tl;dr version: No, they haven’t found my two stolen bikes. And it’s not likely that they will.
It’s a surreal moment, that moment when you pull up Lincoln Nebraska Stolen/Missing Bikes or Nebraska Stolen Bike Alert and start to type “STOLEN!” You’ve read too many of these posts. You know the exact format: make, model, color, distinguishing characteristics, location of theft, type of lock breached (because we all want to know). You’ve simmered with rage reading these posts from friends. You’ve maybe even teared up a bit reading about strangers’ bike thefts, thinking, god, I don’t even know what I’d do with myself if that were me. It happens so often, far too often, that the moment you type “STOLEN!” you think that perhaps it was inevitable.
What is a list of parts to others is, to you, a list of memories: The beautiful blue Chris King headset that your boyfriend got you for Christmas last year – your first-ever Chris King headset. The brand-new Extreme Bar Mitts, a gift from his parents, that you were about to install for the first time. The rear rack that’s been tweaked ever since you tried to park outside of Banhwich and misjudged the slope of the hill, spilling bubble tea out of the Feed Bag (also stolen) as the bike tumbled. The sparkly red and gold frame – the most beautiful bike you’ve ever owned, your adventure rig for Tour de Nebraska every year. The shiny copper PDW Sparrow Cages that you lusted over for months and finally bought, just a week ago.
I live in an apartment with limited indoor space for bikes, and so I had been storing a bike or two, as well as some bike parts and accessories, in my building’s communal garage. I had spots for two bikes – one bike on the floor, one bike on a wall rack – with heavy metal loops bolted to the brick wall and the thickest cables I could find looped and locked through each bike. I’m aware that I was not locking up to downtown-on-Saturday-night standards, but this was a locked garage, so my goal was to slow down any opportunistic would-be thieves who might stumble in while a neighbor had the door open and run off with whatever bike s/he could grab. Breaking and entering was a level of bike theft that I didn’t think we’d reached in Lincoln. I had my bike parts in a typical plastic garage storage cabinet, also locked with a padlock. The night before, I’d been cleaning my apartment, and I put a bunch of accessories in the garage. I also decided to move my Salsa Vaya to the garage, hanging up, since I would be using it less in the winter. Below it was my Surly Ice Cream Truck. I locked them both up neatly, taking care to loop the cable multiple times around each frame to eliminate slack and make the cables harder to cut. For some reason I paused before going in and took a good look at my bikes, admiring them. It would be the last time I saw them.
I was lazing around in bed Sunday morning, December 10, when my neighbor called. I let it go to voicemail, but I thought it was odd. My phone attempts to transcribe messages, so before I even listened, I saw enough to know: “garage… burgled… broke the lock… hope you’re out riding because there are no bikes in your stall…” It was one of those moments when the world stops. I screamed. I shouted a lot of unrepeatable-here words. I called my neighbor, who told me the police were on their way; don’t touch anything in the garage.
There are basically two scenarios you will encounter with bike thieves: The opportunistic lower-level thieves that will happen to see a bike and grab what they can, sand and spray-paint it into an unrecognizable POS, and try to sell it locally for whatever they can get, or the pros – the thieves who know exactly what they’re going for and how to get it, and will move their haul immediately across state lines and strip and swap parts for resale on the black market. I’m not sure which I would have preferred. The lower-level thieves’ victims sometimes see their bikes again, but they wish they hadn’t. They’re trashed. When your bike is stolen by pros, it doesn’t come back.
I knew immediately when I saw the garage that we were dealing with professionals. They cut off the lockbox on the door and smashed it to get the key. They came prepared with cutters for cable locks, knowing that the few bikes that were locked in our garage used cables. They avoided our building’s security cameras. They came at just the right hour of night/morning to avoid being seen by anyone coming or going, or any residents still up in their apartments immediately adjacent to the garage. They took everything they touched, leaving no fingerprintable surfaces. And, as I discovered later, they even manually disconnected my garage door, so they could open it silently and sneak out the back with the bikes. They took eight bikes – some just opportunistic unlocked grabs; others deliberate cable cuts. They ripped the padlock right off my storage cabinet – assuming, correctly, that an apartment-dweller with nice bikes doesn’t use a garage cabinet to store lawn tools – and took every valuable bike part.
