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Kayla Smith on August 26, 2013, with the bicycle she retrieved from a thief after it was stolen from her in Vancouver the previous week.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The man who stole Kayla Smith's bike, then tried to sell it on Craigslist, had one request when she asked to take it for a test drive. "Don't ride away," he said.

Ms. Smith, a 33-year-old bartender at a trendy Gastown pub, had set up the meeting after seeing her bike of a mere 4 1/2 months pop up on the online classifieds website. As she stood in the McDonald's parking lot where she and the seller had agreed to meet, the only one of the two who knew the bike was actually hers, Ms. Smith still hadn't settled on a game plan.

But she had the element of surprise on her side, and once the Vancouver woman was back in the driver's seat, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. Her hands shook, but her feet pedalled. And pedalled, until she was gone.

"I can't believe I just stole my bike back," she thought, living the dream of anyone who's ever had one stolen, while leaving the dumbfounded seller in her dust.

The incident prompted Vancouver police to caution residents against taking matters into their own hands, even though Ms. Smith's bike might have been lost if not for her sleuthing. Police warned the situation could easily have taken a turn for the worse.

Bike thefts are on the rise in many Canadian cities and only a small number are found and returned. Ms. Smith's story brought an outpouring of support from cycling advocates who say police forces either can't – due to a lack of resources – or won't prioritize such thefts.

In an interview, Ms. Smith said she was visiting a friend at the Olympic Village last Wednesday, after attending the Pacific National Exhibition. She was worried about locking her bike – worth more than $1,000 – outside, but her friend assured her it would be fine. After all, that was why Ms. Smith had invested in a heavy-duty lock.

But when she came back out, the bike was gone. Ms. Smith, with a mix of despondence and anger, filed a police report and later mentioned the theft in a Facebook post.

Thursday morning, still in bed and teary, she received a call from one of her friends. A bike that appeared similar to hers was on Craigslist for $300. Ms. Smith took a look, noted the make and model similarities, and quickly called to arrange a meeting, worried the bike wouldn't last long at that price.

"I called the guy up, totally played super sweet, was like, 'Hi, how are you? You know, I have the day off today, why don't I come meet you?' "

He agreed, and when she finally saw the bike, with its stickers and custom brakes, she knew it was hers. She rode to a nearby parking lot, to a spot where she could still see the seller but he couldn't see her.

"He was standing there dumbstruck," she said. Then, realizing something was amiss, she said he sprinted away.

Ms. Smith said she's passed the seller's information on to police. A woman who answered the phone Monday denied involvement.

One of Ms. Smith's friends wrote about the incident on the website Reddit, where it drew more than 2,000 comments.

Constable Brian Montague, a Vancouver police spokesman, said the department will follow up on the information Ms. Smith provided, but locating the seller and requesting charges will be more difficult than if she had called them in to handle the sting, as other victims of theft have done in the past.

He emphasized the department is glad Ms. Smith got her bike back, but wouldn't encourage anyone to follow her lead.

Constable Montague said the number of bike thefts in Vancouver climbed from 1,447 in 2011 to 1,691 the next year. He said there were 794 thefts in the first half of 2013. Bike thefts are not number one when it comes to incidents of property crime, however. That distinction belongs to thefts from autos, he said.

Police forces in Edmonton and Calgary this month reported a spike in bike thefts in their cities. A Toronto police spokeswoman said its annual statistical report has not been released so she couldn't comment. She did not respond to further queries.

Yvonne Bambrick, an urban cycling consultant in Toronto, said cyclists can feel police don't take bike thefts seriously. That's one of the reasons people take matters into their own hands.

She said she could recall two prior incidents where people found their stolen bikes on Craigslist and took them back.

Erin O'Melinn, executive director of HUB, a Vancouver-area cycling coalition, said she had never heard of such incidents. "This is an interesting, new twist," she said.

As for Ms. Smith, she was just pleased Monday to be able to take her bike for a spin. She said she was still reeling from how the incident unfolded.

"I'm still in shock. I'm still in disbelief."

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