summer surfaces, absorb much more of the impact of the fall, like a thin layer of padding on everything. (If I’m crazy then the whole world is my padded room!)  Icy surfaces aren’t likely to give you road rash and transfer some of the bone crushing energy of the impact into sliding action. And you’re probably going to be cycling more slowly, and covered in five layers of clothes from head to toe, which also makes a big difference.

Don’t get me wrong, falling still sucks no matter when it happens. I just don’t think it’s so much of a risk for an otherwise healthy adult that it justifies not riding, and that instead of just being afraid and writing off the potential of winter cycling, people can learn skills that can make it much safer. Walking in the winter can be dangerous too.

Falling is a skill. If you have ever taken a martial arts class that involves throws (such as judo, akido, jujitsu, etc), you may have learned “break falls,” skills that teach you to absorb a fall over a large area of the body rather than concentrating all the force on one body part and injuring it. They also teach you to protect your head, no matter what, at all costs, never let it touch the ground. If you practice falling often enough (start on mats with someone who knows what they’re doing), your body’s instinct to tense up and freeze (which can maximize injury where falling is concerned) will be replaced by a new instinct to do a injury-minimizing break fall. This is extremely useful for any cyclist, and I personally feel it’s saved my ass a few times.

An even more useful skill to have is knowing how to avoid falls in the first place. I always say that the most important piece of safety equipment you have is your brain, because if you are smart and alert, you will behave in a way that avoids and prevents falls and accidents (and if I had better utilized mine today, I wouldn’t be looking at rainbow bruise).

Anyway, the point of this post isn’t to fear monger or play the I’m more macho than you game. The point is that I’m going to get back on my bike tomorrow, ’cause one fall need not be a big deal, and I’m going to learn from this and be a better cyclist for it.