Bike Mafia: Organized bicycle theft in Colorado is a multi-million-dollar criminal industry, police can’t (or won’t) stop

Bike Mafia: Organized bicycle theft in Colorado is a multi-million-dollar criminal industry, police can’t (or won’t) stop

The rate of bike theft is higher than the Mile High City itself

CultureJuly 29, 2020 By Will Brendza

I wanted to kill the bastards who stole the mountain bikes off our back porch. I still do.

They’d scoped us out. They’d watched our home closely, waited for a vacant moment and struck when we let our guard down, cut our kryptonite cable locks with bolt cutters and rolled off into the night with our trusty steeds.

It felt as if they’d stolen a pet — a friend and companion — one who was about to be dismembered or sold into slavery, never to be seen again.

We called the police and reported the crime. Though, neither of us had serial numbers, making reclamation an almost laughable prospect.

“Without a serial number, it’s really hard to identify your bikes, if we do find them.” The officer had said simply.

Still, I checked Craigslist every day, multiple times a day. I sifted through Facebook marketplaces, buy/sell/trade groups, Bike Exchange, Pink Bike — to no avail. It was a slow and painful realization over several days that I would never see those mountain bikes again. They were gone — living a new life, with new owners, somewhere else.

It’s not an uncommon story along the Front Range. Far from it. In fact, Bike theft is one of the most common crimes in Colorado and accounts for millions of dollars in stolen property every single year. It’s an unchecked criminal industry along the Front Range.

And it might be far more organized than Denver’s police care to admit.


The Problem

Bicycles are the perfect target for theft in Colorado. They’re everywhere. They’re usually very valuable, they’re in high demand and they’re extremely liquid compared to stolen vehicles, firearms or jewelry.

And when COVID-19 came to Colorado mountain bikes became a red-hot commodity. Shops in Denver quite literally sold out of them between March and June. Trails were flooded with new cyclists and thousands of bikes found new homes.

At the same time, many people were losing their jobs and started to experience serious hardship.

The result? Bike theft so far in 2020 is already up over 30% from last year, according to the Denver Police Department’s own figures.

Which is saying something: in 2019, in Denver, there were 3,283 bikes reported stolen to DPD. If we assume the average value of each of those bikes is between $500 and $1000 (which is a very conservative estimate) that’s still $1.6 to $3.2 million in stolen property last year.

And that’s just in Denver. Boulder PD wouldn’t respond to our repeated requests for comment on this story, but according to their website, they see around 700 bikes reported stolen annually.

To add to those already-insane numbers, it’s estimated in the US that only 20% of stolen bikes are actually reported to police. Which, if that’s true, would mean that the number of bikes stolen in downtown Denver in 2019 was closer to 16,415…

The DPD said they couldn’t verify that statistic. But whether that’s a more accurate figure or not, doesn’t change the obvious fact: bike theft is rampant along Colorado’s Front Range.

And, to many, it seems more is at play here than just opportunistic crime. Some sources describe thieves that break into apartment complexes in disguise, with power-tools, in the dead of night, to rip off entire bike storage areas. Some describe mysterious white service vans, that are always transporting loads of suspicious high-end bikes all over and around Denver.

Then, you have the curious rash of smash and grab cases that’s hit the Front Range in recent years. Professional hits, where windowless trucks full of masked men smash into bike shops in the wee hours of the morning, grab what they can and disappear with tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars in stolen property. 

Who is behind all these thefts? Where are the bikes going? And can they be recovered?

Bryan Hance is one of the cofounders of Bike Index, the world’s largest and most successful online bicycle registration organization. Bike Index works closely with individuals, bike shops and local police around the country and the world, to promote registration and to recover stolen bikes.

Needless to say, Hance spends a lot of time pondering those questions. And according to him, there are generally three observable tiers of bike theft in almost every major US city.
 

Tier one: Opportunity

The first, as Hance describes it, is made up of opportunistic criminals. People who are homeless, desperate, or addicted to drugs — who are out looking to steal bikes or… anything, really.

“They're just kind of low-level dipshits and there's no organization to them. There's no complexity,” says Hance. “They're just opportunistic criminals, typically trying to feed an addiction.”

Those bikes either end up on a local online listing or in a pawn shop. Sometimes they go through a street chop shop, where bike parts are swapped to make them unrecognizable.

This is who DPD believes to be behind most of Denver’s bike theft. Sargent Dave Albi of DPD’s 6th district says it’s a combination of poor bike ownership habits and a desperate population prone to crime. Albi explains that, more often than not, people leave their bikes unlocked or poorly locked in vulnerable places and they become a target.

“A lot of these, I think, are crimes of opportunity for folks experiencing homelessness or substance abuse. It's a quick, easy grab. Then they’ll sell it to feed their addiction,” Seargent Albi says. “It's kind of a vicious cycle — no pun intended.”

A vicious cycle, indeed. But could opportunistic criminals alone, really be responsible for 3,283 stolen bikes a year? If so, they’d have to be turning over around 9 bikes a day, either online or at pawn shops somewhere in Denver.

That math is hard to make sense of. But when pressed about something more organized, Sargent Dave Albi remained firm. 

“As far as an organized crime ring, we're not really seeing that,” he says, explaining that the DPD is very data driven, and they just don’t see patterns to suggest that these thefts are related to any kind of syndicate or organized element.

“I think that it's just well-known among some [homeless and drug addict] communities that, hey, bikes are easy to sell … I think a lot of it is crime of opportunity. And that's why I really try to push for prevention.”
 

The second tier: Fencing operations

In 2015, the Austin Police Department busted a semi-organized bike-theft-fencing-operation going on in the city. The ring-leader would pay thieves (usually homeless residents or drug addicts) in cash for stolen bikes, then he would transport them to San Antonio, just an hour and a half away, to sell at a flea market.

