Eldon’s Tips on Protecting Yourself from Bike Theft

A photo of my bicycle, a 2003 Trek Calypso cruiser, with metal fenders and rear basket.

I thought I’d start this article with a photo of my bike, The Scorpion King. I was inspired to give my bike a name after Deenster had named hers.

Keeping a photo of your bike — along with records of identifying things like serial numbers — is one of many suggestions offered by Eldon in his comment to the Bike Thief post. I thought his comment was quite good and worthy of elevating to the main page of the blog. The full text of his comment appears below. Enjoy, and keep your bike safe!

I have to agree with the “under my butt or under my bed” philosophy for preventing bike theft.

I think the only thing a bike thief needs to be successful is nobody to stop them in the time it takes for them to break the locks.

This can be in broad daylight where they are either quick or subtle about it, making it look like it is their bike, or it can be in your garage, building bike room, or condo storage locker where they have all the time in the world with no one to bother them.

Two approaches I have found successful to preventing bike theft are the “you can’t steal what you can’t see” approach and the “sacrificial anode” approach.

The first one is just a variant of the “under my bed” approach. This approach seems popular with most bike nuts as we seem to prefer to share our bedrooms with our bikes anyway. Keep your bike out of sight when near your home or work. Don’t leave it out front, on the porch, in the hallway, or in the garage with the door open. Don’t leave it in sight of any windows that people can look in.

As a rule of thumb, in any situation you can’t keep the bike in sight, no one else should be able to see your bike either. A lot of bike theft comes from spotting the bike and then coming back for it later.

If you have to lock it up outside for work, don’t always lock it up in the same spot everyday.

If you have a car don’t leave your bike on the roof rack of any longer than you have to. Put it on your car the last thing before you leave to go riding and take it off first thing when you return. This should be second nature if you have underground parking. I’ve heard anecdotally that there were thieves that would cruise Toronto neighbourhoods looking for houses with cars in the driveways with bike racks on the roof. Then they would come back later and break into the garages and steal the bikes.

If you have an automatic garage door opener, check to make sure that would-be thieves cannot reach through the gap at the top of the door and trigger the manual release to open it. I’ve had this happen to friends twice. Take the manual releases toggles off. Also if you have to keep your bike in your garage, lock it down to something solid. In one place, we set rebar hoops in concrete in the garage wall to lock the bikes too. Fortunately, at night, the noise from jack hammers is still pretty conspicuous.

It is probably universal that the Velorution guys and I have similar views on thieves. I think thieves come in two flavours: the ones that know bikes and know what they are doing and the desperate or stupid ones that grab them for a quick score. For the first kind, make your bike hard to find, for the second kind make it hard to move.

I agree with them again that I don’t think disguising your bike is useful. Again, the first type of thieves can identify bikes in their sleep and the second don’t care. I think it can be helpful to make your bike really unique. If you have the only bike in town with a trucker girl mud flap and fueled by Jagermeister” sticker on the frame, people will recognize it.

I do disagree with them about buying a more expensive bike to prevent theft. Their rationale is to stop the stupid thieves. I think they are giving the stupid thieves too much credit in being able to value the bike or worrying about the suspicion they may raise in selling it.

Last summer in Victoria, BC, police found a stash of stolen disassembled bicycles in a nearby forested area. It turned out that the fiddling and disassembling of bright shiny objects seems to calm drug users coming down off of meth. They probably weren’t too worried about the value of the bikes they were stealing and the more shiny expensive parts the better.

There is also another case a few years back in Vancouver where a thief stole a mountain bike from outside a sports store and tried to sell it at a bar downtown that night. Nothing too unusual about that, except in this case the bicycle happened to be a one of a kind factory racing prototype for Alison Sydor, a world champion racer. This kind of blows the smart enough to worry about raising suspicion argument.

I also think the bike chopping and fencing market is evolved enough to digest anything at any price point. I think it is better to try and prevent the theft and if you can’t, at least, cap your losses.

For these reasons and a couple more I use the “sacrificial anode” approach for my city bike. This approach is the exact opposite of their suggestions.

The first one is I took a look at what the deductible is on my home insurance and, knowing that I would have to pay that amount if I had to claim a stolen bike, I set that as the most I am willing to spend on my “sacrificial anode” bike.

From there I casually kept track of how many trips I made on it that saved me transit fare, cab fare, gas, parking, or shoe leather. Using this method it doesn’t take very long to realize you are riding a free bike.

The second reason I use the “sacrificial anode” method and hence it’s name, is that I’ve found since moving back to Toronto that the ridiculous amount of salt this city uses has caused serious damage to a couple of nice bikes I’ve had, whether they were on a roof rack, ridden on a dry warm winter day, or just too early in the spring before the rain washed all the crap away.

