Cal Poly physics senior Grant Rayner used to own a red and white road bike that he and his dad built frame-up from the elite parts of his dad’s old bicycle.
“They were top of the line, like what Lance Armstrong would have rode back in the day,” Rayner said. “I had a lot of good memories on that bike.”
And now it’s gone.
Rayner’s was one of 17 road bikes stolen on campus in the three-day period of Feb. 23-25. All of the bikes cost between $400-$2,000; most of them were taken during the day near Kennedy Library and Dexter Lawn. All except one were secured by cable locks, the flexible, plastic-cased metal coils that are a common sight at Cal Poly’s more than 2,000 bike rack spaces.
While 17 bicycle thefts in a three-day period is unusually high, University Police Department investigator Wayne Lyons said it is not uncommon for a bike to be stolen every three to four days at Cal Poly during the academic year. That number has been on the rise. For example, between 2007 and 2009, 174 bikes were stolen on campus.
Lyons suspects the thefts that occurred between Feb. 23-25 might have been a ring of bike thieves. He based this on the high number and uniformity of the crimes.
“It’s highly likely that the perpetrators load up a van with bikes and take them to another university outside of this region, for example, to Arizona,” Lyons said.
According to Lyon’s theory, the ring would sell the bikes there, and possibly hit that university as well before continuing on to another region.
One way to facilitate the recovery of bikes that have been taken out-of-state for resale is to register them with the National Bike Registry (NBR). Licensed by the National Crime Prevention Council, law enforcement officials work with NBR to help identify stolen bicycles.
NBR Manager Mariya Funcheon said that bike theft rings do exist and she wouldn’t be surprised if this was the cause of Cal Poly’s recent thefts.
Whether a concentrated theft ring or mere coincidence, 17 Cal Poly students are missing their bikes. Business administration junior Joe Merkel’s vintage, maroon and black Trek bicycle was also stolen during the three-day period. He said the whole event for him was depressing.
“I went to class for three to four hours,” he said. “I came back and looked around. It was like, ‘I could’ve sworn I parked it right here.’”
Merkel said when he didn’t see his bike, he walked around the business building twice feeling panicked. Then he reported the theft to the university police department.
“They’re picking out good bikes, apparently,” Merkel said.
The thief or thieves did pick out good bikes, if cost is any indication. According to Lyons, many of the bikes were $1,000 or more. The least expensive was over $400, which is the California threshold between petty and grand theft. Grand theft is a felony punishable by fines and/or jail time, and stay on the perpetrator’s record for life.
But the thieves can’t be charged unless they are apprehended. University Police Commander Lori Hashim said the university department patrolled the area heavily the entire three days, both in plain clothes and uniform, but were unable to catch the thieves in action.
One of the reasons for this is all but one of the thefts involved cable locks. Foothill Cyclery owner Josh Cohen said that bike shops often remove locks when the owner loses the key or forgets the combination.
“There’s very few cable locks that are that hard to defeat,” he said. “And the reality is there are very few U-locks that are hard to defeat either. They just take a little more time.”
Even so, there are only one to two U-lock bike thefts a year on campus, as compared to the dozens of cable-lock bike thefts.
Cohen said cables can easily be cut in less than 10 seconds with a pair of cutters such as can be found in most hardware stores. Not only are they quick, the cutters are also easy to hide.
“They’re about the size of a pair of scissors, the size of the palm of your hand. I mean they’re tiny,” Cohen said.
This factor made it possible for the bikes to be stolen in the middle of the day, when it might seem that a normal cable lock is sufficient. Landscape architecture junior Craig Cousins said that he rides his bike to school five days a week. He was never concerned about it being stolen, because he always parks it in busy areas and never leaves it overnight.
But now Cousins said he intends to replace his lighter, more convenient cable lock with a U-lock.
“That’s scary that people are stealing bikes,” Cousins said. “It’s the most convenient way for a college student to get around, especially in SLO. I’d feel lost without my bike.”
The best anti-theft solution is to never leave an expensive bike unattended, even with a lock. Cohen said that students should consider buying a used or inexpensive commuter bike instead.
“The reality is that a really nice bike is way too easy to steal,” Cohen said.
If students still want to take their road bike to school, Hashim said they should get a bike locker, which can be rented from the university police department for $40 a year.
In addition, Hashim asks that students text any suspicious behavior to the university’s Tip Mail. The process is anonymous and will be followed up by the university police.
Further, if a student’s bike is stolen, Funcheon said they should report it to the local police department immediately. Of the million-plus bikes that are stolen in the United States each year, almost half of them are eventually recovered by the police.