Brian Leber watched an imposing figure roll into
with a road bike that had been sprayed black with truck bed-liner paint.
"I knew right away it was our bike," he says.
A $2,000 demo bike had been stolen out of Bike Gallery's van a few months before. Now, the thief wanted to cash it in. Leber tried to lock the bike to a mechanic's lift. The massive thief wrestled it away, threatened Leber with Mace and made for the door. "There is clearly a sign that says, 'No bikes through this door' on our revolving door," he says, laughing. Leber trapped the thief and bike between revolving-door sections until the man muscled his way out, minus the bike, and disappeared.
"Bike theft is like a disease here," says Leber, formerly a Chicago bike courier. "Out of everything I've seen as a bike courier, Portland is the worst."
Portland may be suffering without even knowing its symptoms.
Yes, you need a U-lock. But avoiding bike theft goes beyond having the right lock.
Just as Portland's idyllic streets attract cyclists, some spots in the city attract thieves. The Central Library, Portland State University, Portland Northwest College of Art and Pearl District 24 Hour Fitness bike racks are notorious theft hot spots.
All are busy areas with lots of bikes. But, moreover: They offer thieves some predictably. The same bikes show up on the same schedule, always left for consistent amounts of time. "It's easy to stalk bikes at places like 24 Hour [Fitness]," says Matt Karre at River City Bicycles. A religious workout schedule may leave gym rats taking an unexpected jog home.
More than a quarter of all bike thefts in the city in 2011 happened in a few spots downtown, according to the Portland Police Bureau. Four of the top five neighborhoods with the most theft were on the west side—Southeast's Richmond being the only exception.
Because trendy new bikes flood bike lanes on weekends, you'd assume weekend thefts would top the charts. That's not the case. Thursday is actually the most popular day for bike theft in Portland, according to police. No one knows why.
Saturday and Sunday are the next most active days for criminals. Because no one likes working on Mondays, the first day of the week is the slowest. Most thefts are reported in the afternoon or early evening.
There are sophisticated theft operations, like the one responsible for the 16 stolen bikes discovered by the cleaning staff at Old Town's Biltmore Hotel, a low-income apartment building, in February. But every bike-shop worker we talked to agreed with Citybikes employee Ed Copeland: "The majority of bikes are stolen by homeless people or drug addicts."
Most bike thieves are less suave criminals of Oceans Eleven than the bumbling crooks of Snatch. "People don't care as long as it holds air in the tires," says Leber of Bike Gallery.
These are thefts of opportunity, not of ambition. Rather than patronize a bike shop when their tires go flat, chronic thieves do their shopping on the street. "Most of the time they get a flat, don't have the money to fix it, so they just steal a wheel off someone else's bike," Leber says.
Most stolen bikes are also cheap. While only a dozen bikes worth more than $3,000 were stolen in the city in 2011, 300 worth less than $500 were taken.
Trends in bike theft also mirror bike-buying. "A few years ago, the Bianchi Pista fixed-gear was the thing," Karre says. Pistas populated the streets and Craigslist. Then everyone got over the fixie trend—even the thieves.
And '90s-vintage mountain bikes account for a large chunk of stolen rides—not because thick-wheeled stump-jumpers are in style, but because they're collecting dust in garages.
While most people think bikes are stolen off the streets, house and garage break-ins now account for most thefts reported to the staff at River City Bicycles. âIt sure makes me double-check my locks at night,â Karre says.