If you follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, you will have heard that last week my bike was stolen. Apparently I have the best luck in the world because 24 hours after it went missing, the Vancouver Police called to let me know they had recovered my bike. That is basically the bike-owners equivalent of winning the lottery!
So here’s the story: I locked my bike up on a Wednesday night around 6:45 in a light industrial area and went to my photography class. I locked my bike frame and back wheel to a City of Vancouver bike rack on a street corner, near a street light, on a bike route. When I came out at 9:45pm my bike was gone. My thick chain style lock had been cut and all that was left was half of one chain link on the ground. I walked home then called the police to report it stolen, posted on all my social media accounts then cried myself to sleep.
The next day I spent the day obsessively refreshing Craigslist. That afternoon my husband Greg rode his bike around the “bad” part of town to see if he could spot my bike. He searched all the open air stolen goods markets and also chatted with cops and people at the local bike shops and made sure they saw photos of my bike. That night at about 9:30pm I got a call from a Vancouver Police officer who said she had “checked” someone in the “bad” part of town who didn’t look like they owned a road bike and had recovered my bike. She wanted to know if I was at home so that someone could drop it off. OMG! Within an hour a police cruiser had pulled up at my house with my bike on a rack on the back. My bike was missing its distinctive blue water bottle cages, pannier rack, fenders and bell, but was otherwise in good shape.
Having my bike stolen then recovered sent me on a roller coast ride of emotions. It also taught me some valuable lessons about bikes, theft prevention and getting your stolen bike back that I feel are helpful to share with other bike owners.
Decide How Much You Love Your Bike
The first thing that having my bike stolen taught me is that I love my bike. Let me be clear, I really really love my bike. When I found out it was stolen I expected to be angry at the thief who stole it, but what I really felt was sad. I mourned for my bike. I remembered all the good times I had on my bike: the places we went, the sense of accomplishment I felt when I could ride further or climb higher than before. And I was sad because I thought there wouldn’t be any more times like that again – I had plans to go cycle touring and to ride a metric century (100km) and I wanted to do it on that that.
Of course I could get a new bike, but it wouldn’t be the same. It was this particular bike that had taught me to love cycling, turned me into an avid bike commuter and inspired me to ride long distances. I wanted that particular bike back and no other bike would do. So think about your bike. Do you love it? How would you feel it if was gone? Would you want to shop for a new one? Is your bike just another piece of gear or are you like me and feel that your bike is a family member, is irreplaceable. How much you love your bike will help you decide how much effort to put into theft prevention and recovery.
Record Your Serial Number and Take Photos of Your Bike
If you bike goes missing you are going to need both your serial number and some photos of your bike if you want to get it back. Record your serial number and keep it in an easy to access place. Take photos of your bike often, especially if you change components or accessories. This should be easy if you love your bike as you’ll want to take photos together on all your rides 🙂
I was part of a pilot project in Vancouver to roll out the Project 529 bike registry program. I had actually only gone through the registration process about a month before my bike was stolen. Thanks to Project 529 I was able to log in to my account and immediately electronically access my serial number and numerous photos of my bike – way easier than trying to find my serial number in a filing cabinet.
Add Your Bike to Your Insurance
Did you know you can often claim a stolen bike on your homeowners or renters insurance? Sometimes you’ll need to add a bike specific rider to your insurance policy to do this and there is often a hefty deductible, but if you ride a bike worth more than a few hundred dollars, it’s worth considering.
Know Your Bike’s Distinguishing Features
When my bike was stolen I told everyone to be on the lookout for a white and dark grey road bike with bright blue water bottle cages, a black pannier rack and black fenders. But when my bike was found those distinctive bottle cages, rack and pannier had already been removed. The police told me that thieves will often remove accessories from a bike in order to disguise it. Thieves can quickly and easily remove most parts from a bike but they might not totally strip your bike down to the frame right away. Therefore it’s good to think about some basic distinguishing features for your bike that can’t be removed and still have the bike function. So think about it: Do you have a unique seat, bar tape, pedals, or tires? Does your frame have a ding on it in a particular spot? If possible take photos of these features during your frequent bike photo shoots. My distinguishing features ended up being my women’s specific seat, my tires and the fact that my bar tape needed to be reapplied since it was bunched up on one side.
Use a Really Good Lock
The lock I was using when my bike was stolen was pretty good but it was still easy to cut. The reality is that thieves can defeat just about any type of lock. They can use bolt cutters on cable and chain locks and even relatively thick chains can be easy to cut.
