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Commentary: Down and out at the Paris-Roubaix Challenge

Lulled into a false sense of security, my bike was stolen at one of the biggest cyclosportives in Europe. Please learn from my mistake, because it could happen to you too.

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I met Daniel Lodeweges at the police station in Roubaix, and the grim expression on his face explained why he was there.

Lodeweges had driven to Roubaix that morning from his home near Rotterdam to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, the amateur cyclosportive that sends several thousand riders bouncing over the famed pavé of the pro race. Lodeweges had parked his Giant Defy Advanced alongside hundreds of other bicycles in the starting area, and walked inside the Roubaix velodrome to pick up his race number.

When he returned, his bike was gone. It had been stolen.

“At first you don’t believe it — I always do this at the events,” Lodeweges told me. “I thought this must be a mistake. You realize it’s stolen but you keep looking. Maybe somebody put it somewhere. Then you accept it. It’s a horrible feeling.”

I knew the feeling Lodeweges described — in fact, I felt it too. Like Lodeweges and several other cyclists that day, my bike, a black Specialized, was also stolen at the start line of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge. The thievery kicked off a series of increasingly negative experiences that ultimately soured my impression of the event.

And even today, when I see someone ride by on a black road bike, I stop and glare at the bicycle, just to make sure it’s not mine.

The entire experience wizened me up to my own irresponsible behavior as a bicycle owner at these events — something I will undoubtedly change after this experience. My hope is that through today’s column, you learn from my mistakes in Roubaix. The last thing I want is for you to end up in the Roubaix police station, still wearing your bike shoes, trying to translate a crime report from French to English.

Parked bikes at the Paris-Roubaix Challenge. Photo: Fred Dreier

When you gotta go, think first

My poor judgment was driven by coffee — too much coffee, to be precise. I guzzled one too many brews on the hourlong drive from Gent to Roubaix and arrived at the event facing a restroom catastrophe. I assembled my rig and pedaled to the start line in search of the men’s room, and that’s where I made my first crucial mistake.

The event organizer actually had a bike valet stationed near the entrance. In my haste, I pedaled right by the empty row of racks, and instead leaned my bicycle up against a fence, alongside dozens of other fancy carbon-fiber racing bikes. It was the typical chaotic scene you find at the big European sportives. Riders stood in long queues for coffee, snacks, and registration. Expensive racing bicycles were parked haphazardly against fencing, signposts, and the walls of the velodrome. Looking back on it, the scene was like a supermarket for bike thieves.

My second mistake: I came to the event alone, and thus lacked the buddy system that I had enjoyed at the big sportives such as Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders. One buddy goes for a pee, the other stays behind with the bikes.

My final mistake? I actually brought a lock to Belgium — one of those lightweight Ottolocks — and I forgot it at the apartment. My guess is even a simple lock would have forced the thieves to look elsewhere.

I returned from my trip to the men’s room feeling momentarily relieved. And then, the reality set in. My bike was no longer leaned against the fence. Like Lodeweges, I began to frantically search the surrounding area. I glared at every cyclist who rode a black racing bike. My blood pressure rose. I’ve had several bicycles stolen from me, and I felt the familiar blend of dread and anger. How could I have been so stupid?

I tracked down security guards, none of whom spoke English. Eventually, one steered me upstairs to meet with the event organizer. I told her the situation, and her response caught me off guard.

“Is it my responsibility that your bike was stolen?” she asked. “You were the one who left it unattended.”

She scolded me for not using the bike valet.

My reaction was equal parts Ugly American and Frantic Tourist. I was incredulous at her response. I told her I wanted empathy, help, anything. She shrugged.

And yet, I knew that she was correct. This calamity was my own fault, not hers. The infrastructure was there, and I had simply ignored it. It was a bitter pill to swallow as I drove to the Roubaix police station in my bike shoes. Every time I drove past a cyclist, I stared at the bike. Was that my stolen rig?

A routine of trust

I recently called Daniel Lodeweges to talk more about his experience in Roubaix. He wrote a blog about his experience and included photos of his stolen bicycle.

He said an official from the event told him that six other cyclists had reported stolen bikes at the event. Like me, Lodeweges had approached the event’s promoter after his bike was stolen, and had been shooed away. It was not her fault, she reminded him.

Our conversation helped me pinpoint the roots of my own mistake. Lodeweges told me he had completed more than 50 major sportives across Europe, including the rides at La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flanders. He always followed a similar pre-ride routine: park, obtain registration information, and then ride. Never a problem. He simply followed the same routine at the Paris-Roubaix Challenge.

“I’m not at peace with it because I’m definitely disappointed and angry in myself,” Lodeweges said. “Why didn’t I put it in bike storage? Why did I leave it there? I play the movie over in my mind 100 times.”

That’s where my fault lies as well. I’ve completed dozens of cycling events, including the big European rides in Italy and Belgium. The feeling of security at these events can lull even the most cynical bike journalist to forget that the racing bicycle he just leaned against a tree is worth more than a used midsized automobile. Why did I leave my fancy racing bicycle leaned up against a fence in Roubaix while I ran to the port-o-john? Because I have done it 100 times before, and each time I came back to find my bike still there.

Alas, never again.

A day after my bad day in Roubaix, I returned to the scene of the crime, this time to watch the finish of the pro event. For a blissful moment, the memory of the stolen bike evaporated as I watched Philippe Gilbert and Nils Politt sprint around the velodrome.

And then, then, reality came crashing back in. As I walked across the infield, Zdenek Stybar rode by, and my instinct kicked in. I turned my head and focused my gaze on Stybar’s black Specialized racing bike.

Was that my bike?