The stolen bicycle. Photo courtesy of the author (Keith A. Spencer)

How I stole my bike back — and what I learned about anti-theft measures along the way

Only one in 10 bicycles in Portland are recovered. A mix of luck and cleverness set the odds in my favor


Keith A. Spencer
February 23, 2020 12:30AM (UTC)

I learned what the word "paranoid" meant from my grandfather. "Yes, I'm paranoid," he would quip in a very grandfatherly way, in that he was always forgetting that he'd told us this joke many times before. "But am I paranoid enough?"

The answer to that question, when it comes to bicycle security, is probably a resounding "no."

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Years of living in cities like San Francisco and New York had taught me that there was no such thing as being too paranoid when it came to bike safety. Still, despite my precautions, I tried to train myself to see my bicycles as ephemeral. "You never own a bike; you merely rent it from the bike theft gods," I told myself. 

And yet I still wasn't prepared when the inevitable happened. On Sunday, February 16, at 5 p.m., my bicycle was stolen from a bike rack outside of Old Town Music on Sandy Boulevard in Portland, Oregon. As a cyclist commuter who does not own a car, I was devastated: the bike was my primary mode of transit. 

When I saw the empty rack, I immediately felt depressed: I knew the probability of its safe retrieval was low. One in 10 bicycles stolen in Portland are ever recovered. Many of them are sent to chop shops, cut into constituent parts, reassembled and sold off here or elsewhere. And while I didn't want to blame myself, I did: I had spent so much time and money over the years putting anti-theft tricks, some psychological and some physics-based, on my trusty Trek road bike. These included such ridiculous measures as anti-theft stickers designed by a London artist to look like rust spots, which theoretically should deter thieves looking to make a quick buck off a nice bike. 

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Besides that I had some serious, non-aesthetic safety measures in place. I used a brand of axle wheel locks called Pinhead locks, which meant that only I had the specially-shaped wrench that would take the wheels off. A bike mechanic once told me that in his entire career, he had never seen anyone successfully remove Pinhead-locked wheels without the original wrench. I also had a hex bolt on my seatpost to make it slightly harder to steal my seat or seatpost — something that I implemented after having my seat stolen twice in two days in San Francisco. 

So the theft was a double disappointment. It didn't help that it happened in broad daylight on a busy street.

But I did have one small element working in my favor: a tiny, cheap bluetooth tracker hidden in a hard-to-find place on the bike. Still, recovering the bike was going to be a long shot — the bluetooth tracker would only activate when a phone with the app installed passed nearby. Otherwise, it was useless. In any case, I marked the bike as "missing" in the tracker app. If anyone with the app installed on their phone walked within 150 feet of the bike, I'd get a notification of the location it was spotted. 

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And my quest for requital was about to start. 

* * *

Though the probability of return was low, I got the word out online in all the usual places to increase my odds: a Facebook page for Pacific Northwest bike theft, Craigslist lost and found, my personal social media pages. I reported the theft to the police and got a case number. On the advice of Reddit, I started scanning sites like OfferUp, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for a Trek bike of the same model for sale.

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I figured the odds for recovery were highest on that first night. It seemed probable someone in the neighborhood had it; I rented a bikeshare bike and searched in concentric circles around the point where it was stolen, continually checking my bluetooth tracking app to see if anything had been detected. Like most non-mugging thefts, bike theft is a non-violent crime, so I figured that the thief was probably someone whose life was hard. I didn't blame them for this. I knew this wasn't personal.

Still, I was despondent. Portland in February is uncomfortably cold in a biting way that eats through your clothes. I watched a stranger start a fire in a barrel right next to a stack of half-dissembled bikes, but none were mine. It was dark and miserably cold. After circling around the neighborhood for an hour, it was time for me to go. 

Halfway back to my neighborhood, about two hours after the theft occurred, I got a ping on my phone. The bike had been found! The app placed it by the Goodwill up on Broadway in North Portland, about 20 blocks north from the site where it went missing. I was far enough away at that point that it would take me a while to get back on the bus, so I called two friends who lived nearby. They agreed to pick me up and drive me around the area where it was spotted. 

