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Gardena man's rescue of fellow bus rider's bike changes his life

DWP worker Chris Bolivar was hailed as a hero after he chased a thief and returned a stranger's bike. But he had no idea his act would put him on a bright new path.

July 11, 2012|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Chris and Rhonda Bolivar, on tandem bike, go cycling with Cindy Bahr and Dan McLaughlin in Hermosa Beach. Bolivar and McLauglin became friends last year after Bolivar chased down a thief who had snatched McLaughlin's $2,500 bike from the rack on the front of a bus.
Chris and Rhonda Bolivar, on tandem bike, go cycling with Cindy Bahr and… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

How do you know when your life will open wide?

Chris Bolivar was having the most ordinary of afternoons.

One weekday a year ago February, he caught his usual bus at 1st and Hope after his shift at the Department of Water and Power headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

Wearing his DWP windbreaker, he settled in near the front, tired and eager to get home to Gardena.

As other passengers piled on, the Commuter Express 448 filled up at its downtown stops en route to the South Bay.

Bolivar gave up his seat to an older woman and stood staring out at the city.

He watched other regulars arrive — the lawyer with the legal pads, the loud cellphone talker.

At 7th and Flower, the bike guy clamped his wheels to the outside rack and, in stretchy pants, helmet and cleated shoes, clip-clopped toward the back.

The bus lurched along, until at a red light, a young man rushed up. In a flash, he yanked the bike off the rack and started to run with it down the street.

The bus driver honked and honked and opened the front door — but the thief kept moving.

So Bolivar, 59, took off in pursuit — out the door, up the sidewalk.

He saw someone near the thief and yelled, "Stop that guy!"

But the person just stared and the thief kept going, now trying to hop on the bike and ride away. When his feet failed to get purchase on the pedals made for bike shoes, the bicycle started wobbling wildly.

Just as Bolivar closed in, hollering, "It's not your bike!" the man gave up, threw down the bike and ran.

Dan McLaughlin, the bike guy, meanwhile, was perched on a step by the rear door of the bus, safely sealed in a BlackBerry bubble.

McLaughlin, a vice president at Good Samaritan Hospital, who had pedaled 25 miles from Rancho Palos Verdes that morning, kept tip-tapping away, answering email.

All at once he registered voices and what sounded like, "Bike! Bike!"

He raced to the front, gaped at the empty rack and saw his prized $2,500, carbon-frame Trek Madone down the sidewalk — in the hands of a stranger.

Then, miraculously, he watched the stranger start wheeling the bike back his way.

Both men were shaking as they met in front of the bus. McLaughlin lifted his bike back onto the rack, intact but for slightly bent handlebars.

The whole bus cheered and clapped as the two stepped back inside.

It felt electric. It felt extraordinary.

::

"It made your hair on your arms stand up," said Janette Brown, who was sitting up front. She wanted Bolivar's bravery beamed out to the world.

Brown had ridden the bus for 16 years, between the USC campus and Rancho Palos Verdes. As the bus continued down the 110 Freeway that day, she searched the DWP website on her BlackBerry.

She knew Bolivar, a bus buddy, as Chris. Last name, she wasn't sure. She knew where he worked, though, from his windbreaker.

Under customer service, she found a generic form for email. For subject, she typed: "DWP HERO."

"Chris Boulevard," she wrote, had just done something amazing. But, then, every day on the bus, he did good.

"Chris, always the gentleman to us older ladies, typically gives up his seat when the bus is crowded," wrote the 60-year-old executive director of the USC Emeriti Center.

McLaughlin followed suit on his own form. Subject: "Bike stolen! Bike recovered!!"

"By the time I got to the door of the bus, this Hero was walking back with my carbon fiber beauty!! (There is a God!!! ;) )" he wrote.

The next morning, Bolivar arrived at work to an unexpected welcome.

The guards at the front door clapped. When he entered the large room where he answers calls as a customer service representative, waves of "Woot Woot!" and "Way to go!" washed over him.

He got emails and high-fives from co-workers he'd never met, including the building's cyclists. He'd had no idea there were so many.

The next day, the story spread to the L.A. cycling world on Ted Rogers' popular blog, "Biking in LA."

McLaughlin, he wrote, planned to treat Bolivar to a "thank you" lunch.

"Maybe we should all thank him, in whatever way we can," Rogers wrote.

Bolivar, in fact, wanted the spotlight pointed elsewhere. "It got to be too much," he said.

Still, something almost forgotten was pried loose for him that day. Creaky wheels began to turn in his head.

::

Once, Bolivar had a bike that brought him great joy. He was 11.

He and his father built it piece by piece in Houston, scouring junkyards for parts.

"It was a big old clunker, with big old thick tires," Bolivar said. But oh, how proud he was.

He called the bike Sky Blue, because it was — and in homage to a fictional crime-fighting aviator on TV at the time.

"I was the Sky King of the streets back then. I kept law and order with all my buddies," Bolivar said. "Me and my bike, we were quite a team."

The secret superhero in Bolivar never disappeared. It's what set him off after McLaughlin's bike, windbreaker flapping like a cape.

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