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Tools of a Different Trade

August 4, 2011 | by  |  Features

Ad posted to Vancouver, BC craigslist > for sale / wanted > bicycles

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.

Tools of the Trade

Ryan describes the tools and techniques employed by bike thieves.

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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.”

Ad posted to Vancouver, BC craigslist - for sale - wanted - bicycles

Ad posted to Vancouver, BC craigslist > for sale / wanted > bicycles

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.

The Biggest Prize

Ryan describes the “best bike he ever stole”.

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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.

A severed cable lock outside of Vancouver General Hospital

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.

Getting Busted

Ryan describes being chased off by a female shopper as he attempted to steal her bicycle.

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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.

“Why not?”

“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.

A bicycle properly secured with a "gangster chain" around the back tire and frame and a u-lock on the front tire.

Matt Chambers is the editor and publisher of The Dependent Magazine. He's in way over his head.

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19 Comments


  1. I wish I could say “I’m so shocked, what’s happened to our city” but this comes as no surprise. I hope that as many bikes can be returned as possible to those poor souls who got their expensive rides (in some cases these bikes can cost more than cars) stolen.

  2. Kill the prick, and use his organs. I bet his eyes would make some poor blind bugger’s day.

  3. the bike in the last image is chained to a rack that looks flimsier than either of the locks!

  4. The pawnshop right at pidgeon park has a hidden door inside the shop. There you will find thousands of stolen bikes.
    This was 5 years ago, but seriously, thousands of bikes were down there…..

  5. Another thing of note: High end saddles (eg. Brooks) are being stolen “stand alone” due to their good monetary return (just check Craigslist and see how much even a used Brooks goes for).
    There are some great suggestions out there on how to add a level of security to these as well…

  6. Thanks for the recording, I will remember that voice.

  7. I wonder if bicycle thieves go to sleep at night comforted by the knowledge that the entire world despises them. Just the lowest of the low.

  8. What sort of consequences do these guys face? Fines? A night in jail?

    Good article, I’ll never ride my bike in the city again.

  9. One way to reduce the likelihood that your bike will be ripped off is to park it near better-looking bikes that are held down with flimsy locks.

    A rattle-can of Canadian Tire grey primer will go a long way towards rendering your bike untheftworthy. A single coat of the really cheap stuff will wipe off with lacquer thinner when it comes time to sell or trade it in. Even works on that Brooks saddle.

  10. Thank you for the fantastic article Matt :)

  11. I have an older but pretty decent japanese road bike that I have parked on the streets of downtown vancouver for about a year with out any problems other than a tree dripping sap all over it one time. Just get a thick chain and don’t ride anything stupidly flashy. Problem solved.

  12. Turn the recordings as well as a description of this scum in to the police.

  13. David in East Van

    I saw a thief working on a bike in front of the Van East Theatre. On Commercial Drive. Luckily the cafe I had just left had two police officers in it having a coffee. I went back, enlisted their help and they arrested him after catching him red handed with bolt cutters in hand. His backpack was full of tools of the trade. The arresting officer, a Transit Police officer I might add, later phoned me to say the Judge let him off with a warning because he had no priors for bike theft and the thief agreed to some BS community service committment. If a thief was literally breaking into a car as the police caught him I cannot imagine the outcome would have been the same.

    Another time, late at night, I came across a guy using one of those portable angle grinders on a nice mountain bike u-lock. Me and another good samaratan confronted him and I called the police. He just kept working away and then once the bike was free he started swinging the running angle grinder like a scythe at myself and the other guy. Naturally we backed off and he hopped on the bike and rode off. We flagged down the first car we saw, in this case a righteous raised pickup straight out of Fort Mac and they gave chase. The police arrived soon after and after collecting our statements they left the saddest little note skewered to the cut u-lock saying ‘your bike has been stolen. Call officer… to make a report”. And that was it. This bike rack, incidentally, was the one right in front of JJ Bean on Commercial Drive.