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We scoured the radius where the bike was supposedly seen. Here, I quickly realized the weakness of the tracker tool. It doesn't tell you much else about the missing object besides where it is at a single moment in time. So the bicycle could have been driven or steered past someone on the sidewalk with the app, and then connected momentarily. Or it could have been in a garage, unseen, and someone walked by with the bluetooth tracking app installed. Or — worst-case scenario — the tracker was discovered and thrown out a window at this intersection, and perhaps subsequently destroyed. There was no way to know.

So we walked around the last known location for about an hour, phones out, trying to see if the bluetooth would connect to the bike. We studied the buildings in the 150-foot radius, looking for garages or locked driveway alleys. Nothing stood out. 

My phone never connected to the bike directly. No new pings.

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I was defeated. I wondered if I'd ever see it again.

* * *

On Monday, I went about my day, trying to enjoy myself and forget that I had lost my main mode of transit. There were no pings on the bluetooth tracker's app, and no word online. I tried to cease having any expectations of its retrieval. In a way, I rationed, it was good to have a bike stolen — it would teach me in the future to be less wed to such things, and to think of them, like all material goods, as ephemeral.

Once I had time to meditate on it, I realized another shortcoming of the bluetooth tracking device: It gives one false hope. To make an quantum mechanics analogy, the bike was in a superposition — neither lost to the void nor in my possession. Because of the tracker, the possibility of the bike's return was always there. I suppose people who lose a pet but never find its dead body must feel like this — there is forever the chance of being reunited. I debated deleting the app entirely, telling myself that the tracking widget had probably been discovered and destroyed anyway. 

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Then on Tuesday, I had just finished work and started my commute home on the bus when all of a sudden I got another ping: the app located my bike at the corner of 10th and Oak, next to Basecamp Brewery, merely 5 blocks from where it was stolen. 

This time, I was close — only about 20 blocks away — and I thought could probably make it over within 15 minutes if I got off the bus now and called a Lyft ride.

The five-minute wait felt interminable. I paced on the corner, debating what to do if my bike was actually there. I doubted that the thief would react violently if confronted — but I had to consider the possibility, and this time I had no friends with me. I did not even know exactly what kind of situation I might find the bike in: Would I find it in pieces? Was it behind a door or wall, invisible to me? Would I go there only to discover a crushed bluetooth tracker on the asphalt? To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there were more known unknowns (things that we know we don't know) than known knowns

The driver, Marc, picked me up, and made small talk, asked me about my day. I explained that I was on a bike rescue mission. As he drove, a second ping on the bike came through my phone, at the same location.

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That meant the bike was not in motion — for now. The chances of recovery were inching up.

Now Marc was invested in the adventure. As we pulled up to the intersection, he told me that he'd turn off his driving app and observe, in case I got in trouble.

I didn't know exactly what to look for. At the northwest corner, there was an empty, tree-lined sidewalk; to the northeast, the solid brick wall of a large building. Walking south, I saw a white bike hanging in the window of the brewery and ran towards it, only to realize it was a Giant, not a Trek. 

Then, down the street, I saw a woman about my age loading a white bike covered with black tape into an old, beat-up black van. Just as the human brain can identify a friend approaching by subconsciously memorizing their gait, I knew from afar that this was my bike — the way the handlebars wiggled on the fork, the way that it hung in the holder's hands.

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Ping. 

My bluetooth app connected directly to the device, evidently still hidden on the bicycle.

I only had a moment to improvise. Since the bike and my phone were now connected, I could click a button that would make the bike start beeping. But that might alarm the thieves, causing them to take off with my bike before I could get to them. They could also stick around for a confrontation. Either scenario sounded bad to me. I just wanted my bike back.

So I made a split-second decision, and ran right towards the person who had my bike.

"Oh my god," I yelled. "You found my bike! You found it! Thank you!"

She didn't run or freeze, but she did look extremely surprised. Turning towards me, with wide eyes, she said, "Uh, I did?" 

"I'm so glad to see it again," I said.

Allowing her plausible deniability seemed to be the safest option. After all, I didn't actually know that she was the thief herself — maybe she was simply a middleman for a larger bike fencing operation, or maybe she'd bought it from someone just a moment ago. 

