On Wednesday, March 27th, my loaded touring bike and backpack were stolen from a train station in Athens while I slept on a bench only inches away. The hours that followed were filled with a series of emotions that came in extremes: agitation, dismay, frustration, regret, hope, relief and gratitude, to name a few. And love… heaps of it. Good friends and family are indispensable at times like this. And once I’d been comforted with enough support and words of encouragement to fuel an athlete through a dozen marathons, I felt ready for the next task at hand: I needed to find a new ride.
When I told Sunny (from Santorini) what had happened, she was quick to refer me to a bike shop in central Athens where a good friend of hers, Peio, worked. The folks at Vicious Cycles Athens (VCA) specialize in custom bikes, often refurbishing old frames and creating very stylish, one-of-a-kind urban bikes. She thought they might be able the help me build a touring bike for a decent price, so she called ahead to let them know I was coming… and away I went.
Moments after I arrived at the shop, the focus of our conversation quickly shifted from what little they could do to help me build the kind of bike I needed, to a much more exciting discourse on what I could do to try to locate the bike that I’d lost. These guys were, after all, in the cycling business; they knew a thing or two about bike theft in Athens. A number of their friends and customers had had bikes stolen along the way, and the boys at VCA had a few stories to tell about stolen bikes that had been recovered. In one case, Peio had seen someone riding a stolen bike just outside his shop, only days after it’d been taken from one of his buddies. Without a moment’s hesitation, he ran out and tackled the rider, who quickly scrambled to his feet and ran away. By the end of my visit, inspired by the good fortune of others, I was fired up and raring to go. If there was anything I could do to find my beautiful Surly, I would certainly try it.
The first thing I had to do was return to Piraeus Port in the south of Athens, where my bike had been stolen the day before, and spend some time walking around in the network of narrow streets that lay behind the port to see if I could spot anyone wandering around with a bike. This is how a lot of them do it; they walk around with a bicycle, naming an almost inaudible price to anyone who passes near and makes eye contact or shows a hint of interest in the bike. I was told I should also poke my head in some of the shops, and look to see if any people were lingering in alleys with a bike or two leaned up against the wall. Sound a bit sketchy? It did to me too. So I got on the phone and called my friend Orestis, one of my previous couchsurfing hosts, to see if he could come along with me on my mission.
About an hour later, Orestis and I were in Piraeus, looking around the neighbourhood while simultaneously looking for a legitimate bike shop; we wanted to get the scoop from the locals on how things were done in the black market in their area. After getting similar advice in two separate shops, we were pretty sure I wouldn’t find my Surly here; bikes that were stolen in Piraeus were routinely brought to central Athens to be unloaded, and vice versa. It was a small precaution taken by the thieves, who knew their victims would most likely be looking for their bikes in the areas where they’d been taken. It was getting late though; my search would have to be continued the next day.
After a fretful night of imagining different scenarios and trying to put myself in a bike thief’s shoes, I headed to Monastiraki metro station to meet Peio, who had agreed to take me for a walkabout in nearby Omonia, the ghetto in central Athens where I was most likely to spot my bike. As we walked past a pair of junkies squatting in a needle-littered alley, then past the watchful eyes of groups of young Albanian men in one narrow street after another, I was glad I had someone doing this with me. This was the side of Athens most tourists never see; it was no place for a young, blonde, Canadian woman to wander around alone.
About an hour later, we had to put our search on hold; Peio needed to get back to the shop to open for business. We hadn’t seen much, only a few empty bike locks hanging off of gates and fences along the side of the road. There were a few police officers in the area now; if there was anyone who had a stolen bike to unload, he certainly wouldn’t be out with it now. But I was on the right track. Peio had taken me through the entire area, and now I knew where I needed to keep looking. I had no illusions, though. Finding someone to come with me for future excursions in the ghetto would be a challenge; people had better things to do with their time than to wander around for hours looking for an acquaintance’s stolen bike.
I gave myself until the end of Sunday to actively search for my bike. Sunday was market day in Thissio, a short walk away from Omonia and, in the other direction, the Acropolis. I was told that vendors came as early as 4am to set up their wares, and that by 7 or 8 am, all the good stuff was usually gone, (even though the market went on into early afternoon). So I devised a plan for my last day on the hunt: I’d go out with Sunny and friends on Saturday night and enjoy myself until 4 am rolled around, at which point I’d go to Thissio, watch as the market came alive, and hopefully have first dibs on the selection of bikes.
Luckily, when it was time to head down to the market, a few of my fellow party-goers offered to come with me. When we arrived, a few vendors were already laying out their goods on blankets in the square, and others were unloading their merchandise from the back of old lorries. But the market was far from being in full swing, and ‘the bike guys’ had yet to arrive. And so began the waiting game.
