December 30, 2013

Some Hot New Bike Thieves in the Capital Region?

The Washington Post ran a story about bike theft on December 21. The statistics it cited are pretty eye-popping: Bike thefts were up 63% (from 2012 levels) in 2013 in Arlington County, up 19% in Fairfax and 43% in Alexandria.

Part of the increase can be attributed to the hike in the popularity of biking in and around the nation's capital—the Post story reported that census data indicates that the percentage of bike commuters in the city increased 30% from 2011 to 2012—but residents suspect there's something else afoot. The Post quotes Jared Janowiak, who recovered his stolen bike through a sting operation: "One conjecture among bike racers is that there’s some hot new bike thieves in the region."

So lock your bikes up smart, DC and NOVA cyclists, and, if your bike has already gone missing (my condolences!), check out the photos of bikes recovered by the Metropolitan Police Department, sample below:

December 20, 2013

Don't Supply the Demand: Vet Your Seller

The Schwinn I bought from Michael Birnbaum
Everyone from whom I have ever even almost purchased a bike has been a journalist. There was Olga Khazan, who covers health for The Atlantic, whose email address still auto-completes in my gmail because of the correspondence we had years ago about a bike she was selling on Craigslist. And when in November 2010 I did ultimately buy a Craigslist ride, it was a white Schwinn Washington Post soon-to-be-Berlin-correspondent Michael Birnbaum was selling on behalf of his wife (or girlfriend—I forget which) who had gone to Germany ahead of him.

How do I know these sellers' occupations? Because I Googled them. Even back in 2010, when I'd never had a bike stolen (and had practically forgotten how to ride one), I knew that Craigslist was awash in stolen cycles. So as I perused the bikes-for-sale listings on the Washington, DC Craigslist, I tried to steer clear of stolen property and gauge the likelihood that the various sellers were thieves.

Easier said than done. At the time I assumed that anyone with multiple bikes for sale was a shady character. Now, though, I know that there are enthusiasts who rehab bikes for fun and could, conceivably, have a few ready for purchase at the same time. There are also those who own veritable stables of bikes and who might, to earn a few hundred bucks or free up some storage space (for the latest two-wheeled acquisition(s), perhaps?), look to unload a couple well-used rides at one go.

As a conscientious would-be purchaser of a used bike, you really have to play it by ear, trust your instincts, and, to the extent possible, vet your seller. Let's look at a couple ads, found on the Washington, DC Craigslist on December 19, 2013.

I'm not prepared to say for sure that this Cannondale is stolen, but I'd bet that it has not been well cared for. The ad shows no evidence of either knowledge of or love for the bicycle. The seller provides no details—the bike's size? hello?—and only a picture so blurry you can hardly read the brand name. And that crass appeal to last-minute Christmas consumerism... I'd pass this one by.

Check out the contrast:

This seller has not only lovingly posed the Spearfish, but also furnished a comprehensive rundown of its features. Note also that s/he cites a reason for giving up this "dream" of a ride. (In case the print's too small for you, the ad ends with "Upgrading to a carbon bike.") It's a credible explanation.

This sort of thoroughness and authenticity can be faked, of course, but the Spearfish seller also passed my second test. When I replied to the above ad asking what assurance the seller could give that s/he had acquired the bike legitimately, I got a link to where the seller bought the frame (supposedly, anyway), and this: "Other than that you'll probably have to take my word."

Not as doubt-dispelling as a sales receipt, perhaps, but I like what I didn't detect in the Spearfish seller's reply: offense. Here's how another seller responded when I asked how s/he came to possess the single bike wheel advertised on Craigslist: "I assume you have no intention of apologizing for insinuating that this wheel was stolen." 

Seems to me that a non-criminal would recognize the theft of bikes and bike parts as a problem and be grateful that at least some buyers do their part to avoid supporting it...

December 16, 2013

How to Foil Creepo

In its circa 1974 short How to Protect Your Bike, Sid Davis Productions relies on a strategy beloved by the authors of my grade school health and home economics textbooks: enumeration. This isn't the "seven dietary guidelines," though—I forget what those were, incidentally—but five fingers to remind you how to protect your bike:

To summarize (in case that 1970s camp was too much for you to endure the film's full 12 minutes):

(1) Lock your bike 
(2) in a wise location 
(3) with a good chain and lock 
(4) chained around something strong and through both wheels and frame and 
(5) register it in every way you can.

The recommendations hold up pretty well after all these years, and since we haven't quite perfected that secret alarm the narrator fantasizes about (11:10), you best make sure you keep them well in mind.

December 11, 2013

"Bikes Thieves Get Yiked"

If you're perplexed by the title of this post, you're not the only one. It's from the official YikeBike promo video, and must—I'm relying on context clues here—mean something like "bike thieves get foiled" or "bike thieves got nothing on you." Take a look and see for yourself: 

Motorists should start commuting by YikeBike to avoid parking tickets and gridlock and high prices at the pump, that much is clear, and cyclists should swap their pedal-powered, too readily plunderable rides for the "world's first super light folding electric bike" because its portability means they can take it into the office or restaurant with them? 

I, for one, am not sold. I like pedaling too much to be satisfied zooming around limbs immobile. When it comes to foldable transportation, I think I'm more of a Brompton girl.

December 6, 2013

Cuff It?

As I put together Tuesday's post about bike lock anti-theft guarantees, I came across a lock not only backed by a wow-that-smacks-of-manufacturer-confidence $3500 warranty but also begging me to either start a game of cops and robbers or get my kink on.

