Bikes get stolen every day in the Chicago area, and in the summers, it’s a crime that inevitably escalates.

But when one Chicago man walked out of his River North gym in May to find only a small piece of his bike’s cable lock on the ground where his wheels had once been, he didn’t sit passively and mope.

Instead, he took his plight to the biggest lost-and-found database he knew of: the Internet.

There, he found a community that latched onto his case and helped track down his bike – eventually setting up a sting operation last weekend with Oak Park police that nabbed his bike.

The man did not want to be named in this article for fear of retribution.

He posted a picture of his distinctive $1,000 Felt road bike to an independent online database called the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry, a place where his listing was seen by a community of like-minded gearheads and do-gooders.

For the site’s members, his bike became a cause célèbre. Regulars often head to area flea markets and swap meets to scope the scene for stolen bikes, which they check against listings on the site.

That’s just what happened with this bike. A stolen bike registry member spotted the stolen (and relatively unique) bike at a flea market, and promptly tried to call the owner and the police.

It didn’t work, but it gave the owner hope that a community was out there to help him – and that his bike was out there, too.

The registry’s founder, Howard Kaplan, said that’s what he created the site for.

“It seemed like we could be smarter than we were with the technology that was available,” Kaplan said. “People recovering stolen bicycles had been unheard of. But because there was a group system working on it, people who were fed up were getting inspired.”

Since Kaplan founded the site in 2005, it’s gained steam, he said, and now the chatter on the site is that a bike is recovered about every other weekend.

Last weekend, it was the Chicago man’s Felt bike.

A member of the registry set up a Craigslist ad with a shell e-mail account, saying he was interested in buying a road bike – but was really just fishing for stolen bikes.

When someone replied to the ad with pictures of the Felt, the Chicago man took over the transaction.

He arranged to meet with the seller at the Oak Park Avenue CTA Blue Line stop Saturday, Aug. 14, and then rounded up several people from the registry who spotted his bike at the swap meet and had vowed to try to help.

At the last minute, though, the Chicago man got in touch with Oak Park police, who quickly took over the sting.

Within an hour, the man said, Officer Kristin Cook and Detective Timothy Unzicker put together a plan that involved undercover plainclothes officers, as well as backup squad cars hidden around the block.

“I walked into the police station at 11, and I had my bike back by 12:15,” the man said. “Had they been any less efficient, I don’t think I’d have my bike back. I couldn’t imagine a better, more well-oiled machine.”

While Oak Park police recovered the bike, they couldn’t pin any charges on the seller and released him without charge.

While he wishes police could have charged the seller, in the end, though, the Chicago man is just happy to have his bike back.

“It was a team effort two months in the making,” he said.

Oh, and he won’t be buying another cable lock – only U-locks from here on out.

Web Extra

Trading wheels

Swap meets aren’t the only places bikes are traded. In River Forest last week, beat-up bikes were left behind in three of the village’s bike thefts.

All three stolen bikes were unlocked and unattended: two were taken from backyards, and another was taken from an open garage.

“A lot of bicycle thefts are crimes of opportunity,” said River Forest police Sgt. Mike Thornley. “They’ll ride it and then trade it in when they see something better. It’s less suspicious than towing an extra bike around.”

The best way to recover a stolen bike, Thornley said, is have your bike registered with the police. It allows police to instantly look up information on the bike, and contact its owner if it’s located.

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...