Bicycle thief, an ode to Vittoria De Sica

I am back on the roads of Chengdu.

Purchasing a bicycle is a game of smoke and mirrors, here in the world’s most populous bicycle market. Though electric bicycles, motorbikes and cars, at a rate of 1,000 per day, are all making noticeable forays into the transport market here, bikes still rule the roads.

Alas, my first purchasing expedition was a disappointing affair. A Chinese friend took me to a local second hand dealer near his university, nothing more than a collection of rickety bikes on a sidewalk.

“Maybe, most of these bikes were stolen,” he informed me, making diligent use of the Chinese “maybe.” This is Chinglish for many things, including: “Yes”, “No”, “Let’s avoid any potentially embarrassing loss of face” and, in this case: “This is how things work here.”

The goal 0f bike shopping in China runs in direct contrast to the traditional goal of purchasing goods. With most things, a skilled shopper will search for a version that looks much more expensive and better than the paid price. In China, however, given the unshakeable skill and number of local bike thieves, this is akin to taping a “Steal Me!” sign to your handlebars. The goal, therefore, is to buy the oldest, ugliest, most unappealing, but still functioning bike you can find. I have been told of one student using a handful of locks in a vein attempt to keep the thieves at bay. Upon returning to his bike’s location, he discovered a hand-written sign where his bike had been which read: “Do you really think you can stop us?”

After trying to freeze out our hard-ball seller with an extended break at a nearby shaved ice parlor, we had returned with renewed bargainer conviction.

“No more than 100!” my friend said, as I continued to play the quiet friend who may or may not be deaf and mute.

Indeed, I ended up paying 100 kuai, but not for the original bike we’d argued over. My friend was concerned it was too new. Instead, I rashly caved into a “Benda” brand single-speed, one that was not only too small and unforgiving to its rider’s backside, but which, worst of all, looked far better than it actually was. Within a week, I decided to leave it at a parking stand as food for the baying swarm of fleet-fingered sharks, and at this moment, it’s likely bruising some other unsuspecting fool’s behind.

That was it: no more shady black markets, no more endless bargaining over stolen goods. I begun to suspect that the U-lock which sellers throw into the deal are merely pick-friendly fodder, used in some mutually-beneficial ploy between middle-man and thief.

Instead, I went to a proper bike store and purchased a factory-fresh “Phoenix” brand bike. It’s actually of decent size, and my behind has thanked me ever since. Though the bell and one of the washers for the seat seem to have been knicked, after a couple of weeks, I still own the bike–surely a good sign.

And the best part of this? I can once again join the utterly mad chaos of China’s roads, its legion of two-wheeled travelers. It feels refreshingly raw, jostling alongside fathers with children strapped in behind them, business suits shouting to colleagues into their handless ear sets, and sellers carting everything from construction waste and recycling bins to pot plants and rabbits along with them. This is China, and by bicycle is surely the most intimate, green and enjoyable way to see it, soot-filled air be damned.

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