It certainly wasn’t an ingenious or inventive scheme. But it worked for years. And operations just like it have been busted in Houston, Portland, Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver and many others. In almost any big city where road and/or mountain bikes are abundant, you’ll hear about “crime rings” or “fencing schemes” like these.

“This second tier of bike theft is a little more advanced,” Hance says. “They're employing some better, more intelligent tactics.”

Sometimes, like in Austin, it’s one or two people, paying for stolen bikes and turning them over in another city. Other times, as Bryan Hance describes, it’s groups of amateur thieves who will raid bike storage rooms at apartments, sometimes in disguise.

“They roll in at three a.m. and they'll have like an ‘Uber Eats’ backpack on,” Hance says. “They open it up and they pull out a 50-foot extension cord and a power grinder and they’re just there for three fucking hours just grinding locks off bike after bike and they come back four times. It's insane.”

More often than not, the stolen bikes are relocated for sale — taken to a different city, state or even across national borders. Sometimes they’ll swap out certain parts or scratch serial numbers off to avoid detection. It’s an effective tactic that really doesn’t require much criminal finesse to pull off: obtain stolen bikes, move stolen bikes, sell stolen bikes, profit, repeat.

Denver’s renowned “white van” is theorized to be such an operation.

If your bike was stolen today go to 16th Ave between High Street and N. Williams. The white van was there and the guy had no less than 4 street people giving him bikes.” One member of the Denver Stolen Bikes Facebook group wrote in a post about the van, which is often pictured with numerous high-end bikes on the back and two storage boxes up top.

Hwy 85 and 56th large chop shop. White van with maybe 60 bikes.” Wrote someone else in a separate post about the same van.

Jefferson Park beware our favorite white van is parked on 23rd in front of the park. Didn’t see any bikes on the rack so he might be looking to fill up tonight.

Sargent Albi did say that his team talked to someone in a white van, carrying bikes on the back, based on tips. But that the bikes in their possession had not been reported stolen.

Still, it’s strange. Strange that so many people report this same white van buying bikes out of homeless camps and off of street corners; strange that the same van is in so many pictures with so many different high-end bikes on its bike rack.

Strange, but without the bikes being registered and reported stolen, not suspicious enough to investigate any further.
 

The third tier: Professional criminals

In 2018, thieves smashed a windowless truck through the front of the Golden Bike Shop. Masked men spilled out and quickly started removing the most expensive bikes in the shop and rolling them into their vehicle. When it was full, they piled back in and took off before police could arrive. The culprits made off with $50,000 in brand-new stolen bicycles.

That same year, the Colorado Cycling Connection was hit by thieves working by the exact same methods — they smashed a door with a van and made off with a dozen brand new bikes, each worth thousands of dollars. Then in 2019, Sports Garage Cycling got hit and lost 13 Yeti, Santa Cruz, Rocky Mountain and Pivot cycles.

And most recently, Boulder Cycle Sport was robbed twice within a month — a double haul of bikes collectively valued at some $137,000.

“There is a run going on, of people ripping off bike shops in a big way,” says Lester Binger, with University Bicycles in Boulder.

It’s happened in Denver, Boulder, Lyons, Littleton and Evergreen so far, and Binger is confident that this isn’t opportunistic drug addicts at work. “I wouldn't put much ­— if any — of the blame on that particular group. This seems way more organized.”

That’s a sentiment that Bryan Hance shares and which he calls the third tier of bike theft.

“These are straight up commercial thieves,” says Hance. This group does reconnaissance in the days before their hit, they know exactly how to get in and get out of a shop, exactly where the expensive bikes are and which they’re going to take.

Out of this handful of smash and grab burglaries along the Front Range, not one of them has been solved or led to arrests. No one knows who is burglarizing these shops so persistently and with such organized methods, where the bikes go, or if the crimes are connected.

“The police aren't doing enough,” says Binger. “It's small-time enough that the FBI won't get involved, and not important enough for some reason for the local police to do any real detective work.”
 

So WTF can be done?

According to Sargent Albi, prevention is the best remedy to the bike theft situation in Denver and along the Front Range.

“A lot of the bikes that are stolen, they just have those crappy cable locks and those are no good,” says Albi. “Get a good U-lock and learn to secure it properly. That's the biggest thing.”

Lock your bike up in a highly visible place and run the U-lock through both the frame and the front tire. (And seriously get a U-lock — I learned the hard way that no cable lock on Earth will save you from a determined thief.)

Registering your bike with an organization like Bike Index is also a huge step. Their registry catalogues your serial number, your bike photos, a personalized description of your bike and allows you to flag it as “stolen” if someone nabs it. Then, if the thief tries to sell it at a used bike or pawn shop, or if it gets picked up by police, it will be identified and reunited with you. You can also register your bike with DPD directly, on their website.

Tile trackers and bike specific GPS that can be hidden in bike frames or under seats have started to become popular as well. And if your bike does get stolen, definitely report it to the police (for insurance purposes, if nothing else).

Aside from prevention and registration, though, DPD will tell you there really isn’t much to do. Suspect information is almost always limited when it comes to bike theft. Unregistered bikes offer police no way of proving ownership, or identifying a bike as stolen — and few bikes are ever actually registered.

“Until you get tons of bikes registered, you aren’t going to see tons and tons of bikes coming back,” says Bryan Hance with Bike Index. Then, echoing that police officer I spoke with after my own bike was stolen, adds, "We can’t recover them if you don’t register them.”

It’s the wild west for bike theft out there. Criminals are getting away with it because they can, it’s easy, it’s lucrative and the police can’t (or perhaps won’t) do anything to stop them.