Dude, where’s my bike?

Bicycles are popular in Chico, especially with thieves

Jim Vandewall is a bike mechanic at Campus Bikes in downtown Chico. He recommends a U-bar lock, like the one he is holding, for the best protection from theft.

Jim Vandewall is a bike mechanic at Campus Bikes in downtown Chico. He recommends a U-bar lock, like the one he is holding, for the best protection from theft.

photo by tom gascoyne

Register it:
Visit the city of Chico website at www.chico.ca.us and click on “bicycle information” to find out how to buy a bicycle license. Licensing helps Chico police return stolen bikes to their rightful owners.

On a recent Tuesday morning Chico police Officer Paul Ratto was on patrol when he received a call about a suspicious-looking man walking near a north Chico apartment building, carrying bolt cutters and checking out bike racks.

Ratto raced to the location off Pillsbury Road where Officer James Dimmitt was already questioning a tall, thin, bearded man who was seated cross-legged on the ground. Dimmitt was holding the red-handled bolt cutters and looking through the suspect’s backpack. After more questioning and a pat-down, Gary Charlton was arrested on charges of prowling.

Ratto drove Charlton to the Chico Police Department for booking. Along the way, he asked Charlton why he was carrying the bolt cutters. Charlton said he was trying to retrieve his own bike, which he was now worried about.

“Well, Gary, it should be OK,” Ratto said. “That is unless there is somebody with bolt cutters lurking nearby.”

For those who use a bike in Chico for transportation or recreation, chances are pretty good that they’ve experienced theft of either the entire bike or at least a seat, wheel or light. It comes with the territory.

In fact, according to Chico police statistics, 203 bikes were reported stolen in 2011, 234 in 2012, and 61 so far this year. Most are taken in August and September. And these are just the ones reported stolen. Many if not most bikes are not registered with the city and probably don’t get reported when stolen, which is problematic since a serial number is a key clue to identifying a missing bike.

Chico police crime analyst Robert Woodward says sometimes stolen bikes are recovered and returned to their owners based on a physical description, but that doesn’t happen very often. He strongly recommends getting a bicycle license. He said Chico police have begun putting recovered bikes on Craigslist, and a few bike owners have responded and claimed their bikes.

In a fairly high-profile case early last year, police arrested Michael Eosefow and recovered about 30 high-end bicycles and parts valued at $125,000 from a local storage locker.

Less-valuable bikes are also vulnerable to theft. Protecting them through registration is not expensive. A bicycle license costs $12 and is valid for three years, with a three-year renewal costing $6.

There is a Portland, Ore.-based website, Stolenbicycleregistry.com, that lists bikes stolen from Abilene, Texas, to Zephyrhills, Fla., and everywhere alphabetically in between including Chico, which has 31 listed, the most recent taken on April 10. The owner is a fellow named William Spiess, who said he did not register his bike, which he bought three years ago at a yard sale for $150.

“While it’s not that fancy at all,” he wrote in an email, “it looks nice in general. Anyone with decent knowledge of bikes would scoff at it as a piece of Pacific Bikes crap. That’s the problem with having a bike that looks nice, but isn’t: It’s more likely to be stolen.”

He said it was taken at night from a side yard driveway area where he had parked it a number of times before. He said he had a cheap combination lock that he didn’t bother to use.

“When morning came I got ready for work and headed out the door to find it gone,” he said. “That was it. Someone had just taken it. I know I had made it too easy for anyone to claim it if they felt so inclined to, but I was still outraged at the fact that someone would steal it.”

Smaller sidewalk bike lock-up stands are replacing the larger racks that occupy car parking spaces.

photo by tom gascoyne

He now regrets that he didn’t at least write down the serial number.

“I do kind of wish I had registered it, but honestly I don’t know how much that would have helped,” he said. “This kind of thing happens every day, probably every hour, in Chico.”

Jim Vandewalle has worked as a bike mechanic for more than 30 years, a majority of that time at downtown’s Campus Bikes on Main Street. He is very familiar with the local bike culture, the good and the bad.

Why is Chico so vulnerable to bike theft?

“I think any college town is probably pretty fair game just because of the way college towns attract nice bicycles and thieves,” he said.

From what he’s observed and heard over the years, theft is more often a crime of chance rather than the lure of an expensive bike.

“It seems like mostly it’s a crime of opportunity,” Vandewalle said. “Most people who have nicer bikes also can afford a place to store them. Most bikes that are stolen, unfortunately, are the work-horse riders that some people use every day.”

Owning and using a good lock are key to bike-theft prevention. The best locks, he said, are the U-bar variety, which are designed for attachment to a bike rack. But he suggests employing the cable lock as well to keep the wheels from getting stolen, a fairly common crime in Chico.

Where you lock your bike is crucial, too, he said. Locking a bike where people are present, like at a downtown coffee shop, should help stop a theft.

“That’s not to say that a bold thief won’t cut a bike lock in front of a place that is occupied,” he said. “It’s just much less likely.”

Is registering a bike worthwhile?

“Yeah, I think so. In the odd chance the police do find your bike and it’s registered, then they have at least some way of getting in touch with you,” he said. “They recover tons of bikes, so if you do take the extra step of registering your bike, you at least have that and don’t have to look all hang-dog when the cops ask, ‘Did you register it?’ And that’s worth $12 right there.”

He said occasionally people do come into the shop looking to sell bikes or parts, and that does raise suspicion sometimes.

“But, of course, you can’t profile people and call the cops on someone just because they say, ‘Hey, you want to buy a used bike?’ And that’s why we don’t buy used bikes. It’s not worth the hassle. To do it right you’d have to keep the bike overnight, call the cops, get the serial number, and you’re still buying a bag of problems. So we just don’t do it.”

Has he ever had a bike stolen?

“Uh, yeah. I live in Chico.”