The first bike that Michael O’Clair brought to college was his father’s. It was an antique, at least 30 years old. O’Clair had a lock. He took every precaution to secure his only mode of transportation. He clipped the two plastic ends together and fumbled with the rotating numbers every time he went inside, regardless of if it was for 20 minutes or eight hours.
On a day like any other, O’Clair got out of class, rode to his dorm, locked the bike and went inside. When he came out 20 minutes later, he was surprised at what he found.
“I came back out and the bike was just completely gone. The lock was gone and everything with that. I was 100% sure I locked that bike,” O’Clair said.
Bike thefts like O’Clair’s are an all-too-common occurrence at the University of Maine. What’s unique about his story is that it wasn’t just that first bike that was stolen. It was the next two as well.
“I came back early for winter training for track. It was the beginning of the year — early January,” O’Clair said. “I figured that was my own doing because I didn’t lock that bike up because I was the only person in my entire dorm.”
When Michael left his dorm — just like the last time — where he should have found his bike, he only found a patchwork of snowy footsteps. He admitted that it was likely because he hadn’t locked the bike that it was able to be stolen so easily, so he got a new lock and a new bike.
O’Clair’s third attempt to keep a bike on campus was short lived as well.
“I went into the Field House to do a little bit of studying,” he said. “Still had it locked up. And when I came back, this time I found that my lock was broken, and the lock was still there. But the bike wasn’t there at all.”
O’Clair’s last experience is an increasingly common one for students at UMaine. According to statistics from the University of Maine Police Department (UMPD), since the beginning of the fall semester there have been 15 reported bike thefts. Only four bikes have been recovered.
UMPD noted that bike theft is no new issue, but this fall semester has seen a particular surge in the number of incidents in which the lock was broken. This now tends to occur more often than not. Since the beginning of the semester, eight complaintents reported a broken lock compared to six in which the stolen bike was not locked.
In some cases, the thieves take the lock, and in others they leave it. On Sept. 16, UMPD responded to a call from DTAV/Patch that someone had found three broken bike locks on a bike rack outside the apartments. When O’Clair’s first bike was stolen, the thieves took the lock and all.
Spencer Ward is a third-year computer science student and has a similar story.
“I never saw any sign of even just my lock. I never saw that lock again,” Ward said of the theft of his bike from a bicycle rack near Penobscot Hall last year. It was a relatively-common type of lock: plastic cord surrounding a core of metal wire.
“If you had the right tools you could definitely cut it,” he said. “It wasn’t like one of those ones with the thin wires that you could probably cut with pliers.”
After discovering that his bike was missing, Ward’s first inclination was to search for the bike himself, then alert UMPD. However, contacting the police proved unhelpful.
“I checked every bike rack I could find. No sign of it,” Ward said. “I went to UMPD. I reported it stolen. I gave them a pretty clear description, showed them a picture of the bike, and they told me they would get in touch with me if they ever found it. I never heard anything back.”
Ward noted that he could have done more to secure his bike. Penobscot Hall is one of the dorms on campus that offers indoor bike storage options, but he noted that the door locked at 9 p.m. every night, usually well before he arrived home.
The Residence Hall Association (RHA) recommends that students’ first measure to secure their bikes should be to “buy a good quality bike lock that is easy to deploy.” After that, “it is strongly suggested for those who live on campus to lock their bikes in the bike storage room, if possible,” said Brandon Richards, president of RHA.
“These rooms are open to anyone in the building, so they should still make sure to lock their bikes. There is a new building access policy in effect this year, and it is that only the residents of such halls can get into their hall. This further reduces the amount of people that have access to the bike rooms,” Richards said.
Jim Rose, owner of Orono’s local bike shop Rose Bicycle, goes a step further and says people should always bring their bikes inside for the night if possible. Rose said that most bike thefts are “a theft of opportunity, somebody faced with a long walk home late at night, maybe too many drinks [in their system], so not the best state of mind.” Still, he acknowledged that extra precautions should be taken in light of the recent spate of cut bike locks.
Rose said that if your bike is stolen, you should call your local bike shop, in addition to contacting the police. Students at UMaine also have the option to register a bike with UMPD, who will then provide a metallic identification sticker. If the stolen bike is recovered, officials would be able to match the sticker to the owner and return it.
However, there is a big “if” in that situation: the bike needs to be recovered.
Recent incident reports from UMPD exhibit common characteristics: the bike was left unattended on a bicycle rack overnight — near a dorm or apartment on campus — sometime during the night the lock was cut with what appears to be bolt cutters and the bike is usually not recovered. Whether the bikes are being sold or put to some other use is not known.
The thieves could be reselling the bikes, but Rose stated that its extremely uncommon for people to try to sell a stolen bike to his shop.
“We do not buy bikes but do take trade-ins on a new bike purchase,” Rose said. “When a new bike is sold we take the purchaser’s contact information. [One time] a traded-in bike turned out to be stolen which we discovered when a customer recognized their bike in our shop. We contacted the police, they used the contact information to recover our bike and we gave the traded-in bike to it’s rightful owner.”
Rose’s story is uncommon — most people don’t recover their bikes, even after alerting UMPD to the theft. In nearly every case, proactive measures to secure the bike like locking it up, taking it to the dorm storage rooms and investing in a more substantial lock, have proved more effective than contacting police and attempting to recover the bike after the fact.
For Ward and O’Clair, they have accepted that they will probably never see their bikes again.
Ward is now riding a new bike to commute between home in Orono and campus, and he hasn’t run into any issues yet. And O’Clair has accepted that, until this problem with bike theft at UMaine is fixed, he might have better luck with a different kind of vehicle.
“I got rid of the bike. I actually saved up and got a car. So hopefully no one steals that,” O’Clair said.