For a moment, it looked like bicycle bandits had stolen Deirdre McElroy's weekly Wednesday whirl around the reservoir at Druid Hill Park.
Bike snatchers had made off with 30 bikes belonging to city's Department of Recreation and Parks last week. It was harsh news for McElroy, 39, who hopped back in the seat after 25 bikeless years when she discovered the bikes the city makes available for Wednesday Rides Around the Reservoir.
But late yesterday afternoon, police Lt. Martin Bartness, assigned to the operations division, made some calls and found 25 replacement bikes in time for today's excursion.
"I'm ecstatic," said Anne Draddy, a parks administrator. "I said to my director, 'Let's do anything possible to let these guys know that these guys aren't going to stop this program."
Draddy began the weekly ride - which is more of an unorganized jaunt around the park - last summer. Each Wednesday at 6 p.m. she supplies bikes, helmets and a little bit of coaching.
Bicyclists - wobbly amateurs, experienced riders, kids just out of training wheels and seniors - come from around the city and county looking for exercise.
"Anybody's welcome," said McElroy, who has begun bringing her 68-year-old mother, "even if you feel like an idiot."
Last summer, the program was free. This year it costs $2, and Draddy added a noon ride.
When the bikes went missing Thursday, Draddy sent out an e-mail to the Wednesday bikers announcing the cancellation of the reservoir ride. Wayne Frazier, 55, a frequent Druid Hill Park cyclist who rides his own bike, called it a "wonderful event gone sour."
"We needed this," McElroy said. "What do you normally do with your mom? You go to Nordstrom or you have tea. This was healthy, and we are just there looking down at the cars saying, 'Look at those fools paying $3 a gallon.'"
Draddy also called the police, and Bartness answered. He could relate. He had spent time on a bike unit in Park Heights. "The most fun I've had on the job," he said. "If you like riding a bicycle."
He called the police division that stores seized property and "they immediately went to work," he said. "They're the ones that have done the real legwork."
Ten of the missing bicycles are electric-blue beach cruisers - single-gear bikes with comfortable seats and thick tires, perfect for beginners. Another 17 or so are classics - many with baskets and bells - from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Others had been abandoned in the park and adopted for the program.
Witnesses said the bikes were stolen by a group of youngsters who packed them into a pickup truck outside the Reptile House in Druid Hill Park, a locked brick building that became a makeshift bike garage after the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore abandoned it about three years ago, Draddy said. Six other rode off on bikes, according to police.
The getaway prompted police to alert their helicopter, said a department spokesman, which helped officers arrest one suspect and recover a bike. He was identified as Eric Hill, 22. Police said he was charged with several counts of burglary and theft over $500.
Twenty-nine bicycles remain missing.
Police estimate each bicycle is worth $300 to $500, but it's unclear how much the thieves stand to make off their finds. Sean Fitchett, who works at the Race Pace bike shop in Owings Mills, said used bikes typically sell for about half their original price.
Recreation and Parks officials will pick up the new bikes today. Draddy requested bikes with 24-inch and 26-inch wheels, and they were selected from a pool of property the Police Department has recovered in a variety of ways, including bikes taken from suspected criminals.
"I think that's terrific," said McElroy when she heard the ride was back on. "I don't care if they're used, as long as they work."