Sunday, March 8, 2015

And now for some justice...

There are certain things that cyclists just learn to accept as going with the territory.  Foremost among these are that cars will occasionally do stupid things (or worse), that bikes get stolen, and that, when they get stolen, they are almost never seen again.  They're commodities easily stripped down and sold off for whatever nickel a thief can get.  But every now and then, karma is on your side.  For me, yesterday was one of those times.

Last fall, I spent months researching a new ultracycling bike that needed to fit certain unusual requirements, and what I ultimately settled on was a completely custom-specced 2015 Felt AR1 from Tri360.  The 2015 AR1 comes only as a frameset -- that is, you buy the frame separately and choose each additional component to build it up:

The AR1 frameset.
I ordered it in October, but I didn't actually have the bike in-hand until December, because I got virtually the first 2015 AR1 frame to arrive at the warehouse.  Once Tri360 was done assembling it for me, though, it was a thoroughly customized racing machine:

Full side view.
Wind profile with TriRig front brake.
Bontrager base bar and extensions with Zipp clips and pads. 
Selle Anatomica Titanico X saddle.
Custom Wheelbuilder Zipps with Chris King hubs and red nips.
TriRig Omega brake.  
Stages crank-arm power meter.
It was a delightfully fun project in many ways, but it took a lot of thought, and the result was that there simply was no other bike like it.  From the first ride in December, it fit perfectly and was as comfortable as my titanium road bike, which is a heck of a thing.

My first race on it, at 24 Hours of Sebring in February, went amazingly well.  I put together a 475-mile non-drafting effort to break the previous age group record.  That was 34 miles better than I'd managed in 2014 on my Trek Speed Concept with disc wheel, aero helmet, and 18 cm of drop.  In other words, I loved the bike.

In Sebring, rockin' the 808s.
Needless to say, when you have a bike that nice, you don't leave it just anywhere.  I live in a condo building in a nice part of town, and one of the main attractions for me was that my unit came with a secured storage area to which only I had access.  This wasn't a bike cage or anything that would attract attention.  Instead, it was what looked like a utility room on the third floor of the parking garage, inside a residents' gate that requires a clicker to open:

My storage room, in all its glory.
The bottom line is, there was no sign that there was anything of value in that room, and it was hardly an appealing target from what I could tell.  Unfortunately, the residents' gate had been malfunctioning over the last couple of weeks, so it was in "permanently open" mode for the time being, but even so, my storage unit hardly said "come and get me."

On Thursday morning, I'd gone down to the unit to get a couple of bars for my trainer ride.  (I can't keep them in my apartment or I'll put on 100 pounds by the time the snow thaws.)  Everything was copacetic.  I repeated the trip on Saturday morning, only to find that my storage unit was unlocked, which was pretty strange.  It's possible to unlock it in such a way that it stays unlocked, and I've done it in the past, but generally I just keep it on the auto lock setting when I'm going in and out.  I wouldn't have left it unlocked on Thursday.  But there it was.  Weird.

Inside the unit, I quickly noticed that one thing was missing: My new Felt.  Nothing else seemed out of place, and there was plenty else to steal, including a set of new Zipp 404s sitting right next to the bike (which was sporting 808s at the time).  Initially, I wasn't alarmed so much as perplexed: Had I dropped the bike off to be serviced?  I've been known to be a little ditzy, so that seemed possible.  I checked the back of my car, the apartment, and the storage area again, but it was gone, plain and simple.

The feeling of complete sickness took over.  I couldn't afford a replacement.  I hoped homeowner's insurance would help, but who knew.  In any case, it would take a long time to put together -- there were no AR1 frames available.

I filed a police report, providing them with pictures, serial number, and so forth.  They were prompt and courteous, and sent a detective to take pictures and pull footage from the security camera.  That camera, which was facing the gate, had recorded every second of the 48 hours in which the bike had disappeared.  I figured it would have to show something -- that was the only way out -- unless, of course, the bike went up the residents' elevator, which would be arguably more disturbing.  I suppose someone could have driven a car into the residents' area, loaded it up, and left again, but that would have required noting the security camera and generally a level of planning that I thought unlikely.

Knowing how the stolen bike game worked, after I filed the report, the first thing I did was check Craigslist, but there was nothing in the right galaxy.  So, doing whatever else I could think of, I let a couple of bike shops know, called around to the pawn shops, and posted details on Facebook.  I figured the only thing I had going for me was that my bike was about as distinctive as they get.

A couple of hours later -- around noon -- David King and Bo Ngo on FB alerted me to a Craigslist ad for a Felt AR that had just been posted.  I was initially excited, but when I saw the ad, it wasn't quite right:

The ad was for a Felt AR, but the picture was of a 2014 model with different wheels, different bars, and different cranks -- not mine.  

To be clear, the text of the ad highlighted it as almost definitely stolen -- all it said was "Felt AR Model Fully Loaded, Rarely Used, Great racing condition.  Moving, Need to make some space."  He was asking $2800.  Anyone who knows bikes understands that this is not how one would sell a $10k bike, which is what appeared in his ad.  Sadly, although it looked like someone's stolen bike, it wasn't mine.

The next step is what cracked the whole thing, and for that, I'm massively indebted to John Scanaliato, who did some research and found that the photo in the Craigslist ad had been lifted from an article in Peloton Magazine:

In other words, the bike pictured in the ad was NOT the actual bike being sold -- he hadn't posted a picture of the bike in his possession.  That immediately set off warning bells, and closer inspection revealed that the Craigslist ad had been posted from a building only two blocks from mine.  Bingo.  And the seller had provided his cell phone number.

