What Do You Do When Bike Thieves Get Hip to the Game?

Flickr photo: eb_jhu
Flickr photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/ep_jhu/4770392109/##eb_jhu##

My work routinely requires me to travel to San Francisco City Hall to cover hearings and I would estimate I’m there on average between one and two times a week. I almost always ride my bicycle and in the course of nearly two years writing for Streetsblog, I’ve never had a problem locking up on the bike racks in front of the building. Unfortunately, that changed last Thursday during a hearing for the CPMC draft environmental impact report.

After living in New York City for eight years and losing every piece of a bicycle that wasn’t thoroughly secured to the frame, I’m sensitive to bike theft and had taken most of the necessary precautions I thought I needed. Though I’ll admit I had fantastic luck when I made a boneheaded move last year and left my bicycle locked outside the 24th Street BART Station over a long weekend, I still haven’t had anything stolen from my bike in three years living in the Bay Area.

Before last Thursday, I was pretty confident with the security measures I’ve taken with my bicycle. The quick-release skewers on my wheels are clamped tight with hardware-variety hose clamps and my Brooks B-17 is secured to my frame with links of bicycle chain wrapped in an old tube, both tricks mechanic friends in New York City taught me.

I guess I figured if the bike came back to me whole after four days sitting on the street in the middle of one of the more theft-prone intersections of the Mission, surely it would be safe in front of City Hall, with all its security cameras and law enforcement officers, right?

Not so much.

“Are You From Around Here?”

When I left the hearing on Thursday at 4:30 pm, I walked up to my bike and didn’t realize my seat and seat post were gone until I had nearly unlocked it. I stood there for a moment, too dumbfounded to be upset. The point of using links of bike chain is that they are strong and squared off, difficult to cut through with a bolt cutter (the same goes for the much more robust squared and hexagonal links on the beefy Kryptonite or OnGuard chains, I presume). So had a bike thief walked up with three foot bolt cutters and clipped the chain in broad daylight in front of the security cameras at City Hall? And no one tried to intervene?

I was going to be late to my next appointment in Oakland if I didn’t get to BART in a hurry, but I thought better of leaving without filing a report with the security guards stationed at City Hall’s metal detectors, a detail of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office.

When I spoke with one of the officers and explained my predicament, he asked me, straight-faced, “Why’d you leave your bike there?”

“Where? The bike racks in front of your building,” I asked, my ire starting to pique. “I had business here and I rode my bike. Where else would I put it?”

“Are you from around here?” he asked.

At this point I was unable to mask my anger and I’m sure my voice rose a few notches. I explained that I’m a reporter who frequents his building weekly.

“Don’t you know the kind of people that come in here?” he asked.

“I’m the kind of people who come in here,” I hissed at him, though the moment he asked his question, my memory raced to all the less-than-savory people I had seen in and around the building, including a man at the metal detector a few months before who protested when the officer wouldn’t allow him to take a half-empty fifth of Absolut Vodka with him past security (the man departed with his vodka rather than accept the officer’s offer to check it for him).

I pressed the officer on duty, telling him the theft occurred some time in the previous two and a half hours, and asked him if he could access the security camera feed that would have certainly captured the thief in action. He looked at me blankly for a moment and I feared he was going to tell me the cameras didn’t work, as had been the case on several occasions last year with Muni vehicle security cameras.

“What good would that do?” asked the officer.

Now I was upset. “Maybe,” I said, drawing out my words, “maybe you’ll see somebody on the film who has a pattern of stealing from here.”

He shook his head. “The only time we pull up the security feed is if an officer puts his hands on someone during an arrest and they complain of mistreatment, to see if the complaint has merit.”

“So you’re telling me tough shit?” I asked, raising my voice.

The officer tried to quiet me, saying he would take a report, that he was being candid with me and believed the report would do little to fix my problem. Nor, he said, would it likely stop crimes around City Hall. He explained they would take the same course of action if someone had their car window smashed and belongings stolen. “There is a San Francisco police officer assigned to patrol the area, but if he doesn’t see it happen, there’s not much hope for you.”

