Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Bicycle Thief

The Bike Ed lesson at last week’s BACA meeting got pre-empted when things ran overtime, so here’s the lecture notes, less the PowerPoint glitz and glamour…

One of the great classic foreign films concerns a poor Italian worker and his family in post WW2 Rome, whose bicycle – which he depends upon to get back and forth to work – is stolen by a gang of thieves. It’s a wonderful little character study.

And yes, fellow Pscyclists, there are bears and bike thieves right here in River City.

(This illustration also serves to demonstrate one of the reasons the League Bike Ed curriculum insists you do the ABC Quick-Check each and every time you get on your bike. You never know who may have been messing with it.)

It only takes a moment's inattention or carelessness for your beloved ride to disappear. And it can be a long walk home.First, get a good locking system. U-Locks are best, cable locks are okay, provided that the cable is armored, and at least 3/8" (10 mm) in diameter. Also an excellent choice is what they call the "New York chain." Best of all is to use a U-lock in combination with a chain or cable lock. "Cross-locking" like this requires that the thief use at least two different kinds of tools to get past your security and spend a lot more time doing it. If the thief sees your bike is cross-locked, hopefully he'll move on in search of easier pickings.

Many lock manufacturers offer a guarantee where they'll pay back at least part of the value of the bike if you did use (and register) their product, and can show that the thief was able to break thru it. The better the lock, the better the guarantee.

Do NOT fool around with the little bitty cables or plastic-covered chains you see fot $5 or $6 at Wal-Mart or the big box stores unless you bought your bike there, too. These won't stand up for a second to a thief with a "master key" (read: a big-arsed pair of bolt cutters).

Now, realize that no lock is foolproof. Given time, a dedicated thief can get through. Cycling Plus magazine ran tests against a series of bike locks a couple of years ago. Even the most reliable, the Kryptonite “Fahgeddaboudit” New York U-lock and chain showed that the U-Lock held up 10 minutes against a powered grinder/cutter, the New York Chain held out for 8 minutes before they were able to cut through it. And absent the use of power tools, attempts to pry the even the cheap U-locks open usually ruined or bent the bike’s frame before the lock gave way.

Your first choice should be a quality U-Lock. As I mentioned, the Kryptonite “Fahgeddaboudit” and the New York 3000 are about the top of the line as far as resistance, even to power tools. These run somewhere between $60 to $80 apiece. If you don’t live in New York, or on the ghetto side of town, a really good deal is the OnGuard “Bulldog” U-Lock. This lock stands up to the Kryptonite NYC 3000 in every respect except resistance to power tools. The one I have cost $29 at Arkansas Cycling & Fitness (Chainwheel has them too), and came in a package deal with a 3-foot armored cable so that you can cross-lock your bike.

If the Kryptonite lock is a little too rich, even the inexpensive U-locks (Wal-Mart sells them for $9.45) are still really good locks. And even a cheap lock is far, far better than No lock at all.

The limit to U-locks, though, is that you’re limited in what you can actually lock up to – a parking meter, a steel railing or fence post, etc. If you’re needing to anchor to a light pole or telephone pole, you’ll need something longer, like a chain or cable, to wrap around the key parts of your bike, plus the pole.

Probably the best deal is Kryptonite’s “New York Chain;” bike messengers and other cyclists in high-crime areas swear by it. It's heavy like any other three foot chain, but the square link design (quad chain) makes it harder for bolt cutters to get a good angle on the chain. Just like a krypto chain is essential for an NYC messenger so are bolt cutters to an NYC thief. Quad chains force a bolt cutter's blade to put pressure down on at least one corner of a chain link, so that a thief risks denting the blade of his cutters by trying to clip a quad chain. Another advantage of the chain is that you can lock up to more than just a thin pole. You can also lock up multiple bikes and even use the chain for other uses.

With protection comes a penalty – weight. The Kryptonite and OnGuard U-locks above weigh a little more than 4 pounds apiece; and the Kryptonite NY Chain came in at a whomping 9 pounds. The OnGuard lock I looped thru the cable and wore it slung across my shoulder, the NY Chain may work the same for skinny folks, for a Clydesdale like me, it might wrap around the waist, or it can go in a bike trunk. I tried it in a handlebar bag on an urban test ride, and the weight of the chain dragged the bag down to the point it started rubbing the front tire..

While I'm fond of my New York Chain, the derned thing weights as much as my road bike does, so it does little for being a weight weinie... Makes a good set of brass knuckles too, if you should be accosted by some of the local hoodlums and bridge trolls that sometimes frequent lonely and not-so-lonely spots along the River Trail.

If you can't stay within arm's reach of your bike, then you need to lock it up. Where you choose to lock up can make a big difference in your chances of getting ripped off. Park away from other bikes, but out in the open where people (and hopefully, you) can see or watch the bike, and people pass very close to it. Parking in an isolated corner, or in a host of other bikes at the rack gives the thief cover -- either time to work at breaking your lock, or letting him look like just another cyclist getting "his" bike.

