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Bike Theft 101 - Know thine enemy!

Bike Theft 101 - Know thine enemy!

Posted on 24 August 2015

A good bike store is on the front-line of bicycle defence (probably even more than the cops are), whether that's through the bicycles or locks it sells. And, at Curbside we have a lot of experience with both.

Once upon a time we thought it was all about the bike. Like many of our customers, we were convinced that bikes were stolen on value, and that the lower the value of the bike, the less chance it would be stolen. However, while this is perfectly logical, it's not really true. 

A typical scenario ten years ago was a customer coming in asking for the cheapest or ugliest bike because theirs just got stolen, and they wanted to make sure their new bike wasn't "attractive to thieves." In the war against bicycle thieves, this is a reasonable tactic but unfortunately it most often doesn't work. The best tactic, as Sun Tzu said, is to know thine enemy.

So, who is the thief? Research shows that there are at least three types of bicycle thieves. Some are professional, some are opportunists, but the ones generally stealing your bike can't even be called professional. North American research is nice and calls them "amateurs," but Dutch research makes a direct connection between street-level theft and street-level drugs. Most bike theft is unfortunately deeply tied to the underground street-drug economy. 

As the chart below shows, street-level theft is the majority of all bike theft. So, while it makes sense to mythologize the thief into an eternally clever MacGuyver who is out to break the baddest of all bicycle locks to get your bike and your bike only, it's really an unfortunate addict equipped with nothing more than a crowbar or a cable cutter. That's your enemy, and, while we admit that the whole situation is rather sad, this thief is still someone that cares more about themselves than you or your bike. Luckily, it's not hard to stop them. Knowledge is power! And especially knowing your enemy. 

Only the smallest minority of thefts are for money, the rest are exchanged for drugs


Let's face it, a bicycle is most likely the one thing you own in your life that isn't behind a door with a lock. Instead, you leave it next to a metal pole overnight or at work. This is why bikes and not big screen TV's are such a target.

It's really all about risk versus return. The thief has a very low risk-return to say, kidnapping (if you see the chart below). If, what your neighbourhood thief is really after is a hit of drugs and not your bike, the value of your bike isn't even part of the equation. Instead, it's all about your lock. So, if you bought a crappy lock because you're convinced "no one would want to steal your bike" you're most often the person getting a bike stolen - because that lock was easy to defeat. It's important to remember that ultimately it's not about the bike. It's not about revenue, it's about getting a hit of drugs. 

Low risk, low return. That's the nature of bicycle theft. 

Of course, there are thieves that are after fancy things. They don't want drugs, they want a return on investment and are willing to exercise greater risks. These are the people who break into your home or use sophisticated tools to break through sophisticated locks. However, of the 3000 locks we sell in a year, only about 10 come back defeated by something as sophisticated as an angle grinder. That's less than 1%. In other words, our shop-floor experience confirms what the research shows. 

Now, there's another kind of thief too. We call this the opportunist. This is the person who steals parts rather than compete bikes. If you have desirable things like a Brooks saddle or colorful brand-name fixed-gear wheels, there's some kid out there that wants them without having to pay. Lock them down and you're generally fine. The rule is, as long as your parts are bolted onto the bike without quick releases, and have no "bling-factor" on their own, they will generally remain untouched. That's why we sell city bikes at Curbside - they seem to answer this problem. 

Igor Kenk's collection. Over 4000+ bikes and $70K in street drugs. 

The proof of all of this is both anecdotal and researched. Some of this comes from experienced bicycle cultures, others from North America. In Holland it is well known that a stolen bicycle has no monetary value to thieves, and no matter the value, are exchanged for hits of drugs. Further anecdotal proof in none other than Toronto when the "king of bicycle thieves," Igor Kenk, was caught with 4,500 stolen bikes (above) and $70,000 worth of illegal street drugs, mostly cocaine. Igor was a remarkable capitalist. Cut out the middleman for a $5 hit of drugs, sell the bike for $50 and you have some enviable profit margins. No wonder he was hording bikes like Uncle Scrooge. No wonder he also lived in Yorkville. 

Other evidence comes from Montreal where a vibrant bicycle culture has existed since the 80's. Research from McGill shows that 76% of all bike theft in Montreal occurs on low value bikes. Interestingly, 83% of victims had no clue how their bike was stolen. Because the victim doesn't know the thief, they naturally assume the thief wants a good return on investment, and so they buy another low value bike only to become a statistic again. In the same study it was shown that high value bikes were less likely to be stolen because in most cases the high value bike had a high value lock. So there you go. The lesson here is buy a high value lock, no matter what bike you have. 

Bike theft can bend you out of shape.

So what lock? What makes a lock good is the metal used, and metal has two kinds of strength: yield strength and tensile strength. The former has to do with leverage attacks and the former with cutting attacks. A cable lock is bad because no matter what, you can cut through it with a cable cutter. In other words, it has terrible tensile strength. In the fascinating history of the bicycle lock, the U-lock was invented to solve this. A cheap U-lock has remarkable tensile strength, but you can bend it open very easily using nothing more than a crowbar (picture above).

A good lock will be made out of tempered steel, a remarkably expensive heat-treating process that adds alloys to the steel and increases the molecular density. This makes a lock impossible to cut or leverage open. You can expect to pay $100 (minimum) for such a lock, and they really work. After all, if your bike is your main mode of transportation you deserve to have a good quality bike. 

Want to read our rating of good bicycle locks? Read here!

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