Feeling I had exhausted my options, I reluctantly gave the officer my information and left the building, now doubly furious with the loss of the saddle and the perceived injustice of getting no help from the law enforcement paid to protect City Hall.

Outside the building, I was shocked to see two people hovering near my bicycle, one of them an SFPD officer. The person with the officer was reattaching my seat!

The chain setup on my saddle. The incision made by the thief in the tube is visible on the lower portion near the top tube.
The chain setup on my saddle. The incision made by the thief in the tube is visible on the lower portion near the top tube.

I must have yelped, because the officer looked up and asked me if the bicycle belonged to me, then explained he had caught the suspect as he was stealing other seats, including one the officer held in his hand.

The thief looked to be in his fifties, long gray hair and the deep crevasses and pocked cheeks I associate with Faces of Meth pictures. He wore a blue windbreaker and jeans and carried a red pack, which I discovered was full of handy tools. Using a multi-size hex key, the thief secured my seat, a little bit askew.

When I asked him how he cut through the chain, he mumbled and pointed at it. The pin on one of the links had been skillfully freed with a chain breaker, though he managed to keep the pin with the link, which I assumed he would have used for parts later. The SFPD officer said he had tapped the pin out with the half of an Alien multi-tool he had in his hand, but it was the wrong half of the tool and it would be unlikely he could release the link with anything but the breaker.

“The other half of that has a chain tool,” I told the officer, pointing at the Alien, which looked exactly one I own. After rummaging through the thief’s bag, the officer couldn’t find anything but the multi-hex key. The officer then said to the thief, “C’mon, John, let’s go put the other one back on.”

Because I needed to get to BART, I didn’t ask the officer a number of questions I now wished I had, including how he knew John’s name and what he would do with the man. While one part of me wanted him to spend time in jail, another part of me pitied his desperate mien and wanted to give him money. The only thing I could think to ask was the officer’s name.

“Cesena,” he responded.

As Officer Cesena and John the Thief walked away, I got on my bike and started pedaling. Officer Cesena called out to me as I passed them, “How’s that seat height? You want him to adjust it?”

“The Crackheads are Getting Smart”

According to several mechanics at bike shops I canvassed in the Mission, bike thieves with chain breakers are pretty new. The mechanics at Valencia Cyclery said they had never heard of anyone losing a saddle that had been fastened like mine. One mechanic took me in back to show me how he had his Brooks secured with a similar chain set-up, though he had doubled his on one side so a thief would have to undo two links to get it off, a trick he hoped would deter the thief in the first place.

The mechanics I spoke with at Freewheel also hadn’t heard of anyone losing a seat that had been fastened with bike chain links. One of them offered a couple options for trying to make the seat more secure without adding a U-lock or other heavy chain, but shy of those measures, he wasn’t optimistic.

“If someone wants it that bad, there’s not much you can do,” said the mechanic. “The crackheads are getting smart.”

Of the three shops I visited, only Box Dog had heard of a situation similar to mine. Ian said the only cheap option he could suggest was wedging a ball bearing into the end of the hex bolt on the seat collar and sealing it with rubber cement or candle wax. He said without a lighter, a lot of time (which presumably a thief wouldn’t have) and a small screwdriver, they wouldn’t get it out. That coupled with the chain could prove too significant of a risk for the thief looking to move quickly.

The other option Ian suggested was to buy an expensive Pitlock or similar security system to secure the seat and wheel skewers. Without keeping the chain on, however, the seat could still be removed from the post, so he suggested keeping as much redundancy as possible.

In the interim, I got the twenty-five cent ball bearing and plan to install the Pitlock set soon. But I won’t take it for granted that bike thieves are asleep at the wheel like I did in my post from last year. Some of them are clearly hip to the game.

  • cyclotronic

    boxcutter, slash you seat. no one takes it.

  • doogiehowser

    This story hurts my head.