    I am very happy that this article also explained the proper way to lock one’s bike. What it did miss was the important piece of advice which is to minimize how much empty space there is inside the u-lock or chain. That helps reduce the chance that they will be able to get a pry bar of some sort inside the lock and then maneouver it to something like the bike rack that would give them enough leverage to pop the lock. I tell my friends and co-workers to get a serious ‘gangster’ chain with squared links and a very good lock and the smallest, best quality (read: expensive) u-lock they can afford and then lock them as described in the article with the rear wheel and seat post chained to the rack. Even better is to loop the chain in a figure eight so it captures the rear wheel, seat stays, the bike rack, and then crosses over itself to include the seat stay. If you have done it right they should be just barely enough play to get the ends to meet in the lock. I even use a third lock; a tiny mini u-lock that locks one chain stay to the loop of a Cora-style bike rack, or something similar, and ideally a different loop on the rack than you used to lock up using the chain. This gives you two separate locks holding your bike to a rack and a total of three separate parts of your bike locked to it. Having a tiny u-lock, a mediun u-lock, and a very high quality chain (I swear by the MEC Planet Bike chain) gives you enough flexibility to lock your bike to anything and always have at least two locks in use licking you bike to something.

    Last but not least, don’t use quick release! Invest in locking skewers like those made by Pinhead. Those will keep your wheels firmly attached to your bike and render useless all wrenches and saws. Having those on your bike makes stripping your wheels while leaving the frame virtually impossible for thieves. The set Pinhead makes also has a part to secure your seat to the frame.

    Finally, the MEC chain I mentioned has proven itself to me. I used to wear it locked around my waist but one night the lock I was using, which wasn’t the one that came with it, had the key break off. I wasn’t able to wriggle free so I went to Home Depot to see if they could spring me loose with bolt cutters. They didn’t do a thing to the chain. After that failure I went to the Fire Department and asked for help. They brought me in the garage and got out the jaws of life. The jaws cracked a chain link and I was set free but the link also took a thumbnail sized chip out of the jaws of life blade! The Firemen had never seen that happen to the jaws before and they kept a link to send it to the manufacturer, along with the broken blade, for metalurgical analysis. So, I have confidence in that chain.

  14. Fantastic article. Thanks, Matt! …scuttlebutt

  15. I’m confused… you got to interview this guy, but you didn’t slit his throat? Fail.

  16. It must be so glamorous stealing bikes/being a piece of shit instead of getting a job. Fuck this guy and his smug attitude thinking he is pulling off a high stakes heist.

  17. This is why I love the 2nd ammendment. Just invite the fucker to take half a step through my front door.

  18. Honestly- I think the people of Vancouver should come together to do something about this. I don’t know- picket or something?? Like- has anyone done anything about the pawn shop with the thousands of bikes behind the secret door???? This can’t go on. We need to demand justice. In paraguay they started cutting off people’s hands for theft. You can leave a Rolex In a public washroom and it will still be there the next day. The problem is that there is no serious consequences for theft in Canada. A slap on the wrist isn’t going to deterr a thief. The other day my daughter had her iphone snatched from herjacket pocket while walking home on Cordova and Cambie. What’s wrong with people? What’s wrong with the justice system?? Also- people that buy stolen bikes should be disciplined harshly- the fact that there are buyers encourage the thieves and the middle men to engage in this circle of crime.

    People are attached to their bikes and I can imagine jow disheartening it must feel to go to where you left your bike and find it empty. I think people should step
    Up to bat if they see theft taking place. No one should just turn a blind eye. People should approach the culprit. Citizens should band together, call the police and detain the criminals if at all possible. Only in a perfect world?? Not really- just awareness and the courage to make a difference. If you have an iPhone and you ever see a theft taking place, maybe just film the entire thing, then snap
    a profile picture. Most of these hastings street residents are known to police- its not that big of a community.

  19. BTW- why wasn’t this thief that was interviewed turned over to the police? You have a confession on tape. And why haven’t authorities investigated and detained him??

Trackbacks

  1. Tea & Two Slices: On Closing Doors, Turning Backs And Where We All Stand On Hot Dogs : Scout Magazine
  2. Annals of Cycling – 27 « Price Tags
  3. Bike thieves are everywhere! | Kitsilano.ca – Kits' Neighbourhood blog.

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