BIKE THEFT: HOW TO AVOID BECOMING A STATISTIC

Keeping your bike(s) safe can be a serious problem but, with the right approaches, you stand a good chance of remaining the rightful owner - even in the more challenging districts. Michael Stenning attended the school of the streets.

 

Know your enemy

There are broadly two categories of thief, opportunist and organised/professional. Their methods and “skill” may be at completely different ends of the scale, though both are looking for something indistinguishable that they can steal and sell on extremely quickly - often to order, in the latter context.

Many criminal gangs’ business includes bicycle and motorcycle thefts on an industrial scale, stripping machine to frames and components and/or selling them abroad. Opportunists are more easily thwarted and assuming they’re not stealing to feed a drug/similar habit, often place stolen machines for sale online.

On the one hand, chances of recovery are slim. However, while bikes are easily shifted in the virtual world, many owners have turned detective and ultimately, been reunited with their machines.

Internet Safety

Staying with technology for a moment, think about your online activity. Some riders posting to club and other galleries give far too much information to digitally savvy tea-leaves - including their house numbers. This can lead to sheds/garages and homes getting raided. Therefore be wary of posting names/addresses/similar visual clues that could pose security risks and never set your Strava/GPS start/end points at your house.

Home/Personal Security

Not telling people (voluntarily or otherwise) what you have, or where it’s kept is a brilliant start.

 

Think how you leave the house; be aware of your surroundings. An increasing number of us work from, or run businesses from home. Courier deliveries are common; people don’t take much notice of large, unmarked vans cruising the streets...

Out 'n’ About

Be wary of vehicles driving close behind/alongside or indeed, people showing particular interest in you or your bike. In these instances, I’ve been known to take a different route home.

For many years, I lived and commuted through London’s seamier districts, which depending on time and day, presented other potential dangers - bike mugging being a prime example. Segregated cycle paths are often poorly maintained or lit, cutting through rough neighbourhoods or indeed, all three, can be problematic - stick to public roads wherever possible.

Be wary of groups forming and deliberately walking into your path - keep speed brisk and be alert. Ideally plot a course around them but if need arises, target a group member and ride like the clappers - chances are they’ll scatter. Slowing down presents them with an ideal opportunity to snatch your bars, inducing a crash and then, take your bike.

Other techniques include parking up by a block of flats several streets away and then patting yourself down, suggesting to onlookers you live there and are hunting for door keys keys. Avoid dark alleys or dead ends.

Remain vigilant on mass rides/events, too - it’s not unknown for criminals to arrive in riding apparel, thus not arousing suspicion, before snatching expensive machine(s) and speeding off.

Regardless whether your bike sits pride of place in the spare bedroom or on a hook in the garage, it should always be locked, preferably to a (solid) wall anchor or at least to an immovable object.

Brands such as Cycloc have been producing aesthetically pleasing lockable storage for several years now, perfect for situations where space is at a premium and “Game-Keepers” look too industrial. http://cycloc.com/ps/bike-storage-systems/1-cycloc-solo.html  Locks are of course, only to keep honest people out, so avoid leaving keys (obviously) power tools or other equipment accessible.

Flats, halls of residence and other communal arrangements see considerable footfall and entry is surprisingly easy. Ideally keep bikes (locked) in your flat; or secured street style under stair cases (without falling foul of terms dictated in tenancy/leasehold agreements).

Sheds/outbuildings are particularly vulnerable to attack, thus aside from stout external locks and possibly an alarm. Tethering bikes together and to something like a lawn mower inside makes a thief’s job much harder, greatly increasing their chances of being caught.

Closed panel gates seem like a good idea, keeping prying eyes from peeking down side entrances etc but they also allow unwelcome visitors to work unseen.

Pea gravel and motion triggered security lights are also very effective deterrents. Curtains/blinds drawn across windows (on outbuildings) make it harder for people casing the joint and leaving cars parked close (so garage doors cannot readily open) is another no-cost technique (Just make sure they will start when you need to move them!). 

 

Other Precautions

Talking of cars, remove cycle carriers and other hints that potentially valuable machines are kept in or around the home. Leaving cycling kit such as trade jerseys, shorts tights etc on the washing line when you’re out is another giveaway 

 

Bike-specific locks - What to look for, what to pay

 

This, to some extent, will depend on where you live, how much you value of your bike(s) and where you ride. Ideally a good lock should be able to defeat thieves on looks alone. In reality, all good locks buy you is time. The river runs too fast for brand specific recommendations - nonetheless; buy the best you can afford; rule of thumb suggests at least 10% of a machine’s list price.

Models marked sold secure are good indicators -these have been tested and rated by an independent body (Bronze, Silver or Gold according to their resistance to most common forms of attack).

