Those Thieving Bike Thieves

By Justin Short

The phone rang at 4:30 a.m. one dismal rainy morning at The Hub, a dilapidated office space that housed several bike organizations based in Santa Cruz, California. I was there to begin early morning deliveries for the bike messenger service where I was working, so I tended to ignore the phone for the cycling club back in the corner. But on this morning a gravelly voice erupted from the answering machine, the memory of which still haunts me to this day: “Hello. I’m a bi-cyclist. I’m calling to talk about bi-cycle thieves. They come in the dark stillness of night to steal our bi-cycles. We buy all the locks that money can buy, and still they come to steal our bi-cycles. I’m a pretty strong fellah . . . but I’m not into competition of any kind. Competition cultivates war, suffering, and disease. [click]” Bike theft was a huge problem there in the late 90s, and it has been just as bad every place I’ve lived ever since, Spokane included. So, what can we do? 

I’m not the strongest fellah myself, but I recovered a stolen mountain bike in Spokane this summer without getting stabbed. Chasing down a bike thief is a terrible idea for obvious reasons, but I was fairly certain the bike belonged to one of my bike friends. As it turns out, it belonged to a neighbor of one of my bike friends, so now I have a new bike friend. There’s a long list of things you ought to do and not do to keep your bike safe, and this article is far too short to provide an exhaustive list, so we’ll try to cover a few of the basics. 

Lock your bike. A simple U-lock is usually enough to deter an opportunistic bike thief, but a well-prepared bike thief can cut through the most serious bike lock in the known universe. Given the high incidence of property crime in Spokane, locks are not just for pit stops outside the home anymore. Sadly, it’s becoming necessary to lock our bikes inside our own homes. When possible, lock your bike to an immovable object, and don’t store your angle grinder right next to it. If you have multiple bikes, lock them all together—hopefully someone will speak up when the bike thief is spotted dragging a pile of 8 bikes down Northwest Blvd. And don’t bother with those easy-to-use cable locks. The average bike thief with only three teeth left can bite through one of those in a matter seconds. The goal of a bike lock is to create an inconvenience for the would-be thief of your bike. 

One of those small “keep-the-honest-people-honest” locks will likely get you in and out of the coffee shop in good order, provided the bike rack is in a visible spot. However, there are times and places where it’s better to bring the bike inside, and I don’t recall ever being asked to take it outside in Spokane. It’s best to use good judgement when wet and snowy weather are concerned, though, so as not to make oneself a nuisance to such establishments. 

Never lock your bike outside overnight or leave it unattended in/on your car. If I had a nickel for every time someone from out of town had bikes stolen off the rack while sipping post-ride suds at one of our fine local breweries, I’d wish I had come by my nickels in a more auspicious manner. 

Register your bike. My hope with this installment of EDC is that you will register your bike and every shop will register every bike they sell with Spokane Bike ID and Locally, the Spokane Bike ID program is available online or through neighborhood Spokane C.O.P.S. shops. Owners enter their contact info, serial number, description, and photos so that there’s an increased chance of stolen bikes being returned to their owners when they are found. 

High dollar bikes are often fenced out of town in far flung places like Portland and Seattle, so we also need a national bike registry, and Bike Index is the biggest and the best, with a reported $23 million worth of recovered bikes. Both services are free. During my previously mentioned bike recovery event, I texted the serial number to Spokane Police and asked them to look up the owner on Bike Index. “Wow,” the officer said to me, “this website is pretty extensive. How did I not know about this?” I would like the police, every shop, and every bike owner to know about this. It may prevent you from buying a stolen bike, and it may bring your own bike home. “The sellers of stolen bikes are getting savvy these days,” Tracy Bee Gee, one of the sleuths with Seattle Bike Detectives, told me recently. “They will create owner’s profiles for the stolen bikes they’re selling. So I comb through the files looking for duplicate entries.” That’s why it’s important to register your bike, like, now . . . or before then.  

Incidentally, the bike I recovered wasn’t listed there, but hopefully it is now. If we make it just a little too inconvenient to steal bikes, perhaps property criminals will move on to lawnmowers, golf clubs, and other things most cyclists don’t care about. //

Justin Short had his Huffy Thunder Road bicycle stolen right out of the yard when he was seven years old. He cried and cried and wondered why the world was such a terrible place. He feels better now knowing that more good people are out there helping to find stolen bikes. 

Cover photo courtesy Justin Short

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