Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Bicycle Thieves

In the film Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief),Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece of Italian neorealism, Antonio is struggling to support his family in post-World War II Rome. He has miraculously landed a job, but it requires a bicycle and his has already been pawned. His wife sells her dowry linens to retrieve it and the family's prospects seem to be on the rise, Then the bicycle is stolen. Antonio is devastated because the loss of his job means ruin for his family. One thing leads to another until Antonio himself becomes a bicycle thief. 

I thought of Antonio the other morning when I went down to get my bike and found that it had been stolen during the night. I suspect that it was just one of many because the bike rack was curiously empty and the only bikes left were those that were locked with heavy metal chains. 

Old-timers in Pisa attribute the thefts to people from Livorno, Pisa's ancient enemy in war and modern rival in soccer. Others accuse extracomunitari, people from outside the European Union, for the most part from eastern Europe. Harder for them to admit, but also likely, is the fact that among the culprits are ordinary Italian citizens, who like Antonio, are reduced to thievery by Italy's severe economic crisis. 

Whoever is behind it, bicycle theft is an enormous problem in Italy. In a recent surveyFiab, (the Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle) estimated that 320,000 of the four million bikes on the road in Italy are stolen each year. The numbers are especially high in university towns such as Bologna, where the 240 people interviewed by Fiab reported 275 bicycles stolen. In Pisa, the numbers of stolen bikes are also higher than one per person interviewed. At a high school in Pisa, 50 bikes, locked to racks in the school's courtyard, have been stolen in the last several months. In a recent article in the local paper, the principal of the school Andrea Simonetti, cried basta and called for the city to take action: "We cannot remain silent while our parking lots are regularly plundered in broad daylight," he said.  

Pisa has instigated a registration policy for bikes, and police have conducted some undercover raids at known selling points for stolen bikes. However, theft is still such a common occurrence here that most people don't even bother to report it. Antonio and I, however, both filed a denuncia. At the headquarters of the carabinieri, the officer who took my complaint was very nice, but like Antonio's police officer, he warned me there was very little the police could do. He gave me a copy of the report and suggested that I walk around the city and look for my bike.  If I found it, I could call for an officer and with my complaint in hand, it was likely my bike would be returned to me.  

So I've been walking around Pisa for the last couple of days. Bikes are everywhere - thousands and thousands of them - but there is no sign of mine.  In the film there is a scene where Antonio, who has been searching for his bike in the streets of Rome, sits on a curb and watches sadly as the world whizzes past him on bikes. I know how he felt.

If Hollywood made The Bicycle Thief, my part would be played by a young beautiful blond who would find her bike, aided by an incredibly handsome Italian policeman. They would fall madly in love and in the last scene, they would bike off into the sunset. In the gritty world of Italian neorealism, however, Antonio never does find his bike.  I suspect I won't either.

My green and white Bianchi bicycle was already old when I bought it nine years ago for 40 euros. JR, however, kept it in good repair, and a vegetable crate, tied to the back rack, allowed me to carry wine and other heavy items. I never bought an official bike basket because I always assumed my bike would get stolen. Now it's happened, but I content myself with the fact that nine years is something of a record for continuous bike ownership here in Pisa. Friends always said that my bike was too ugly to steal, but I thought of it as distinctive and too easily recognized. I guess in the dark of the night, its distinctiveness was not apparent. 

Unlike Antonio, I can buy another bike, but I will miss my old one. It took me not just to the supermarket in Pisa, but also - on bright, sunny spring  days - along coastal roads on the island of Elba, through Tuscan river valleys red with poppies, and to the tops of the highest hills in Chianti.

(To see more photos, including places I visited on my bike, click here.)

A presto,


  1. Sad tale. Your bike had real character and the theives knew it. Good you can keep riding. Fun to read of your travels. Beth

  2. So sorry about your bike. I know what you mean…you get used to the one you have. I recently had to give up my 20 year car(my jalopy) and the beautiful new one just isn’t the same. Janine

  3. Hi Geraldine:

    You have our sympathies. Margaret had her bike stolen a few years ago when were in Germany for around 2 months. It's a real bummer,and angered us both.


  4. I love your version of the movie about your stolen bike. Sorry to hear about it, but it made a good story!

  5. I just saw your bicycle blog. Sorry about the bike. I'm glad I saw the movie last year. I could appreciate your story even more. Wish I could send you one of the bikes being stored in our garage. Or maybe two or three. Sue

  6. thanks for yet another fascinating travelogue. what is it with bicycles being stolen.... is no one spared? you did get much use out of yours, as did my husband and i out of our 3-speed raleighs which we rode for decades, in and around washington, along the c&o canal; took them with us on a rack on our 404 peugeot up and down the eastern seaboard, and when he was posted to overseas in 1985, they came with us. lo and behold, after a short absence, there had been a break-in, and our bikes disappeared.... replacing them with 10-speed peugeot bikes didn't work.
    i wish you continued good luck and much fun in your travels and exploration

  7. I am so sorry that you are bicycleless! At least for the moment. I don't know much about bikes, but I thought your bike very handsome indeed!

    Yes, I saw Ladri di Biciclette, and I sympathized with Antonio and now with you. I'm glad someone said, BASTA about these bicycle thieves, but are they doing anything about it? A

  8. Sorry to hear that. Gotta just get back on the saddle and pedal on. Hope you find it somewhere so we can have the sequel.

    1. I'm hoping there will be a sequel. Last night a friend in Pisa told me she found her bike after two years!

  9. Tu dois être bien triste. C'est bien de pouvoir sublimer ta tristesse par la littérature et le cinéma. En fait c'était une œuvre d'art ce vélo, tu aurais du le protéger, l'assurer, voire le vendre aux enchères, au lieu de le laisser trainer dehors. L.

  10. Think of it as not stolen, but in a better place, with someone who needed it more - e.g. to get to work and feed their children. That is the only way I could be at peace when mine was stolen.
    Someone stole $400 from my bank account, transferred through Zach's phone when he was being nice and lending it to a kid in his class. That is less satisfying because 1 - it went to a video game and 2- it was stolen by a real psychopath of a boy who has a long history of stealing, violence, and really sick antisocial behavior. When confronted with his thievery, the boy stole Zach's phone from his backpack the next opportunity he had.
    Have you seen Happy Go Lucky? The protagonist has her beloved bike stolen, too. She shrugs it off, and decides to learn to drive, but finds her bike later in the film, if I remember correctly. Interesting movie.

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Thanks for your comments.