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CAUTIONARY TALES: Racked

When Allen Walker's bike fell off a city bus, he expected more than sympathy from the CTA.

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Wherever bicyclists gather--bike shops, Critical Mass rallies, Chicagoland Bicycle Federation events--Allen Walker is there, handing out his homemade flyer. It shows a photograph of the mangled remains of his $1,800 Italian racing bike. All that's left is the frame, which looks like a daddy longlegs squished by a piece of earth-moving equipment. Above the picture is a warning: "Don't let this happen to you."

The bike went on its last ride back in June, on the front of a 147 Outer Drive Express bus. Walker, a massage therapist who doesn't own a car, was on his way home to Rogers Park from the Blues Fest in Grant Park. He was with a friend with no bike so they caught the bus downtown and headed north. As Walker loaded his bike onto the rack, he inspected the clamps that hold front wheels in place and thought they looked beat up. "I tried to use the back one, but the back one had electrical tape, so it was no good," he says. "The front one seemed to be just a little different than usual. It clamped and went over the wheel the way it should. But the bike was leaning."

At Wilson the bus bounced over a bump. The driver stopped, then drove on to Foster. Walker had a feeling something was wrong. When he got off at Foster and Sheridan, the driver asked him, "Are you the guy with the bike? It fell off."

Walker depends on his bike to get to his appointments for work. He went glassy-eyed.

"The driver seemed like she was kind of remorseful about it," he recalls. "She said, 'You just talk to claims, and they'll reimburse you for that.'"

While Walker waited for the police at Foster, his friend walked home to fetch her car, then drove back down Lake Shore Drive. She found the bike lying by the side of the road near Wilson, obviously battered by traffic. She brought it back to Walker before the cops arrived. When the officers saw the damage, Walker says, "they just shook their heads and said, 'Oh, man, I'm sorry.'"

Walker took his police report down to the CTA's claims department. A clerk gave him a form, but told him, "You use the bike racks at your own risk." The CTA's "Bike and Ride" brochure says as much: "The CTA is not responsible for bicycles lost, stolen or damaged on CTA buses."

That risk has proven too much for Walker, now that he's bought a replacement bike. "The bike racks were put on years ago, and some of the old equipment is breaking down," he says. According to the CTA, the first racks were installed in 2001, and some of them are still on buses. "They're a hazard to cars, and they're a hazard to bicycles," says Walker. "If someone was driving down Lake Shore Drive on a motorcycle, they'd be dead."

John Dugan, who works at a north-side bike shop, says Walker isn't the only customer whose bike has toppled off a bus rack. "I wouldn't say it's super common, but I personally have talked to two or three other people. I talked to another guy this happened to on the Outer Drive Express." The racks, he says, are "not a great design. They rely on a coiled spring. They're designed to be easy to open. At 25 miles an hour, it's not a problem. But at 40 miles an hour, when it hits that bump . . . "

A bump near Soldier Field threw Aaron Shkuda's road bike into the road while he was riding the Jackson Park Express. "The bike just sort of wobbled, and it wasn't there anymore," Shkuda says. "I walked up to the driver and asked, 'Did my bike just fall off?' He said, 'I can't stop because we're on the Inner Drive.'"

Shkuda finally got off the bus when it stopped for a red light at Roosevelt. He walked three-quarters of a mile south and found his bike in the grass. The front wheel and fork were crushed. He filed a claim but got a letter telling him the CTA was not responsible.

"The problem seems to be that they're being held in by this little red arm," Shkuda says, describing the part of the mechanism that clamps to the side of the front wheel. "It doesn't seem like enough."

The CTA uses two types of racks. The Sportsworks rack--the one Shkuda used--has a spring-tension hook that secures the front wheel. The Byk-Rak--the one Walker used--has a rotating U-shaped bracket. Derek K. Sanden, vice president of MMT Products, which manufactures Sportsworks, said in an e-mail that his company "has had only one known reported case of a bike ever coming out of a Sportsworks MMT rack in our 14 year history. The problem stemmed from a rack that was damaged in the field (i.e. this typically occurs when drivers park buses and bump up against the wall or bus in front of them) that subsequently did not 'lock' into the deployed position." Ronald L. Coon, president of Byk-Rak, referred questions about damaged bikes to the CTA.

CTA spokesperson Wanda Taylor declined to comment on Walker's case, but stated in an e-mail that "CTA customers are responsible for properly securing their bicycles on the bike racks." Asked if that meant riders were liable for damaged bikes, Taylor replied, "That is a question that can't be answered generally. Customers should contact the agency and each individual incident will be investigated."

Walker says he's contacted the agency "two or three times a month" since the accident. Every time he calls, "pretty much they say, 'It's under investigation.' I think they don't really know what to do. They probably will string me along until the statute of limitations runs out."

While he awaits an answer, he continues to hand out flyers. "I want to warn people that the bike racks are a little aged, and I want to pressure the CTA," he says. "If they're going to provide this service, they need to keep it in working condition."

Oh, and he wants one more thing from the transit authority. "My new bike cost $1,180," he said. "That amount would be fine with me."

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