by Ray Birks
All bike images provided by Matt the XWA rider.
“My bike just got stolen from Fred Meyers.”
That Facebook message surprisingly extended a short-lived friendship that was forged out of a moment of
generosity between cyclists. This is the somewhat crazy tale of loss, searching and retrieval set amongst the darkened corners and alleyways of Wenatchee.
“I may need some help from someone in Wenatchee. Please DM,” was the message that made its way from the Colockum, in the hills outside Wenatchee, to my phone as I was wrapping up work on a Wednesday.
Matt was a cyclist from Bainbridge Island currently racing across the state of Washington in what’s known as the XWA, Cross Washington bikepacking race. A few days earlier he, along with about 40 other hardy souls, had dipped their tires into the Pacific Ocean at La Push on what would be an arduous journey from the Olympic Peninsula, through an urban jungle, over mountain passes and eventually down the endless stretches of the Palouse to Cascades Trail to the border with Idaho.
Bikepack racing requires participants to depend on their own resourcefulness to find places to camp, get food and fix their bikes. But in some cases, they must rely on the kindness of others along the way to help them when things go south, or in this case east. Matt was moving east in the middle of one of the most notorious stretches of many notorious stretches when he suffered a flat tire he was not able to repair up high in the rocky Colockum Pass, known for sharp, angular rocks that seem to seek out bicycle tires with vengeance. After a few hours of riding and inflating, riding and inflating Matt reached out to the XWA community for help.
I messaged Matt back and told him I could help and meet him as far up the Colockum as my AWD Honda would take me. He also asked if I could bring him some food as he had spent a lot of time and energy trying to fix things instead of riding, which his planning had not accounted for. I gathered up a few tubes of varying sizes, a pump and my son and started driving toward a mini-mart that was on the way. Matt was hoping for trail mix, a banana and maybe a sandwich, but the pickings were slim and I managed two heat-lamp burritos, a bag of trail mix, a Snickers bar, water and a cold Gatorade.
I hit the transition from pavement to gravel at the bottom of the Colockum about 15 minutes later and drove about ½ mile up until I knew my car would be forever altered if I continued on the beaten path and started to wait. A few minutes passed and two side-by-sides came by and I asked the occupants if they had seen any cyclists. “They were just a few minutes behind,” they said.
The second occupant gave me a sideways glance and said, “You’re not taking that thing up there, are you?” referring to my obviously ill-equipped Honda. To which I replied, “Nope. I know my limits. I’m waiting right here.”
Eventually Matt sent a message saying he had received support from another cyclist and was back underway but that I should give one of my tubes to the other rider who I would shortly see. When I met that rider he graciously accepted some water and a Snickers bar along with a spare tube to refresh his stock. Two more racers came by before I met Matt, who was in great spirits even after spending a few hours alone, up high in the mountains, worried about his near future.
He happily took all of the food that I offered him, downing what he could and stuffing the rest in his jersey pockets along with a spare tube I had brought for him. I called a local bike shop in Wenatchee, Full Circle, and talked to the owner, Dan, and mentioned that Matt would be heading his way to get help putting sealant in his back tire and fixing a loose cassette. He was closing in an hour but agreed to stay open longer and wait for Matt to arrive even though he had just made plans with his wife for dinner. Dan is a true rockstar and helped Matt get things sorted out for about an hour past his normal closing time.
I gave Matt a fist bump and followed him down the Colockum to the Columbia River where I checked on him one last time, wished him good luck and headed for home.
About two hours later things went even further south.
I called Matt and offered to help and he explained the details of what had happened. He put his bike inside the store vestibule where the RedBox machines usually live in order to get some supplies and had attached a makeshift lock out of a kevlar spoke with a small padlock, enough to make a thief think twice about attempting to steal it. But that didn’t work as expected and someone came along, sized up the situation and decided they would just pick up the heavily loaded bike and start running with it and deal with the lock later.
All of the racers doing XWA have a GPS tracker somewhere on their bike or in their bags that tracks their location so people like me can follow along and see where they’re at, and so that they can summon rescue if needed from remote locations without cell service. The pings from his tracker were set to go off every five minutes and you could see four or five pings at Fred Meyer and then a ping five minutes later a few hundred yards away, followed by another a few miles away. Obviously, the thief had managed to get far enough way to size up the situation, break the lock and ride away.
