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Two devious bike theft tricks you should be aware of

Posted by on October 18th, 2013 at 12:56 pm

bike theft
Bike thieves are a clever bunch.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The world of bike theft continues to both fascinate and deplore us. It seems like just as innovation and technology promises better bike theft prevention and recovery tools, thieves are becoming more brazen, devious, and numerous.

In our ongoing quest to arm you with as much knowledge about bike theft as possible, we wanted to share the experiences of two readers. Both of these bike theft tactics where new to me, so I figured they were worth passing along.

The first is from a reader named Chris:

I used to have a roommate that was a complete moron and “accidentally” stole a bike:

He was in Eugene, OR and some guy on the sidewalk asked, as he was walking by, if he wanted to buy this Gary Fisher MTB for $40. He gave the guy $40, and the guy was gone before he realized that the bike was still locked to a bike rack. So, he went home to get some bolt cutters and returned to remove the lock and take his new bike home. It wasn’t until he got home that he had to be told by friends and family that he was swindled and just stole someones bike… I didn’t know him when he did this, but he still held onto a lot of guilt from this experience… doesn’t make him any less of an idiot, though.

Crazy story! I guess the moral is, if some random dude asks you to buy a bike for cheap, just keep on walking.

And another reader shared this experience with us today:

Hey Bike Portland,

I had an interesting thing happen last night on the corner of NE Flanders and 28th…I locked my bike up at the Foursquare Church for a few hours using two u-locks and a cable, as I always do if I will be away from it for more than a few minutes. When I returned I found that someone had run another rather hefty cable lock through my front tire. I was unsure how to proceed but ended up calling non-emergency dispatch. The officer was pleasant, had me prove it was my bike, but told me there was nothing he could do. To be fair I guess I don’t know what I expected him to do anyway. Luckily I had older pictures of me and the bike and gave all my personal info to him.

The problem with the situation was that I don’t generally carry bolt cutters with me (!!!) and my special lady friend had to taxi from upper NE with the tool so I could cut it free. Cost about 30 bucks for round trip and it was 2 in the AM. While it was a pain in the ass I’m grateful I was able to free my ride.

I though two things; someone was just being a dick or this was this some monkey wrench tactic foreshadowing a later theft attempt? I’m guessing they hoped I would not be able to free it that night and they planned on returning to cut my u-locks somehow?

Anyway, it was super frustrating and certainly freaked me out for a minute.

Apparently (according to our friends on Twitter), this is a relatively common tactic. A similar one is to deflate your tires, hoping you’ll walk home and leave your bike overnight. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to prevent this type of thing from happening. Anyone have any advice or insights?

Stay tuned for (unfortunately) more bike theft coverage.

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Comments
  • Kent October 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    I’ve also heard of a variant of this: injecting superglue into your lock keyhole, which makes you think the lock is busted.

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  • Chris I October 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I would imagine that we will see more and more “smart” bike thieves as our cycling culture continues to grow. These are characters that might have a decent income, and look normal, but have devised methods that allow them to steal bikes with little risk.

    I recall an incident a few weeks ago at the NW Portland REI. I locked up my bike with a U-lock and walked in, but turned around and noticed a 30-something normally dressed hipster-type dude standing near the staple rack. He was close, but not too close, and would glance down at the two bikes locked up, and then look away. It seemed suspicious because he kept looking at the rack, but would go back to looking away, making it seem like he was just waiting casually. I watched him through the window for a few minutes and eventually he turned and saw that I was watching him. Almost immediately, he walked away. Just a guess, but I would imagine this location would be great for finding poorly-locked expensive bikes.

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    • Daniel R. Miller October 24, 2013 at 9:17 pm

      That specific spot at REI is documented as the most stolen from in all of Portland.

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  • Phil Kulak October 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    If I ever find my bike re-locked by someone else, I’m staking it out all night long. I’ve had my bike stolen before and I’m still hanging onto a lot of rage that could stand to be released.