Simply put: Master Lock Street Cuffs look like no bike lock I'd ever seen, and I wanted to know more.

Master Lock of course makes the cuffs sound great: hardened steel laminate, no fixed anchor point for leverage, nowhere for a would-be thief to wedge a jack or a pry bar...
Lovely, and at a mere $65.41, I was beginning to wonder if I needed to get myself a pair. Perusing reviews put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm, though. (As it tends to do; are there any hater-less products out there?) I'm not ready to write off the cuffs, but seeing as I already have a good lock, I'm not rushing out to buy a pair either. If you're smitten as I initially was by the idea of securing your bike with steel bracelets, here are some factors to weigh first:

  • Users report that the tubular locks—one per cuff—are tricky: sometimes they won't lock, sometimes they won't unlock.
  • The center links can supposedly be cut or popped with readily-available tools.
  • It's great for affixing your bike to a parking meter, but in some locations suitable anchors are scarce.
  • And, to quote (errors and all) a review on "Lets be honest. Its a lock. Some people take pride in defeating locks, so its a universal weekness."

December 3, 2013

When They Say "Limited," They Mean It

So I finally did the research into bike lock anti-theft warranties I promised back in "Interview with a Bike Thief." Here's the dirt:
  1. It is not true that all Kryptonite warranties are void in the Big Apple: While OnGuard's "Limited Anti-Theft Program" is void in the entire Empire State—way to ruin it for everyone, insatiable NYC bike thieves—Kryptonite does cover a selection of its products even within crime-ridden Gotham.
  2. Act fast: This much seems pretty standard. You need to purchase anti-theft coverage within 15 days of purchasing your lock, and, should attack on said lock result in the loss of your bike, you'd better file a police report within 72 hours and mail the lock manufacturer the required evidence and documentation within the week. 
  3. Pray the thief doesn't take the lock, too: Lock manufacturers would go bankrupt if they reimbursed every bike owner who locked his or her ride to something insufficiently anchored, or only secured the front wheel, or left the U-lock at home and trusted his or her (in this case her) 29er to a flimsy cable. To prevent paying for the mistakes of others—as opposed to failure of their product—then, the likes of Kryptonite and OnGuard require claimants to ship them the compromised lock. Makes sense, but what if the thief makes off with the lock, too? It's also interesting that OnGuard includes in the terms and conditions of its anti-theft program what amounts to an admission of its locks' vulnerability to the tools of the more tricked out thief: The manufacturer is not liable if "torches, battery operated tools or power tools were used to open the lock."
    The owner of this lock would be out of
    luck warranty-wise. 
  4. Bye-bye upgrades: Master Lock offers an anti-theft guarantee—in one case up to a not-to-be-scoffed-at $3500—on some of its products, but know that it's essentially only the purchase price that's covered: the "purchase price of the stolen bicycle including manufacturer’s original equipment and excluding separately purchased accessories or taxes," as Master Lock puts it. Considering that many if not most bicyclists upgrade their ride eventually, seems to me there ought to be a provision for reimbursing them in the event that a their stolen bike was sporting a pair of none-too-cheap but oh-so-functional aftermarket BB7s.
  5. One lock, one bike: It strikes me as entirely reasonable and responsible for an individual to have, say, two bikes and one bike lock. You can only ever ride one bike at a time, after all, and if you leave the unridden ride behind the locked door of your apartment while you're out on the other, you should be good, right? Well, not if you registered the unridden bike with the lock and then the ridden bike gets stolen while under its (apparently inadequate) protection. Only "one vehicle may be registered per lock," says OnGuard. Sorry. (Apology mine.)
  6. Term limit?: I can't quite figure out if three years is the longest you can get anti-theft protection on an OnGuard or Kryptonite lock. I get that, as outlined in this document, I can extend the initial one year term, but can I do so indefinitely? Do the one-, two-, and three-year prices just mean that I can only extend my coverage in one-, two-, or three-year increments? OnGuard's initial statement seems clear enough (parenthetical numerals, for pete's sake!)—"the limited anti-theft program offer applies only to the original purchaser for a period of at least one (1), but no more than three (3), years from the purchase of your OnGuard lock"—but then they go confusing me: "To purchase additional coverage, enclose a check (USD) made payable to Todson, Inc." Huh?
The bottom line? If you're considering purchasing anti-theft coverage, read the small print. All of it. And carefully. 

November 29, 2013

A "spiritually starved and hopeless addict..."

"...publicly self-destructing."

That's how one Dave Cutter described your standard-issue bicycle thief in a comment he left on a BikeForums thread I started to encourage cyclists to check out Bike Thieves Beware. Cutter thinks that BTB gives bike thieves too much credit and argues that most bike thefts are committed by opportunists who lack specialized experience. If you're naive or complacent enough—I was—to "secure" your bike with a cable lock, they'll gladly liberate it, but they're not spending hours taking high-tech locks apart to figure out how they work.

"It is not the bicycle thief against the bicycle owner," wrote Cutter. "It is [a] spiritually starved and hopeless addict...publicly self-destructing. Bicycle owners are merely the innocent bystanders who are directly affected."

While, as #5 in "Interview with a Bike Thief" attests, there definitely are some criminals out there actively keeping up with bike owners' latest antitheft strategies (another BikeForums commenter indicated that if he were a bike thief, he might frequent BTB for just that purpose!), Cutter's comment got me thinking about why people steal bikes.

