An end to bike theft?

A rather optimistic title perhaps. Humour me though.

Gone without a trace

Picture the scene: it’s Saturday and you need to do some chores in the city. You could take the car or public transport, but you don’t really want to drive in circles for hours looking for a parking space and public transport takes forever. You take your bike.

It’s a nice ride and your make it straight into the city centre without any problems. Just off the main shopping street there is a bike rack with a couple of other bikes attached. The area doesn’t look too bad, so you lock up your bike to the rack, then walk off and do your chores. You get caught up and meet up a friend for dinner. You get back to the bike rack later that evening with your arms full, but discover with horror that your beloved bike is gone, the lock lying cut on the ground.

From reading posts on local social media boards, bike theft in cities happens surprisingly often, especially driven by the current high demand and low supplies in bikes and parts. Some bike locks are easy to cut or saw through, sometimes the lock can be picked. Thieves can be particularly shameless, using an angle grinder in daylight with passers-by simply walking past, or even thieves walking into your basement and picking or snapping the lock in peace.

A sad sight, a bicycle ripe for theft. (Credit: Pexels.com)

Bike insurance may make sense for an expensive bike, but who would leave their €5,000 bike out in public for more than a few minutes? For a €100 or €500 bike however, the premia alone would become more expensive than the bike after a few months.

Even if the bike is insured and you get your money back, for many people finding a replacement bike is an inconvenience, especially if they have been victim to multiple thefts. Some people also have an emotional attachment to their bike worth more than money.

Unlike a car, bikes don’t have standardised identification marks like licence plates. Yes, there are serial numbers printed on the frame, but the owner has to register this with the local police to be saved anywhere, and even then it’s doubtful that a buyer would check if a potentially stolen bike has been registered.

Once stolen, the only way to find a bike is to report it to the police or tell a local social media group to keep an eye out. Maybe you’ll have a chance, maybe not. You can also trawl through second-hand websites, but this needs a lot of luck. Your bike has just become another statistic, and the thief can sell the bike to an unsuspecting buyer, making a nice little profit with no consequence.

Does it really have to be this way?

Thankfully I’ve never been the victim of bike theft. I live in a relatively safe city, use a cheaper bike for my commute and chores, and I have customised it to become more identifiable and less attractive. I use theft proof axles which make it hard to steal the wheels. I also use a strong lock which has a good rating from the lock picking expert and YouTuber LockPickingLawyer.

All of this reduces the chance of theft, but not recovery. For this, I’ve gone a step further and fitted all my bikes with tracking tags. Once hard to imagine, the technology has come a long way and has reached the point where it is a feasible solution for bikes – after all, to work it must be small, accurate, with a long battery life.

I have recently tried Apple AirTags, and so far I’m not disappointed. It should be noted that these are not GPS-based, but work by bouncing bluetooth signals to / from Apple iPhones nearby.

This means that the AirTag is naturally restricted to populated areas with high iPhone usage, however for my purposes as a city dweller this is more than enough. After all, I suspect that opportunistic thieves would either take a stolen bike home or somewhere nearby for storage before finding a buyer, or abandon it somewhere quiet after a joyride.

If so, this should give me time to either recover the bike myself, or call the police to pay a visit to the thief. In the latter case, I should be prepared to identify the bike as being my property – clearly the AirTag would help, but noting the frame number and other features as well may also be useful.

There are other tracking options on the market (some reviewed here), including GPS-based solutions, however the AirTag seems to be the most effective approach, after all:

  • It is cheap – about €25 per unit, and mounts are cheaper,
  • It is small – the size of a large coin,
  • It has a long battery life – claimed 1 year, running off a 2303 battery, and
  • It is reliable – I can check that my bike is still where I left it. I also get a message when I move away from it, and (perhaps more importantly) when it moves away from me.

Another use for the AirTag is to keep track of your bike when travelling, such as when flying with the bike checked into the hold (one success story here).

How do you set it up?

The AirTag is a simple thing. You’ll need to get a protective cover to mount it onto the bike – there are some which mount to bottle holders (even underneath a bottle), some under the saddle, and some other creative places. The cover should ideally be waterproof and come with security bolts which make it hard to remove.

AirTag, waterproof bottle mount, and common or garden pencil for scale.

It’s up to you if you want to hide the AirTag or make it obvious – I suppose there is merit in both. Making it obvious may discourage a thief to steal a bike, but may encourage them to prise off the holder.

Take the AirTag out of the packaging, remove the plastic strip to activate the battery, mount it securely to your bike, and then register the AirTag on your iPhone.

To do this, open up the “Find My” app, search for the AirTag whilst holding the iPhone nearby. You can then name the AirTag. At the time of writing, only one iPhone can register an AirTag – this is for security, to prevent unregistered people from tracking you. Make sure you allow for notifications on your iPhone to get updates.

That’s it, your bike is now trackable. Since I haven’t had personal experience, here’s one video showing how someone used the AirTag to track their stolen bike.

Until now, the accepted approach to discourage bike theft is to make it look cheap and/or unique. Nevertheless, when the bike is gone, its gone. If you want to find it again, a tracker seems like a sensible option.

If more people use them, thieves may start living in fear of a police raid within hours of a theft. Who knows, perhaps the numbers of thefts will go down.

It’s worth some thought, no?

Do you have any stories of having found a stolen bike? Do you have any experience with AirTags or other trackers? Leave a comment below and lets start a discussion!

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