Bicycles & Piracy

I am scribbling about bicycles, because I like them, and about piracy, as Freerange claims to be very interested in pirates, but has very little visible piratical content.

But let me preface this with a disclaimer:

I despise people who steal bicycles. I think that there is a special circle of hell reserved for bicycle thieves and the abusers of animals and children. In saying this I am walking a fine line, because like most forms of piracy, bicycle piracy is not as black and white as I’d like it to be.

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I love bicycles, and I dislike waste. These fit together nicely, as bicycles are some of the least wasteful objects humans have ever managed to produce.

And bicycles make you greater than yourself. Slip onto a well-made bicycle, clip your shoes into the pedals and let your hands rest lightly on the bars and it feels like strapping on a pair of wings. You become something new.

Astride a well made bike you become strong. You can swoop across jammed cities, silent as an owl. A good bicycle is a perfect piece of hand-tooled minimalism with the merest hint of wheels, but which allows you to slice through the frigid morning, and nothing, not snow, nor gridlock nor petrol prices can stop you. Although snow can just make you want to stay in, drink wine, and bake instead.

Whenever I’m without a bicycle I feel like some crippled city pigeon that’s reduced to hobbling about instead of soaring. Every bicycle is a gift of wings. Which means that every abandoned and abused bicycle is a wasted gift.

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Most cities have these wasted bicycles, chained and rusting against lamp-posts, fire escapes and bike-racks, and not just left there for a day or two while the owner’s away, but abandoned the way that many horrible people abandon kittens when they grow into cats. Maybe the owner left town or forgot the combination to their lock. Maybe a tire went flat or a wheel got bent and the owner couldn’t be bothered fixing it, the result is the same. The bike sits in the weather for a few seasons, often being stripped of it’s more easily removed parts by whatever scavenging creatures come along and strip abandoned bicycles in the middle of the night, and then it just becomes a corpse, a rusting thing, like a skeleton still chained to a wall.

It’s a myth that bicycles can live outside. They can get wet, but they shouldn’t stay wet. After a bicycle has been left in the rain for a winter all it’s delicate component parts will be just a rusted solid mass, no matter how expensive and well-maintained they were to begin with.

But if you get in quick, before the rust and the (other) scavengers, this fate can be avoided.

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In 2010 I lived in San Sebastian for a time. It’s a beautiful city in Spain near the French border. It’s perfect for cycling, impossible to drive in, and has a huge seasonal population who come to work the summer and then leave as the jobs dry up and the rains come back and the city closes for winter.

This seasonal population get about by bicycle as the city has a web of idyllic bike lanes, and then they often abandon their bikes when they leave town for winter.

I was living in San Sebastian with an equally bike-obsessed friend, Peter, and I was about to be joined by another friend, Jenna, who was going to ride west with me from San Sebastian. Jenna didn’t travel with a bike forever in her luggage like Peter and I did, and Spanish Ebay wasn’t being helpful at providing a bike for her either, but we kept seeing beautiful mixte frames locked and rusting on the streets, begging to be ridden.

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It’s easy to tell an abandoned bicycle. First, both tires must be completely flat. One tire may have gone flat anyway, leading to it’s abandonment, but the other will take at least six weeks to deflate completely. If both tires are totally flat it generally means the bike hasn’t been ridden for at least a month. Secondly, the chain should be rusted and seized, so that even if you pumped the tires up the bike would still be unrideable without some serious mechanical attention. Thirdly, the bike should have at least one missing or broken component. Maybe the front wheel is twisted into a pretzel, or the seat and seatpost are missing. If a bicycle ticks all three of these boxes, you can bet no-one’s sitting up at night worrying about it.

Strangely, it’s not just the Walmart-grade clunkers that get abandoned. There are plenty of unloved thoroughbreds rusting their last days away along the streets we all live on. I presume this happens because as bicycles become third and fourth hand they pass often into the ownership of people who have no idea of what they’re owning. Plus there is a strange period before a thing becomes ‘classic” when it’s just seen as “old”.

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In San Sebastian the city council even identified abandoned bicycles for us by orange-stickering them. The orange stickers are dated, and state that if the bikes aren’t removed in two months the council will cut them loose and dump them. Sometimes these bikes cluster three or four deep round lamp-posts, forming rusty coral reefs that are large enough to block pedestrian traffic, hence the council’s insistence on removing them.

So by removing them ourselves we would be performing a public service.

No one bicycle that was definitely abandoned was in good enough condition to become a reliable touring bike for Jenna. So we began looking for bikes that had useful parts. And in our looking we started to see some gems amongst the chaff. Here a 1970’s Frejus with no front wheel or saddle. There an original ALAN in bright blue, it’s delicious Italian components so rusted that examining them made my tummy hurt.

What is a good citizen to do?

Liberate them as well, of course.

Not steal them. Liberate them

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Peter and I arose at three am with a hacksaw and our maps and went bike-picking. By six am the hallway of our apartment had five new bicycles. Three of them we mangled into a touring bike for Jenna. Peter and I fooled about with the other two until they were functional again and then rode them round San Sebastian on sunny days. Jenna’s bike lasted two thousand kilometers, starting the trip as a ten speed and ending as a four speed. which she later sold for twenty five euros before jumping on a train to Sweden.

I kept the ALAN. I managed to pack it in with my other bicycle on my way to London, and sold it there to a man in Brick Lane Cycles for enough so that it nearly paid for my flight back to New Zealand.

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I’m uncertain what i’m trying to say here. I would never advocate stealing a bicycle. Having a loved bicycle stolen is crippling and horrible. I’m tiny, and a confirmed pacifist, but I once chased a huge man away from a girlfriend’s stolen bicycle using only a carbon-fibre tennis raquet, which in a fight is about as useful as a toilet roll. That’s the sort of outrage that bicycle theft provokes in me.

But letting a beautiful piece of craftsmanship decay and rust out of sheer negligence provokes outrage in me as well. It’s a crime of omission, like that of wasting food, or of not separating your recycling,

So I think perhaps a little bit of educated bicycle piracy, of taking the law into your own hands in an informed way doesn’t hurt either. I suppose I’ve rescued maybe a half-dozen bikes off the streets now. I tend to give them away afterwards, which is nicely moral and robin-hoodish, but I guess what I’m saying is “Take care of your bicycles. Or they may be taken care of for you”

Marcus McShane.