    Although since I’ve had exposed spark plugs on my motorcycles smashed off probably 50 times in the last 10 years, at the most dumbfounding locations and times of day, nothing in this godforsaken town should surprise me any more.

  • Kat

    Do you have pics of what this seat-chain setup looks like? I’m just curious because I don’t even have that.

    I’ve had fantastic luck in the city and in 22 years of living here, have never had anything stolen from my person, car, or bike, except for a red blinkie on my bike. I’m still wary and recently added locking skewers. Ironically, the only time I’ve had something stolen was my old laptop and hard drive, and that was out of the most disgusting-looking, rat-infested shack in a town of 100 east of Death Valley. The tweakers are just as desperate no matter where you go, it seems.

  • I am happy you got your seat back. I love that the officer made John put them back on the bikes. I am… disappointed in the lack of incentive for a police officer to take a theft report. One report does indeed mean very little in the grand world of crime in SF. However, if they took a report from every bicycle theft around City Hall, they would see a pattern that they could then act on. The PD and the City would have hard numbers, attached to names and addresses, and see the seriousness of this issue.

  • Elizabeth Creely

    I’m so sorry you got that ridiculous attitude from the City Hall cop. You should rat him out to whoever manages him. Cops should never ask rhetorical questions like that.

  • maaaty

    Every detail of this story is full of the things I love and don’t love about San Francisco. What a great narrative.

    I wish you had used a photo of your bike without the seat, because I kept thinking the story was going to get a lot worse, with both wheels getting stolen.

  • Clutch J

    Wonderful storytelling. Thanks for sharing.

  • Neo Displacler

    I work in civic center, there are a bunch of low lifes always hanging around the Asian Art Museum. Often they are riding bikes with lots of spares, spare wheels, spare seats. Sometimes they’re turning wrenches on the sidewalk. I can say they’re pretty shitty mechanics.

    I am always shocked to see bikes locked only at the frame. When I was growing up back east, we always removed the front wheel letting the bike rest on the fork dropouts then locked the front wheel, the rear wheel, and the seat tube to good post (not a sign post).

    On our mountain bikes we removed the skewers and added those little safety plates designed to prevent the wheel from coming off. The plate fits over the axle and attaches to the fender braze-on boss. We threaded a security screw into the braze-on and put a nut on the other side and then a nut on the axle. To get the wheel off you need a wrench for the axle and a security driver and a wrench for the screw.

    Oh and the smart ones among us locked our bikes to a radiator in our flats too.

  • Mike

    A few construction tools work well for bike theft. People should know about them in order to avoid becoming a victim.

    For example, plumbers have these Ridgid pipe cutters that can be used to cleanly cut the top-tube of a bike in 20 seconds. A thief can then bend the frame, slip out the U-lock, and sell the bike for parts. To avoid this, always place the U-lock through the headtube of your bike.

    Electricians also use ratchet-style lopers that thieves will co-opt to cut through any cable no matter how thick. Think of it as a hand-held version of the biggest bolt cutters available.

    Framers have hand-held grinders but those are less common on the street.

    One method I like to prevent theft is to eliminate the bike as the getaway vehicle. If a thief can’t ride off with the bike, they’ll be less likely to take it. You can accomplish this by placing a small Masterlock through one of the links at the bottom of your chain. When they go to pedal away, the bike locks up and doesn’t move. (Walgreens and hardware stores sell these types of small locks).

  • is there really such a huge market for seats? Are they getting sold back to people who got them stolen?

    Wonder if by this description it’s the same guy who was photographed after trying to take a bike on Market in some story I recall from about a year ago…

  • @John, you know, it’s funny. When I searched for “bike thief san francisco” on Flickr, I saw those photos of the guy you’re talking about and remembered that tale. My friend John the Thief was not the same as the guy in Frank’s photos.

  • I always use the underground bike parking at the Civic Center Plaza Garage when I have to park in that area – it’s the one place in the city where I find garage bike parking to actually be worth it, since all of streets there are so unsafe to park on and the garage (while I’m sure they don’t really care about the freeloading bike parkers) has decent security.

