Friday, April 23, 2021

How to Avoid Being Bike-Jacked


About a month ago, an email went around my cycling team about a bike-jacking on Wildcat Canyon Road up in the Berkeley hills: two men ran a guy off the road with their car, then stole his bike at knifepoint. (The Nextdoor report is here.) A week later, another report came in, this one from Strava and also reported in Berkeleyside, about two more cyclists being robbed of their bike, this time at gunpoint. Also mentioned were two other tales of cyclists escaping apparent robbery attempts. And just last week I came across yet another report of a cyclist being robbed at gunpoint, this time of his mountain bike.

I have continued to ride throughout this crime spree, and now, as a service to my fellow Bay Area cyclists and anyone anywhere who faces this threat, I offer my strategies for protecting yourself and—more importantly—your bike.

A few details 

I’ve pored over the articles for as much information as possible, but there are a lot of gaps. The first guy, we’re told, “had been run off the road about halfway between El Toyonol [sic] and Inspiration Point, by two men in a grey VW or Toyota sedan – ‘looked like primer’. He surrendered his bike when threatened with a knife. One of the men left with the car and the second rode the bike, both toward Berkeley. He was not clear on the description of the two men saying he was mostly focused on the knife.” Other than his bike being a “Trek Madrone” [sic] there’s not much more info.

Right off the bat, I’m pretty frustrated. I mean, “VW or Toyota”—what the hell is that? Any normal male above the age of ten should be able to tell the make, model, and year (give or take) of just about any car. But this guy? Let’s face it, VWs and Toyotas don’t look very much alike, whereas Toyotas and Hondas are practically identical. Consider the following exhibits:

Obviously, the car could have just as easily been a Honda, and by extension a Lexus or Acura. So all we really know about the vehicle is that it’s not a Prius and not an SUV. Gee, thanks. (Actually, a Prius would be the perfect getaway vehicle around here because it would be so inconspicuous. But an eco-friendly villain? I can’t see it happening.)

Perhaps more annoying than the victim’s poor observational skills is the typical prevalence of stupid comments below the news story. Lots of politically charged stuff in there about “PC politics,” “defunding the police,” etc. One guy wrote, “Race of criminals; suppressed. Type of bikes; secret.” What does he mean “suppressed”? By whom? There’s a difference between neglecting (or failing to notice) this or that detail vs. it being kept from us as though by conspiracy. And really, the type of bike is irrelevant. Am I safer because I ride a Giant, when the criminals are apparently targeting Treks? Uh huh.

I would argue that the thieves’ race (though it was brought up by four commenters in the first Berkeleyside article) is also irrelevant. We cyclists want info that will help us keep an eye out for the perps during our rides. This is why knowing it was, say, a mid-‘80s VW Jetta would be really useful. But suppose, for the sake of argument, the perps were white guys. Does this mean I need to peer into every car I see and try to make sure the driver isn’t white? Pffff.

There’s also the probability that multiple, independent criminals are involved. Copycat thieves, if you will. Which brings me to my perp-agnostic strategies.

Strategy 1 - Choose different routes

The hardest thing to figure out with these reports is whether the victim was riding uphill or down. This makes a big difference. Consider the guy run off the road on Wildcat Canyon. If he was climbing, he’d have been a sitting duck for the thieves; that climb (from San Pablo Dam Road to Inspiration Point) takes me like 13 minutes (and chances are I go faster than a bike-jacking victim plucked at random). But the descent is under six minutes, so a thief would have to be pretty lucky to happen upon me (unless he’s sitting in wait—but his VW or Toyota or whatever the hell it is better be pretty fast to catch up from a dead stop on that twisty road). So I’ve stopped climbing Wildcat (but I’ll still descend it). Instead, I can go up El Toyonal and Lomas Cantadas and then down South Park Drive . (Lomas is closed to through traffic except bikes; South Park is closed to cars during the pandemic.)

Other thefts and attempts were on Grizzly Peak Blvd, most of which isn’t that great a road anyway. The residential section is dangerous because the locals tend to drive poorly; e.g., pulling out of their driveways without looking , or worse. (Click here for a particularly egregious example.) This stupid street is easily avoided if you go up South Park, and if you don’t want that steep a climb but want to reach destinations south, you could ride through Berkeley and go up Tunnel Road to Skyline. So far those roads haven’t been a target.

Bear in mind, I don’t always feel like climbing Lomas, in which case I stay on El Toyonal. The section east of Lomas, which connects to Wildcat Canyon Road, is closed to cars. I do have to then ride up the top half of Wildcat, but I can do that in under six minutes—a risk I’m generally willing to take. More on this later.

