Stolen Bicycles For Sale

Stolen Bicycles For Sale

Life is like a bicycle. Both go round and round. Both get cold, wet and miserable in winter. Both require resilience. And both can, as my bike has, crack under pressure.

A technician spotted an almost imperceptible hairline fracture in the frame during a recent service. It was only a matter of time before a spectacular collapse.

I’m hoping that the cracks and creaks in my recent BUPA health check aren’t similarly indicative of a general road unworthiness and imminent collapse.

With my bike grounded until a replacement frame arrives, my meandering has come to a shuddering halt. Reflective thought on an overcrowded cattle truck at Clapham Junction is impossible.

Thinking about bicycles in need of care, though, takes me back over thirty years. At the start of my second undergraduate year, I needed a bicycle. One of my friends told me that in Cambridge it was possible to buy unclaimed bikes on the cheap from the police. Wondering if they might do the same in Oxford, I paid a visit to the local constabulary. They told me that they sold all the unclaimed bikes every six weeks in one or two lots through a sealed bid auction. I asked them how many bikes were in a lot. They said anywhere between twenty and forty.

I thought there must be a similar number of students in Oxford who would be interested in buying a dirt-cheap bike. I spoke to my friend Pete and persuaded him to join me in a joint venture to try and buy thirty or forty bicycles. Pete had a car and so didn’t need a bike, but he saw an opportunity.

We arrived at Oxford Police Station on the day of the auction and were surprised to see how many other people were there. Not only did we have competition, but we had serious competition. We were up against bicycle dealers, some of whom had come from as far as London. While the dealers inspected each bike in great detail, sizing them up in much the same way that a livestock merchant might prod a cow at a cattle market, we simply counted how many bicycles there were in each lot. This was easier said than done because they were in varying states of repair. The reason the police sold them in lots was that a good proportion of them would be unsellable otherwise and only suitable for parts.

While the professional dealers were going about their measuring and their weighing, Pete and I had a philosophical discussion about when is a bike not a bike. We concluded that in amongst the rusted frames dredged from the River Cherwell, the broken chains, bent wheels and one or two gems that made up one lot, there were approximately thirty bicycles. We undertook a sophisticated assessment, as might be expected from a couple of Business Studies students, and valued each bike at £10. We then added £5 to ensure that we outbid anyone else who had used the same calculus.
It is worth pointing out that my student grant in 1982 was £410, so £305, even between the two of us, represented a significant outlay.

What, up to that point, seemed like nothing more than a little bit of fun took a surprising turn when the police called the next day to let us know that one of our two bids had been successful. (Thank God, we missed out on the second lot.) The police asked us to collect the bikes the next morning. The start of a brave new business venture seemed a good enough reason to skip our Economics lecture. Better to do business than study it, we figured.

After taking our money, the policeman asked us where our van was. We said we didn’t have a van. We had Pete’s Volkswagen Beetle. He said he meant where was our van to transport the bikes. We told him we planned to transport them in Pete’s Volkswagen Beetle.

The copper looked at us, a couple of twenty-year-old students, and had a sense of humour failure. He told us to stop fucking him around. We told him we weren’t fucking him around.

It took seven hours of cramming bits of bike inside the Beetle and strapping whole bicycles on the outside, Pete driving two miles across Oxford, unloading them in our student house (which fortunately had a garage) and then returning for the next load. Looking back, I’m amazed the police let us out on the road. Unrecognisable as a Beetle, it looked as if a pile of bicycles were independently moving down Oxford High Street. I guess their desperation to be rid of the bikes (and us) overrode any instinct they may have had to enforce the Highway Code and basic road safety.

A few days later, I was fly-posting the Oxford colleges with a simple message ‘Stolen bicycles for sale’. Basic art direction: Black marker pen handwritten on A4 paper. With the benefit of hindsight and a few years experience in the advertising industry, I might have positioned our product slightly differently. At the time, it seemed funny. Now I can see that presenting our bicycles as stolen might not be the most attractive proposition. Nevertheless, in terms of return on advertising investment, it has been one of my most successful campaigns. It resulted in a single enquiry, which we converted into a £40 sale. The posters cost me 13p to photocopy, giving a return on investment of 284%. Some years later, I met someone from Oxford University who remembered the posters. The advertising industry measure ‘day after recall’. This was ‘years after recall.’

Our very first customer came not from our advertising, but word of mouth. He had the pick of the bunch and got a decent bike for £30. We suggested he might also like a bicycle basket for his new bike. Only £4. It was unfortunate that he stopped at the local bike shop on his way home and saw that he could have bought the same basket for £1.50. We managed to overcome the temporary loss of customer confidence and, even though I say so myself, provided spectacular after-sales customer care. Not only did our first customer get a good bike, but I subsequently introduced him to his wife, his current job, gave him a godson and performed godfatherly duties to his eldest son. Call me old-fashioned, but you don’t get this level of service from the bike shops of today.

Looking at the current explosion of bike shops, I sometimes wonder what might have happened had we stuck with it.

November 2014

Red Light

Red Light

I wait. Patiently.

The road is empty. The pavement deserted. The pedestrian who pressed the button has disappeared. I wonder what possessed him or her to change the lights when there was no traffic on the road. Irritating fucker. Maybe it was a reflex action without thought or consideration. Only after pressing and seeing the sign saying ‘please wait’ did they realise they didn’t have to. Off they trotted. A few moments later I arrive to face the consequences of their action.

