We got our stolen bike back!

On Wednesday 25th March Elizabeth Gormley’s family bicycle, a distinctive three-person tandem, was stolen from outside her Dublin home. Elizabeth has kindly shared her story with us so that others might learn from - and hopefully avoid - her experience.

We woke up just after 8.00 a.m. on Wednesday morning to a sharp knock at the door. Our neighbour Justin, who keeps an eye on everything, had spotted that our 3-person tandem bike was gone.

We live in Dublin 7, close to the city centre, and we are bike people. We own a car, but our day-to-day journeys are made by bike – to work, to school, and to the shops. Our house, like a lot of houses between the canals, has no front yard and no rear access.

We drag the kids’ bikes through the house out to our tiny backyard but we normally leave the adult bikes outside, locked as securely as we can manage.

The Big Bike, as we call it, normally lives in the backyard because, up until recently, it has been wheeled out only for special trips. It is a beautiful Thorn tandem, handmade in England, which takes one adult and two children. The adult rides up front and controls the brakes and steering. The children each have their own saddle, handlebars and pedals and they are the “stokers” – helping push the bike along with their pedal power. We didn’t buy this bike - we are the third link in a chain of hand-me-downs. The boys it was originally bought for are all grown up, and a second family had already outgrown this bike when it came to us. When we outgrow it, we’ll be passing it on too.

Lately, however, we’ve been using it more. Like all parents, we’ve been looking for ways to occupy and exercise the kids since the schools shut down, and the tandem has given us a brilliant and safe way to do it. On the bike, they are safely distanced from their friends and neighbours, but we can do the rounds, get some air, have some chats, and generally remain part of the community. On it, our four-year-old and seven-year-old can cycle to the Phoenix Park – something that would be unsafe for them to attempt on their own bikes, sadly.

Because getting a two-metre bike through a small house that’s already full of people, furniture and toys is not only difficult, but also somewhat unsanitary, we started locking the Big Bike outside the house. We couldn’t, in good conscience, chain it to a lamppost; if it was knocked over, it would block the whole path. Luckily the Council installed some Sheffield stands on our corner about six months ago, so we left it there, with a decent lock on the frame and another on the front wheel. We planned to buy some stronger ones come payday. We also put our names down for the bike hangar that the Dublin City Council Beta team has promised for the neighbourhood.

That lasted about a week. In the small hours of Wednesday morning, it was nicked.

Once we found out, we did several things as quickly as possible:

  1. We went to the Gardaí. Straight away. Because the day was just getting started, the station wasn’t too busy. At Mountjoy Station the Garda on duty was very helpful and engaged. He took all the details and discussed where it might be found. He agreed that because it was an unusual bike it might well turn up, either for sale or abandoned. We got his card to update him if we got any more information.
  2. We called on our neighbours. We are very lucky to live in a friendly and close-knit community. We knew we had neighbours who have CCTV cameras which might have caught something. They couldn’t have been more helpful. There was useful information on two cameras.
  3. We activated Social Media! We both made separate Facebook and Twitter posts, and Tom did an Instagram post as well. This turned out to be crucial.
  4. We put up posters in the immediate neighbourhood. Not everyone is online. This turned out to be crucial as well.

The social media response was incredible. Neither of us are very online people, but within hours we had hundreds of retweets and shares. By the end of the day, we had thousands. I think there were a few reasons for this.

Firstly, we had a good picture to share – of Tom and the kids on the bike during last Friday’s beautiful sunset. You could see the bike, and the children, but not their faces. That was important because our children’s privacy matters a lot to us. But also I think it helped because, in a way, we could be anybody, trying to mind the kids in this strange time. Everyone is looking for ways to protect and entertain their children. People could project a little, and could identify with us.

Secondly, we kept the messages short, and positive. We didn’t vent any feelings about the thief. We just explained what had happened and asked people to keep an eye out. It was a hopeful message rather than a negative one – which was nicer to share.

Thirdly, everyone is at home at the moment, looking at their phones. They are online. They are looking for distraction, and for a story that might have a happy ending. Our story was that; a stolen bike is a problem that might find a quick solution, unlike the big problem we are all facing.

The response was incredible. My post on Facebook got over a thousand shares – many of them through the community groups of which I was already a member. Our posts were shared and retweeted by friends and neighbours at first, then by lots of ordinary people who were strangers to us and who hoped they might be able to help re-unite us with our bike. Then we were retweeted by journalists from RTÉ, from the Irish Times and from the Sunday Times. Then we were retweeted by the novelist Marian Keyes, who has two hundred thousand followers, and by Ser Davos Seaworth from Game of Thrones - also known as Dublin actor Liam Cunningham – who has half a million.

The responses we got were overwhelmingly polite, positive, helpful and kind. Some people vented about bike thieves. But most of all, people really wanted to help us find the bike – and they did!

The bike hadn’t gone far. A person in the local community saw a Facebook post, saw the poster, and saw the bike in real life. That person contacted us, and made sure the bike was returned. We are very grateful to them.

It all happened in the space of a day. By 6.30 that evening, we had the bike back. The children were delighted, if a bit bewildered by it all. In truth, they were probably most bothered by the fact that we were on our phones for most of the day. As soon as we got the bike back, we wiped it down with antibacterial wipes – can’t be too careful at the moment – and took it out for a spin, all of us a bit giddy. A victory lap.

I feel sorry for the thief. He chose poorly. Our bike was too distinctive for him to offload. I’m pretty sure he has problems the likes of which I would struggle to understand. As long as people are willing to buy stolen bikes, though, more bikes will be stolen.

There’s something very personal about a bike (ask Flann O’Brien), and when your bike is stolen, it hurts. The last time my bike was nicked was in the depths of the recession and I couldn’t afford to replace it for about a year. The bike was nothing special – it was, in fact, a crap bike – but it hurt.

Don’t buy a bike if you can’t be sure it isn’t stolen goods. Don’t take the risk that you’ve been part of someone’s bad day, or week, or month.

The kids were hurt that their bike was gone. But the first question they asked was the first one we asked too: “Can we get it back?” This time, the answer was yes.

If your bike is nicked, it is worth trying to get it back. The thief will be trying to offload it, and you might be able to disrupt that process. Act as quickly as you can. Go to the Gardai and report it in person. Put it up on Facebook, put it up on Twitter. Put up posters. Use pictures. Tell your local bike shops. Check the websites where bikes are sold. Check if your neighbours have CCTV. Stolen bikes are recovered and yours might be too.

The truth is, people want to help. Most people are kind and good. Call on the help that is out there.

Thank you to everyone, online and in real life, who helped us get our bike back.

Elizabeth Gormley, 26th March 2020


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