It’s hard to make a quick getaway on a fixed-gear bike.
That was the lesson one bike thief learned in March after he broke the U-lock on a bike near Dupont Circle and then headed north, straight up a steep hill.
“You have to have a lot of leg power to get [a fixie] going,” said Ken Buja, 49, who bolted out the door when he heard the metal clanging of the lock being defeated by a pipe.
The bike’s owner, Goesta Ljungman, watched the low-speed chase from his second-story apartment.
“I’m glad Ken got my bike back,” he said. “Otherwise, I would never have seen it again.”
He’s right. Only 5 percent of the roughly 9,000 bikes stolen each year in D.C. are returned to their owners, according to figures from the National Bike Registry, Metropolitan Police Department and FBI. That’s bad news for D.C.’s bicyclers, who have nearly tripled in number since 2004. It’s also a sticking point for a city that’s aiming to become more bike-friendly by adding 130 miles of bike lanes over the next 17 years.
“More people riding bicycles means there may be more opportunities for people to steal them,” said D.C. police spokesman Steven Sund.
Newbie owners generally hear the same advice for improving their bike’s odds of survival: Register your bike and get a good lock.
While certainly not bad ideas, they aren’t likely to make much of a difference, said Loren Copsey, a former police officer and owner of The Daily Rider bike store on H Street NE. “A good lock is a deterrent at best,” he said, noting that a thief with a crowbar can pry apart a U-lock in minutes.
As for registering your bike, Copsey encourages his customers to visit the National Bike Registry, a for-profit company, and pay the $10 fee to be listed in its database, which links owners to their bikes’ serial numbers. But Copsey himself doesn’t pony up, he said, because many local police departments don’t have an account with the website, and even those that do may not use it.
The Metro Transit Police Department launched its own free bike-registration program last month, but it only covers bikes that are recovered by Metro’s relatively small force, which polices transit facilities. If your bike is recovered by another D.C. police department or in some other city, there’s no guarantee that officers there will call the Transit Police.
“I have a low expectation I will get a bike back after I register it,” Copsey said. “I have actually submitted requests to MPD that they run certain serial numbers for me for bikes that I think were stolen, and we have yet to get a positive response back.”
Although they may not be used by police departments very often, these registries can help you prove ownership if you track down a thief yourself, said bike activist Bryan Hance. Alternatively, you can keep your own records, he said. Just take pictures of yourself with your bike, your bike’s serial number and your receipt. Then email them to yourself for safekeeping.
In the event that your bike gets stolen, you can also register it for free at Hance’s nonprofit site, the Stolen Bike Registry, which has reunited 59 bikes nationally with their owners so far this year. But divide that by the total number of people who registered their bikes, and you get dismal 2 percent success rate.
That’s why Hance himself brings his bike into work with him.
“The only really secure bike is a fold-up one you can carry with you,” he said.
“I never leave my bike locked outside for long,” he said. “It’s like leaving money on the sidewalk and expecting it to be there when you get back.”
Trying to get your bike back on your own is risky business, as a woman in Capitol Hill learned earlier this month when she confronted a teenager who appeared to be riding her stolen bicycle. The teen ended up keeping the bike and took her cellphone, too, according to police reports. Even if you manage to track down your bike, you haven’t necessarily found the thief, said Loren Copsey, a former police officer and owner of The Daily Rider bike store. After a bike gets stolen, it’s generally resold within a few hours. “A lot of people don’t realize the bike was stolen; they just think they are getting a good deal.”
Thwarting Bike Bandits
Rust Stickers ($6.13)
How to use: Apply these to your bike to make it unattractive.
Bottom line: It only works on your more discerning thieves. “Anything you do to make your bike more distinctive will make it harder to sell and easier to recover,” said Bryan Hance, who runs stolenbikeregistry.com.
Cable Lock ($7-$40)
How to use: Secure your wheels to your frame, and then loop through an immobile object.
Bottom line: Always use in conjunction with a U-lock.
How to use: Lock your back wheel to the bike rack through the inside triangle of the frame. Named after the famous bike mechanic, the “Sheldon Brown” method leaves little room for a crowbar.
Bottom line: Thieves can still steal your bike, but it will take longer.
Stolen Bike Finder (free)
How to use: This metasearch sends you email alerts if a bike like yours turns up on Craigslist or eBay.
Bottom line: “[Thieves] have gotten wise and are dumbing down ads, not listing brand or model or not including pictures,” Hance said.
How to use: A hidden GPS tracker sends you text messages with coordinates if your bike goes astray.
Bottom line: Stolen bikes change hands as often as cash, so you may track down your bike, but the thief is likely to go unpunished