Most professionals will only tackle something they can defeat in 60 seconds or less. Whatever you choose, practice un/locking from the comfort of home to the point where it's intuitive and keep a spare set of keys somewhere safe, just in case… 

Brute force, rather than lock-picking is the most common modus operands. However, while any lock is better than none, cylindrical types are easily foiled using common or garden biros (as a prominent US manufacturer discovered to its cost when a You Tube video demonstrating said technique went viral a decade or so back). Straight-cut car versions are pretty much universal amongst better models these days.

Traditional cable locks will snake around a wider choice of objects and are fine in low crime areas - say parking up outside the café’, answering nature’s call down a country lane or when transporting bikes on cars. Down side is that most can be defeated in seconds using modest bolt croppers (or indeed pulled apart by hand!), even those commanding £50.  

Once regarded THE ULTIMATE defence, U locks have many advantages but are less convenient when tethering bikes to street furniture. Longer shackles help but are vulnerable to twisting forces, so fill the space inbetween, so bottle jacks and other popping implements cannot be introduced.

Expect to pay £30 upwards for models that will resist up to a minute’s sustained attack with simple tools and nearer £100 for something capable of deterring al but the most equipped and determined. Cable type extensions are sometimes included and make great supplements for securing the front wheel too, though bikes regularly left for several hours, or longer should sport a stouter second lock.

These limitations signalled my conversion to motorcycle-type chain and disc lock/armoured cable designs weighing several kilos,  giving scant change from £100+ and consuming considerable pannier space. They can be worn diagonally across the chest on shorter scoots but become uncomfortable over any distance.

Thankfully many come with aftermarket carry brackets. Manufacturers have also responded to this with “hip locks” - models specifically made to be worn around the waist, though girth shouldn’t prove problematic in 16 litre panniers or larger cycling specific rucksacks/messenger bags). 

Thieves tend to carry genre specific lock busting “goodies” thus combining two different types, e.g. an armoured cable with good quality U lock often persuades them to look elsewhere.

Don’t forget trailers/tagalongs need decent locks too.

For short stops, say outside school or supermarket a sturdy extension cable will probably suffice but and depending on value, another armoured cable or chain type lock is advisable.

Talking of accessories, strip your bike of lights, computers, pumps and anything else of value that is easily swiped.  

 

Locking/Security Skewers

Locking bolts such as these made by Atomic 22 http://atomic22.com/  are another clever complimentary solution, preventing “locusting” of expensive wheels, forks and other components.

These are made from delightfully finished, super strong titanium and host a unique key, so cannot be defeated using pliers unlike cheaper sorts relying on standard 4/5mm hex keys (now commonly carried by opportunists…)

Assuming you’ve also locked your steed securely via frame and rear wheel to something equally immobile (beware rusty railings) in a well-lit public space, most will just walk on by.

That’s not to say Torx types don’t have some merits, say stopping to post a letter, or popping in for some milk en route home. These came as standard on The Revolution Cross 2. 

Bolted track type axles were once ignored, although fixed/single speed and hub gearing’s renewed popularity means criminals might come quipped to swipe unsecured wheels.

Datatag and similar electronic means won’t stop theft in the literal sense, but are useful, especially for insurance/recovery purposes. Apply stickers in prominent places so everyone knows and keep details somewhere safe at home.  I’ve tended to use these on higher quality trailer/bikes, too.

Technique can also trump size - a cheaper lock used smartly can prove more effective than an expensive one left vulnerable. Fill the lock and keep the mechanism as inaccessible as possible. The less space there is; the less chance a thief has of launching a successful account.

Removing the front wheel, running the lock through the frame, both wheels and to your chosen anchor points remains one of the most secure methods. The black Trek (above) by contrast is ridiculously vulnerable.

Street specific techniques

Always choose a well-lit public space and solid object. Make accessing the locking mechanism tricky - any additional faff factor buys time for a thief to be interrupted (although passers-by and CCTV all too often look the other way these days). Check railing health carefully; rusty ones are easily cut through with a junior hacksaw.

In some respects bike stands are better bets but by default, attract thieves like flies around pooh. Avoid any with gaffer tape or similar wrapped around them. This is often a sign they’ve been cut, ready for thieves to take any bikes chained to it.

Commuter? Avoid parking in the same spot everyday or leaving locks behind - potential thieves can inspect and return later with appropriate busting equipment.

Look after your mechanism

 

Close lock dust caps and keep mechanisms lightly oiled either with PTFE based sprays or summer weight chain lubes - this prevents corrosion taking hold. We’ve found Green Oil Slip particularly effective for these sorts of generic duties.

Remove luggage, lights, computers and similar gizmos, or lose ‘em ...

Downgrading certain components, such as the rear mech, can often see potential thieves look elsewhere without overly affecting performance. Draping handlebars, especially drops over railings continues the awkward flavour, facilitating shorter shackles, while buying some additional struggle time

Making friends

Developing a good rapport with a café or similar small business might lead to an arrangement for some secure parking.