Lock up to something fixed, solid, and immovable... Some cities and businesses provide thick metal racks embedded into or bolted to the sidewalk. These are generally safe to use, making sure that you check that no one's been fiddling with the bolts that hold the rack down. Don't lock up to something that's easy to pick up and move, like simply chaining two bikes together, a door handle, wooden fence post, or a small tree.

Chaining or cabling up to a parking meter or sign post can be chancy -- a thief can remove the sign and slide your bike & lock over the top... or they can even pull up the pole and slide it out... no matter how you have it locked. If you're going to take this option, poles with several signs on them are a better choice, or pick something like a light pole or telephone pole.

For the same reason, lock to parking meters only if you're using a U-Lock; never with a chain or cable, since the thief need only slide your bike over the top.If you do lock up with a chain or cable, don't make it easy -- wrap the cable as tightly as possible.

Lock up the whole bike -- your U-lock or cable should go not only around the pole or bike rack, but also through your bike frame and both wheels if possible. Never lock thru just the wheel without going thru the frame, too -- or vice versa. If you have quick-release wheels, thief can undo them and make off with your frame, or on the other hand, with your wheels, in less than a heartbeat. If cross-locking, put one lock thru your frame and rear wheel, then run the cable up thru the frame and front wheel.

If you're using a U-lock, you want to fill the lock with as much as possible so the thief doesn't have any room or leverage in there for a pry bar, which is what they'll often try to use to pop the lock. This is also the same principle you follow when you wrap your chain or cable tightly. Position the lock itself where a thief can't place it up against a hard surface and try to bust it by smacking it with a hammer.

Looking thru the local message forums reporting stolen bikes, a large majority of the mountain bikes here are stolen from garages and carports. Nationally, more than 20% of bike thefts happen from places of residence. If you keep your bike in your garage, in the basement, on the porch, or just out in the yard somewheres, LOCK IT UP!

Okay... all this is bitter advice, and after investing in one of those super-secure OnGuard Bulldog locks with the half-inch armored cable tossed into the deal, I got in a hurry and neglected to put the lock on one evening a couple of months ago when I was running late for a meeting . Popping back out of the restaurant, the bike ain't there no more.

First of all, call the cops in the community where your bike was stolen, and report the theft. Get a police report number, since you'll need this later for dealing with the insurance agents, and in the odd case that your bike is recovered, to help show that the found bike is 1) yours and 2) hot property. Include a description of your bike and the bike's serial number in this report. If you don't know your bike's serial number, you can probably get that from the LBS where you bought the bike. Me, being a numbers freak, I keep a registry of my bike serial numbers in my training logs, and as a backup, keep a photo of each bike and the serial number in my profile on

Look around on the ground to see if there's anything left of your bike lock, and keep these parts. You'll need 'em to show the police, your friendly insurance adjuster, and the lock manufacturer, provided there's a guarantee on your lock.

Here in mostly-urban, highly-minority Pulaski County, stolen bikes are not a real big priority with the local cops. They don't even process the reports for 3-5 days after it's filed. Feel lucky if you get a call back from the detectives; feel like you hit the lottery -- bigtime -- if they actually come up with your bike. (For the record, it was 5 weeks before the LRPD called to verify the bike’s serial number and to enter it into the database.) Report the theft to your insurance company, and to your lock manufacturer, if these are options.

Somebody asked about insurance... first of all, realize that insurance companies exist for the main purpose of collecting as many policy premiums possible while at the same time, paying as few claims as possible. If you have homeowner's or renter's insurance, ask your agent how to insure your bikes and make sure they're covered. Some insurers insure personal property (which includes bikes) independently of renter's or homeowner's policies. In any case, if you go for one of these, make sure that the policy provides coverage whether the bike is stolen inside or outside your home.

Ready for another surprise? Insurance policies typically pay for the current market (read, “used”) value of your bike – not the full replacement price. And remember, there’s usually a deductible which has to be factored in.

Absent insurance, it's mostly up to you to recover or replace your bike. Keep an eye out at flea markets, junk shops, pawn shops, "for sale" ads in the newspapers for a month or so after the theft, as well as police auctions of recovered property. Make up flyers with a picture of your bike, offering a reward for its return, and slap them on all the lamp posts, sign posts, and bulletin boards in the area.If you do find your bike, lock it where it's at with your own lock. This way, it won't go anywhere until you can resolve things with the current possessor.

Finding the bike usually means zip unless you can prove that it's yours, either by the serial number (which the thief may have filed or ground off) or some other method. Tell the possessor that the bike belongs to you, that it's stolen, and show them your serial number or other identification, matching it to the bike. If the possessor or seller refuses to give you the bike back, then leave -- and return with the police.Getting your bike back this way gets into a lot of legal issues, so if you get to this point, I'll refer you to Bob Mionske's book, Bicycling and the Law, which has excellent coverage of the lost/stolen bike issue.

Good luck, get a good lock, and be fanatical about using it...

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