"I have a bluetooth tracker on it and I got a ping that it was here," I said. 

I pressed the button and the bike started beeping. If she had any doubts, I thought, this would confirm to her that the bike was mine. But judging from the look on her face, she knew I was telling the truth already. Her expression shifted from utter confusion to a smile with a hint of panic.

I don't remember a moment of transfer — I didn't grab it from her, nor did she push it towards me. In a moment, it was in her hands, being shoved unceremoniously into the side door of this primer-stained black van. In the next moment it was in mine. There was no protest or struggle; she just kind of gave it to me.

But I still felt nervous about the veracity of my story and wanted to drive home the impression that I was genuinely grateful for her help. I gushed. I amped up the sappiness.

And then we were both smiling. A hug felt somehow appropriate. I'm not even sure who initiated it.

"Thank you for finding it," I said as we embraced. "I really do appreciate it."

Caught up in an adrenaline rush, I don't remember entirely how I got from the sidewalk to the street, but I knew instinctively that I should probably bike away immediately before an angry accomplice emerged. That's when I realized Lyft driver Marc was still there — with the trunk of his SUV open.

"I can't believe you found it," Marc said. "I'll give you a ride anywhere you want — don't worry about it." 

* * *

It is tempting to view this bike un-stealing story as a technological victory.  But I don't think "get a bluetooth tracker" is the bottom line here. There are other elements that made this turn out how it did.

First, the security features. My extra-secure seatpost and the aforementioned axle locks make my bike extremely hard to chop up. It was very unlikely anyone would be able to take off the wheels and replace them or sell them separately, meaning the bike was probably going to have to be kept intact and sold as-is. It seems like that is what it was destined for when I discovered it. I suspect that it was going somewhere outside of Portland, though, as it was a distinct bike. And no bike shop would buy a bike whose wheels were impossible to remove. Hence, because of the features I'd installed, the bicycle remained intact all the way up until the moment that I found it.

That's not to say my bike was unchanged when I retrieved it. Oddly, there was black tape all over it — something like electrical tape but stickier. Some of this was clearly meant to obscure its colors and logos, but other examples of the tape were sort of random. In any case, the changes were all superficial. And speaking of superficial, rust clearly doesn't deter some thieves — my anti-theft stickers didn't prevent the bike from being taken. 

But the security measures I took also contributed to a case of false confidence. I had axle locks, so I thought there was no need to lock up my bike with two locks while I was in the music store, as I used to do when I lived in New York and San Francisco. Every time you add a lock to a bike, you double the amount of time it takes to steal and increase the likelihood that a thief won't bother or will be interrupted in the act.

My other big blunder was never writing down my bike's serial number. If you own a bicycle and you don't know its serial, stop reading this, go find your bike, turn it upside down, write the number down and email it to yourself. Recovery of a stolen bike is far more likely if you remain in possession of that number.

This is not to say the bluetooth tracker was not the key component in retrieving the bike. But luck was a huge factor, too. If I had arrived several seconds later I might not have seen it; the bike would be inside the windowless black van, and I may never have found it. I am lucky that the person holding it was not physically intimidating, nor did they react with anger or violence, which I had no way of knowing when I rushed them with gratitude. And there were no accomplices to intimidate me.

I wish I could offer a clear-cut lesson on how to prevent bike theft. But the best I can do is paraphrase my grandfather's words. Are you paranoid? Ask yourself if you're paranoid enough. Park your bike near where you go, use two locks and an axle lock, get a bluetooth tracker, sit by the window so you can watch it. Be extra-careful in areas where bikes are frequently stolen. Hide the bluetooth tracker VERY well. (I don't want to say exactly where I hid mine – if everyone put theirs in the same place on their bike, it would cease being a secret and thieves would look for these and rip them off. Plus, every bike has different geometry.) And if your bike is hard to chop up, you'll be more likely to get it back intact.


Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a senior editor for Salon. He manages Salon's science, tech, economy and health coverage. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bicycles Bluetooth Tracking Crime Criminology Editor's Picks Essay Fencing Rings Portland Oregon Sociology

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