Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bike Theft Prevention

bike lock

Short of a serious accident, I can think of no worse fate for a cyclist than to have their beloved bike stolen. For many of us, it's not just a financial loss. We have taken time and care to select the perfect bike, and some have built them from the frame up. So the theft of a bike also represents a theft of our time. For some people, a bicycle is their only means of transportation, and maybe even a source of income. So, a bike theft can also represent a theft of wages, or it can leave us stranded. On a more emotional level, our bikes have been our companion through many memorable journeys, so they can hold great sentimental value. Truly, a bike thief is stealing much more than just a bike.

So, how can we prevent this unfortunate occurrence from happening to us? The answer is we can't, at least not in any surefire way. Even if your bike is locked up inside your home, it could be snatched in a burglary. The possibility of bike theft is always there, but the good news is we can minimize the chances of it significantly.

The first steps begin before your bike even hits the pavement.  Locate the bike's serial number, which should be stamped somewhere on the frame. I usually find it on the underside of the bottom bracket. Record this number, and place it where you can easily find it in the future. Even better, place it in a few different spots. This number is the best chance you have of proving ownership should the bike be stolen and recovered somehow. If you want to take it a step further, you can submit the number to the National Bike Registry. For a small fee, they will keep your bike's information on a database which can be accessed by law enforcement from anywhere in the US. So, if your bike falls into their hands, they will easily be able to notify you.

The next thing you want to do is take some pictures of your bike. I can't tell you how many craigslist posts I have seen from hapless bike theft victims who only provide a description but no photo. Even with a photo, recovery is a long shot. Without a photo, it's really just a waste of time. So, get several photos of the bike, including overall and detail shots. Make note of any modifications that have been made which distinguish it from a stock bike and get photos of those parts too. Back up your photos on a cloud site like flickr or photobucket so you can always access them.

Now it's time to invest in a good lock. There are a number of factors which will determine what sort of lock will best suit you, but the primary determinant is the area you live and bike in. Some areas are simply more prone to crime than others. In general, theft is less of a problem in rural areas, and becomes more common the closer you move to dense cities, with the worst being large cities where bicycling is common like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. So, in rural areas, a lightweight cable lock may be all you need. In the city, a heavy duty u-lock is necessary. Make sure it is a newer lock that uses a traditional straight key. Many older u-locks used a barrel lock which were rather cleverly defeated by nothing more than a ballpoint pen.

Next, you want to make sure that your lock is properly utilized. This means getting the lock through the frame and around an immovable object like a bike rack or a parking meter. Some also use the Sheldon Brown method, which involves running the lock through the rear wheel inside the rear triangle of the frame, and then around the rack. I'd say it's up to personal preference, but I just like having my lock through the frame.

In rural and suburban areas, a single lock should suffice in most situations. In the city, you have to take it up a notch. Even if your frame is secure, your parts might not be. Thieves will take any part that is easily removed, particularly wheels with quick release skewers. One solution is to get a length of cable lock, and use it as a supplementary lock for your wheels. It's easiest to get one with loops on both ends and attach them to your u-lock, as pictured above. You might also consider hubs that use bolts instead of a quick release. Same goes for your seatpost. One other option is to install locking skewers.

When all is said and done, any locking system can be defeated, and usually pretty quickly with the right tools. So in an urban environment, your best defense is to always keep an eye on your bike, or park it in a secure location, preferably indoors and definitely off the street. If you must leave a bike unattended in the street, a good solution is the cheap bike/expensive lock method. This involves getting an older bike of average quality made to look as ugly as possible, preferably with logos covered or removed, but still kept in good mechanical condition. Keep it secured with a solid lock, and you will probably be ok. This is the method I have used with success so far. In the urban environment I inhabit, I keep two bikes. My "nice" bike, and my "beater" bike. If my bike will be with me at all times, or if my destination has secure parking, I will take my nice bike. If I will be locking the bike on the street for an extended period of time, the beater gets the nod. Such is the reality that I live in.

Now, what to do if your bike does wind up getting stolen? Start by spreading the word. Use social media to let friends and cycling groups know that your bike has been stolen. Post the pictures that you have taken and ask people to be on the lookout. Go to the police station and file a report, and provide them with pictures and your bike's serial number. You can try placing an ad on craigslist, and also searching the existing ads to see if your stolen bike shows up for sale. Don't limit your search to the city you live in. Here on the west coast, I've heard of thieves who will steal a load of bikes in San Francisco and truck them up to Portland or Seattle for sale, then repeat the process in the opposite direction. So, if your bike is stolen in San Francisco, it might wind up on craigslist Seattle. Finally, and this goes for the SF bay area but perhaps other areas as well, stolen bikes are sometimes recovered at local flea markets. So, you can make a day of hitting these markets and see if your bike turns up. Just be sure to get an early start, and bring your photos and serial number with you so you can prove ownership.

With some preparation and a little vigilance, there is a very good chance that your bike will always remain in your possession. So don't let the possibility of theft deter you from riding. The rewards will always outweigh the potential downsides.

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