I read this story recently about an unemployed Englishman who stole a bike in order to—so he said—give it to his child as a Christmas present, but the impression I've gotten is that most bike thieves—the habitual ones, anyway—are addicts, hooked on crack or heroin or something similarly strong and destructive.

So isn't the real problem—a problem even more daunting than how to make a two wheeler immune to snatch-and-carry—how to keep could-be thieves out of what commenter Cutter called a "death spiral" of addiction and criminality?  

November 26, 2013

We Are Watching You

I have Philosophy Now to thank for this tip. (Bike theft is everywhere, people, I'm telling you.) The news department of the May/June issue of the magazine included an item—titled "Sartre's Gaze in Action?"—about a study in which researchers placed posters of eyes above bike racks in an attempt to deter theft.

It turns out that a full account of the study—conducted by Daniel Nettle and colleagues at the Centre for Behaviour & Evolution at the UK's Newcastle University—is freely available online, so of course I checked it out.

In what they describe as "a simple, cheap anti-bicycle theft intervention using signs designed to evoke the psychology of being watched," Nettle et al. installed durable signs at three locations on the Newcastle campus where the incidence of bike theft was known to be high. Ninety by sixty centimeters (that's about three feet by two feet), the signs "featured a black and white image of a pair of male eyes with direct forward gaze" and bore, along with the logo of the local police service, the headline "Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You" and the name "Operation Crackdown."


When researchers compared the number of bikes stolen from under the watchful eyes during the year after the posters were installed with the number of bikes stolen from the same locations during the previous year, the results were startling: Bicycle thefts had decreased by 62% at the experimental locations!

Unfortunately it seems that the decrease is attributable to what's called "displacement of offending." This is just what it sounds like: An individual inclined to steal a bike but spooked by the pair of disembodied eyes staring down at him from above one bike rack simply moves on to an eyes-free rack and steals a bike there. In the Newcastle study, bicycle thefts in the control locations—racks around campus without posters—increased by 65% after the posters went up.

So what's to be done? Despite the displacement of offending (what would happen if the posters were ubiquitous??), Nettle et al. contend that a "cheap sign-based intervention" similar to the one they tested could be effective, particularly if "combined with probabilistic actual surveillance, to reinforce the perception of being watched with occasional evidence that this perception is real."

As an individual cyclist, though? I don't know about you, but I'm hatching plans to get an enlargement of the most intimidating stare I can find printed on a foldable placard I can affix above my bicycle when I lock it up around town... (Reminiscent of the cardboard cop, eh?)

November 22, 2013

Ask Patrick

Remember when, way back in the early days of BTB, I referred y'all to Patrick Symmes's Outside piece "Who Pinched My Ride?"? You read it, right? Good. Because Symmes has agreed to entertain a few questions from readers of Bike Thieves Beware!

So what do you want to ask the man whose "simple vendetta...grew to encompass three cities, seven bikes, and repeated encounters with the dangerous underworld of vanished bicycles," the man who wrote that "the futility of locking is shocking"?

Use the comments feature to submit questions, or avail yourselves of the "Write to BTB" widget in the righthand column (scroll down). Don't be shy! I'd like to get the questions to Symmes by next Friday, so submit yours sooner rather than later.

November 19, 2013

"There Are Those Who Steal Bikes"

I worry that over-introduction will detract from the story here, so I'll try to keep this short.

After a friend gave him a bike as a graduation present, Zilong Wang rode it across the country east to west, relying on the generosity of strangers for shelter along the way. Mere weeks after Wang arrived in San Francisco for an internship, though, the theft of his beloved bike shook his faith in humanity.

Read Wang's story—either on his blog or at (more context)—if you crave a happy ending or want insight into the stolen bike trade in San Francisco. Read it for tips on how to spot a bike thief (is the suspect trailing a bike that's the wrong size for him or her?). Read it for Wang's take on the American obsession with lawns or to find out how a homeless man's question changed the blogger-bicyclist's view of the workaday world...

November 15, 2013

Reject "Nihilistic Surrender to the Inevitability of Theft"

"When John Loughlin lowers a cordless angle grinder onto a section of a TiGr titanium bike lock clamped to a table, it emits a piercing scream of something that has a reason to live."

Thus begins Gina Welch's piece in the December issue of Bicycling magazine. Called "Unlocked," its title spread shows none other than Hal Ruzal—dreadlocks, cutoffs, four inches of pink sock visible above purple-laced Converse high tops—taking an angle grinder to chain lock on a New York sidewalk.

If you see a copy of this latest Bicycling on an airport newsstand or in your dentist's waiting room, by all means give the feature a look. (Or read it online.) Not only does Welch's piece give insights into what folks at TiGr, Kryptonite, OnGuard, and Knog (out of Australia) are up to; it's paired with two informative boxes, one detailing the results of the magazine's "smash lab" test of various locks and the other offering tips for deploying your lock to greatest effect.

And the author, who seems resigned at the outset of her trip to the "new frontier of bike security," ends her investigation markedly more upbeat.

Welch on her bike lock, p.46: "I use mine because it narrows the pool of potential thieves from All Jerks to just Jerks Carrying Tools. But I don't trust my lock to withstand an attack, and every manufacturer I spoke to supported my reasoning: If someone with skills and criminal intent wants my bike badly enough, he'll get it. End of story."

Welch's final paragraph, p.66: "Given the perpetual cat-and-mouse game that defines the industry, it seems cyclists can assume one of three attitudes: nihilistic surrender to the inevitability of theft, old-school reliance on brawn, or an adventurous ground-floor investment in something new. After watching designers press head, I decided to abandon Option One. I threw out my old busted U-lock and will double down on a better, sturdier systemarmed with a glimmer of hope and crossed fingers."