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    • Trevor October 18, 2013 at 4:50 pm

      Anger management is calling your name!

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    • Adam October 19, 2013 at 8:05 pm

      Yup. Let me know and I will take shifts watching with you or at least make sure you have a hot cup of coffee…
      I had the extra cable on my bike last night and waited around for three hours before cutting it off. When I finally did I paced around the area like a friggin’ madman. I was sure to holler out “Who’s laughing now, punk!?” followed by maniacal laughter before moving on. I’m sure the neighbors were real happy about it and probably thought I was a raving lunatic.
      Extra bonus was getting pulled over on the way home because my tail light had stopped working and I didn’t know it. It’s broken. Not sure if the person who dropped the cable on my tire did it or what. Not the end of the world, I know, but I sure would like to catch someone in the act. It gets old.

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  • Todd Hudson October 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    I guess I should start keeping a battery-powered angle grinder on standby…

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    • Chris Sanderson October 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      There’s actually some guy running around in SF with a cordless angle grinder, who is cutting through U-Locks. I remember seeing a thing about how the SF Police are Tweeting images of tis guy or something like that. I hate to share this, but it’s not too hard (or expensive) to get some cheap-ass cordless angle grinder at Harbor Freight, and walla! You can start thieving bikes.

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      • Todd Hudson October 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        It’s alarming how easy it would be to steal bikes with a battery-powered angle grinder. They are probably less than $50 at Harbor Fright (sic). Do your lock-grinding while wearing an orange reflective vest in the middle of the day, and people probably wouldn’t even pay attention.

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        • Chris Sanderson October 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm

          I had to cut a U-lock off of a friend’s bike, since someone locked it to his bike, which might have been a ploy to steal it. Anyway, I got out my angle grinder, and cut the U-lock in half in about 15-seconds. It certainly does not take long. The caveat is the noise, and yes, throw on an orange vest, work glasses, and perhaps a official-looking hat or helmet, and no one will think you’re a thief.

          Okay, maybe we just armed somebody out there with an idea. Remember folks, do no try this at home!

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          • GlowBoy October 20, 2013 at 12:47 pm

            My understanding is that U-locks’ vulnerability to angle grinders can vary a bit. Bikeradar’s lock tests mention how long it took them to defeat each lock they tested. On some U-locks it is just a few seconds. On the better ones it can take 2-3 minutes. That’s a big difference, when most thieves rely on making a quick score while attracting as little attention as possible.

            Just the same, even a cheap U-lock is better than the best cable lock available.

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      • Brian E October 18, 2013 at 3:54 pm

        Yeah, it takes about 7 seconds. I had to cut my u-lock because the lock malfunctioned and would not open.

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      • Adam October 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm

        Wow, thanks for giving everybody in the world the exact location for where they can acquire the tools to steal all our bikes. Very smart move!

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        • wilier October 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm

          Yes! Before his comment, no one knew that you could buy common power tools from Harbor Freight, Home Depot, Lowes, WalMart, Fred Meyer, & every pawn shop in the city.

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  • Nick October 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    If someone offers a good bike for cheap, try to get the police there as soon as possible. Classic bike thief behavior, and its thwarting by people willing to engage documented several times on this very site.

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    • Todd Hudson October 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      I’m wondering what a “cheap bike salesman” would do if you pulled out your phone and filmed them and the bike….

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      • Nick October 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm

        Ha! You may quickly find yourself no longer feeling safe.

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        • lyle w. October 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm

          I’ve been thinking a trick you could use would be to whip out your phone, start filming, and say to him, ‘Just so you know, this is being live streamed and multiple people are watching this right now… It’s just for my safety, no offense.’

          Of course, it’s not being live-streamed, but at this point your typical bike thief (who probably isn’t too smart to begin with by nature) isn’t gonna usually be committed enough to either assault you to keep you from filming and/or try to finish the ‘sale’.

          Could also be used with road-ragers… ‘Just so you know, I’m recording you and streaming this live’ and then read out the license plate and description of their car/them.