What was stolen was not just the bike but Matt’s camping gear, clothing, food, tools, GoPro and tracker. He was lucky he still had his phone but the chances of getting his bike back were growing dimmer. I was able to follow his last ping to an area of Wenatchee near a Mexican restaurant and a few houses, so I told him I would drive over and start looking around in the dumpsters and alleys for anything resembling a really nice gravel bike and expensive bike bags and gear. All told I probably drove around for an hour and a half, all the while looking at the website that showed the most recent location, refreshing the page, hoping it would move and clue me in on its whereabouts. But nothing happened. No movement.
I learned from Matt that the tracker gives its location every five minutes when it’s in line of sight with the sky and the associated satellites but that once it goes out of that sight it can’t send a signal. So theoretically someone has five minutes from the last ping to find and disable the tracker or throw it in a drawer or a shed. After a while that was my suspicion. Someone had stolen the bike and on the way to wherever it is stolen bikes go, the tracker pinged but then didn’t get another ping before its final resting place.
Meanwhile, Matt had been in touch with the police and filed a police report but they didn’t have much to go on and we couldn’t yet access the security cameras inside Fred Meyer. Eventually, I picked up Matt and we drove around a bit more, occasionally peering over fences, into backyards, hoping for some glimpse of something familiar and out of place at the same time. We made another call to the police with the last ping and three or four police cars immediately swarmed to the location, flashlights out, knocking on doors, asking questions but not getting anywhere.
Someone suggested to Matt to post on the “local crime and events Facebook group”, which Matt had done, and lots of suggestions came flooding in on places to look, alleys to drive down and tips on which homeless camp or wayward RV had stacks of bikes surrounding it. Eventually, we went back to my house where Matt showered, ate and borrowed some clothes so he could get out of his sweaty riding clothes and find a bit of peace. We sat on the couch and talked biking for the next half an hour until he got a phone call from someone named Chris who said he may have an idea where Matt’s bike might be!
A glimmer of hope and apprehension came across the two of us. Matt was excited about the prospect of getting his bike but we also talked with trepidation about the type of people that run in the stolen bike circles. Matt had offered a $300 reward for the return of his bike so there was some real impetus for someone to come forward with any pertinent information. Chris said he would go check with someone and would give us a call back in 20 minutes.
Sure enough, 20 minutes later Chris called back and said he had found the bike and would be able to meet us in 10 minutes at a market at the south end of town, but he didn’t want any police. Matt agreed and we headed to the ATM to pull out $300 to pay Chris his reward. Or was it a ransom? We still hadn’t sorted out all of the details but were just excited at the prospect of Matt continuing to race the second half of XWA.
Here’s where the story turns and becomes a bit spookier and the details murkier and the late hour clouded our perception and possibly our decision making. It was late, 12:30am by the time we hit the ATM and nearing 12:45am when we rolled up Ferry Street to the market and parked on the side of the road, headlights on. In retrospect, I would have suggested we meet at a more populated place but there weren’t many at that hour of night. A Chevron station just down the road would’ve made more sense because it was well lit and at the corner of two major roads, but the excitement and nervousness took over any sensibility.
What happened next was straight out of an 80’s Spielberg movie scene. Looking up Ferry St. I caught a glimpse of a shadow on the street. As that shadow materialized into Matt’s bike, illuminated by an oncoming car, our excitement was palpable. But then one bike turned into two, into three and finally four and along with Chris riding Matt’s bike there were three other cautious-looking men riding all manner of bikes. One was on a tiny BMX bike, another on an old full suspension Costco-style bike, the third I didn’t see.
My mind raced as to what I should be doing at this point. Should I get out of the car to help Matt? Should I try to discreetly take a picture of the scene? Should I call the police? I decided to stay in the car in case Matt had to jump back in and speed off if things went off the rails for some unanticipated but very likely reason. I made a mental note to stare at the four individuals, now spread out throughout the tiny market parking lot, so I could describe them later if possible.