November 12, 2013

Replacement Bikes Come to S/he Who Swears (or Is Cute)

First I heard about Olgi Freyre. The 19-year-old Chicagoan had her $700 KHS Flite 223 stolen from outside the art supply store where she works 40 hours a week while going to DePaul University part-time. More as an outlet for rage than an appeal for sympathy, Freyre penned what the Huffington Post dubbed a "profanity-laced" note to the thief and posted it at the scene. "To the piece of shit that stole my bike from this bike rack," it began. (HuffPo carried an uncensored photograph of the note. Give it a read.)

Freyre's note went viral, and many who heard her story wanted to help. A man named Bob Curry met Freyre at a bike shop—he brought his daughter along—and bought her a new set of wheels.

Then, just as I was gearing up to do a post about Freyre, I learned that Atticus Seng, subject of a mid-October post, has also been the recipient of a replacement ride. As shown below, when Fresno high schoolers heard that the 9-year-old had had his bike stolen for a second time, they went classroom to classroom collecting money to buy him a new one. Seng was moved by the gesture: "I almost cried," he admits on camera. "I really did."
You can see why communities rallied around Seng and Freyre, an innocent, twice-wronged kid and a, to quote Freyre's note, "person who dedicates her time to making her life better rather than going around stealing shit." We're not all so irresistibly sympathetic, though, we victims of bike theft. And relying on Good Samaritans to replace stolen bikes is no way to address the root of the problem.

It's worth noting that in both of the cases discussed here the recipients of the replacement bikes plan to repay the kindness with good deeds of their own. Freyre hopes to organize a fundraiser or bike drive and the Sengs have expressed their intent to donate a sum of money equal to the price of Atticus's bike to Off the Front, a charity that works to provide underprivileged children in Fresno with bicycles.   

November 8, 2013

Kick-Start the Smart Lock Revolution

Just when I was ready to categorically bash cable locks (and I still might do so in a future post), it starts to look like the state-of-the-art in personal bike security is...a cable lock. A cable lock, though, like none you've seen before.

At the recently concluded TechCrunch Disrupt Europe technology conference, LOCK8 took home top honors—and a €40,000 check—in the startup launch competition Startup Battlefield. Between the TechCrunch monies and the funds raised by the venture's Kickstarter campaign, the London- and Berlin-based LOCK8 team should be able to bring their product to market.

But what is that product exactly? Just the "first GPS-tracked, siren-alarmed, sensor-enabled bicycle lock." LOCK8 is keyless and controlled remotely by smartphone:

Now this smartphone business gives me pause, and not just because I have yet to get with the 21st century. When riding public transportation here in DC, I always see and hear warnings about keeping a close eye on personal electronics. Securing your bike using your smartphone seems like protecting one oft-stolen piece of personal property with one even ofter-stolen.

Cell phone skepticism aside, I do like that the folks at LOCK8 consulted with bike thieves during the design process (as CTO Daniel Zajarias-Fainsod explained during the grilling he got from the TechCrunch judges). As a result, LOCK8 has sensors to register attack by any of the "villains of bicycle theft": There's a gyro accelerometer to detect vibrations caused by onslaught with a saw or a drill or an angle grinder and a temperature sensor that will trigger the lock's 120 decibel alarm if a would-be thief takes a blowtorch or ice spray to it.

One of the TechCrunch judges objected that LOCK8 "feels like a very elaborate way of telling you that your bike is being stolen," and, indeed, the lock's strength is not its impregnability. While different cable sizes will be available—"from standard wired cables to maximum security armored cables," according to the FAQs—it will still be just a cable affixing your ride to the rack or parking meter or telephone pole. LOCK8's hope, however, is that by building a community of concerned cyclists and denying thieves the luxury of time—tampering with a LOCK8 will cause an "instant push notification" to both the bike's owner and other LOCK8 users nearby—they can contrive for the good guys to have the upper hand.

November 5, 2013

"My bike is 9 feet long and weighs 110lbs"

I was incensed in October when thieves relieved a 9-year-old of his bike twice in as many months, and yesterday came news of another instance of similarly appalling effrontery. I mean, watch this video about Portland mom Emily Finch transporting five of her six kids around town under her own power and tell me you don't applaud what she's doing. (I'm not sure I'm down with having six kids, come to think of it, but if one has borne such a brood, better to bike them around than travel by Suburban.)

Anyway, Finch tweeted on Monday that her bike had been stolen overnight, a cargo of butternut and acorn squash with it. Subsequent tweets reveal that Finch "ditzed & left [her] bike out with keys dangling from the internal wheel lock, all sexy-like" and that she has the dream ending to her bike theft ordeal all scripted: "bike found with numerous upgrades in prep for resale; thieves dead beside it from choking on squash."

Fingers crossed that Portland's cycling community can pull together, track down the culprit, and reunite the Finch family with their ride.

November 3, 2013

Become a Bike Detective

Bike Registry Sunday installment #2

I can't become a bike detective, but perhaps you can. Got a smartphone? (Even if you don't, read on; there's content here even for the relative Luddites among us.)

Bike Shepherd—based out of the UK if the accents in the "Don't Steal My Bike" video embedded on its homepage are any indication—encourages folks who register their bikes (for free) to purchase and tag said bikes with Pulse ID tags. These are waterproof, tamper-resistant stickers with QR codes on them that can be scanned by smartphones. They are, according to Bike Shepherd, "trackable, traceable and tough." (What?! No Oxford comma, Bike Shepherd?) A set of three tags will run you $14.95.