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  • JV October 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    On a related bike theft note – what is proper etiquette when you see someone riding a bike and ghost-riding another (riding with two bikes)?

    It seems that there are plenty of legitimate reasons why one would need to transport two bikes alone, but often I worry that it could be a stolen bike. Sometimes I have said something to the effect of “I hope that’s your bike, because karma is a bitch” as I pass them. Is this being too suspicious of fellow bikey people, or justified? I would argue that any judgment based on outward appearance of the person could easily be wrong.

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    • Chris I October 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm

      If they were smart, they’d start rolling with one of these:
      http://elmcitycommuter.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/civia_xtracycle-1.jpg

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      • she October 18, 2013 at 5:43 pm

        Very nice but if you do this rarely enough, it does not pay to invest in this. I have ghost ridden bikes when I need to and this would not be worth it to me for a bunch of reasons, cost and storage… besides I do not need this other vehicle.

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  • bicyclist October 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    I saw my stolen bike and approached the man who was riding it when he came to a stop. He explained that he bought it for $25 and he wasn’t going to give it to me because he needed to be somewhere.

    I didn’t have a phone or camera, so I had no choice but to negotiate the best I could. He gave me the crazy eyes and was ready to brawl, so I tried to calm things and he took off. Violence is not the way, and in hindsight I know what I could have done different.

    Losing your bike twice sucks even more :(

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  • Doc October 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    One of many depressing videos,watch Bike Thief 2012,on youtube. No warm feeling left behind.

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  • TOM October 18, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I was at the Salvation Army on 82nd (Happy Valley ?) a couple of weeks back. Had just put a “Death to Bike Thieves” sticker on the bike.
    So this scraggly looking guy (25 ?) finds me in the store and starts asking lots of questions about how he can get a sticker.
    I didn’t think much of it, but when I went out to the bike ,,, my cyclocomputer was gone.

    I think it was him , and he was pissed that the bike wasn’t an easy target … just had to get even somehow ??

    Really love the kids security procedures nowdays … don’t lock your bike …just turn it upsidedown. :(

    Or at Taco Bell, the kids just piled their bikes up …there were 5 or 6 in a big pile .. and I guess they interlocked , you know ..pedals in somebody else’s spokes ???

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    • Audrey October 21, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      I recieved a few “Death to Bike Thieves” stickers, and they aren’t going anywhere near my bike. It just seems like issuing a challenge to any would-be thieves.

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      • TOM October 22, 2013 at 4:37 pm

        You MAY be right, I did not think that way …will most likely pull it and put on truck.

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      • Robb January 18, 2014 at 2:21 am

        I know this is quite different when it comes to bicycles, but similar. We used to live in tuscon, az,and had our house broken into…after that happened, I went to a sporting goods store and bought a targus pistol (never buy one of these, they don’t last long enough) and along with it I found a poster…it had a drawing of a hand holding a pistol pointing straight at you with the words “I’m here 4 days out of the week, you guess which days I’m gone”, the next week our door had been broken open, entire house had been ransacked, and my rifle was the only thing missing…Showing something like that is an invitation to “come on in”, don’t do it.

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    • Skid October 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      Actually I did this as a BMXer in the 80′s. You are usually keeping an eagle eye on your bike when you do this, or a friend is standing nearby as a lookout. We had to chase someone down more than once, but never lost a bike.

      Zoobomb employs the pile technique but runs a tow chain through it and locks it with round vending-machine style lock. messengers do it too but usually the bike are u-locked or they are u-lock to each other. An unlocked pile with a lookout is relatively safe though.

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      • TOM October 22, 2013 at 4:38 pm

        hmm, OKAY. the pile I was referring to was outside of fastfood, and NO lookout.

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  • dmc October 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Sometimes thieves will fix a pole or bike rack and have it appear as though it is anchored to the ground. It can then be removed from the ground and the bike is carried or road away.