So as long as my sacrificial anode bike doesn’t get stolen or rusts through before it has paid for itself I really don’t care what happens to it. I can lose an awful lot of cheap bikes for the price of a nice one.

Another reason this works for me is I have to admit I am personally not a big fan of having to lug around a lock that weighs as much as the bike or having to disassemble it every time I park. I also don’t like looking like I just got off a bike when I arrive at something toting the parts around with me. There is a point where this is too much of a hassle and transit wins. The peace of mind that you have capped your losses is nice too.

One other approach Velorution suggests that I agree with is getting a courier style, single speed road bike. They are right that some of them are difficult to ride but I think it is more useful that there seems to be an unwritten rule that you don’t touch a courier’s bike so if all the bikes downtown looked like courier bikes it could bring theft down. If the police used bait bikes more regularly it could create the same sense of fear. Apparently this is starting to work in Victoria, BC.

If I am caught in a jam where I have leave my bike unattended for a moment I either leave it in the biggest gear so it is really hard to get started, or drop the chain off the rings and disconnect the brakes. This way if something happens, I have a chance of catching up to the person and they have a chance of cashing in on some extra bad karma.

Although it would help a lot, I don’t advocate approaching someone that looks like they are up to something sketchy on a locked bike and confronting them. You don’t know what you’ve got on your hands. At most, if I see something that I think is off, I ask in a really friendly manner if I can help, being the kind of bike nerd that I am. If it is the owner, they are usually friendly back, and it isn’t they usually take off.

Finally, if your bike does get stolen, the police’s biggest complaint is that no one reports it and if they do, they do not have a picture, make or serial number or other unique identifiers that allows them to return the bike to you and lay charges. Police are recovering stolen bikes every day and can’t return them and can rarely lay charges for them. Crap, just take a few digital pictures, write down the serial numbers of some of the bigger parts or get ones engraved in the bike. There are also lots of bicycle registry databases available. If you don’t, then the next time you see a squeegee kid on a $3000 bike you will know why the police couldn’t do anything.

There are economies in the world of bike theft. “How easily can I steal this bike?”, “How quickly can I get rid of it and for how much?”, “What are the chances that I am going to get caught?” Increase the cost of any aspects of these and the amount of bike theft will go down as it becomes less viable.

6 replies on “Eldon’s Tips on Protecting Yourself from Bike Theft”

My method works pretty well too: get a good bike that looks like crap.

I got my ride at a small but reputable local shop; it was a $2k hybrid that had been roughed up in a fender-bender. I trusted this shop to have put the bike in excellent working order, but the paint was destroyed, the caps had come off the gear shifts, the handlebars were dented… it’s still a $2k bike in terms of functionality, but to date no one has thought it worth grabbing.

I find that, when in a crunch, locking your bike somewhere in front of a cafe or a workplace with big windows can help deter some potential thieves possibly paranoid that the owner is in sight-range.

When on Queen, locking in front of CHUM is not a bad idea – chances are they could get caught on camera.

If you have to lock on the street, chose somewhere with lots of human activityand bright lights. And yeah, take your bike in at night.

Yay for the cruddy looking bike approach. There’s very little relationship between what it looks like and how well it works. So think about:-
– Deliberately ripping the seat
– Covering the frame in duct tape or old inner tubes
– Putting a really naff looking, broken plastic chain protector on the front chain ring.
– Never cleaning the oil off your cheap gear mech.
– Having an improvised rear rack made from a supermarket hand basket and a zip tied (plenty of zip ties) mudguard.
I never lock my bike and I really wish somebody would steal it, because then I could justify a new one. Nobody ever does.

Aw man. I bought a Schwinn Jaguar and I thought it looked cool, but every time I see your bike I feel so inferior I want to cry.

It was interesting to read Eldon’s tips on preventing bike theft. I have a unique story since I seem to be the only person to have thrwarted an attempted bike theft. Basically, I never leave my bike unattended. It’s a ten-year old brightly coloured mountain bike (worth about $900 originally). I’m never more than 30 seconds away, should any n’er do well attempt to steal it. Well, last Saturday the unthinkable happened. My sense of indignation got hold of me and I asked the would-be-thief “Can I answer any questions that you may have about my bike?” I thought that would dissuade him but of course I received lots of aggression in return. I retreated to a crowded space, called 911 and the cops were there in 10 minutes. Bottom line…I still have my bike. My wife and I have decided that we are still going to enjoy biking in the city of Toronto. I will approach ANYBODY who lingers near our bikes and she will call 911 should any drama ensue. They are OUR bikes goddammit and why should we feel bad about protecting our property? I am considering installing stickers that say, “You like this bike? So do I…so much so that I’m watching you watching my bike…the police will be here shortly!” Any comments?

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