Sadly here in the Borough of Richmond, cycle theft is a continuous threat and we’ve previously reported on the growing number of stolen bikes. While the police continue to offer valuable bike marking schemes and theft advice, here at RCC we’d like to see a more proactive approach targeting the thieves themselves.
This week Richmond resident Colin Lusk shares his personal experiences of theft in the borough. Don’t forget to check out our advice on how to reduce the chances of having your bicycle stolen.
If you’d like the opportunity of a guest spot on our website to write about anything local and cycling related, get in touch.
Life sometimes feel like a long series of goodbyes. In my early teens, someone stole my manky old three-speed, leaving me only the remains of the lock to remember it by. The bike was blue and gold, the lock silver and white. Thirty years on, I can still tell you the combination. In my student days, I had a racer, held together by rust, insulating tape and willpower. One day, I thought it would be safe to leave it outside a shop for just a minute. It wasn’t. Then came a series of slightly pricier bikes, stolen in any number of ways, from brute force to low cunning: A lock cut through with heavy-duty tools outside Hounslow East station while I was working nights, and a white hybrid chained to a signpost in Preston and taken by unscrewing the sign from the top and lifting it over. I could go on.
The loss of a bike is a many-layered thing. Mainly, of course, it’s a practical problem – the hassle and expense involved – but there’s an emotional side to it too. It’s not like losing a family member but most of us are pretty attached to our bikes and it’s not nice to think about them in someone else’s shed. Weeks pass, you glare accusingly at anyone who rides by on a roughly-similar bike, ready to jump them if it turns out to be more than just a passing resemblance. Hope fades, you buy a new ride, you move on. Then there are the peripheral crimes: Lost lights, seats, wheels, pointless vandalism. Once someone tried to steal my bike from outside Hanworth Sainsbury’s and in the process broke the D-lock’s mechanism, so it wouldn’t open and I had to pay a locksmith to take an angle-grinder to it. It made a beautiful fireworks display in the car-park, shoppers ran for cover and a lively debate with the store’s security guards ensued.
Bike theft isn’t what it used to be though. Back in the seventies, when I was growing up, the market for stolen bikes was small and the bikes my friends and I had were of course children’s bikes with a low resale value, so there was a fair chance a wayward Raleigh Grifter would be miraculously reborn from water, emerging from Squires Brook, dripping and dirty, a few days later, having been dumped by another child after a quick joyride. As time has passed, things have changed partly, of course, because the bikes I ride now are a bit more expensive, but partly too because the world is a different place. Today, it’s easy to sell a stolen bike, and as a result it feels like theft is almost endemic. The police efficiently send out a crime reference number and a letter offering victim support counselling. One of these can be exchanged for money, if you are lucky enough to have insurance cover, and the other can safely be ignored unless you are the sort of person who gives his bike a name and talks to it. An officer comes round with a sciencey-looking kit and tells you why there is absolutely no hope whatsoever of getting a usable fingerprint from the scene of the crime unless the thief happens to have dipped his fingers in a nearby lump of hot wax, and that’s basically your lot.
In recent years, they have been going out to the train stations and the housing estates offering bike stamping, stickers and advice, which is a really good idea, but I sometimes feel like I want a bit less customer service skill and a little more CSI. I harbour a secret, selfish expectation that they should unleash the full power of forensic science, divert all their manpower to the search for my bike, give the culprits a bloody good tasering and throw them into the deepest, darkest dungeon in West London to be gnawed by rats. Am I being unreasonable? I’m not, am I?
Six years ago, I moved to Richmond. It’s a beautiful area and I love living here, but Richmond is – I am told – one of the worst bike crime areas in the country. Bikes are stolen from the underground parking area of my flat-block at a rate I can only describe as shocking, and of those that are left, many are sitting covered in dust with a wheel or a seat missing. Now these owners are not careless people; the bikes are secured to thick iron bars bolted to the floor in a locked underground garage with three CCTV cameras in, yet thieves apparently feel able to simply walk in and help themselves. It turns out the gate is pretty easy to open, and with a little enterprise and a few tools, fixtures can be loosened, the metal bars can be cut through, and one way or another things can be taken. I lost a wheel after a year or so. One among many. What could I do to get it back? Not much, apparently.