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    • gutterbunnybikes October 18, 2013 at 10:45 pm

      Anything that is bolted down can be unbolted. Simple as that. They don’t need to tamper with them at all. Cordless drill with the right sized socket will take down any bolted down sign post in seconds.

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      • dmc October 21, 2013 at 10:08 am

        A cordless sawzall would do the trick in any application. I think you missed the point.

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  • q`Tzal October 18, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    I still want a motion or distance/proximity triggered skunk spray dispenser. You don’t need much to get the job done so the device can be very small.

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  • Adam October 18, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Of course, it would help if BikePortland’s very own stolen bike listings actually provided a mandatory box specifying how the bike was locked (u-lock, cable, both, neither etc etc) when it was stolen.

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    • gutterbunnybikes October 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm

      I’m willing to be 60%+ were unlocked, if everyone was completely honest.

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    • Chainwhipped October 19, 2013 at 8:24 am

      It really shouldn’t matter if or how a bicycle is locked. Theft is theft.

      There are other variables, too. What was the bike locked to? The object your bike is secured to can be the weak link. Some may recall photos of the locking staple completely removed from the ground in order to steal a bike (or 3).

      The kind of lock used becomes pointless. If everyone upgrades to U-locks and Kryptonite NewYorker chains, the guy in SF with his angle-grinder multiplies and the theft continues. Then we all get GPS trackers integrated into our frames to find the bike WHEN it is stolen, and they’ll find a way around that one, too.

      It’s better to commute on a bike that you can afford to lose.

      Some bike owners won’t lock their bikes – ever. Let ‘em. This fact makes YOUR locked bike that much more secure. One thing bike thieves seem to do well is a cost/benefit analysis.

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    • esther c October 20, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      How would that help? Make the bikes reappear? I don’t think so. Just help with victim-blaming is all.

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  • Joe Suburban October 18, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    I think the best anti-theft device is value and aspect of the bike + 2 locking mechanisms (u-lock and cable or chain).
    My 1st bike: pink girl’s Magna from Goodwill – value $25. Rode it for 2 years in bike thieve infested Eugene – nobody touched it before it’s rusted frame broke. Only used a chain and padlock on it.
    2nd bike: new blue Magna from WallyMart, added a fancy handlebar to it – value $125. Stolen from Lloyd Center because I used a cable…dumb!
    3rd bike: new aluminum frame Trek – value $350. Lives in the basement and I use a beefy short u-lock and chain+padlock on it. I don’t leave it parked outside or in sketch areas for too long. I ride for pleasure and in fair weather only.

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    • Robb January 18, 2014 at 2:47 am

      I own a 2004 Giant OCR1, not a cheap ride, but, I also lock it with a Master Lock “Python” cable lock, have used in front of Safeway on NE MLK, another time on the side of the Safeway between Broadway and Weidler, at the O’reilly’s on MLK, WinCo on 122nd Ave, and 102nd Ave both in the Northeast area, i have even left it locked at the REI on NW Johnson, We have parked our bikes all over Portland…all without a hint of being a target of theft. All you have to do is go in, get what you need and leave, or in cases of going to church, ask if you can bring it inside to keep it safe, or dry…common sense will win every time, One thing will help you find your bike(s) is to get the serial numbers off by writing them down, take plenty of pictures, front, both sides, and rear, get close-ups if you want, but it can be found if you have it documented, and have an easier/quicker way to get it back by registering it with the Local/County/State Authorities. A lot of bike thieves have already gone to jail/prison just by making mistakes…give them the chance, they will mess up somehow…L9r G8r’s!

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  • cheryl longinotti October 19, 2013 at 7:02 am

    Perhaps it’s time for Portland to establish guarded bike parking lots as they have in the Netherlands.

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    • middle of the road guy October 19, 2013 at 11:03 pm

      Sure….would you pay $5 a visit?

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    • Swan Island Runner October 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      I know it isn’t our reality here, but I was in Stockholm, Sweden last week and it was amazing to see 80% of the bikes there with no locks or only a rear wheel lock. It was so refreshing!