The hill on Plough Road offers a great start to my commute. It enables me to build up an early head of steam and a momentum that can carry me through the first couple of miles of my journey. A good start like that generally means the ride in is a real joy. I fly to work and am nicely set up for the day ahead.

The pedestrian crossing is right at the bottom of that hill on Plough Road. I seethe as I wait. A good day has just become not so good. Not only did it take some effort to stop, but it’s going to be hard work starting up again. It might as well have started to rain.

I wonder if the person who did this to me has any idea of what they have done. I look around to see if someone is hiding around the corner, chuckling to themselves at how they brought that cyclist to a shuddering halt for no good reason. I can’t see anyone. Maybe this is the work of a malevolent town planner who has programmed the lights on deserted crossings to automatically turn red whenever a cyclist appears.

I continue to wait. I must be in a Guinness ad. Tick, tock.

I had tried to do that cool cyclist thing of balancing on my stationary bike without putting my feet on the ground. Only as I began to topple did it occur to me that I had failed to factor in that I am a portly middle-aged man susceptible to the pull of gravity. Falling off your bike is not cool. Thankfully there were no witnesses.

The reason there are no witnesses is that it is 6:05 am. The reason I am waiting at a pedestrian-less pedestrian crossing on Plough Road at 6:05 am is that my wife, bless her cotton socks, set her alarm for 5:45 am. I have no idea why she gets up so early, but because she does, so do I. I am programmed to get up immediately when the alarm goes off, and, as I now shower at work, I am out of bed and on my bike before I know what has happened. Only when waiting at the Plough Road pedestrian crossing does it occur to me that I am very tired and it is very early.

The light is still red.

Time to confess. I have employed a touch of artistic license in this blog. I do stop at 99% of red lights (well, maybe 97%). However if you, dear reader, seriously think I would wait patiently at a pedestrian crossing on a deserted road at 6:05 am you must have me down as one of those law-abiding public school twats that I have spent my whole life pretending I’m not.

There are 24 potential red lights between Elsynge Rd SW18 and Valentine Place SE1. One every 335 metres. For a high-performance cyclist like myself who can take some time to build up a head of steam that’s a problem. Often I’ve only just got going when I have to stop.

Stopping at lights evokes a strange combination of self-righteousness and self-consciousness. Self-righteousness because it proves I am a good person. I’m not one of those idiots who jumps lights. I imagine that I must be receiving admiring looks from those inside the car stopped beside me, who have been obliged to reappraise their previously poor perception of cyclists.

Self-consciousness because I must look like a law-abiding public school twat. Standing obediently in front of a light that has changed colour simply because it has been programmed to do so every few minutes when there’s no-one crossing, or about to cross, the road and while other cyclists casually breeze past makes me feel a real plonker. I wouldn’t feel this way if I was behind the wheel of a car because 1) it is deeply ingrained that under no circumstance does a car jump a red light and 2) I might get nicked. But for some reason, it’s not quite so clearcut when on a bike. If pedestrians can exercise their discretion and ignore red lights at their own crossings, then surely a cyclist (evolutionarily much closer to a pedestrian than a car) can in certain circumstances do the same. I know this way of thinking is wrong and makes me a bad person, but this is why I have been known on occasion to dismount and pretend I’m a pedestrian. It also explains why 3% of the time, I ignore the light.

The one light in particular I disobey is the only one of the twenty-four for cyclists. Its red illuminated shape is even that of a bicycle. This light is the coup de grace of the town planner who hates cyclists. You have to admire his guile. His brilliant concept is ‘Give them their very own light to make them feel important and to make us appear cyclist-friendly, but then fuck with the timing to really mess with them.’ Even our two cycling knights, Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins would struggle to get to the other side in the nano-second that the light is green. You could put a gold medal on the other side and tell them both that the winner can claim it providing they got to it before the light turned back red and be confident that neither would come anywhere close. To have any chance of making it even halfway across this bicycle crossing you have to be primed to accelerate from a standing start at the kind of speed even eludes Lewis Hamilton.

Then, and this is where the town planner has excelled himself, next to the cyclist crossing is a pedestrian crossing. The pedestrian crossing is programmed to give sufficient time not only for a little old lady to cross, but also to host an impromptu tea party with her friends in the middle of the road. She would even have time to call them over from their home a few miles away, wait patiently in the middle of the road for them to arrive and then have a good old natter with them over tea and biscuits before the pedestrian light turned red.

There is no logical reason why the bicycle crossing and the pedestrian crossing shouldn’t be on the same timing as they are parallel to each other. The only conceivable explanation is that the town planner is fucking with the cyclist’s head.

And then, once the old lady has packed up her tea set and long since departed, it is the turn of the traffic. When I was younger, we had a good family game (well it seemed good to my simple eight-year-old mind, but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it might be somewhat limited) of counting Minis on long car journeys. A six-hour drive to Penzance once produced fifty sightings (a trip that also included long intervals when I was necessarily distracted from the game to fight and argue with my younger siblings). I’m pretty sure I could smash this record of fifty Mini sightings if I played the game while waiting for the lights to change at this crossing.

It’s enough to make me see red.

July 2014