Bike Shepherd also offers for download a free app that allows smartphone owners to scan Pulse ID tags, check whether a bike is stolen, and, if it is, inform police departments and Bike Shepherd's "army of Bike Detectives" of its location.

Now I can't do a proper app review because my lack of a smartphone prevents me from joining the (Bike Shepherd would have us believe) swelling ranks of bicycle gumshoes, but I did register my bikes—stolen and non-—and I have the Certificates of Registration (one of which appears above) to show for it. Can you say the same? Gather up those bike deets, visit the Bike Shepherd registry, and make sure that your name and that (those) serial number(s) are officially associated. Don't make me mount a full-blown, week-long, obnoxious-leafletter-deploying register-your-bike campaign...

(And if anyone does try out the app, let us know how it goes.)

October 31, 2013

Interview with a Bike Thief

My Cannondale had Avid BB7s, too. Was it the 
snazzy disc brakes that caught the thief's fancy?
This post was prompted by questions my boyfriend raised after reading "'By failing to prepare, you're preparing to fail.'" He expressed doubts about the deterrent effect a registration sticker would have on a "harder core criminal" and wondered whether the presence of a sticker wouldn't merely encourage a thief to repaint the bike or obliterate the serial number somehow. 

Faced with these questions, I realized how little insight I had into the mind of a bike thief, how ill-equipped I therefore am to anticipate a would-be thief's reaction to, say, my "Death to bike thieves" sticker. Unable to arrange to personally pick the brain of a bike thief (if any of you are reading this and are willing to grant an interview—we can keep it anonymous—avail yourself of the "Write to BTB" gadget in the right sidebar), I instead read every "interview with a bike thief" I could find. I learned a thing or two.
  1. How a bike thief locks a bike: If anyone knows how to secure a bike, it ought to be a bike thief, right? So how does a bike thief—currently active or reformed, I don't care—lock a bike? Well, here's what Omar Aziz does. (Omar is a onetime crack addict and bike thief who spoke to Guardian blogger Frederika Whitehead.) He uses two thick chains, through both wheels and the frame. Such chains can be cut, but it takes time and equipment thieves may not have.
  2. Never say "I'll come back for it later": Back during his thieving days, if Omar Aziz wanted a bike that was locked on a street too busy for him to be comfortable stealing it when he spotted it, he would puncture the tire to increase the chances of the bike's owner leaving it there longer—maybe even overnight. He told Whitehead: "Someone, if they find their tyre punctured they should take their bike with them, right at that minute because someone has done it on purpose to come and take it after."
  3. The Big Apple Is in a Class by Itself: Maybe everyone but me knew this already, but I read in this rather odd one-pager that Kryptonite lock warranties are void in New York City. (I will verify this claim and give the lowdown on lock warranties more generally in a future post.)
  4. Yes, David, There Is a Threat from Freezing: This one's for you commenter David. As The Dependent Magazine of Vancouver reports (in what is probably the best instance of the interview-with-a-bike-thief genre I came across): "Beyond bolt cutters and cordless grinders, thieves employ a number of techniques to relieve people of their beloved bicycles. Butane canisters are sprayed into cheap, aluminum locking mechanisms, freezing the components so they can be smashed with a hammer." 
    (I also learned from "Ryan," the thief who informed the Dependent piece, that (1) "nothing" is safe when a thief is equipped with a $200 cordless grinder and (2) "good disc brakes" rank high on the list of attractive components.)
  5. There's an Arms Race On: Want an uplifting story of a onetime bike thief who "turned his back on crime after completing a bicycle mechanic course"? Click here. What I got from Shaddouh's tale of redemption is confirmation that those keen to steal bikes pay close attention to what those keen to hold onto them are up to. As Shaddouh told The Docklands & East London Advertiser: "When we had a bit of extra money we would buy a really expensive lock to take apart and research how we could break it for future jobs." I guess that means the current crop of bike thieves is hard at work figuring out how to best tackle the TiGr...

October 28, 2013

Twelve Years a Jailbird

Thanks to my friend Karen for bringing to my attention last week the stiff prison sentences her home county of Arlington, VA is meting out to bike thieves these days.

Here's the case that made news: A 42-year-old named Michael Cullen pled guilty to eight counts of grand larceny (as we saw in "You F***ing Felon," Virginia has the lowest "felony threshold"—as defined in that post—in the country) with the intent to sell and one count of possession of burglarious (I'm sure I have never typed that word before) tools. For his involvement in multiple bicycle thefts, Cullen was sentenced on October 18, 2013 to 12 years in jail with four years suspended provided the victims receive full restitution.

Sparse on details of his particular crimes, the cookie-cutter news stories of Cullen's sentencing all cite his arrest and conviction as part of Arlington County's crackdown on bicycle theft. Spurred by the revelation that bike theft is at an all-time high in the county, the police department's burglary/larceny unit has stepped into high gear, with increased surveillance and saturation patrols (these are what they sound like). A list of arrests attests to the "positive results" law enforcement has seen thanks to these measures.

I was heartened to hear that thieves are being apprehended, but the rundown also reminded me that bikes really aren't safe much of anywhere, not in parking garages or even secured (supposedly) bike cages in apartment buildings. Confirmation that I'm not crazy for ceding precious floorspace in my probably <400 square foot studio to my Surly. This way you've gotta break and enter to get at it, and I bet that's a felony anywhere.