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  • Steve Scarich October 19, 2013 at 8:57 am

    I just thought of the perfect anti-theft device: The exploding seat! Someone needs to invent a bike saddle that will explode, unless the correct code is entered into it before riding. OK, might be a bit bulky, but on a commuter bike, who cares? I am semi-serious about this. Just like the exploding dye-pack in bank cash packs given to robbers.

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    • Editz October 19, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      And the first unintentional malfunction resulting in bodily injury to an innocent party results in a lawsuit that puts the company promptly into bankruptcy.

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      • Gniles October 20, 2013 at 5:04 pm

        An explosion of fluorescent dye?

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  • BikeEverywhere October 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    The thiefs are getting bolder…A couple of weeks ago I was riding MAX with my bike and someone stole my $50 PDW Radbot 1000 rear light. I was standing right next to it the entire time, holding the bike upright. The theft occurred sometime between the Merlo Rd and Willow Creek stations.

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    • BrianK October 21, 2013 at 8:24 am

      Yeah. I’m new to Portland. I have a recumbent with a homemade lighting system. I parked and locked my bike. I came back shortly to find my rear taillight had been pulled off. It was hardwired, so it’s going to be useless to anyone without the special connector, fuse, etc… but it happened in the middle of the day. My lock also has had problems locking/unlocking since, I think they tried to Jimmy it.

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  • Cory Poole October 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Bike thieves don’t need to find cheap tools at harbor freight, they have great tools. How? They steal them!

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  • Peter James October 20, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    If you see someone using an angle grinder on a bike lock, what should you do? Call 911 or is there a better number?

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  • Jonathan R October 21, 2013 at 5:45 am

    Thanks for putting these techniques out there. I think the best defense against the angle-grinder or automobile-jack type of attacks is to ride a less-desirable “girls’ frame” type bike.

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  • Josh G October 21, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I recently heard of a $700 bike belonging to a Metro employee, stolen off of a MAX hook.

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  • Joe October 21, 2013 at 9:53 am

    I got someones bike back after I picking it up at a loan shop very well known one on 3rd st they ran the numbers but guess it came up clean since the orig owner didnt log the S number, anyway he gave me 140 and I paid 175 for it, lost some money but its all about doing the right thing right? The Portland police Dept said it was very nobel of me since I was backed by the loan shop and police dept, bottom line they have a lead on the bike theif.*** BTW I don’t go buying bikes off of just anyone *** since I checked and this bike was not reg’d in the bike database.. sooo happy I got the bike back to the orig owner. would want the same for me.. hey word of advise reg your bike S number..

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  • Bryan Hance October 21, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Re: this topic, an interesting read re: tools used and mentality of a Canadian bike thief here:

    Interview with a Vancouver bike thief: http://thedependent.ca/featured/bike-theft-vancouver/

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  • tnash October 21, 2013 at 11:39 am

    imho, the only solution is to either ride a cheap piece-of-crap bike, or ride a folding bike. I don’t leave my nice bike unattended in the great outdoors (and U-locked) for more than 2 minutes — I just take my $50 POS mtn bike (U-locked), and no one’s bothered with it yet.

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  • Mark Allyn October 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Folks:

    Thank you for the warnings!

    Perhaps from now on we must insist on bringing it inside if we go to a place like REI or a bike shop? These places should have no problems with us bringing our bikes inside. No bike shop has ever given me grief for bringing it inside. I have also seen bikes brought inside QFC/Fred Mayer/Rite Aid/etc.

    Or at least if it’s outside, its on a private lot either hidden from the street or under CCTV surveyiallance and a good distance from the street, which is in the case where I work.

    If it has to be on the street; I will find a place where I can see it from inside.

    All else fails (such as the courthouse for jury duty) I leave it at home and take the bus.

    Or use a junker for the times when I cannot bring it inside at places such as the theater or rose quarter.

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  • Joe October 21, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    I really think most places should offer indoor parking, hey more for cars right ;P nah rilly it would be awesome to have indoor lock area if you shopped there.

