About 2,000 people in San Antonio reported their bikes stolen in 2013-14. No one knows how many more didn’t bother to call the police, believing a crime report would never lead to a recovery. One friend of mine lost a custom-built carbon fiber road bike in Southtown, one of 868 stolen in San Antonio in 2014, that probably was worth $15-20,000. Another friend lost his bike at a Broadway apartment complex not long after telling me he didn’t bother to lock anything as old and ugly as his ride because it was worth less than a junkie’s fix. Wrong.
Bikes are quick cash in the underground economy. Not only are there a lot of bike thieves circling parking lots and busy streets where cyclists gather, there are a lot of willing buyers. Bikes are sold for a fraction of their worth and are easily fenced. It’s pretty easy for a thief to transport a stolen bike 100 miles, wait a few months and then sell it online, offering a deal buyers can’t resist. For the victimized bike owner, how many Craig’s List sites in different cities can you patrol?
A few years ago, a new rider joined the Third Street Grackles cycling team, which I captained for a number of years, telling us about the incredible deal he got on eBay for his high-end road bike with high performance carbon fiber wheels. He paid less than the retail cost of a single wheel.
“That’s somebody else’s bike,” I told him. “Nobody sells a bike like that for what you paid, unless its hot.” That put a damper on the conversation.
My wife, Monika, and I were among the 919 reported bike theft victims in the city in 2013. Her 20-year-old hybrid was pretty beaten up, and I had tired of trying to keep it tuned and clean. I went to Bike World on Broadway, our Alamo Heights neighborhood shop before we moved downtown, and bought her a Trek Gary Fisher District bike for pedaling the neighborhood and the Mission Reach. It was a comfortable cruiser, complete with rear wicker basket, a cheery bell, and a creamy paint job.
It was double locked with cables on our Lavaca side porch when it was snatched while we were asleep or away. The bike was partially visible from the street; our belief that a thief wouldn’t brazenly come on to our porch with cable cutters in clear view of neighbors and passersby was naive.
Moral of the story: If a thief can see your bike and you can’t, you probably are going to lose it. It’s just a matter of time. Even a breakfast taco stop at your neighborhood cafe or a quick drop-by at the grocery store gives a thief plenty of time to get the job done if you lack a direct view of your locked bike.
Locks keep honest people honest, but most models don’t really deter thieves. Sure, a coated steel U-lock is better protection than a thin cable lock, and heavy duty cable locks are harder to cut than others. How you lock your bike to a bike rack, a lamp-post or other fixed object can improve your chances, too. The idea is to prevent a quick snatch and getaway, the bike thrown into the back of a pickup truck. At best, locking devices slow down thieves or send them to the next bike down the line.
“The important thing is to make your property less appealing, less accessible to the thief, than your neighbor’s property, the guy’s property next door,” said Sgt. Javier Salazar, a San Antonio Police Department spokesman who I interviewed at the recent Síclovía press conference at the Tripoint YMCA. “That may be a cold way of looking at it, but it’s reality. The thief is going to look for the path of least resistance. If your bike is better protected than the next guy’s, so be it.”
Many of us hope technology will help solve the bike theft epidemic.
I was excited to first learn of GPS tracking chips like the Cricket that is affixed to the underside of your bike seat and calls your cell phone when tampered with. French-startup Connected Cycle has introduced similar technology embedded in pedals. Startups like BikeSpike in Chicago offer comprehensive GPS tracking software for a monthly fee, and help you register telltale details identifying your bike, such as its serial number and model number, as well as photographs that document scratches, dents and other identifying data. It’s one more monthly fee, app and password. Annoying? Yes. Worth it? That depends. How deeply will it hurt if your bike is stolen with little chance of recovery?
“Although on paper, the idea of traceable pedals seems like a good idea, it actually may not be,” said Scott Ball, a Bike World mechanic and photographer who contributes regularly to the Rivard Report. “For example, if the product becomes popular, thieves will start identifying the bikes with the GPS enabled pedals, which can easily be removed with a 15 mm. wrench that fits in a back pocket.
“Every bicycle can be stolen, our job as bike owners are to make them more difficult to actually steal,” Ball said. “This will deter the thief from pursuing your bike and make him (or her) more likely to feed on easier prey, such as the bikes only utilizing a simple cable lock. Anybody with a decent pair of cross cutters could easily snip through a variety of sized cable locks. Wheels and seat posts with quick releases are also an easy target. Equipping these components with locking bolts makes them much more difficult to steal.”
Some Locks Are Better Than Others
Bike World recommends:
- A German-made, folding Abus Bordo lock system or a U.S.-made Kryptonite Evolution bike lock. I use a more dated Kryptonite U-lock for my Fairdale Weekender hybrid bike and need to upgrade. For my Colnago road bike? I take it with me everywhere and don’t let it out of my sight in public. At home, it sits inside a windowless locked closet.
- Park your bike in a location where other bikes are parked and, ideally, where you have a line of sight from your inside location.
- Lock your bike through the frame and, if possible, through each wheel. Wrap the chain or cable tightly to avoid leaving any slack.
- Lock your bike to a stationary object.
- If possible, store your bike inside. Apartment balconies are not secure.
There is a Bluetooth-enabled U-lock under development by F?Z Design in Utah, which is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund production of its unique Noke locks, which you can check out in this video. Users can remotely control the device from a smart phone. The locking mechanism on the newest generation of products emits a piercing shriek when tampered.
Conversing with a few other riders on the subject of bike security the other day over a pint, I listened as one asked, “Well, if the locks aren’t any good, why do bike shops keep selling them?”
The answer is simple: Many customers don’t want to pay the cost of enhanced security.
“There are plenty of customers we see with $3,000 bikes who look at locks and opt for the most affordable one. Why do some people buy $150 bike helmets, and other customers want to pay $49.95?” a manager at another San Antonio bike shop asked when I raised the topic. “If you truly believe you are wearing a helmet to protect your brain in a fall or crash, why would you buy anything but the best protection? The answer is simple: people don’t want to spend the money. There’s a saying: You can spend the money or you can pay the price. But we don’t quite put it that way in front of our customers.”
Register Your Bike and Get it Etched
With the return of Daylight Savings Time, more people will be out and about on their bikes. The thieves will follow. The no-vehicles bike festival Síclovía returns to the streets of Southtown on Sunday, March 29. One day earlier on Saturday, detectives from SAPD’s Central Property Crimes unit and SAFFE officers will host an “Engrave and Save” bicycle ID initiative in front of the Central Substation at 515 S. Frio St. from 8 a.m. to noon. Riders can sign a waiver and and get an “owner-supplied number” engraved on the underside of bike frames at no charge. SAPD will retain a copy of the waiver, in effect, registering your bike in the event of a future theft and recovery.
Finally, here is a link to the USAA site explaining the value of a renter’s insurance policy so that if you do lose your bike, you can at least start over with some financial help. Most homeowner’s policies offer bike protection, but unless your ride is a high-end one, your deductible probably means you will have to pay retail.
*Featured/top image: A bike locked by its wheel only will not deter thieves. Photo via Flicker user Quan Ha.