In March this year, I was running in Richmond Park and returned after sweating up the hill to find my Marin gone. That was pretty painful. I was sure they couldn’t have got through the D-lock in a public area in the time available if it had been chained up properly, so I must have neglected something. Maybe I hadn’t turned the key all the way, or not looped it around the railing properly. I have since been told that it’s quite easy for thieves to crack certain types of D-lock, so I can now at least console myself that I am only guilty of not spending enough on security equipment, rather than of complete ditziness in chaining up my possessions. Again, I went through the routine, got my crime reference number, spent some time arguing with the insurance company, ignored the offer of counselling… well, if you have ever had a bike stolen you will know the drill. My daughter was upset too. I had used the bike’s trailgator to ferry her around, but that was lost too. I would like her to grow up in a world where people are basically trustworthy, and I hate that she has to learn, at the age of five, this sort of depressing lesson.
After a few weeks of taking the bus everywhere, I bought a Pashley Paramount. In case you don’t know it, this is a beautiful, elegant, curvy bike. It’s a joy to ride, but you probably wouldn’t want to take one up a mountain because it weighs as much as a family car. I loved it. I used to look at its leather seat and its arching metalwork with a dreamy smile on my face and sometimes a little trickle of saliva hanging down from my mouth. Oh, how I loved that bike. Loved. Yes, I’m using the past tense because sure enough, four months after the Marin went, someone came into the underground car park one night with some heavy-duty tools, loosened the bolts securing the metal support to the ground and took my Paramount and my wife’s Ridgeback Velocity, despite the fact that they were locked with a total of three locks. There was nothing left but the bike register sticker which they had peeled off and stuck to the ironwork.
Boredom and anger struggled for control of my central nervous system as I contacted the police, passed along the frame numbers, made efforts to secure the CCTV footage and ignored the offer of counselling. Things were looking pretty bleak at first. There had been an electrical storm the previous day which had knocked out four cameras leading up to the building and I was told the cameras in the car park itself were out of action. Some other residents had reported thefts on the same night, so it appeared the perpetrators were organised and knew what they were about. I only waited a week before replacing the bikes, such was my pessimism about ever seeing them again. Our new machines were chained up further along the row with the most expensive locks I could get my hands on. It’s a depressing fact that the locks cost far more than the second-hand bikes I used to ride when I was a student, and now account for something like 10-20% of the purchase price of a new bike. This is something we all have to live with, whether or not we ever become direct victims of crime. I got a smaller cable lock to wrap around wheels, and I set up some email alerts to warn me whenever a Paramount appeared on eBay or Gumtree.
While all this was going on, I was engaged in a long email conversation with my housing association. Remember I said the CCTV cameras were all out of action? This actually turned out not to be the case; they did have access to some footage via a third-party security company but they were dragging their feet about downloading it within the twenty-eight day time frame after which, I was told, the recording would loop, and any evidence would be lost. I had to write endless emails as this deadline approached, reminding them to take action. They wanted to know when the bike was taken and I could pin it down to a ten-hour period but this, apperently, was too long for them to watch. I told them how to use fast-forward (I’m very techy as you can see) and even offered to watch the tape for them if that’s what it took but was told that would contravene data protection. Couldn’t I narrow it down to – say – two hours so they wouldn’t have to watch so much footage? Apparently bike theft as essentially a minor, unimportant crime, not worth wasting time over. Then one day, I came downstairs to find the cable lock on one of the new bikes had been hacked through during the night. This time, the thieves were not able to get through the d-lock or compromise the bike stand, but it was yet another reminder of the lack of security in the area. Finally, after twenty-nine days, the housing association got hold of the video and, by sheer good luck, the footage had survived the twenty-eight day deadline after all. Better yet, the camera had caught two of the bikes stolen that night being removed from the parking area.
Five days later, I had a call from the police, who had executed a warrant and arrested someone in possession of – among other things – a Pashley Paramount and a Ridgeback Velocity which they had reason to believe were ours. At this point, they still hadn’t received the CCTV footage from the housing association; the arrest happened entirely independently. The police had followed some other lead and now I was being told we would get our bikes back and have the satisfaction (well, I’m only human…) of knowing that the people who had stolen our bikes would get what was coming to them. Apparently tasers and rats will not be involved, but one can’t have everything, and I was extremely grateful to the police for their hard work.
Breezing into the flats a little later with a smug smile on my face, I bumped into a guy I know who lives downstairs and told him my good news. He was happy for me but told me his own bike had been stolen from the car park three days previously.
Even Sheffield Stands can be cut through with enough time. This looks like it was done with a motorised tool.