October 25, 2013

Hard, Strong, & Tough: Choose Two?

I don't know enough materials science to be sure that this is one of these meme-y "choose two" situations, but I got the impression from a Popular Science story that if you're manufacturing a bike lock—or anything, for that matter—you can't contrive for it to be hard, strong, and tough. (At least not in the technical sense. For those of you who don't have the relevant definitions committed to memory, I've included them below, courtesy of "the industry leader in manufacturing training," Tooling U.) 

Technical Definitions (source)

compressive strengtha material's ability to resist a squeezing force
shear strengtha material's ability to resist forces that attempt to cause the internal structure of the material to slide against itself
tensile strengtha material's ability to resist forces that attempt to pull it apart
hardnessa material's ability to resist penetration, indentation, or scratching; hard materials tend to be very wear resistant
toughnessthe measure of a material's ability to absorb mechanical forces before it breaks; impact toughness is a particular category of toughness
impact toughnessthe amount of energy that a material can absorb from a sudden, sharp blow before it breaks or fractures

Popular Science only introduced the trio of macho adjectives hard, strong, and tough, though, as prelude to what PS writer Theodore Gray terms a "fatal flaw" of nearly all materials: They become less flexible when very cold.

Cooling a tough-looking (informal usage, that) lock to –13°F with compressed difluoroethane, for instance, leaves it vulnerable to attack by a hammer:

Don't think bike thieves employ to such tactics? I've been tracking down and reading interviews with reformed bike thieves, and my research indicates...well, I'll save that for another post.

October 22, 2013

Make Sure Your Lock Job's an A

I suspect that Hal Ruzal of New York City's Bicycle Habitat would have little sympathy for the owner of the plundered Schwinn I photographed while in the Big Apple for a conference in August. The dreadlocked Ruzal has made a name for himself roaming the streets of Soho grading how well—or poorly—cyclists have secured their rides.

Now I'm no Hal—the 60-year-old has been in the biz for decades—but I'd give the Schwinn...a D? I mean, that looks to be what Hal would call a "proper lock" around the frame and front wheel, but obviously the rear wheel was left vulnerable to theft and the seat also appears to be readily swipe-able.

But why read my amateur attempts at lock-up assessment when you can watch Hal's? Thanks to Clarence Eckerson, Jr. of Streetfilms, there are three short videos available of Hal in action. I've embedded the first of these below. 

A couple fun facts about Hal before you watch, though:
  • At least as of 1996, Hal had had only one bike stolen. He was 18 and it was taken from outside his dad's candy store on Wall Street.
  • The man keeps his bikes locked in his apartment.

Like what you saw? Watch parts II and III.

P.S. While the jury's still out on whether Spice-Girl-turned-fashion-designer Victoria Beckham actually bikes around New York, the lock job she documented on Instagram in September earns an indisputable F.

October 20, 2013

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail"

a.k.a. Bike Registry Sunday installment #1

My BicycleSPACE Surly's got a new sticker on it as of five minutes ago. This one identifies it as being registered with I find the site's claim that it offers the "highest probability of recovery in the industry" if not dubious at least unsubstantiated, but the registration process is easy—and free. Both points in its favor. (The decal kit will run you $0.99 plus $0.44 shipping, but that's an add-on. See these detailed installation instructions to get an idea what that $1.43 will buy you.

My only complaint is that the frame size drop-down includes no "medium" option (which is what I wanted for my stolen Cannondale) and that I had to scale down my photographs to avoid exceeding the 100KB size limit.

Minor beefs, though. I like the bike fact sheet provides, right down to the Benjamin Franklin quote at the bottom (which I stole for the title of this post). And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go record the manufacturer and model of my rear derailleur.

October 18, 2013

"And I'm just like [facepalm] oh my God"

A few times recently—when, for instance, my boyfriend and I were debating whether to stow my Surly in his car or leave it locked on his roof rack while we hit up a pool party in Georgetown—I've threatened to "go postal" if I had a second bike stolen. (We went with the in-the-car option.)

But apparently Atticus Seng of Fresno, California has both worse luck and more equanimity than I: Though the 9-year-old has had two bikes stolen in as many months, his message to the culprits concerns their morality more than his loss: "I'd just say, like, 'That was not good of you and you should not steal anymore.'"

Watch KFSN-TV's coverage of the story to see Atticus touchingly mourn his red and silver Trek 820. Stealing from a child, bike thieves? Seriously?  

October 16, 2013

It's Registration Time. Do You Know Where Your Serial Number Is?

You already know some of the facts you'll need at your fingertips when registering your bike. Like the brand, or what color the frame is. (And don't bother going all Pantone or Crayola on this; one drop-down I saw lumped silver and gray together, and all required my "army green" Surly Ogre to lose the modifier.) 

But do you know the model name of your trusty steed? The year? The date of purchase? What about frame size? (I used this reference to convert the "Medium" of my stolen Cannondale to 18" for a registry that only listed numeric sizes.) Depending on your level of bike savvy, figuring out even such might-be-easy-for-others details as wheel diameter and number of gears could call for some investigating. 

So, to gather the information required to register your ride (different registries ask for different details; what follows is a pretty thorough list), you'll probably need access to both your bike and, if applicable/available, your sales receipt. Either record the following facts or store them in your computer-like brain:
  • manufacturer
  • date of purchase
  • frame color
  • wheel diameter
  • model
  • place of purchase
  • frame size
  • handlebar type
  • model year
  • purchase price
  • frame material
  • number of gears 

and, of course, the all-important SERIAL NUMBER.

