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by Wing Hong Tse 

It was a crisp six to 10 degrees below zero, a rainy Monday evening in November.

K-ran McBride, 41, hopped off her bike, left it unlocked, and went into an electronics store on Yonge Street just next to Ryerson.

“Just 30 seconds,” is what went through her mind as she headed in to buy batteries, she said. “No one’s around.”

But in those 30 seconds, McBride, who graduated from Ryerson’s social work program in 2002, became the unlucky victim of bike theft.

She watched from inside the store as a thief casually got on her bike in a “smooth kind of one-two step,” and sped “away into the sunset,” she said.

McBride is now on her 10th bike.

“There’s a real cycle of bike theft in downtown Toronto,” she said. “Some people change their bikes as often as they change their shoes.”

Toronto police records show that in 2004, 4,048 bikes were reported stolen in the GTA.

And as for thefts at Ryerson, there were reportedly five bikes nabbed this September, the same number as last year.

On average, said Lawrence Robinson, Ryerson’s manager of safety and security, most months, including winter ones, will see two to four bikes vanish off campus.

So, here’s a question: Is there a way of retrieving stolen bikes?

The answer is yes, and it starts with a jumble of letters and digits etched on bicycles in a spot hidden from plain view.

It’s a bike’s serial number. And with it, one can register his or her bike with Toronto police, which may help in its retrieval if it’s pilfered off the streets.

The registration program works like this: Toronto police record a bike’s serial number and its owner’s contact information in a database.

If a registered bike is stolen and reported, police will attempt to find it and, if successful, they’ll contact the owner.

“There’s no reason not to do it,” said Const. Wendy Drummond at Toronto Police headquarters.

Fewer than half of all bike owners in the GTA register their bikes, she said, but those who do have a 20 per cent higher chance of recovery, she estimated.

In Toronto’s east end is Gita Barber’s store, Cash Converters, a franchise that buys from and sells to its patrons, where second-hand electronics and sporting goods arrive daily and line the walls.

It’s mainly because of stores such as her’s that the Toronto bike registry can roll.

During the summer, Barber said she buys about 100 bikes from patrons. But she doesn’t accept any of them without noting the seller’s photo identification and address, and making sure the bike has a serial number.

Each day, Barber makes a report of all items her store buys, along with identifying marks such as serial numbers, and sends it to Toronto police’s pawn squad, a mandatory practice for all stores such as Cash Converters in the GTA.

When Barber buys a bike, she holds it for 20 days before putting it up for sale, she says.

This is so the registry system has a chance to kick in.

During these 20 days, if a registered bike is reported stolen and it shows up in Barber’s store, she gets a call from police.

The bike is returned and there’s a paper trail on the person who sold it to Barber.

“We have the person who (sold the stolen bike),” she said. “Name, address, everything.”

Back at police headquarters, Drummond said that’s not all the program does: A registered bike can also help identify a person in a cycling accident who is not carrying photo ID.

Drummond’s partner, Const. Kristine Bacharach said “there’s no other way” to get a police-recovered bike back to its owner aside from registering it. With the program, she said, “we have somewhere to start.”

Nevertheless, the registration program does have its faults.

Drummond said if your bike is stolen and sold on the streets, there’s no way to get it back.

The only way to protect your bike in this scenario is to prevent it from getting stolen in the first place; use a good lock, don’t leave your bike outside overnight, and use common sense, she said.

It’s a message repeated by K-ran McBride who still returns to Ryerson to use the Recreation and Athletics Centre five days a week.

She keeps her bike locked up with five feet of “chain heavy enough to haul a boat, that’s too heavy to lift and a big honkin’ Master Craft lock.

“I just don’t leave the opportunity (for theft) anymore,” McBride said.

“It takes a millisecond to hop on it. That’s where people are going to get burned.”

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