NEW YORK — It is a feeling you only know if you have felt it--the blood drains from your face, your stomach turns and your heart sinks. The $500 bicycle you locked securely to a parking meter has vanished, stolen.
All that is left is the lock you had trusted as invincible, twisted and broken in pieces on the ground. Haplessly you curse the thief, who is already somewhere trading your sleek machine for $50 or perhaps a couple vials of crack cocaine.
New York is one of America's great bicycling cities, its festivals, parks, amusements, cultural and culinary delights all easily reached by pedal power. Some 100,000 New Yorkers pedal to work spring through fall, challenging a teeming crush of buses, trucks, cabs, cars, motorcycles, horse-buggies, jaywalkers and, of course, other bicycles.
But all of those whirling wheels also make New York--Manhattan in particular--the world's bike theft capital.
Just four of Manhattan's 42 ZIP-code areas account for 50% of thefts of bikes secured with Kryptonite locks, the toughest on the market, even though Manhattan represents only 2% of Kryptonite Corp.'s sales. The firm, which guarantees to refund up to $1,000 of the value of bikes stolen while using its locks, says it has paid out "more than $100,000" in claims to Manhattan bicyclists.
Thieves' persistent ingenuity at breaking locks has spawned a series of innovations by Kryptonite and other lock makers. Chains and cables were adequate until thieves began carrying bolt-cutters, so Kryptonite countered in 1972 with the U-lock, a U-shaped, shackled design that was quickly imitated.
Kryptonite founder Michael Zane said many bicyclists who balked at carrying the 2 1/2-pound locks ended up buying them after losing a bicycle to theft. But even the U-lock is not invincible.
Reluctantly, the Boston company stopped guaranteeing its top-selling K-4 and K-5 locks in Manhattan and introduced the "Rock Lock," a modified motorcycle lock that weighs more than 4 pounds. The $45 Rock is guaranteed anywhere, even though Manhattan's thieves have managed to break it.
"We'd definitely be out of business if the whole world was like New York City," Zane said. "This is a very localized problem. Our locks are very effective everywhere else we sell them."
Zane and others say drugs clearly are behind much of the bike-theft explosion in Manhattan.
"These people are in it because they want drugs. They don't know bicycles," Zane said. "When someone steals a $2,000 bicycle one minute and sells it minutes later for $50 or $70, that's not rational."
Transportation Alternatives, a bicycling advocacy group in New York, said its research shows an average of 10 stolen bicycles are exchanged for drugs or cash each day on one block of St. Marks Place in Greenwich Village. The traffickers double or even triple the price they paid and still are able to sell, say, a $500 bike for only $125 at nearby Washington Square Park.
Consumers fuel the problem by snapping up stolen bikes at cut-rate prices. Many restaurants that deliver food are believed to rely heavily on stolen bicycles purchased through a clandestine network beginning at Washington Square Park.
Police say there is little they can do because most thefts are not reported and few theft victims have registered their bicycles or even recorded their serial numbers.
Nowhere is the problem of bicycle theft as serious as in Manhattan, but it has grown nationwide with the 1970s "bike boom" and has surged with the 1980s "fitness boom."
Besides Kryptonite, Citadel and Rhode Gear also sell locks with guarantees, as do the catalogue houses Bike Nashbar at (800) 345-BIKE and Performance Bicycle Shop at (800) PBS-BIKE.
Few thieves are professionals; many are drug users looking for quick cash. Several precautions can help deter an impatient bike thief. No matter where you live, here are some tips to protect yourself.
* Use a lock with a guarantee. Be sure it is properly registered and use it correctly, making sure the frame and one or both wheels are locked.
* Reinforce your U-lock (New York riders slide a plumber's T-joint over the shackle; Kryptonite sells an aluminum cuff).
* Back up your U-lock with a cable lock (thieves are less likely to carry tools to break both types).
* Register bicycles with local police.
* Lock to a parking meter or signpost, making sure the post has a sign at the top (so thieves cannot simply hoist the bike over the top).
* Lock in highly visible, public areas, avoiding alleys or secluded areas where thieves can work unobserved.
* Commuters whose bicycles are unattended for several hours should consider taking then inside or arranging to lock in a parking garage.
* Customize your bicycle (the more unique it appears, the easier it is to identify).
* Photograph your bicycle and keep an inventory of its parts.
* Drop a card with your name on it inside the seat tube so you can still identify the bicycle if the thief has filed off the serial number.
* Report thefts immediately and then keep your eyes open for that one-of-a-kind beauty.