  • cyclotronic

    good tip steve. maybe i’ll go to the library for once in a decade after all.

  • redcatbicycliste

    comment subscribe

  • DavidS

    > Is there really such a huge market for seats? Are they getting sold
    > back to people who got them stolen?

    Bike thieves know what Brooks saddles are worth, and they are pretty easy to identify… I’m pretty sure those seats get resold on Craigslist or at flea markets. Probably nets the thief 20-30 dollars a pop, and they get resold for 50-70.

  • Gary

    Perhaps a “take with you inside” folding bike?

  • kit

    @Matthew:

    I’ve got bad news on the locking seat post bolts if you’re still a Surly LHT owner, my friend. A quick search of the internet will reveal that because:
    1) The tubing diameter on the LHT is unusual
    2) Surly’s seatpost clamps do not close flat
    …means that the seat post locking bolts don’t work. To my knowledge there is no locking seat post solution available for the LHT.

    I’m actually investigating the possibility of sourcing a security bolt and key, but everything is ultimately able to be overcome in the end. The problem I see with just locking the seat post is that an in-the-know thief could just loosen the bolt that clamps onto your seat post rails.

    I myself had my seat post and Brooks ripped off this year. I still don’t have an always-on security solution for my saddle, but I do loop a cable through it when I’m leaving it somewhere sketchy.

  • @Kit,
    Unfortunately, you describe the exact problem I’ve encountered trying to find a collar that allows locking mechanism to be flush. I’m going to have to return the Pitlock because of it and will just hope the wax technique holds. Please let us know if you come up with a better solution.

  • andrew

    I bet Kamala declined to prosecute the thief, and he was back on the street by the next day.

  • Keto

    Tell me if I have this straight. Someone Commutes with a $150 saddle… He flips out at a cop who won’t open a stolen bike seat investigation… Then writes a furious column about the injustice of it all…

  • smushmoth

    You don’t need a “three foot bolt cutter” to cut a bike chain, maybe you would need something bigger than an 8 inch, but with some skill probably not. The thief probably knows about chain tools as well, maybe even about plier types like a Park CT-2 which will remove a rivet/pin in most any chain in just a few seconds.

    You best bet to avoid getting your seat/seatpost stolen is to not have a seat that someone thinks they can sell.

  • yvonne

    @Matthew:

    Have you checked this out? http://www.urbanbiketech.com/Pitlock-Locking-Skewers-Wheels-Seat-Fork-p/02ga-surly.htm

    Haven’t used it myself but was thinking about it a while ago and found it.

  • ZA

    Pinhead locking system. It’s worth every penny.

    http://www.bikeradar.com/gear/category/accessories/locks/product/locking-system-19717

    All the protection of a really good U-lock and chains without any of that mass.

  • @Keto,
    In my opinion, you don’t have it straight. You can find a B17 new for $80, but I got mine four years ago through a QBP hookup for $36. At that price point, I don’t mind paying for a comfortable saddle that will last me tens of years.

    I deliberately kept the City Hall officer’s name out of the account in case someone reading it were in a position to discipline him. Though I wish he had been more receptive to taking my case, I don’t want him to get in trouble over it. We had a laugh about it when I told him the seat had been returned.

    But I did want to start a discussion about bike seats and theft, so I wrote this up.

    @yvonne, thanks for link. Looks like a good Surly solution.

  • Brad

    I have to say I’m kind of surprised people didn’t see this coming. I’ve been riding road for a long time, well before the current craze (I still remember Big Mig being the hottest tour rider) and some of the new trends really confuse me (why is everyone riding track bikes with deep dish rims?).

    I noticed recently a bunch of people with chain attached to their seats. Since you can break a chain in about 45 seconds using a $10 tool, I’m not sure why anybody thought that was secure.

    You want something tough to cut — get spectra cord from REI. Tie a triple fisherman’s knot, yank the shit out of it, and that will be much tougher to get through than a chain.

