The year: 2013. My jeans were tight, my hair was long, I was in the gory core of my 20s, and I was trying to make my way in life.
After several aeons of diligent study and many more working at a bike shop while trying to get a job as a writer, I’d finally landed a gig at a cycling magazine for an advocacy organisation. Things were looking up. In those days my heart sometimes whispered a quiet dream to my brain, that maybe one day I’d make an impression on the world. Who knows? Melbourne’s a big city, but I had big dreams.
For one edition of the (now defunct) magazine a colleague had written an article about her bike being stolen, and we needed a feature image. All the bike thieves in our stock photo archive looked a bit shit, but we had a bike, a camera, a big bolt-cutter, and a can-do attitude.
So I brought a black band hoodie in from home, and, one autumnal morning, pretended to steal someone’s bike in an alleyway behind the office. If you squint in Google Street View you can just about make out the scene of the crime – up the back of a ravine between buildings, past a roller door, chained to a no-standing sign set in cobblestones that have never seen the sun:
Did I make a convincing bike thief? Dear reader, I did not. The hoodie was eye-rollingly clichéd, and if you look closely enough you can see the skinny jeans I lived in at the time, along with the obnoxious business shirt tucked into them, and some sneakers I’d borrowed from a friend’s locker because ironic brogues weren’t really selling it.
A few quick snaps of the shutter in that laneway off Chinatown and the die was cast: we had a picture, and any personal reputational damage would surely die with the next print deadline.
The internet works in mysterious ways, and within a couple of years I’d seen the image pop up randomly on Facebook. At a point soon after that, it became a semi-regular occurrence – just browsing about, and being confronted with my younger self apparently caught at the climax of an unforgivable act.
Steadily, I began to get the impression that I was on my way to becoming the internet’s favourite vessel for its hatred of bike thieves.
I won’t pretend to know all that much about search engine optimisation, but whatever happened when that picture was saved to an image library back in the day was a masterclass. That quick photo of my fictional bike heist remains the number-one result when you do an image search for ‘bike theft’. As a result, it’s been steadily appropriated elsewhere, sending my criminal career international.
Here I am, a visual metaphor for the 20,000 bike thefts annually in Dublin!:
Here I am, the preview image for an advice video from “Cycling Tips with D-Man” [which, to be clear, is not this CyclingTips, no matter what the title would have you believe]. Annoyingly, that imposter’s video on how to prevent bike theft has viewership stats to die for, having been watched by an engrossed global audience of 532,000 people:
Here I am, clumsily stretched and photoshopped into another image where I ignore the lock altogether and make a spirited attack on a front derailleur:
We’re not even close to being done here, by the way.
In August 2019, I jumped continents to North America. I was quickly at it again in British Columbia, and then a couple of years later ducked south of the border and re-emerged in a university in Missouri.
Early this year, I dodged Australia’s border closures to take my rightful place at the head of a gang of juvenile bicycle thieves in the Albanian capital, Tirana:
And in Positano, Italy, an entirely separate gang of quattro ragazzi I was a part of had a run-in with an Italian armed forces patrol. They “became suspicious of the unnatural attitude of the four, who tried to go unnoticed on the seafront …” and upon searching my gang’s apartment, found bicycles and “a few grams of hashish” (which, incidentally, is a few grams less than there was before we pretended to be statues on the promenade):
I was not rehabilitated. I know this, because a year later I was backsliding to my familiar tricks of bike theft and possessing “a quantity of salvia hashish” in Lebanon:
Reverse-search the image in question and you’ll find a rap sheet that rings the world. A two-month spree in Slovakia. A 14-bike haul in Kazakhstan. A shoot-out in Syria. Thwarted by a 14-year-old girl in Greece. Caught red-handed in Bolivia. Page after page of results – 1,440 of them – creating an extensive, globe-trotting criminal record that must’ve netted me hundreds of bikes, years in prison, and a lifetime of experiences.
It’s an armchair journey that I would never have expected when I posed for a photo almost a decade ago. And the irony, of course, is this: the pictured bike itself was never stolen, but the rushed magazine photo has been – by hundreds of people, perpetuating a fake crime over and over.
In all the years since the photo was taken, I’ve lived in the same city, gotten married, changed jobs, had kids. It’s been mostly safe, mostly stable. But as the internet’s most notorious bike thief, I’ve been baked out of my mind on the Amalfi coast, surveyed the snow-capped majesty of Canada’s mountains, become the Fagin of Tirana’s street urchins.
After all this time and all I’ve seen and done, my final plea, your honour, is this: I regret nothing.