The bicycle thieves move up a gear

 

The Bike to Work scheme has flooded the streets with expensive bicycles that can be stolen in less time than it takes to lock them properly

WHEN THE CAR pulls up to the kerb outside a Dublin pub there’s nothing remarkable to see. It stops briefly beside a signpost where a new Trek mountain bike is chained, then drives out of the view of the car-park cameras. Less than five minutes later the car returns. This time there’s more action.

In what seems like a single motion, the passenger sticks a large bolt cutter out of the car window and snips the lock; then the car drives away. Immediately, a young man walks up to the bike, jumps on and cycles off; a three-week-old €1,100 lightweight mountain bike is gone in just under 15 seconds.

While overall crime rates are falling, bike thefts have increased by a significant 54 per cent since 2008.

The problem is concentrated in Dublin. Of the 4,655 bikes reported stolen last year, 3,204 were in the capital, with the south inner city accounting for 971 incidents. This number is much higher than in the other five Garda divisions in the city.

The next highest figures come from Galway and Cork; 200 bikes were stolen in each city last year.

Garda sources and those involved in the cycling sector say the Bike to Work scheme, under which a discount of up to 51 per cent, based on a tax break, is available on the price of a bike, has flooded the country with new bicycles, with an estimated 150,000 sold under the scheme since it began at the start of 2009.

And because the cost to the buyer is so discounted, people are choosing the most expensive models, which are most attractive to thieves.

Aside from the increase in commuter cycling, bodies involved in racing cycling or structured leisure events are also reporting huge levels of participation. The membership of Cycling Ireland, the national governing body catering for leisure and racing cyclists, has increased from a fairly steady 3,500 in recent decades to 11,500 at present.

Chief executive Geoff Liffey says while new members are men and women of all ages, he believes cycling has taken over from golf as the key hobby for many middle-aged, affluent men.

“They seem to love the gadgets as well as the sport itself. A few years back, people were trying to minimise their spend on bikes, and the average spend was €250. But now, because of the Bike to Work scheme, people are trying to maximise the spend, to get a big discount. In three years the average spend on a bike has increased to €750.”

With the explosion in the numbers of cyclists on Irish roads since the recession began – as fuel prices and other motoring costs become more of a burden, and racing and structured leisure cycling have increased exponentially – the market for stolen bicycles is greater than ever.

And while gardaí recover many stolen bikes, most will never be given back to their owners because there is no way to tell who the owner is. According to a Garda source, “There is no central register, and most people don’t know the serial number of a frame. We have no way of reuniting the owners with the many bikes we recover.”

Gardaí have so many unclaimed stolen bikes in stations around the country that they have resorted to selling them through private auctions. The cash raised at these sales goes straight back to the Exchequer. At Store Street Garda station in Dublin, 200 unclaimed bikes were cleared out in recent months; already another 180 have taken their place.

The Garda has put a Flickr feed of photos of recovered stolen bikes on the Garda website, garda.ie, in the hope that owners will see their missing bikes and claim them. The website also gives advice on bicycle safety and security.

Shane Connaughton of Cycleways, one of Dublin’s biggest bike shops, believes people need to think differently about their bikes.

“If most people bought something for €1,000 they wouldn’t dream of leaving it unlocked or out of their sight. But with a bike, they’re almost disposable to some people.” He strongly warns against choosing a cheap lock, saying that most cable-style locks can be relatively easily snipped with bolt cutters, while cheaper models will pop open when a thief pulls a bike hard against them.

He also says while rigid U-locks are hardest to cut, and so most secure, they can be forced.

“You see guys who have locked the bike by the crossbar to a post on the street. But a robber can actually pick up the bike and turn it, and use it as a big lever to keep turning until the locks pop open.” He advises cyclists to use U-locks and cable locks as close and tight to a bike as possible.

“It gives thieves less room to get a good pull on a bike. And they also can’t stand on one part of the cable on the ground and pull the other part with both hands. Use a U-lock through a back wheel; it means the frame and wheel are secure and a bike can’t be lifted and turned.”

Sgt Dermot Harrington echoes this advice. Based at Store Street Garda station, the Garda’s crime-prevention officer for north inner-city Dublin says that cyclists need to make it as difficult as possible for thieves to target their bikes.

“Most thieves carry only one cutting tool, so if you use a cable and U-lock at the same time, that really makes it hard for them.

“Our research tells us that up to 90 per cent of thefts are opportunist,” he says.

“We know some teenagers or young men are walking around the city and looking at parked bikes, to see how expensive they look and how they are locked up. If it’s a cheap lock, a good hard pull might pop it open. We’ve actually seen cases so opportunist that two young lads on bikes will stop at other chained-up bikes, and if one of them manages to rob a better bike than the one he is already on, he’ll leave his own bike at the scene and go off on the stolen one.”

ONE SENIOR DUBLIN-BASEDofficer says more organised thieves working in pairs use a system where one walks into a busy bike-parking area at a train station or in the city centre and uses a bolt cutter or hand-held sharp cutters to quickly snip cable-style locks.

He then leaves without a bike, only for an accomplice, or maybe two, to walk in a few moments later and cycle away.

Other sources believe bikes are being brought out of the country in vans on car ferries, most likely by criminals with contacts in the UK.

While a small number of bike shops will take bikes for resale suspecting they have been stolen, Sgt Harrington says a lot of stolen bikes are sold on the streets in cash transactions. “A guy could sell a €600 or €700 stolen new bike for €50.”

A Garda stolen-bike unit established in May 2005 no longer exists, and gardaí on the beat tackle the issue like any other form of street crime.

Evidence is also beginning to emerge of bike shops – where bikes can sell for up to €7,000 and even specialist wheels can cost more than €1,000 – being targeted by criminals. In one shop in north Co Dublin recently, thieves broke in by forcing shutters and removing the main front window. Once inside, they went for only the most expensive items. “They didn’t even touch the run-of-the-mill gear,” says the shop owner.

Sgt Harrington says teenagers and young men are becoming involved in on-street bike thefts because they can make some money and believe the chances of being caught, like the sanctions, are minimal. “They think, Bikes are handy: I won’t get caught. But it’s now acting as a gateway crime to more serious offending.”