Even U-locks are easy to defeat using a car jack or a long pry bar.
And really, if a thief has a portable angle grinder, they can cut through just about anything to get at your bike, often in less than one minute.
So which bike lock should you use? ABUS, the company that makes the lock that I had cut claim that you should invest 10% of the value of your bike in a lock. To me a lock company telling me how much to spend on a lock is about as helpful as a diamond company telling me how much to spend on an engagement ring – really they just want me to spend more money. How much your bike costs can be one factor, but how much you love your bike will really help you decide how much to spend on a lock. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I now have one of the most expensive locks on the market, the Kyrptonite New York Standard. It’s very thick (which makes it very heavy), has a good reputation and comes with built in insurance.
Lock it Up Properly
There is lots of info on the web about the right way to lock a bike. In general the main points are: Choose something good to lock to that can’t be cut and that the lock can’t be lifted off of. Lock up in a well-lit and busy area – this might mean walking a few blocks to your destination (My bike was stolen from an area that is not busy). Always lock the frame and also the back wheel too if possible. Get the tightest fit possible. If using a U lock leave as little space as possible inside the U – that makes it harder for thieves to get their tools in. Consider locking up next to someone with a nicer bike than you, or next to someone with a crappier lock than you (sorry other bikers!). Of course even if you follow all of these rules, your bike can still be stolen – I did all of the above except being in a high traffic area the night my bike was taken.
Getting Your Stolen Bike Back
File a Police Report
In order to recover your bike you’ll need to call the non-emergency number of your local police or head down to the station to file a police report. Have your serial number handy because without that in your police report, the cops can’t legally help you get your bike back. Every year in Vancouver the police recover hundreds of stolen bikes but if they don’t have a police report with a serial number on file that matches the bike they recover, they can’t find you to get your bike back. As well, if you hope to claim your stolen bike on your insurance, you’ll need a police report file number to submit as part of your claim.
Blast Social Media
Put together a post to let all your friends know that your bike is missing with photos of your bike and a description. If you are registered with Project 529 if you flag your bike as missing they automatically put together a web page and printable missing poster for your bike using the data and photos of your bike hat you submitted. In your social media posts specifically ask your friends to share, repost or retweet your post (and of course make your post public so that is possible).
Many stolen bikes turn up on Craigslist. You can set up saved searches on Craigslist and subscribe to them via RSS. If you do find your bike listed for sale on Craigslist call your local police and find out if they will help you get your bike back. When I asked the Vancouver Police told me they would as long as they had a police report with a serial number. I didn’t have to use this method so I can’t comment on how long you might have to wait for the police to help you but I have heard from a few people that the police were able to help them within 24 hours usually. I’ve also heard from people who met the thief, took the bike for a test ride, and then just took off or who confronted the thief with a group of friends and took the bike back. Both of these methods can end badly – the Vancouver Police warned us that they have had reports of thieves pepper spraying people or threatening them with knives in these kind of situations.
Canvas the “Bad” Area of Town
If you live in a city it’s likely that there is a bad area of town where there are more people who are addicted to drugs and therefore involved in petty thefts to feed their habit. A couple friends recommended that we take a walk through our “bad” part of town as they had success finding their stolen bikes that way. My husband Greg spent close to 2 hours walking and biking around the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver the day after my bike was stolen. He talked to a lot of cops and made sure they saw photos of my bike. In the end, the police officer that brought my bike home to me was one that Greg had talked to earlier in the day. I don’t know if the police were specifically looking for my bike that night or if they just happened upon it, but either way, talking to police in that part of town certainly helped.
In the end, I know that many stolen bikes are never recovered. They are stripped and sold for parts or are quickly sold to someone on the street or online who doesn’t care enough to ask questions about where the bike came from. It can be devastating to have your bike stolen, but many people don’t do enough to prevent their bike from being stolen and don’t know what to do to get it back. I actually didn’t have my serial number recorded for most of the time that I owned my bike and it was only coincidence that I was able to take advantage of the Project 529 registration service just a few weeks before my bike was stolen. I am so so thankful I was able to get my bike back and it makes me sick to think about how underprepared I could have been. So if you own a bike, and if you love it (even a little bit) go write down your serial number and take some bike portraits. You’ll thank yourself later.
Have you ever had a bike stolen? Did you get it back? Tell me in the comments.