Chris was tall and obviously in charge. He stayed about twenty feet away from my car with Matt’s bike and what looked like all of his gear still strapped to it. A second tall guy who I named John Bender after Judd Nelson’s character in the Breakfast Club, hovered over a tiny BMX bike, not saying a word, not making eye contact, seemingly on the lookout. He seemed nervous, like an encounter with the police was not what he was excited about. The third individual I could not find a name for. His only descriptive feature was that he looked as if he had recently shaved his head then let it grow out like a mushroom. He rode the Costco bike and I remember thinking that it was old, small and worthless but got him where he needed to go, specifically this dark parking lot early in the morning. The fourth guy was the scariest of the lot. I named him Freddy Dodge because he looked like a character from a Gold Rush show I’ve watched. What set him apart were the two massive knives he had strapped to each hip, out in the open, making an obvious statement.
These three other individuals seemed to have jobs to do. Lookout, security, scout. They spaced themselves out away from each other seemingly ready to abandon the scene at any moment and flee in four different directions. I got the feeling they had done this before. I stayed in the car.
I remember Matt at one point saying, “I may be naive, but I feel safe; I’m just going to get out of the car and talk to him,” referring to Chris who was standing beside Matt’s bike, closest to the car. Matt got out and started a conversation. I couldn’t hear what was being said but it seemed like things were progressing for both of them in the direction each of them wanted things to go. At one point Matt pulled out the money and handed it over to Chris and turned and said to me, “Go ahead and put the bike rack down.” Now I had to commit to getting out of the car and becoming part of the unfolding scene.
I got out of the driver’s side door and lowered the bike rack, careful to keep the four trays between myself and everyone else. At this point, things seemed to be coming to a resolution and the four guys, one with a fistful of cash, now aware the police weren’t going to be jumping out of the shadows, suddenly changed their tune from watchful and nervous to strangely friendly. Two of them came over and shook my hand as if our transaction was based on some unwritten, gentleman’s code that I had unwittingly translated.
I remember muttering something to them, trying to sound upbeat that he was getting his bike back and that I wasn’t on the receiving end of a knife blade or a fist.
“He’s racing across the whole state of Washington! Can you believe that?” They were hollow words to somehow try to lighten the mood and keep me from harm.
The bike was loaded and I immediately jumped back in the car hoping Matt would do the same. He did and in the blink of an eye our four new dealmakers were gone, slipping away into the night, one bike lighter but $300 dollars richer. Matt and I hesitatingly laughed out loud, incredulous to the events that had just transpired, not just over the last tense five minutes but the last five hours.
On the way home, just a few blocks from where the transaction went down, we passed a house where we could clearly see all four guys sitting and standing on the porch. I made a mental note of the cross streets and later found the address of the house on Google Maps. [The next day I drove by a few times just to see if I could recognize anything that looked out of place. The lot was dotted with old bikes, strewn about amidst piles of tools and trash. Two seemingly strung-out women argued out front on the sidewalk, one just wearing a sports bra, both apparently in differing stages of some sort of drug abuse or mental breakdown. Chris was standing next to a shed, attaching something to one of the many bikes he claimed he worked on but it didn’t look familiar and I didn’t want to linger because my car with the large bike rack on the back might have looked all too familiar. I circled the block a few more times but nothing obvious jumped out at me.]
Matt took stock of what was missing, his GoPro camera, his GPS tracker and various bike tools were easy targets and probably the first things the thieves took. But all of his expensive camping gear and bike bags were there, obviously not as easy a target. Some of the bags had been rifled through and pilfered, but he could tell that the bags holding the bigger gear were untouched so it appeared his journey to Idaho could actually continue!
We got home at about 1:00 am and I drifted upstairs to bed while Matt pushed the cats off the futon in the guest room and faded off, both of us contemplating our evening and our luck.
In the morning I headed out the door to work while Matt stuck around long enough to grab a scone and head back to Full Circle Cycle to pick up the odds and ends that would carry him back on the race course and eventually all the way to the finish line in Tekoa, WA.
Editor’s Note: Matt did follow-up with the police and gave them a description of Chris’ Facebook profile and they told him they’d let him know if anything turned up, but nothing has. I occasionally look at the tracking website just to see if the tracker has turned on and reported its location, but I know the chances are slim that will happen. But after our crazy experience, I know slim does have a chance.