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  • maxadders October 21, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    If you leave your multi-thousand-dollar lifestyle toy / fashion symbol parked in a vulnerable spot for long enough, you’ll lose it. I just don’t see the point of riding such fancy bikes around town. Sure, tweet all day about how utilitarian your almost-always-empty cargo bike is, or how much tire clearance your cyclocross bike offers– a $150 used mountain bike will do at least 90% of that stuff and thieves won’t raise an eyebrow if you lock it right. It’s time Portlanders come to grips with reality and leave the toys at home. Biking for utility is great, but save the nice bikes for the races, trails and country roads.

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    • Aaron October 22, 2013 at 10:26 am

      Hey man, my beater got stolen (it was unlocked in the back of the office, but some contractors wedged the security door open and left it like that all day. Nice.) so I’ve gotta ride the race bike around. It will NEVER be left unattended though.

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  • Congnar October 22, 2013 at 9:12 am

    If you do not feel comfortable leaving your commuter bike locked outside during the day you are riding the wrong bike or using the wrong lock.

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  • GlowBoy October 22, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Agree with Congnar … Portland is not San Francisco, and nowhere near the point that outdoor parking is so insecure you need to bring your bike inside.

    Don’t be like the guy who parks his fancy sports car across 2 parking spaces. Your ride isn’t that special, and neither are you. If you still want to feel special, try to make do with your tediously customized $4 coffee drink.

    Just U-lock the bike (making sure to secure both wheels) and pop off the more expensive lights and accessories if you’re going to be inside more than a few minutes. Unless you’re parking overnight in a few select parts of town or have a ridiculously overpriced bike that’s inappropriate for commuting and utility, you’ll probably be fine.

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    • Paul in the 'couve October 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      Totally agree. I don’t have any problem taking my bike into Portland Downtown, PSU and inner SE and locking it on the sidewalk while shopping, or doing business for a couple of hours. I don’t ride the fanciest bikes, but nice enough to be stolen. I just lock wisely. I will consider where I lock along with time of day and my expected time of absence. If its going to be after dark, or more than a couple of hours or if I anticipate a notoriously bad area for bike theft I will either ride a beater or think carefully about where to lock and lock in what seems to be a more secure area even if it means walking a few blocks.

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  • TOM October 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    I bought my first Brooks saddle this year and was a little paranoid about it. At first I put a little locking cable between it and the frame (one of those free gun locks from MultCo. sheriff) , but figured it insufficient despite the seat NOT having a quick release.
    Did a little reading,,, then as long as the seat height no longer needs any adjustment, turned the bike on its side and dribbled hot solder into the Allen head. The only way to get an Allen key into it to release the saddle is to heat the solder back out. Hopefully a slow process. (Also put black tape over the Brooks exposed rivet heads so you can’t tell what it is from a distance. (I hope)

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  • Josh Gold October 23, 2013 at 10:08 am

    Specialized Allez stolen from SE 6th and Alder in June.

    Made the stupid mistake of leaving bike overnight. Found heavy duty Kryptonite U-Lock mangled the next morning. I’m told bike thieves use car jacks to break U-Locks.

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    • GlowBoy October 25, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      That’s why so many of us use mini U-locks now. Harder to get a car jack in there. So-called “full sized” locks aren’t recommended anymore, unless you’re going to cram the wheels in there too and fill up the space.

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  • Vladimyr March 12, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Carry a soft gel saddle embedded with a blade, attached to a 2nd seat post. Replace the saddle when not in use. Don’t forget to always keep the bike fingerprint free, just in case.

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  • Robert Lennie May 31, 2014 at 9:56 am

    One of my kids lost their key once and I had to take a hacksaw to their school shed and sit there for several minutes hacking through their lock. I learned two things: 1. Hardened steel (stamped on it) is completely meaningless – it cut just as easily as any other steel rod I have sawed through 2. Many people went past and completely ignored me during this lengthy process. For all they knew I could have been a bike thief. Unbelievable!

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