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Bike theft is on the rise — but have the police given up on it?

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

It’s a heart-sinking moment that so many cyclists have experienced. You return to the cycle rack to find only a mutilated U-lock where your trusty steed used to be.

There were nearly 100,000 bike thefts in England and Wales in 2018-19 according to police figures - a 13 per cent rise in just four years.

Bike theft is so common that cyclists have come to feel that having your bike nabbed sooner or later is an almost inevitable part of life on two wheels. Unfortunately, the police seem to share this fatalistic view. Fewer than one in 50 bike thefts was solved in the past four years, according to Home Office figures, a rate that has halved in four years.

The word on the street is that the police have given up on bike theft.

Last year, the British Transport Police closed down its London cycle theft task force. Instead, it said, it would train up 23 officers in regional cycle theft task forces.

“That doesn’t mean our focus on cycle crime has stopped,” the force’s cycle lead, Superintendent Mark Cleland, said at the time. “Instead of having that central expertise in London, it means there’s more skills to tackle the problem locally.”

But a BTP source told The Sunday Times: “Cycle theft is no longer seen as a priority: the feeling is that the public do not care if their bikes get stolen. Officers on the team are angry. They see cycle theft as a major problem.” So what does this all mean for cyclists? Almost a quarter stop cycling when their bikes are stolen, often because they can’t afford a replacement.

Many riders find they are reluctant to risk riding their high-end bikes. Many cyclists avoid investing in valuable bikes in the first place, for fear they will be a target for thieves.

Stolen bikes are easy to sell on. Up to half change hands on sites such as eBay and Gumtree.

One cyclist I know saw his own stolen bike on Gumtree while browsing for replacements. He had begun an insurance claim by then and couldn’t face reporting the seller to the police. (Full bicycle insurance, though, is expensive - because of the high risk of theft).

Last month, one cyclist’s vigilante efforts did pay off. Ste Burke, of Liverpool, spotted a bike he knew to be worth £1,300 on sale for just £80. He suspected it was stolen, snapped it up and then set about finding its owner via a Twitter campaign. Within hours, the original owner had been found.

The police are keen to stress the importance of registering your bike, or at least noting the frame number, so that it’s easier to recover if nicked.

But I can’t help noticing that on the Metropolitan Police’s online list advising “What to do if your bike is stolen”, one tip is notable by its absence: “Report it to the police.”

By Louisa Saunders

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