I immediately sent the guy a text message, trying not to set off warning bells.  I said I lived in Capitol Hill -- which I don't -- and asked some Craiglisty questions about why he's selling and whether price was flexible.  But I didn't hear back immediately.

My biggest fear was that he wouldn't respond to the message, or that he'd sell the bike off before I could see it.  Seeing the location where the ad had been posted, I even walked up and down the block, hoping that the bike would be on a balcony or something, but no dice.  I then called the detective's office to give them the guy's cell number, hoping they could execute a warrant in short order.  That was a bit tricky, of course: "Here's an ad for a bike that isn't mine -- that's probable cause, right?" But I was able to convince them that, given the stolen photo, timing, and description of the bike, it had to be mine.

While I was giving them the information, I received two texts back from the guy, who was willing to meet up almost immediately.  Gulp.  I told the police what was going on, and in no uncertain terms, they warned me not to go meeting this guy alone in some remote place when the seller thought I'd be carrying a pile of cash.  I appreciated their concern, and obviously I wasn't stupid, but what I really wanted was police support during the meet-up.  This turned out to be harder than anyone would have wished, as the guys who did plain-clothes stings weren't working at the time, and the police really wanted me to push back the meeting until the next afternoon.  I tried -- "Hey man, I just remembered my girlfriend is dragging me to a party, but I really want the bike, so will you hold it til tomorrow at noon if I pay full price?"  But "his friend" really wanted to sell it immediately, and offered me a substantial discount to do the deal then.  I was really concerned that he'd unload the bike before the next day.

Upon hearing this, frankly, the detectives went above and beyond and pulled the operation together even in their short-staffed state.  Although the Craigslist ad had been posted from near my building, the guy wanted to meet up across town, closer to Union Station.  I sent the guy what surely must be one of the least sincere texts ever: "Haha, f*ck it, ok lets do it.  But can we meet in a public place?  I trust you but sometimes people on Craigslist can be sketchy."  He happily obliged by suggesting we meet in front of a very busy hotel.  The detectives picked me up in an unmarked car, and off we went.

We arrived a few minutes early and drove by a few times, hoping to get a glimpse of the guy with the bike, but no luck.  Things got a little tense when the seller kept asking if I was there yet, and I had to keep putting him off -- we wanted him to show first.  But he didn't.  Eventually I asked the guy what he was wearing -- "Gray hoodie" -- and went to stand right in front of the hotel, dressed like a Logan Circle preppy.   I let him know I was there, and joked that "its cold haha!"

A couple of minutes later, a guy approached wearing a gray hoodie and wheeling my bike in front of him.  There was zero doubt it was mine -- even the tires were still deflated, since my last ride had been at Sebring 3 weeks before.  It was not the bike in the picture, needless to say.  And the guy pushing it did not look like an avid cyclist.  Realizing immediately that the bike was mine, I knew the goal was just to play along, so I did the whole "Wow, that's awesome!" thing, started feeling the bars, asking why the tires were flat, asking how much it had been ridden, etc.  All the while, the guy was keeping a hand on the bike to make sure I didn't grab it and run off with it.  After about 30 seconds of this, out of my peripheral vision, I saw the police descending on the guy, who didn't realize a thing until they were 6 inches away.  Game over, dude.

It all went perfectly, and the bike was 100% fine, aside from the serial numbers, which the guy had tried to file off with partial success.  I will say, there is something unreal about seeing your bike being sold back to you in broad daylight.  Until then, it was all very abstract: my bike is missing, but there was no telling where it might be.  At that moment, everything became quite real.  This was the guy with my bike, trying to sell it to me in the middle of town.  Indeed, even someone who knew nothing about bikes would have been compelled to realize he was buying stolen property in that situation.

This is basically every cyclist's dream.  So often we're simply the victims of life, whether it be careless drivers, thieves, or what-have-you.  When a bike disappears, even the police admit that it is basically gone forever.  We're forced to feel helpless and to hope for the best, when what we really want is to help take the asshole down.  It never happens, but I got to live it, every second.  Justice was served.

On the ride back to the police station, the sergeant and I chatted and he explained that he loved to get out on his Madone a few times a week for 50 miles or so.  In my mind, that explained a lot -- I'm not sure if a non-cyclist would have made it happen the way he did.  I'm immensely grateful.

There's only one real issue to resolve.  In looking over my text messages later that night, I realized I'd missed one, where the guy had offered to sell me a helmet and some other accessories as well.  Sure enough, I went and looked around my storage area, and noticed that a new helmet, Northwave boots, and a couple of other things were gone.  I feel pretty good about my chances of getting them back at this point, but even if I don't, in the grand scheme, I have to count myself lucky.

As grateful as I am to the police, I recognize that this never would have been possible without the great work of the folks on FB and Twitter, not only for pointing me to the ad (which hadn't been posted when I first looked), but even more critically, for identifying the picture in the ad as a stock image.  Without that help, the bike would be gone, and the perp would be free.  On the whole, a great day for justice, and the DC bike community made it happen through quick and clever work.

One mystery remains: I don't know how the bike got out of my storage unit in the first place, or how it then got out of the building.  I am 90% certain that the guy who tried to sell me the bike is not the one who took it.  So, I am still pretty disconcerted.  But those are questions for another day.  In the meantime, it's sunny and warm, and I'm heading out for a ride.