The Lincoln Police Department officer who responded did a very thorough investigation. She was glad to know I had both bikes registered. (Haven’t registered with LPD? Don’t wait. Do it right now.) Valuable enough bikes, mine included, can go on local and national theft registries, but she also recommended I keep an eye out online. I’ve done some searching, and friends have pointed me toward similar bikes – no potential leads.
I’ve looked, but I’ve never held out one bit of hope that I would see either of my bikes again. This is not to question LPD’s investigative skills; it’s just an acknowledgment of reality. Bike theft is a low-risk, high-reward crime, and pros who move your bike across state lines make it very hard to get back, even if you think you’ve found it. Sites like Craigslist don’t make sellers list serial numbers, and if you ask a thieving seller for the serial number, do you really think they’ll just tell you? Dishonest sellers don’t get too specific or post pictures, making it hard to know who to pursue, since you have no way to identify that bike as yours. It doesn’t seem wise to message shady sellers yourself, especially not without a fake identity / email address. Pros move fast, too, selling the bikes so quickly that they aren’t just up on the internet for the searching. You quickly learn a sad fact: A thief who wants your bike will have it. No matter how big of a lock you have, there’s a tool that will breach it, if the thief has enough time and cover.
The grieving process is a bit like grieving a death – if you love a bike, it’s a major loss, and it’s emotional. When thieves break into your garage – a part of your home – to do it, there’s an unexpectedly troublesome sense of violation and panic that accompanies it. I waited several days to pull the cut cables off my wall. I thought I’d be okay, but I broke down. I’m afraid to be alone in my own garage; knowing that the thieves looked through the windows to plot their return trip makes me feel like horrible people are always watching me through the windows. I’ve gotten to a place where I accept that my bikes are gone, and I think sometimes people who ask me about the theft are surprised by how flatly and matter-of-factly I discuss it. I’m simply worn out. I’ve gone through all the emotions. I will just tell you: They’re gone. They’re not coming back. (Universe, I’m still daring you to prove me wrong.)
I’m sorry that I can’t be more hopeful, but I will pass on the most valuable tips I’ve learned to prevent and deal with bike theft. They are, in no particular order:
- Park in well-lit areas, close to people and windows and cameras.
- Lock up, even in your garage or shed. Lock like you’re downtown on a Saturday night. It’s hard to be too paranoid. Cover windows. Use huge locks, anchored as securely to a wall or floor or ceiling as you can muster. Install smart cameras or at least game/field cameras (which record when they sense motion). Don’t leave your garage door open.
- Use the biggest, toughest lock you can afford – and that you’re willing to carry. U-locks and chains are ideal. Multiple locks of different kinds are even better, since that requires different types of tools, and a thief may only have one. But do keep in mind that you’ll need to carry your lock(s), so the heaviest possible lock might not be ideal.
- Remove accessories that passersby might want to steal.
- Don’t broadcast your location on social media. If you’re tracking rides on Strava, set privacy zones around your home, work, anywhere you go on a regular basis. (You’ll have to do it from the Strava website, not the app. Here’s how.) You can also turn on Enhanced Privacy Mode (instructions here). Set up your ride sites so that you have to approve followers, and only approve people that you know in real life. If you like to take pictures of your bike, maybe don’t post photos of your bike and/or your bike in recognizable locations – but if you do, don’t make those posts public.
- Thieves will sometimes follow home victims whose bikes they want to steal, to see where they live. If someone seems to be following you, keep riding to a police station or a public place.
- Register with the Lincoln Police Department (or your local police department). Link here. It’s quick – you just need your contact information, make, model, color (limited options), and serial number.
- Register with national stolen-bike sites such as Bike Index (https://bikeindex.org).
- Keep all of your receipts for bikes and/or valuable bike parts. (Tip: Local bike shops usually have a record of what they’ve sold you and can re-print receipts. Bike shops will, at the very least, keep a record of the serial numbers / buyers of bikes they sold.)
- Take lots of pictures of your bike, especially after you modify it in any way.
- Join local stolen-bike groups on Facebook. Our local options are Lincoln Nebraska Stolen/Missing Bikes and Nebraska Stolen Bike Alert.
- Make sure your insurance – be it renter’s or homeowner’s or some bike-specific policy – covers your bikes as part of your stolen property. See what your deductible is. Sure, you’d rather have your bike than a check, but it’s awfully nice to have a check if that’s all you’ve got.
- If you see something, say something. Help other people. If something strange is going on around bikes or bike racks, call the police. (The LPD non-emergency number is 402-441-6000. Put it in your phone.)