To speed things up, Mickey, one of my sidekicks, went straight to one of the antiques vendors to ask a few questions, while the rest of us sat at a distance, lying low. When he reported back, it was to say that it was too early for bike shopping. There were too many cops lurking about, still on duty from the Saturday night shift; it would be foolish for anyone to roll out a bunch of stolen bikes at this time. I was told I should come back around 9.
So I parted ways with my allies; they went off to buy another beer, and I went back to the flat where I was staying to get a bit of much-needed sleep. Less than four hours later, I was back at the market, squinting in the bright morning sun with puffy and over-tired eyes. I was disappointed when I went to the area where all the bikes were apparently displayed week after week. No one was there.
Not to waste my last good opportunity to find my bike, I took matters into my own hands. After walking around the area a few times, I approached a young man who had been sitting alone on a bench with an attractive mountain bike leaning against a wall nearby, close enough that it could be his, but far enough that he could easily deny it being his property. Now I saw that he’d been joined by a second man who also had a bike with him; these were the guys I needed to be talking to.
I approached them, directly but calmly, and told them I wanted to buy a bike. They looked at me, communicated that they didn’t speak any English, and shook their heads. I pressed on. “I want to buy cheap bike. You have, yes?” They looked at each other, exchanged a few words, and once again shook their heads. “Don’t have.” I stayed put and just stood there, looking at one of them, then the other. To fill the silence, using what little English they knew, they asked where I was from. “Canada.” (I smile, they repeat ‘Canada!’ and nod.) Pointing my chin at one of their bikes, I add: “I really want to buy a bike.” (Giving them a knowing smile) “You have, right?” They exchange a few more words, and finally, the taller of the two stands up, and offers to sell me his bike. I shake my head. “Not this one.” There’s only one bike I want to buy.
A few minutes later, I was walking with this man to his house so he could show me some bikes he was storing there. (This sounded about right; the boys at VCA had told me of similar situations where they’d been led to a cache of stolen bikes on someone’s balcony or in a spare bedroom.) He had a non-threatening disposition and a friendly personality; I resolved to follow him as long as I felt comfortable doing so.
The more time I spent with him, the better his English got. He was from Morocco, living here with his family, had no girlfriend, etc. But the further we got from Thissio, the more unsettled I felt. His house, which he’d claimed was “close to here” when we started walking, was still, after 20 minutes, “just over there.” After 30 minutes I expressed my frustration and told him I was turning back; I had better things to do than to walk around town to look at a couple of bikes (which were almost certainly not mine), when who knows what was happening back at the market. He insisted that it was now “just around the corner.” Not wanting this walkabout to have been a complete waste of time, I decided to stick it out, if nothing else, to stay on his good side. Finally, after 40 minutes of walking, we’d arrived at his apartment block. Feigning nonchalance, I was hyper-aware of my surroundings and completely on guard. He beckoned me to come in, and well-aware that my dad (among others) would strongly disapprove of this if he knew… I went in.
My instincts had been right. What I walked into was not a drug den or even a bachelor’s pad. It was clearly a family home, tidy and filled with old but well-kept furniture and rugs, with family photos hanging on the walls. The Moroccan showed me the bikes, and minutes later I was on the subway, empty-handed but safe, on my way back to Thissio a good five metro stops away. No hard feelings.
I spoke to a few more people at the market, showing them pictures of my bike, and assuring them that whoever helped me recover it would be duly rewarded. They took my phone number and assured me they would call if my bike ever popped up. At 2pm, exhausted but satisfied that I’d done everything I could do to find my bike for the day, I called it quits and went home.
More than a week has passed and nothing has come of my searches. Somewhere out there, in a warehouse, on a balcony, in a small room at the back of someone’s shop… is the only Surly Long Haul Trucker in Greece. Worth about 1500€ ($2000US) with all the gear that was on it, it’s probably been sold for 50-100€; a proper pay-day on the back streets of Athens. It was a huge loss… but it’s time to move forward. I’ve found a shop where a proper touring bike will be custom-built for me for 650€. In about a week, my new passport will be ready. And as soon as everything else arrives from abroad (items from friends, family and sponsors to replace those that were stolen with the bike) I’ll be ready to hit the road again!
This has all been a bit of a setback, to be sure… but at least it’s out of the way. I’ve learned some pretty hard lessons, and hopefully that will help me avoid similar trouble in the future. One thing is certain: It would take an extremely skillful thief to steal a bike from me again. When I take my new ride home this time, I’m going to give it a name, bond with it, and treat it like a 5-year-old child. I won’t let it out of my sight, and if I do, I’ll make sure it has a babysitter looking after it and keeping it safe. Because we have a long ride ahead of us, and this time, we’re going to stick together until the end.