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Bicycle Thieves

Bike-stealing seems to have reached epidemic proportions

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Melissa Bigner wasn't hardheaded, she just thought she understood the underground market for bicycles. After getting her "fancy" bike stolen, Melissa replaced it with a "cheapo replacement." She spraypainted it and secured the bike with a similarly cheapo lock on her front porch.

"I thought it would be absolutely unattractive to anybody," she says. Of course, the bike was stolen. Melissa doesn't expect to see it again, but every time she comes across a similar bike with a crummy paint job (because she's convinced that it's been repainted), she takes a long, hard look.

But it's hard to say where the bike has landed. Local police report some bikes are found. Some victims catch sight of their bike on the street. And others get calls that their bike has been found in Miami after a gang bust or abandoned in Ohio.

With a laugh that suggests she's mostly joking — mostly — Melissa says the only good thing about the experience was that she was planning to visit the bike shop in a few days to fix the chain because it kept popping off. "If they were trying to make a quick getaway, I'm looking for the guy with his two front teeth missing," she says.

Thomas Matthews didn't underestimate the value of his bike — or, more precisely, the value of his roommate's brand new bike — he overestimated the Batcave aspects of his parking spot. The bike had a lock on it, but Thomas figured it was in a safe spot, so he didn't use it.

"It's a pretty secluded driveway with a motion sensor light, so I didn't think it was going to get lifted," he says of his girlfriend's digs. To be fair, his apartment isn't much safer. Thomas had his bike stolen from a rack just inside his building. That, too, was left unchained because someone would need to be buzzed in to get to it, but bike thieves have little concern with barriers. The second time has done the trick. "If you don't lock your bike up, it's gone," Thomas says.

When we called Sgt. Larry Walton with the College of Charleston campus police, he said, "We've had nine this year … wait, 10, we just had one reported stolen last night." Five of those bikes have been stolen in the last month, but Walton says it's typical for a spike at the start of the school year when students are unfamiliar with the threat.

Most campus bike racks are under camera surveillance, helping police catch many thieves in the act or soon after. Those students who get their bike stolen typically secure them to a tree or fence that isn't monitored by police, Walton says, or they use a shoddy lock.

When it comes to locks, it's important to spend the extra money on quality, says Steve Murz, sales manager at The Bicycle Shoppe on Meeting Street. He says Charleston has the worst theft rate he's seen ­— and he came here from Detroit. Steve recommends what he calls "the downtown special," a pricey U-lock with a cable to tie up both tires and the frame. It's the top of the line, but it's a hefty mother.

"If you want something that's going to take longer than 10 minutes to get through, you'll have to lug it around," Steve says.

Most often, it's not the bike, but the wheels and the seats that are stolen. "They don't even know what they're taking," Steve says. "They're just jacking it to jack it."

Just like everyone else with two pedals and some energy in this town, Steve has his own stories about bicycle thefts. He was riding down the street one day when he saw a bike he'd put together for a friend, only it wasn't his buddy riding it.

"What's your name?" Steve asked.

"Rodney."

"Rodney, that's not your bike."

Rodney fled, but Steve and a friend tracked the bike down to a nearby liquor store and Rodney reluctantly gave the bike up.

He also found his girlfriend's stolen bike on the West Ashley Greenway. The guy riding it claimed that his uncle's friend's cousin's sister (or something like that) had let him borrow the bike, but he gave it to Steve anyway.

Steve suggests owners register their bike with the city (a $1 fee that is priceless if the police or Steve find your bike), and secure it in a highly-visible place.

"It's all timing," he says. "You can get through any lock. It's just how long it will take."

While you're at it, you best get a better lock for your porch, too. Jack Brooks had his bikes on his screened-in porch before someone cut a hole in the screen and unhooked the latch to pilfer his Trek Fuel 70, which Jack calls "my beloved full-suspension bike that I can't even afford to replace," and his Earthcruiser, a relic from his days on Folly Beach that Jack refers to as "an old piece of junk about to break in half that (the thief) could have had if he'd asked for it." The crook missed two folding bicycles that were apparently too high-tech for his taste.

"He moved them out of the way to get to the Earthcrusier," Jack says. After scouring local bike racks, pawn shops, and eBay, Brooks has padlocked his porch, put up a privacy fence, and now keeps his replacement bike inside the house.

That's where John Stanley usually keeps his bike, but he put it out on his back porch while he did some house cleaning.

"I thought, 'Oh, gosh, I shouldn't leave it here,'" he says. "And then I got distracted."

And, like that, his $900 bike was gone.

A rough-looking guy rode down his street not too long ago on a nice bike and stopped to ask him, "Hey, you want to buy a bicycle?"

"Obviously, he'd just stolen it," John says.

He's holding off on replacing his bike in hopes that it'll show up — or maybe someone will try to sell it back to him.

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