(Am I doing a disservice to my fellow cyclists by giving away these secret routes to prospective thieves? No. First of all, there’s nothing they can do about these roads being closed. Second, thieves don’t read this blog. If they did, they wouldn’t be thieves … they’d be procrastinating grad students, retirees, and/or my mom.)

Strategy 2 - Evasive action

If you’re descending and somebody tries to pull alongside to run you off the road, you could try to outmaneuver them. For example, you could take the left lane. The evil driver would have to have balls like King Kong to follow you over there. After all, if you encountered an oncoming car, you could ditch off the left side and probably not crash—but the would-be thief would be out of luck. Of course this technique has the moral flaw of putting an innocent motorist or cyclist (i.e., the one possibly coming the other way) in danger. So I don’t really recommend it.

Now, if you’re climbing, and really paying attention, you could probably stop quickly enough to avoid being run off the road. Then you could pop your feet out of the pedals and roll backward, paddling with your feet, long enough turn your bike around, clip back in, and flee downhill.

When I climb Wildcat from El Toyonal to the summit, I figure that if I do encounter a thief, and can manage to turn around, I could be back at El Toyonal and the safety of its gate in under three minutes, worst case. That’s not so long to hold off a deranged motorist. And the gate really would save me … it’s not like one of those matchstick ones the bad guys plow through on TV.

Strategy 3 - the “human shield”

I’ve only used this technique by accident. I was descending Wildcat and caught up to another cyclist. I didn’t want to pass (because it’s hard to give the guy the requisite six feet of COVID clearance, so passing would be rude). I hung back 100 feet or so, and in the process realized that if a would-be thief were lying in wait ahead, he’d get the guy ahead of me, and I could turn around and flee. (Er, turn around and get help—that’s what I meant.) And if a motorist started trying to catch me from behind, I could just sprint a bit, pass the other cyclist, and let him be the victim. (While I went for help, of course.) Employing this strategy while riding up a hill would require more patience, but could be done. A downside to this scheme is that you’d have to wait at the top or bottom of the climb for a suitable human shield to show up.

A variation on this would be “humans shield” whereby you ride in a large group. (History has shown that two riders isn’t enough.) Of course, everyone in your group would have to be vaccinated first … but we’re getting there.

Strategy 4 - the “I’m-with-Grandma”

This is a variation on the human shield, with the human being in a car. I discovered this by accident too, when I got stuck behind an elderly, slow driver on the way down Wildcat. Again, a thief sitting in wait ahead would rule me out because there wouldn’t be enough space between me and Grandma’s car to move in. And if a thief came from behind, I could sprint around Grandma … the thief probably wouldn’t dare follow.

Strategy 5 - Capitulate

Of course you could just willingly comply and cooperate with the thief. After all, it’s just a bike, right? And isn’t every cyclist always looking for an excuse to buy a new ride? Consider the following exhibit, a chat I had with a friend recently over the absurd price of new chainrings and even replacing a simple bolt:

(Harrison, in this context, is my late father.)

The are problems with this strategy, though. As far as I can tell, homeowners’ and auto insurance don’t cover this kind of theft—and proper racing bikes are expensive. On top of that, I don’t trust criminals to be reasonable just because I’m cooperating. They’re loose cannons, right? Finally, I don’t trust myself to follow through and be docile. When I think of how angry I got when some shitbird stole the handlebars off my commuter bike, I sense I’d be ready for hand-to-hand combat if someone went for my entire bike. As a kid I used to get in a fair number of fistfights, and a weird, crude part of me misses them. Which brings me to the next strategy.

Strategy 6 - the Walt Longmire

I was unarmed—who brings a Colt M1911 on a bike ride?—so I decided to hand over my bike, even though the guy only had a knife. But knowing he’d try to escape on my bike, I opened the rear quick release as I rolled it to him. I’d taken off my helmet to try to draw his eyes away from my tampering, but he didn’t fall for it. “What did you do?” he asked, looking down. I saw my opportunity and swung my helmet as hard as I could up into his face. As he recoiled, I threw my entire bulk at him, pinning him to the ground under the bike. I wrested the knife from his hand and was about to pummel his face when his accomplice yelled, “Think again, asshole!”

I looked over to see the endless, stainless barrel of a Colt .357 pointed at my face… All I could think was that this was the last thing I would see. Time froze then, and it was as if the air had died… Suddenly a giant cyclist came barreling down toward us doing at least thirty, stuck out a knee and an elbow, and nailed the gunman, sending him sprawling across the asphalt. I jumped to my feet, seized the dropped sidearm even before it stopped skittering across the road, and had the perp covered within seconds. Henry Standing Bear downshifted, turned around, and rode back up in time to yank the other thief from the ground and put him in a hammerlock before he could do anything.

