Not Stolen

There are several things that make me look like a bike thief:
  • I'm skinny and poor
  • I drink a lot of coffee
  • I do have clippers and I do know how to use them, because locks do break and keys do get lost
  • I source parts from the garbage stream, interrupting them on their way to the dump
  • I work on bikes
  • most of the bikes I work on have step-through frames, because they're preferred for city commuting, but people think they're women's bikes, and so it looks strange when a guy's working on one on some street corner
  • just working on bikes in public, or having the tools on-hand to do so, looks like criminal activity
  • I spray-paint many of my bikes super fluorescent colours, and I don't try to make it beautiful, just visible and well-protected from wear and tear: any paint job like this makes a bike look stolen
  • I'll remove a wheel from a parked bike that I own in order to go fix it and bring it back - or at least I have in the past, now I unlock the bike during the wheel removal, so it doesn't look so sketchy
  • I "ghost ride" my bikes around - meaning, I ride my bike and hold the other bike while I'm riding. This looks very, very sketchy but it's actually just one of the great things about bikes: you can bring one in for repair without walking or towing
  • I sell second-hand bikes without having a shop... heck, even if I did have a shop it'd still look criminal
So, because I'm doing it cottage-industry style, because I'm reusing old parts, and because it's bicycles, it really does give off the air of criminality. All these things have been painted this way by car culture and replacement culture. They've been stripped of their legitimacy in order to maximize waste within the economy. So even friends will press me about whether or not I actually go out with bolt cutters in my backpack at night and steal other people's property. It's flabbergasting and hard not to take personally. But these people don't expect any other kind of criminality from me - it's the "frames out of nowhere" angle that messes with them. Salvage just doesn't seem like a picturable thing. I just find it very weird, coming from a pro-salvage family background. I don't even think it's because of poverty. It's just an attitude about products, objects and pollution. And opportunity!

But there's one part of this that actually tell you when somebody's not a bike thief: they're fixing. They're riding around with broken bikes. Thieves don't typically waste time with repair - they grab something that's good to go and improperly locked, try to sell it within a half hour, and move on to the next score. Thieves will sometimes swap parts with other bikes, but they usually just pick bikes that are really common-looking and don't have anything unusual about them.
Ultimately, there is no way you can tell who is and who isn't a bike thief, and that's a problem. Even the police have a terrible time identifying someone unless they have previous charges against them, or their behavior indicates something suspicious. They can make great use of bicycle registration, so that's why I register every frame that I salvage. If they've ever been previously registered or reported missing, I'd get a notification about it. But none of the frames I've salvaged have ever been registered, which is very, very sad. I don't think that people know the power of registering their bikes. So as a vendor, I register the bike first to myself, and then to the person who buys it off me when they do buy it. The forms are all very easy to use online. The whole thing can be done from any computer or mobile phone. Or it can be done in person at any police station. TPS officers are helpful with the entire thing, and the process is free. I've identified myself to 14 Division officers as a service and sales entrepreneur, and they answered all my questions. So I am known to police as a bike vendor. They have rolled up on me several times while I've been cutting a lock off, and sometimes they've accepted my explanation without bothering to check the registration, and that doesn't put my mind at much ease, but when they did go ahead and do the check, the process has always been quick and easy for them, myself and most importantly, my customer. Registration makes things simpler for everybody. Because, seriously, locks do break and the key stops working, most often because they haven't been properly oiled or because of theft-related tampering.

My bikes are designed to be theft-resistant in several ways:

  • they're sold with appropriate new high-quality locks included
  • they're so totally customized that they'd have to be chopped to bits to be unrecognizeable
  • they're so brightly and uniquely painted that they stand out way too much
  • they're not technically valuable enough to swap parts up with another bike or repaint
  • none of the accessories I use are of high individual value, so it's not worth stripping or swapping the parts
  • the only cash value of my bikes is in how well they're put together and how road-ready they are
Finally, the public is largely ignorant of the ease of salvage. I haven't tried to steal bikes in the past, but I don't imagine it's easier than salvaging them. It is so much easier to go out on garbage night or just take the alleyways while commuting. I could find way more great bikes this way than I could ever fix up and sell. In fact, the whole city's bike needs could probably be met just on reused parts, and this is really what should be happening. I don't mean to rail against new bicycles or the companies that make them, but just because they're around doesn't mean these old ones should be allowed to wallow in the garbage and in dumps. The metals on these garbage bikes are better, anything that was ever going to break has broken already and can be replaced by other scavenged parts that have proven their durability, so it's easier to build a bike that'll last and is low-maintenance. I honestly don't think it'd be more profitable to go around stealing them. Bike thieves often come up to me and tell me that nobody's going to steal my bike, and they get a kick out of it. So I've had a bunch of conversations with people who identify themselves to me as bike thieves, and will talk openly about property security. The thing they want to do most is advise me on how to keep my bike from getting stolen. It's flabbergasting, and to me, just illustrates the massive guilt that bike thieves feel, and really, probably any thieves. This is where I'm glad to have high moral values from both sides of my family - because I can see that crime causes a lot of suffering to the criminals as well as to the victims.

So here's what bike thieves have told me about preventing bike theft:

  • cable locks are out: after hearing this, I tried seeing which of my cable locks could be broken in under 10 seconds with a 2-foot pair of bolt cutters that I bought from Honest Ed's for $18, and all the locks ended up in the garbage
  • short u-locks are in: long ones can be broken into with a car jack, like you use to crank up your car to change the tires
After losing several bikes to theft, and having to cut locks off bikes because the key's been lost or the lock has actually broken due to tampering, I have learn the following about locks:
  • not all u-locks are created equal: I've broken cheap u-locks with rocks, hammers, bolt-cutters... strong-looking, thick ones too - the lesson is, you really cannot tell by looking at the lock whether it's strong or not
  • it's not all about size: usually, a good, cheap u-lock will be big and heavy, and a small, light one of the same strength will cost much more - the lesson is, some thin locks are much stronger than some thick ones
  • it's not just the lock that counts - it's the locking mechanism: if it's vulnerable to tampering, it's all over, and again, you can't tell visually
  • it's not just the entire lock that counts, it's how you use it: there are so many bikes out there locked up by their spokes, with quick-release brakes, and a street value of $200, retail $450 - that is very, very sad stuff
Finally, I am not a thief, and I don't buy bikes from anyone or anywhere. I don't buy parts or tools from any individuals. What I can't source from the garbage, I buy from Cyclemania, Hoop Driver, or that great kiosk on Dundas just east of Bathurst. Those young guys are awesome. When I do buy parts, they're cheap. They don't have much individual value.