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Ryan looks a young 30 or so, aside from the missing teeth. His face is fresh and kind, bearing none of the open wounds one typically associates with crystal meth. As we walk, his backpack jingles with the occasional sound of metal on metal. “B & E tools,” he explains, matter-of-factly.
Ryan (not his real name) is a professional thief. When his targets aren’t homes or businesses, he steals bicycles.
“No bike’s really safe if it’s on a cable lock,” he tells me.
“If it’s on a cable lock what do you do?”
“Bolt cutters,” he says, without hesitation.
While thieving, Ryan carries the powerful, over-sized scissors hanging from a string beneath his shirt, along with a cordless grinder in his backpack. Prowling the night, he searches for high-value mountain bikes he can sell to a middle-man for a quick profit. If particularly desperate, he says, he’ll steal in broad daylight – leaning forward and slipping the bolt cutters from beneath his shirt. To anyone watching, his hunched figure appears to be unlocking the bike.
As for the grinder, well, there’s nothing subtle about that – the loud, battery-operated tool is reserved for the more robust locking mechanisms, such as high-end u-locks and the thick, squared chains that can’t be cut with bolt cutters that Ryan refers to as “gangster chains”.
“The most high-profile bike I ever did was at the corner of Cambie and Hastings,” he says. “I just looked around all directions – any cops? No cops. And I just start grinding. People pull up at the red light and they’re looking at me, sparks are flying. And the worst is on some u-locks you gotta cut both sides because it won’t turn. It won’t spin around, so you gotta cut both sides.”
“So what’s safe if you have a cordless grinder?” I ask.
“Nothing,” is his frank reply. He tells me that the $200 tool, normally used with gloves and protective eyewear, is capable of cutting through any lock in under five minutes.
“So, because bike theft was your specialty, you went out and invested in a portable grinder?”
“Yeah, and I stole a bike on my way back.”
It’s not a stretch to say that bike theft is a problem in Vancouver. According to the VPD, nearly 2,000 bikes were reported stolen last year. That’s one for every 300 Vancouverites. Heck, last May, City Manager Penny Ballem had her bike lifted right off the steps of City Hall. A quick search of Craigslist shows several posts a day pleading for the return of a beloved chariot, or threatening graphic violence for the bastard who took it. So far in 2011, the VPD has received 826 reports of stolen bicycles.
A public index of these bikes is available online at the Canadian Police Information Centre, which suggests that “The public can use this site to help keep their neighbourhoods safe by checking and reporting suspicious vehicles”. Ironically, the database has become a tool for criminals as well. Everyone I talk to is aware of CPIC, and fences – the middle-men who purchase stolen bikes and resell them – use it to determine whether their merchandise has been flagged hot. If so, the bike is broken down into separate components and sold, or built into another “clean” bike; or the serial number is grinded out or painted over.
Asked what kind of machines are most desirable, Ryan tells me that the demand for roadies and hybrids is growing, but he still goes for the expensive mountain bikes. The fad of a few years ago was for shocks and disc brakes. “There used to be a guy around who’d take any bike with good disc brakes. You could call him and within an hour you’d have it sold. He went to jail. They caught him with 185 bikes in a storage unit and a bunch of other shit…”
Ryan is referring to legendary fence Gordon Blackwell, infamous for throwing eggs at a CTV news crew, but also a popular fellow for his Bike Rescue business, which he claimed reunited owners with their stolen bicycles. The business was shut down by police in 2010, followed by Blackwell pleading guilty to 36 counts of possession of stolen property. His website claimed that he scoured the internet looking for deals too good to be true and then attempted to return the bikes to their rightful owners. Anything he couldn’t resolve he sold for himself. In reality, he had an army of thieves like Ryan scouring the city for high-value mountain bikes.
Beyond bolt cutters and cordless grinders, thieves employ a number of techniques to relieve people of their beloved bicycles. Butane canisters are sprayed into cheap, aluminum locking mechanisms, freezing the components so they can be smashed with a hammer. Street signs can be unbolted from the bottom and lifted out of the ground, allowing the thief to carry the bike away and break the lock later. Bike racks themselves are vulnerable to a similar ploy. There’s also much scuttlebutt about the use of hydraulic spreaders, or car jacks, capable of exerting massive force, for popping open even the most stubborn of u-locks.
Faced with such a well-armed and organized foe, the Vancouver cyclist might find themselves wondering what, if anything, can be done. Fret not, brothers and sisters, for there are ways to mitigate the risks: First and foremost, ditch that cable lock – the favourite lock of the bike thief – and pick yourself up a quality u-lock, or chain. Medium risk rating is the absolute minimum, and locks that come with anti-theft guarantees in the form of financial compensation are generally good choices.
Now, go buy another lock. Yes, thwarted the opportunity to steal an entire bike, thieves will settle for the accessories instead. Tires are especially easy to remove and good for a quick buck. A properly secured bicycle will have a strong lock looped through the frame and rear tire, attached to a solid anchor in a public place, with a lesser lock linking the front tire to the frame.
Lastly, take a picture of your bike and record the serial number, typically imprinted on the bottom of the frame. The VPD recovers hundreds of stolen bikes every year, auctioning off the majority because they’re unable to identify the owners.
Completing our loop around the block, Ryan and I arrive at my bike, both tires secured and tethered to a parking meter. I ask him if he could steal it. “Cordless grinder would take that off in a heartbeat” he scoffs, but in the case of my bike he says he wouldn’t do it.
“Because there’s lots of security around here and that bike’s just not worth it.”
For bike thieves, the game is a balance of risk and reward. All that we can do is attempt to skew that balance in our favour. Only the boldest and most desperate of thieves will risk pulling out a car jack or letting the sparks fly in broad daylight, outside of, say, the library.
I ask Ryan if he thinks my bike would still be here if left overnight.
“I think so, because there’s lots of security, and not a lot of people have a cordless grinder,” he says with a grin.