The big Indian said calmly, “The thieves clearly did not realize you were riding with a friend. It is a good thing you dropped me before beginning your descent of Wildcat.”

(Note: the italicized text above is taken verbatim from Death Without Company by Craig Johnson, Penguin Books, 2006, page 245. Used without permission.)

Strategy 7 - Ride in the morning

There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you: I don’t rely on clever routes alone to avoid bike-jackers. I also ride bloody early in the morning—as in, before dawn. Why am I confident in this strategy? Well, so far the documented thefts have occurred between 11:00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. And think about it: thieves are never morning persons. If they were morning persons, they’d have fricking jobs and wouldn’t have to rob people!

So you may be wondering how this is working out for me. So far, it’s great! For one thing, it’s a lot quieter and more peaceful … just me and the turkeys and an occasional jogger. That photo at the top of this post is the view of Mount Diablo from Wildcat Canyon Road, snapped during one of these morning rides.

On a recent outing, I didn’t encounter my first car until almost half an hour in, when a douchebag in a big Benz blew by me, coming way closer to me than necessary—practically grazing me—and going waaaaay over the speed limit. He wasn’t trying to rob me, though—he turned in to the parking lot at Inspiration Point. Why the rush? I’m guessing he wanted to get to his favorite meadow in time to do his sun salutation just as the sun came up over the horizon. What a git.

(Ironically enough, his unsafe pass occurred within twenty feet of this sign:

So you see, he was a scofflaw; just not a bike thief.)

Minutes later, I encountered another vehicle, suspiciously parked at the side of Wildcat Canyon Road, on the stretch where the first cyclist was robbed. But the vehicle was a Honda Element: way too conspicuous, not to mention nerdy, for thieves … it is beneath their criminal dignity. Meanwhile, the aroma of burning ganja emanating from the vehicle was strong enough to put me at ease. Even if the driver tried to rob me, I’d just have to stall him for a bit and he’d forget what he was doing and wander off.

After that, there were a few cars on San Pablo Dam Road but that’s a major commuter thoroughfare (with the traffic in the opposite direction, happily enough). Next up was El Toyonal, which is a beast of a climb but zero mugging risk … even the most boneheaded thief knows almost nobody rides here. You could wait half a day for a victim to happen along.

Not feeling like tackling Lomas Cantadas, I took the El Toyonal cut-through to Wildcat. It’s as peaceful a road as you could want:

Probably the riskiest part of my ride was heading up the top half of Wildcat towards Inspiration Point. That vulnerable bit of the route is why I ride so early. As it turned out, the only other car that passed me was a Tesla. I wasn’t bothered in the slightest, because Tesla owners are more the type to commit white collar crime.

Note that if you adopt the early morning strategy, it’ll get easier as summer approaches and the days got longer. Here’s a handy chart showing civil twilight times for this area:

This morning, civil twilight started at 5:56 a.m. I was on the road at 6:04, plenty early enough to get 20 miles in and still show up to work (at home, of course) by 8:00.

But what if you want to do a much longer ride, like the 70-mile round trip to the Mount Diablo summit? That brings me to my last anti-mugging strategy.

Strategy 8 - Slip between the horns

The other weekend, I wanted to ride Mount Diablo, but wouldn’t make it back to the Berkeley hills until early afternoon. The obvious solution to this problem would be to ride home over El Toyonal and Lomas Cantadas. But I don’t have nearly the fitness to do that … I missed a lot of riding last year due to injury, and I knew I’d be pretty well shattered by the Diablo summit, over thirty miles from home. The alternative would be crawling home over Wildcat in the afternoon, clearly a risky behavior. As I silently pondered the matter, my wife said, “Hey, how about I go shopping in Walnut Creek and meet you for lunch? You could throw a change of clothes in the car and drive home with me.”

Genius! She had seemingly recognized my false dichotomy (the fallacy that Lomas and Wildcat were my only options) and deftly slipped between the horns of the dilemma. Actually, her plan had nothing to do with the local crime spree, which (thankfully) I don’t reckon she thinks much about. It was just a novel idea of how to spend the afternoon.

It worked out perfectly: I destroyed myself on the mountain, coasted down the other side, found the car, changed, and twenty minutes later I was inhaling yucca fries, a Cuban sandwich, and a pint of IPA, with my bike safely locked up in the back of the car. This became the first point-to-point training ride of the year, with a sprinkling of net elevation gain to boot ... and exactly zero bike thieves. NOOICE!

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