Now I naively thought that locating a serial number was an easy matter of flipping a bike over and reading the thing off the underside of the bottom bracket. Little did I know that manufacturers inscribe identifying digits in all sorts of crazy places or that carbon fiber can't have serial numbers stamped into it. (I had never heard of most of the brands on that list from the International Association of Property and Evidence. Rollfast? Hercules? Biblefield??)

Could you, like me, use a serial number refresher? Let Josh from Toronto bring you up to speed:

October 14, 2013

Blessed Be the Bikes

I'm working on a post about bike registries, but in the meantime... I'd heard about the Blessing of the Animals, but the Blessing of the Bicycles? This annual event was news to me.

The Blessing of the Bikes at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City

According to Wikipedia, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City has been holding mass blessings of bicycles since 1999. Riders of all ages and faiths are encouraged to don their cycling clothes and bring their bikes into the cathedral, where a priest prays, sprinkles the two-wheelers with holy water, and presides over a moment of silence in remembrance of cyclists killed in the past year.

Similar events occur in cities from Los Angles to Pittsburgh to Melbourne, Australia. (Blessings are typically held during the spring or early summer, so you've got time to start one in your town.)

I couldn't help but notice, of course, that the "Blessing of the Bicycles" makes mention of bike theft! (More God than I'm comfortable with perhaps, but good stuff otherwise!)

Present in a world groaning under the excesses of consumption, we acknowledge the inherent goodness of non-motorized human powered transportation and give thanks for the simple beauty of the bicycle. God of life, hear our prayer. 
Present in a community filled with children, we pray for those learning to ride. Keep them smart, safe, and visible on their neighborhood roads. God of life, hear our prayer. 
Present in a community filled with strife, we pray for the victims of road rage and bike theft. And we ask for the strength to forgive mean people. God of life, hear our prayer. 
Present in a world of work, we pray for those who build, repair, and clean our bikes and those who rely on bicycles to earn their living. Bless those who choose to not drive to work and those for whom driving isn't even an option. God of life, hear our prayer. 
Present in a community of beautiful diversity, we ask your protection and blessing on all who ride: pedi-cabbies, weekend warriors, athletes, homeless folks, students, children, eco-warriors, bike co-op anarchists, messengers, and all the others who take to the [insert town name here] streets, bike paths, parks, and mountains. Keep us safe as we ride. God of life, hear our prayer. 
We now observe a moment of silence for all who have died while riding...

October 12, 2013

"Take my bike and I'm fanatical about it"

This post is, first and foremost, a follow-up to "Craigslist: The Black Hole of Bicycles." It brings you the story of Portlander Jake Gillum tracking fellow Portlander Craig Eric Ackerman to Seattle, where Craig was trying to sell—using, appropriately, Craigslist—Jake's $2500 carbon fiber Fuji.

There are echoes here of other posts, too, though. We meet another pretty blonde, for instance, who, despite her good and innocent looks, is involved in bike theft. (See "To Confront a Thief" if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

We also learn that trafficking in stolen goods constitutes a felony in some states. (I'm pretty sick of criminal code legalese after "You F***ing Felon," so don't expect a state-by-state report anytime soon. One legal matter I might look into after watching this video, though, is this citizen's arrest business. Is that for real?)

Okay, I'll shut up and let Gillum have the last word:
Take my bike and I'm fanatical about it. It's my favorite thing in the world. I'll do whatever it takes to get it back.

October 11, 2013

Craigslist: The Black Hole of Bicycles

In "Who Pinched My Ride?"—yes, I'm still on that—Patrick Symmes calls Craigslist "the black hole of bicycles." Surely many a stolen bike has found its way into the hands of a less-than-scrupulous—demand a serial number, people, and run it through the registries!—buyer via the increasingly sketchy online marketplace...which is why stories of Craigslist-enabled bicycle recoveries make news.

In August, for instance, I read about Vancouver bartender Kayla Smith stealing her $1000+ bike back from a man trying to sell it on Craigslist for $300. Hear CBC audio below of Smith describing the reclamation sting, or read the Reddit post in which she tells what happened.

My reaction? (I posted it on Facebook when I linked to Grist's take on the tale of redemption.) "May we all be blessed with bike thieves this amateur." The guy tried to sell the bike two blocks from where he stole it, for goodness sake!  

Savvier thieves, of course, list stolen bikes on a neighboring city's Craigslist: a fixie purloined in Portland might be hawked in Seattle, say. When my 29er vanished from behind the building where I work in Dupont Circle, colleagues told me to keep as close an eye on the Baltimore and Philadelphia Craigslists as on the DC classifieds.

So what if your bike has been stolen, and you see what you're pretty sure is your bike for sale on Craigslist? As the NBC spot makes abundantly clear, law enforcement discourages victims of bike theft from pulling a Kayla Smith and taking matters into their own hands. (To be fair, Smith did call the cops before meeting the thief in the McDonald's parking lot; she just didn't get enough assurance that they'd take action in time.) The police would prefer that, assuming you're in a position to prove that the bike is yours—go turn your bike over and record that serial number—you call and tell them what's up. Sometimes it works out.

Don't believe me? Read this Good interview with Los Angeles freelance film and television designer Christian Brown. A quote:
The cops didn't actually let me get within sight of the bike seller. They sounded really worried that I'd do something "unwise," which wasn’t that unreasonable of them given the revenge dreams I was having.
The coppers know that when you "absolutely love love love" (to quote Kayla Smith) your bike, you're quite likely to go vigilante in the event it goes missing.