  • Brad

    just another thought from a geezer (jk) — many riders in SF seem to gravitate towards the same high-end brands. So thieves learn these brands. You can spot a brooks saddle a mile away. straight-laced color-coordinated deep rims are a dead giveaway.

    But, there’s a zillion high quality components out there that are not as iconic — my bike is set up with Italian wheels and saddle that are the same stuff you’d see on the tour. But, because it’s not as fashionable right now, and is a little more basic, it doesn’t stand out to thieves. I’d like to plug the Selle Italia flight — mine is 12 years old, barely worn, and is very plane-looking compared to all the stuff you see now. But it’s better quality than 90% of the saddles at the shop.

    To be honest, I don’t lock my bike many places because I could never afford to replace it now (my current ride is 15 years old and I bought it when I wasn’t paying rent). But, I bet if those who want to commute on quality rides looked past some of the “default” brands and bought high-quality, less flashy stuff, you would be more secure.

  • Keto

    Felicitously, Bike Snob today weighed in on the ethos behind: “I don’t mind paying for a comfortable saddle that will last me tens of years.”
    To Wit:

    “…Back in the mid-aughts, when the first “hipster” bolted a hand-chamfered English touring saddle to his Japanese Keirin racing bike and undertook that fateful half-mile ride to the bar, his fellow hipsters were beguiled. “What new curiosity is this?,” they wondered aloud. It was a revelation–the fashion equivalent of that monkey scene in 2001, except with a Brooks saddle instead of a bone.

    Now, years later, given the substantial break-in period for a Brooks, the hipsters’ investment should just be starting to pay off. Even those half-mile rides add up eventually, and many of these riders’ saddles are only now beginning to grow comfortable. However, the hipsters were investing in fashion, not in comfort, and with Brooks saddles now commonplace their appeal is inevitably diminishing. So what to do?
    [ http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/ ]

  • Sam berdoux

    Great story. I have had a Brooks B-67 sitting in my project box for over a year. I would love to put it on my shopping bike, but have not because that bike gets locked up. Thanks for the heads up about the chain trick.

  • Jim

    Matthew,

    As a reporter I’m surprised you are surprised by the first cop’s attitude; the SFPD collectively rolls its eyes at these types of petty crime. I once was grazed by a car intentionally, got the plate and the responding cops, while not dissuading me from filing a report, were pragmatic about the probable outcome. Basically, fat chance. It comes down to word vs. word due to the lack of witnesses. With 1000 hit and run incidents per month reported nothing short of assault with a deadly weapon is worth a follow up. Wait a minute, I was a victim of that and it still didn’t merit much effort.

    You lost, and regained, a saddle–not a big deal in the scheme of things, though I’m glad for the resolution.

  • Chris

    @KAT

    What were you doing in the most disgusting-looking, rat-infested shack in a town of 100 east of Death Valley ?

  • hello,

    i think we had a run in with the same fellow. please read the comments section of my blog where i describe my situation and how both myself and a fellow craiglist poster got our saddles back from an ebay seller in alamo. https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=5933512647197991440&postID=3590501922157485697 bet they are buds.

  • Nina

    Why not avoid this whole issue by just taking the seat with you wherever you go?

  • chainsawhandz

    Yeah, or why not just take the whole bike wherever you go? Or just leave the bike inside and walk everywhere? Or some other stupid scenario?

  • Eco Creative

    new products have come onto the market in recent years to prevent saddle/seatpost theft. the Sphyke, which I’m about to try; also the Infiniti3D by Atomic22. And Pitlock has been around for a bit, have been using them with success as well. each design has pluses and minuses but add much less weight than the bike chain setup and seem to work.

  • Eco Creative

    I used to go to City Hall for hearings a lot. At one point I was able to get the code to access the bike room in the basement that the bicycle commissioners use–you might ask.

  • the_greasybear

    The City Hall Bike Room is available to all city employees, and every user gets a user-specific code as well as a special badge (in addition to the employee badge) which must be presented to security at the checkpoint. There’s zero chance a non-employee will make it into the Bike Room.

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