Vicious Cycle: Reporter's Notebook
In early November, a young man entered Penn Cycle on Lake Street looking for a cost estimate to transform his bike into a single-speed.
The customer didn't seem to fit his bike.
Mechanics at Penn Cycle had seen this guy before, usually riding around a beat-up Schwinn. Today, he had with him a Salsa La Raza with a custom orange paint job, worth in the neighborhood of $4,000.
"There's no other bike like it," says Anthony Ross, a mechanic at Penn Cycle.
This all raised a big red flag with Ross and fellow mechanic Beau Layman. After the customer left, Layman quickly searched the "Stolen Bikes" section of Mpls Bike Love, an online forum for Twin Cities cyclists. Sure enough, there it was:
Stolen from garage 10/8 overnight, LynLake n'hood.
Salsa La Raza: 58cm, metallic-orange beauty.
Fuji Ace: Daughter's road bike: 24", red.
Thx for keeping an eye out!
Layman tracked down the Bike Love user and got the bicycle's serial number.
When the customer showed up to Penn Cycle again, Ross distracted him while Layman confirmed the serial number matched. Then he called the police.
Police arrested the suspect in the store, and returned the bike to its rightful owner.
Layman and Ross emphasize that they're not vigilantes hunting down bike thieves. But every time someone brings in a ride that looks suspicious -- say, a customer trying to sell a bike worth thousands for a couple hundred -- they check Bike Love to see if it's been reported stolen. So far in 2010, they have returned six stolen bikes.
"Bike Love is really the biggest asset, because it's the only archived place to report it stolen," says Layman.
Jeremy Werst created Mpls Bike Love four years ago. Since then, it has become a vital asset to the Twin Cities cyclist culture. The site currently has more than 4,300 members -- including doctors, students, and more -- who have collectively authored 235,000 posts.
Below is more extended content that didn't make it into the print story:
Hennepin and First avenues
This past April, rumors hit the forum that city officials were working to remove the bike lanes on Hennepin and First avenues in downtown Minneapolis.
Hennepin and First were already a source of controversy in the cycling community. Prior to September 2009, both streets had been one-ways. When the city flipped them into two-way streets, the bike lane on Hennepin was replaced by barely visible signs designating the entire right lane of traffic to bikes, buses, and cars hanging a right turn. Because no one saw the signs, the bike lane might as well have disappeared.
After hearing the alleged plans of cutting the bike lines out completely, Werst decided to use the forum's power to send a message. He sent an e-mail blast to everyone on the site urging them to call their City Councilmembers.
"And within like an hour and a half or two hours I had [City Councilmember] Lisa Goodman calling me on my home phone number and saying 'Hey, who are you and why is my phone ringing off the hook?'" remembers Werst, adding Goodman denied there was ever plans to remove the bike lane.
Werst also planned a "traffic calming ride" a couple months later, where bicyclists would protest what had become a dangerous area of the city for bicyclists by riding up and down Hennepin and First in big groups.
Werst was surprised when about 30 bicyclists answered his call.
For four hours, the group took turns riding two-by-two during rush hour, blocking the entire lane of traffic. Some brought signs reading, "My bike is a traffic calming device."
"We got some cheering, some thumbs up," says Hayley Bonsteel, who wore a tutu on the ride. "And also I think some honking of the negative variety."
The day after the protest ride, Werst heard more news that sounded as if it would be disastrous for Minneapolis bicyclists.
The plan was to build a "bicycle boulevard" on Bryant Avenue in and south of Uptown, a road to be used mostly by bicyclists that would relieve cycling congestion on Lyndale. Between 40th and Lake streets, a 10-block stretch too busy for a bike boulevard, the city planned to mark a makeshift bike lane by painting green sharrows on the street intermittently every 100 feet. The problem was that the sharrows were set to be painted too close to on-street parking, meaning bicyclists were likely to be massacred by unsuspecting drivers' doors. Click here for a diagram.
The City Council was set to vote on project the next day.
Werst sent an e-mail to Councilemember Robert Lilligren that evening. He explained his problem with the project and the protest ride they had organized the day before.
"Basically, we can shut down any street in town if we wanted to at any time by simply showing up and riding spaced out along it, riding completely legally," Werst remembers telling Lilligren.
Lilligren sent Werst an e-mail back the next morning promising he would look into it.
Werst showed up the City Council meeting the next day with Transit for Livable Communities' Steve Clark and the two talked with councilemembers and the mayor about the project, he says.
By the end of the day, instead of approving the project, the City Council unanimously voted to kick the plans back to TLC for a review.
"What resulted was, instead of it just going through the City Council without it being contested...it was delayed so our organization could negotiate further with the city," says Clark.
It was after this meeting that Werst realized how powerful the site could be. He became convinced that Bike Love would now be the decider in all infrastructure projects in Minneapolis. If the forum didn't want a project to go forward, it wouldn't.
"Everything got really symbolic with me," says Werst. "I was definitely massively manic. And I thought by moving away from the written word and into video I could create massive amounts of change in the world."
A few days later, Werst's brother and some close friends came to his apartment. They were concerned, explains Werst, and wanted to know what he had been doing.
Werst cued up a video he had been editing and stepped outside to have a cigarette.
Werst has not watched the video since, and would not show it to City Pages. He would only describe what was on it in vague detail.
The content was so troubling that Werst's brother called 911. Minneapolis police showed up soon after and brought Werst to the psychiatric wing of Hennepin County Medical Center.
The call code on the incident report is "Crisis Intervention."
Shortly after being released from the hospital, Werst decided to put Bike Love up for sale. Here's why:Epilogue
Werst still spends much of his time in the same place he did the past four years: His computer chair.
But Werst hardly ever even looks at Bike Love anymore. Instead, he works on freelance projects for his new web business.That's in addition to trying perfect his recipe for vegan chai.
"I'm actually thinking I'm gonna try to get the fact that I make chai to be, like, the signature thing for my web development business," says Werst.
In mid-November, Werst received an unsettling letter from the Hennepin County Medical Center. It claimed he owed more than $7,000 for his involuntary stay earlier this year, only adding to his difficult financial situation.
At first, he let his mind travel to a bad place. He thought there would be no way to pay the money, and that he would surely have to leave Minneapolis and move back to his hometown of Missoula, Montana.
Though he's still trying to figure out how to make ends meet, Werst has calmed down about his money problems.
Overall, he has been in a much better place since he sold the forum in late September, Werst says, and is now seeking treatment for his bipolar condition that has already brought about positive change.
"The more that I've been learning about it, the more it makes sense."
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