Low/No Cost

Booby trapping techniques, such as reversing brake cable runs, i.e. left lever for the front and right for rear can catch an unwary snatch 'n’ grab opportunist out. The same was true of fixed gear builds - I knew a courier who had his snatched, only for the thief to return, saying he couldn’t ride it! These events are extremely rare, especially since fixed and single-speeds have surged in popularity ...  

More involved disguises are also surprisingly effective when combined with stout defences. Sloppy, brush painted makeovers are a bit extreme, but might be OK for a town hack. Otherwise, consider a plain livery next time your frameset is due a respray. Not everyone can stomach “skidmark” brown, but gloss dove or battleship greys can often repel or go unnoticed.

Fifteen years back there was a trend for mummifying better quality framesets under acres of electrical tape or redundant inner tube, which stirred mixed reactions, many suggesting this simply advertised a bike was worth nicking.

I took out a partial subscription o the idea. Top and seat tubes were dressed in acres of scrap butyl, defending paint against chips/similar accidental damage, while hiding decals. I also had my name etched into the crank arms and handlebar stem.

Painting old butyl matt black and adding “bird droppings” was another useful technique that gave a neglected and therefore unappealing effect from a distance. A single ring and “only” eight gears probably helped, but, nonetheless, it was always guarded by two sold secure gold locks.

Logs

Keep photos and other logs of your bike(s) frame numbers, components and unusual features. Should the worst happen, police will have something to go-on and circulating these on social media, cycling websites can make all the difference.

Placing a piece of laminated card with name, address, date of birth, telephone number/email and blood group inside a handlebar end or other contact points also helps identify you as the rightful owner and could prove a life-saver following an accident.

Any bike is a potential target for theft - mountain bikes were top of the food chain until ten years ago and remain very desirable. Once upon a time in the 1990s, anything with drop bars was seemingly overlooked; hence many (myself included) began adopting this configuration and full-length mudguards on racier, rigid cross country machines.

How to Avoid Buying a Stolen Bike

Sometimes good independent bike shops will sell machines on commission/part exchange basis but only with proof of ownership documentation. Obviously, this and shop overheads will be factored into the asking price but worth considering if they have the machine you desire.

Club notice boards are another useful resource, though these days much of our lives are spent virtually - trawling online auctions/classifieds. These sites require greater caution and frankly, if something sounds suspiciously cheap/too good to be true, then steer clear.

Some street markets were notorious for hot machines - often with the rightful owner’s accessories and luggage still in situ. Police indifference allowed this trade to flourish unchallenged for many, many years.

   

Private Sellers

Insist on a seller’s landline phone number and make cursory enquiry - ask why they are selling -stories about a sibling “who has just emigrated” should have you on red alert. Make your excuses and end the conversation if you feel uncomfortable.

Try and determine what they know about riding and that particular bike. Drop in casual questions about how recently the rear tyre chain/cassette/handlebar wrap/brake pads were replaced - why and the brands they preferred.

Genuine enthusiasts will have no problems recollecting why and approximately when they replaced or upgraded something. If the vibe feels good, arrange a meet at a central point and bring a friend along.

There’s safety in numbers and they can keep the vendor occupied (or vice-versa) while the bike’s getting a thorough check-over. By the same token, play fair. Yes, it’s reasonable to ask for a test-ride but be prepared to leave cash; or valuables to the bike’s asking price behind.

 

Assuming they cannot provide proof of ownership (sales receipt in their name etc), aside from the standard structural mechanical stuff, smile a lot and walk swiftly away from anything sporting missing or tampered frame numbers (usually found beneath the bottom bracket shell). Big dents in frame tubes are deal-breakers full stop, but are often synonymous with brute-force lock busting techniques.

Unusual exchanges, such as a really low rent front/rear wheel are further tell-tale clues. Bear in mind that buying stolen property simply fuels demand and knowingly doing so is also a criminal offence.

Insurance

This is for those worse-case scenarios - a toe-rag foiled by your security systems might wreck your bike out of sheer spite. The continued economic downturn has given rise to extensive metal theft-entire bike racks have been stolen (with bikes attached) and sold as scrap!

In these situations, insurance is the only recourse. Consider your needs carefully - extensions on household policies can be a good and inexpensive move. However, these can place limits on value and may not cover you for commuting, or machines stored in sheds/outbuildings. Also ensure policies give cover on a new-for-old basis without limiting you to a particular retailer.

 

Bike specific policies offered via membership to campaign or touring groups tend to be more expensive premium wise (typically 10% of the machine’s showroom value) but tend to have fewer restrictions hidden within the small print.

Datatag and Sold Secure locks (gold-rated preferably) can reduce premiums, but are another likely stipulation in high crime areas. Similarly, they may also cover you in a touring context, where bikes are often locked in the open air overnight (campsites being a prime example).  London Cycling Campaign (www.lcc.org.uk  ) and Cyclists Touring Club (www.ctc.org.uk /) offer this and 3rd party accident cover too.    

PUBLISHED MARCH 2017

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