October 9, 2013

You F***ing Felon

When, in his epic Outside essay, Patrick Symmes mentioned "the fiscal definition of felony, which varies by state but is typically under the thousand-dollar mark," I was curious: How much does this definition vary from state to state? How is felony theft defined in the District of Columbia, where I live? Did whoever stole my bike commit a felony in so doing?

Now Wikipedia usually comes through with precisely the list I'm looking for, be it a rundown of state nicknames or a catalog of animal collectives, but its "grand theft" article includes information about a paltry 11 states—and "needs attention from an expert in Law."   

So I did what any monomaniacal opponent of bike theft would do; I started running Google searches of the form "[insert state name here] felony theft."

Here's what I discovered:

  • The value stolen property must have for its theft to constitute a felony—what I've called "felony threshold" in the table below—varies from $200 (Virginia) to $2500 (Wisconsin).
  • Theft of some kinds of property qualifies as a felony regardless of actual monetary value: credit cards, firearms, and motor vehicles fall into this category in many states, but also prescription drugs (North Dakota); license plates (Ohio); cemetery decorations (Georgia); anhydrous ammonia (Idaho); and United States flags used for display, voter registration books, and original copies of court or historic documents (Missouri).
  • State statutes are complicated and confusing. (Lots of states, for instance, have done away with or muddled the misdemeanor/felony distinction, favoring instead lettered classes of crimes.)

While I can't—thanks to the third bullet point above—100% vouch for the information in the table below (though I have linked to my sources so you can investigate for yourselves—inform me of any errors you find), I do know this: Whoever took my bike is a felon. I mean, between the Cannondale Trail SL 29er 4 ($800+), the Continental Race King tires ($100), the stop-on-a-dime BB7s ($160), the Lizard Skins lock-on grips, the Topeak BeamRack, the Nite Ize spoke light... Makes me mad just thinking about it.  

Felony threshold
Felony threshold
Alabama $500 Montana
Alaska $500
Arizona Nevada
Arkansas $1000 New Hampshire
California $950 New Jersey $500
Colorado $2000 New Mexico $500
Connecticut $2000 New York $1000
Delaware $1500 North Carolina $1000
D.C. $1000 North Dakota $500
Florida $300 Ohio $1000
Georgia 500 (discretion) Oklahoma $500
Hawaii $300 Oregon $1000
Idaho $1000 Pennsylvania $2000
Illinois $500 Rhode Island $500
Indiana not based on value South Carolina $2000
Iowa $1000 South Dakota $1000
Kansas $1000 Tennessee $500
Kentucky $500 Texas $1500
Louisiana any crime that carries
sentence of death
or imprisonment
Utah $1500
Maine $1000? $5000?* Vermont $900
Maryland $1000 Virginia
Massachusetts $250 Washington $750
Michigan $1000 West Virginia $1000
Minnesota $1000 Wisconsin $2500
Mississippi $500 Wyoming $1000
Missouri $500

*Special thanks to Jeffrey Lovit for helping to clarify the details of theft law in the Pine Tree State. It seems that the threshold there remains at $1000 for the time being.

October 7, 2013

Cash, Sex, Drugs, and Bicycles

If you haven't already read Patrick Symmes's "Who Pinched My Ride?," which appeared in the February 2012 issue of Outside, you should. 

I'm tempted to declare the almost 6,000-word piece a classic of bike theft literature. It tells the story of how the author's bike got stolen and how his thirst to avenge that violation "grew to encompass three cities, seven bikes, and repeated encounters with the dangerous underworld of vanished bicycles."

It will be months before I've researched and written posts about all the oh-so-germane topics Symmes touches on—Chris Brennan, who has a method of lock-picking named after him; the value a piece of stolen property has to have for its theft to qualify as a felony (apparently the value varies state-to-state); the possibility of tracking wayward spouses with Garmin GPS locators—so for now I'll leave it at a single quote (from which I took the title of this post) and, of course, the recommendation that you go read the piece in its entirety.

In America’s rough streets, there are four forms of currency—cash, sex, drugs, and bicycles. Of those, only one is routinely left outside unattended.

October 6, 2013

Mark Your Man (or Woman)

For the capstone project required for his degree, UK design student Michael Lambourn devised a bike lock he hoped would make "the experience of bike theft as unpleasant as possible to put off the opportunist thief."

How'd he do it? The SmartLock is a cable lock with cores of compressed air and liquid running its entire length. If the lock is cut, the liquid explodes onto the would-be thief and the scene of the crime.

Lambourn says that while the lock's four chambers (each with its own propellant!) could be adapted to contain "almost any liquid imaginable," he recommends using dye and something called SmartWater. (For you consumers of enhanced H2O beverages, this SmartWater is not Coca-Cola product.)

Lambourn explains his rationale:
The dye would stain clothes, skin, tools, the bike and the area but would fade within two or three months. Smartwater is a clear, odourless forensic liquid that can be detected by police. It has a unique coding that can link the thief to the stolen property and the scene of the crime.
Commenters on the Yanko Design post about the SmartLock had their own ideas:

Fill the lock with pressurized bleach and cat urine, and Ill take 20.

A better deterrent than dye would be mercaptan – aka skunk smell. You could have enough in that spray to make the guy smell like he was attacked by 1000 skunks.
Watch the video and see for yourself:

Want to buy one? While that's not an option—the SmartLock has never been commercially produced—I have made contact with Lambourn, so you at least have a follow-up post to look forward to...