Typography

It’s springtime – get your bikes out! But remember that bicycle thieves are also on the move.

BIKE THEFTS have a special place among the other ordinary crimes that complicate our lives. To start with, any cineaste recognises stealing bikes as part of classic cinema imagery, thanks to the Italian neorealist film classic The Bicycle Thieves. The film depicts the events after an unlucky fellow, whose employment depends on his bike, has that very bicycle stolen.

Although a bike is these days essential to the livelihoods of few of us, losing your bicycle is still a particularly jarring experience. For many, the bike is not just an object – it’s an essential part of our everyday life, something we rely on. It’s easy to become attached to it, and particularly so as you learn to know the idiosyncrasies of your particular bike. There’s something intimate about recognising the unique squeaking and crackling sounds that are part of your bicycle, or knowing how to use its gears to avoid the gear system becoming a tangled mess and the whole thing grinding to a halt.

So a stolen bike is often a loss of something more than just a mode of transport, or something of monetary value. Which is why it baffles the mind why people don’t do a better job at looking after their bikes. The paradox of bicycle theft is that despite it being common, it is also one of the most easily avoidable crimes – when appropriate precautions have been taken.

According to the Helsinki Police Department, 4,000 bikes were reported stolen last year in Helsinki. By comparison, the corresponding number for cars is a little over 1,000. This year, about 100 bicycle thefts have been reported to the police so far. But that number may shoot up soon. As the weather becomes day-by-day more cycling-friendly, more and more cyclists will be on the move – and so will be bike thieves, praying for an easy target. The most common hunting grounds are areas surrounding shopping centres, supermarkets and train, bus and metro stations, along with courtyards and bike storages.

How to make sure your bike stays yours

1. Note down your bike’s description: its make, model,
colour, and identification number of its frame, together
with possible special characteristics. A photograph of the
bike is helpful too.

2. Get at least one good lock for your bike.

3. Lock the bicycle even if you leave it out of sight only for a
moment. If possible, use two locks: a U-lock to lock the
frame and back wheel to a bike stand or street pole, and a
cable lock to attach the front wheel to the frame. Lock the
bike both in and outdoors.

4. Consider where and when you leave your bike. Prefer
public places with streetlights and traffic to side alleys.
Overnight, leave the bike in a locked room or shed if
possible.

5. If your bike is stolen, always report the crime to the police
regardless of whether your bike is insured. Include a full
description of the bike in your report. If the bike ends up
with the police, it can be thus connected with the owner.

6. Be vigilant: inform the police about suspicious activities.
If you witness a theft, call the emergency number 112
immediately for a police patrol.
Source: Finnish Police

Black market online

Bicycle thieves can be roughly put into three categories, says Juha Laaksonen, Detective Chief Inspector from the Helsinki Police Department: there are those who, on a whim, grab a bike to get from one place to the other – think of a late-night or early-morning trip home from the pub. These bikes are typically abandoned afterwards. Then there are the thieves who steal bikes to plunder them for spare parts. The third group robs bikes for their monetary value, to sell them or to exchange them for drugs.

One of the easiest ways of getting rid of stolen bikes is on the internet. For example Huuto.net, an auction website, is contacted a few times a month by former bike owners or officials who suspect that a stolen bike has been posted on the site. In practice, such sites are extremely difficult to moderate: “There are 100,000 items posted on Huuto.net every day, bicycles being a seasonal item among others,” says Tapio Luoto, Editor-in-Chief of Sanoma Digital, which owns Huuto.net.

In the end, the seller is always responsible for the legality of the auctioned item. Luoto also stresses that Huuto.net has created functionalities in order to improve the safety and reliability of the auctions it hosts. For example, if you are considering buying a bike through the site, you can ask the seller to present receipts and other documents that verify the bike’s history. You can also choose to buy items only from sellers with positive evaluations by their previous contacts.

According to Laaksonen, the police occasionally receive tips about stolen property being sold online and acts on them the best it can. There are so many sites for selling property, however, that monitoring them actively would be very difficult. “But people are generally conscious of this possibility and know what to suspect when, for example, the price doesn’t correspond with the make of the bike,” he says.

Markku Liitiä, Managing Editor of Fillari, a cycling-enthusiasts’ magazine, says that on the magazine’s online forums the topic of bike thefts is well represented. “One of the sections of our forum is ‘stolen bikes’, where readers can post information about the bikes they have lost.” Sometimes it does happen that as a result, people get their bikes back. Once an observant reader recognised two bikes from the forum at the Helsinki Central Railway station and called the police who arrived on time to seize the bikes before they were transported forward.

To have and to keep having

Understandably, the police cannot deploy its full force to investigate each individual case of a stolen bike. But the likelihood of getting the bike back depends a lot on the circumstances. Sometimes the perpetrator has already been caught by the time the victim contacts the police, and the bike can be returned to its rightful owner straightaway. But when the crime is reported months after the theft, the police cannot be expected to perform miracles. “It sometimes happens that a bike is left in the bike storage for the winter, and in the spring, when the owners go to look for it, they find that it’s gone. In this situation there is only so much we can do,” Laaksonen notes.

It is good to note that shared bicycle storages are anything but safe places, at least for bikes that stand out from the average two-wheeler. According to Liitiä, the readership of his magazine is generally aware of this and careful about where they leave their bikes, usually keeping them in their apartments or balconies. “I don’t think bicycles are safe in common bike storage rooms. Former residents may still have access to them, and even if people living in the building wouldn’t steal bikes, one of them could always give a tip to a friend about an expensive bike. In addition, storage rooms can usually be accessed directly from the outside, so if the door is left open, it’s like an invitation for a thief to sneak in.”

Laaksonen and Liitiä seem to know how to look after their own bicycles as only the latter has personal experience with bike thieves – and that was in the ‘70s. “I keep my bike at the office, and at home I take it in with me. Even when I lived on the third floor in Kallio, I used to carry it up to the flat,” says Laaksonen. But he notes that the right way to store your bike depends on the options available. For example, if keeping it in a bike storage room is the only possibility, you can always attach the bike to a radiator or some other immovable object. “I would say that most thefts are easily prevented with appropriate precaution.”

Teemu Henriksson