It’s 19:50 and I’m walking my dog near the corner of an enclosed park, chatting with my club mates on WhatsApp about sourcing a clunker to see me through winter riding. The streetlight I’m standing near is out and so it’s pitch black. In the darkness I hear a cyclist, which strikes me as odd as this path leads to a dead end. A quarter second later a hand reaches into view and snatches my phone as he rides past me and accelerates off. The casual cheek of it stunned me. It felt like the sort of prank schoolmates pull on each other.
I have not run (even for a bus) since a series of knee surgeries in 2010 but even so I knew straight away that I could catch him. The idiot had chosen an athletic 6’4″ victim and a location with a single escape route up a slight incline. “Good luck with that” I shouted, with polite but grammatically incorrect bravado, as I bolted into my first sprint in a decade. I caught up to him, grabbed him with both hands and wrestled him off the bike. The landing was not soft and I rolled a little in front of him.
As we both found our feet we were facing each other and, with a headstart, I pulled him back to the ground by his head, pinning him face down with one hand on his head and another between his shoulders. His body bucked and his arms flailed and amongst the indecipherable MLE ‘gangsta’ gibberish I heard “…fucking shank you”. Shank is slang for stab/knife. Just a few minutes before leaving the house I’d read the news about the stabbing of a 51 year old man on a train in Guildford after an earlier confrontation.
A very long time ago I was a fairly useful martial artist, also teaching front line workers self defence. Practical real-world stuff not heroics or Hollywood guff. If avoidance has failed then escape becomes the priority. Even my most senior kung fu students were taught to relent and get the hell out of there if were knives involved. Whether it was fear, panic, instinct or (probably) all of the above, when I heard ‘shank’ and couldn’t see his flailing hands clearly I lost my bottle and pushed myself away to create space. He scrambled up and scarpered on foot.
A few seconds later I had a change of heart and in my anger I decided to get after him. Two more hooded teens were standing at the park exit and I’d heard him shout out as he passed them but couldn’t make out what he said. I slowed my pace as I tried to figure them out. At the time I assumed they were accomplices and he’d be handing my phone to one as he made his escape. I studied the bigger one as I ran towards them but he looked nervous and on reflection I think they were just bystanders.
Shit! I just remembered I was walking my dog! Scruff had followed me out of the park and was running 10m behind me, his blue LED collar glowing in the darkness. He’s a smart hound and walks off the lead with me anyway so this wasn’t enough to stop us. The streets here are long and there aren’t many opportunities to lose somebody. Like I said: not exactly a criminal mastermind, this one.
My knees seem to be holding up to running and as the chase plays out I can see him slowing. He turns another corner but I’m closing on him and I’m going to catch him. It’s unlikely his endurance will match mine so I figure by the time I catch him he’ll be ruined and probably won’t have much fight left in him. The 20m gap has closed to 10m as he dashes across the road. There are no cars but I look back to make sure Scruff is with me and ready to cross. Unfortunately he’s stopped at the last lamppost to drop a deuce and he won’t be hurried. The scrote has found himself a 30 second bonus and by the time the chase resumes he’s well out of sight and beyond a set of crossroads. Gone.
Back to retrieve the bike, which I’m assuming was also stolen. Then I quickly headed home to disable accounts and change the passwords for everything, which is a much bigger job than you probably realise. Once security was dealt with I called the police, then the phone provider and then my insurer. It’ll cost me my excess but the phone can be replaced. Unfortunately what can’t be replaced are all the photos on it, none of which are backed up or cloud-synced. There are a dozen boring and unconvincing reasons why this is but ultimately it’s a massive failing on my part and I feel sick to my stomach knowing they’re gone.
I’ve lost a lot of treasured memories but front of my mind right now are the hundreds of images from the Trans Am race. This isn’t just the prettier photos that I post here and on Instagram. During these races I take hundreds of technically- and artistically-shit snapshots purely as aide mémoires. Combined with their meta-data and geotags (and cross-referenced with Strava files) they trigger vivid memories that help me recall all of the beautiful details and micro-stories of a race for this blog, which I treat primarily as my own journal. I’d also taken daily shots of the landscapes, typography, flowers, locals, cars, architecture, shop fronts etc; screen shots of the music I listened to at key moments of magic. These would be references for a series of animations I had planned. Sadly all of this is lost and the theft of my race memories hurts infinitely more than the loss of the phone. Worse still is the knowledge that the bastard doesn’t understand this value and wouldn’t care anyway.
The bike’s frame number is not listed on bikeregister.com but very few stolen bikes ever are. Get out to the shed today and make a note of your frame numbers! It took a bit of damage during the kerfuffle but I’m hoping it can be reunited with its owner so that something positive comes out of this whole saga. The police tell me they’ll be in touch with where to drop the bike and mentioned forensics (not holding my breath) but I’ve not heard from them yet. I’ve posted images on social media but if neither the police nor anybody else claims the bike after a certain time I’ll look for a suitable charity to donate it to. [Update: the police collected it a few days later]
So, ‘cool story bro’ and all that, but there are some important points to take away from it all:
- Mobile phone theft has halved over the last ten years as manufacturers and service providers have implemented measures to secure and ‘brick’ stolen devices, but there are still almost half a million phones stolen in the UK each year (1,200 a day!). Around 40% of those are snatch thefts like mine.
- Practice good phone security. Set your home screen to lock after a short period of inactivity and secure it with a password and/or biometric ID. Consider that a snatched phone was probably open and in use at the time.
- Back up your phone and, if it’s available to you, use something like Apple’s Find My Phone to disable it and wipe the content remotely. Crucially this needs to be set up in advance. I’m angry with the lowlife who stole it but I’m also angry with myself for failing to do this.
Prevention is the best cure but if you do find yourself in a similar situation here’s what I used to teach:
- If you’re fearful of an approach put your phone away and swap it for your keys, pen or anything else you can find to hold in your hand.
- Make lots of noise. This is effective before, during and after. Criminals in the act really don’t like attention.
- Turning to face a follower and screaming and shouting can be quite disarming.
- Most of the time the focus will be on your ‘stuff’, which can be replaced. Just let it go.
- If it does get physical then your goal is to create enough space to make an escape.
- No heroics. I got lucky but the news is full of people who didn’t.
I’m grateful for the flood of kind messages I received after sharing the story and happy to say that my only injury was some muscle soreness from failing to warm up properly before sprinting. I’m afraid the subsequent Trans Am entries will suffer from the loss of those photos but the memories are still strong and hopefully the stories are compelling enough to entertain you.