Life in bike theft Britain: ‘Afterwards, I couldn’t face going outside’

It took thieves just 47 seconds to steal Rosie Wetherhill’s ebike from outside a Chinese takeaway.

Wetherhill, a 23-year-old bike courier from Leeds, had considered locking her bike to the railing when she went in to collect the order, but she knew the takeaway was fast. So she locked the back wheel with a D-lock instead. A mistake. As she saw her £1,300 ebike disappear around a corner, Wetherhill felt a sense of dread. “I knew I would probably never see that bike again,” she says. “Because I know how it is.” The bike wasn’t insured. She’d only had it for two months.

She called 999, and told police that the bike was fitted with a tracking device, but it wasn’t working. They told her to call back if it started working again. A few days later, an officer called. “He told me that if there was CCTV from the Chinese takeaway, then I would need to go and get that myself because the police were not going to do it for me,” says Wetherhill. “It was quite insulting.”

If you’re a cyclist and live in the UK, it is likely that, at some point, someone will have stolen, or attempted to steal, your bike. Analysis of crime statistics from July 2021 to June this year compiled by the Liberal Democrats found almost 90% of bike thefts are closed by police without a suspect being identified or charged. In London in 2021, the Metropolitan police charged a suspect in just 1% of reported bike thefts. In 2022, a highly critical report into the police’s handling of theft and burglary warned that “most victims aren’t getting the justice they deserve”. “Things are changing in the police,” says Dr Kate Tudor, a criminologist at Durham University. “But not fast enough.”

“It’s a crime where there is no jeopardy for the perpetrators,” says Tom Parker, 35, a marketing worker from near Epsom. In July, Parker witnessed two teenagers stealing a bike outside a Surrey train station. “I ran at them, shouting,” Parker says. They threw the bike at him and disappeared. Parker called 999. “‘We can’t do anything,’” he recalls the handler telling him, advising him to take the bike home. “But then,” Parker told her, frustrated, “I’ve stolen it!”

It’s a crime where there is no jeopardy for the perpetrators

Parker posted about the incident in a local Facebook group. The following morning, he rang Surrey police. “I said, ‘I have this bike. I don’t want it in my garage. I can’t be the guardian of it for ever.’” The police officer told him to keep posting on Facebook. “They said,” he remembers, “‘We can’t call it a crime, because no one has reported it.’ I said, ‘It is a crime! I saw it happening.’”

Just as he was beginning to despair, someone got in touch via Facebook. His bike had been stolen that evening – and he had reported it to the Metropolitan police. He shared his crime reference number with Parker and Parker reunited him with the bike. A few days later, Parker received an email from the police. He says it advised him that no one had reported the bike stolen. “I responded,” Parker says, “and said, ‘They did report it. Here’s the attachment. I consider the matter closed, because I gave the bike back!’”

As with Parker’s experience, where the police fail to act, local communities are fighting back. On Facebook, stolen bike groups monitor suspicious sales on Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Gumtree. On X, formerly known as Twitter, @StolenRide describes itself as “a community of eyes on the ground” and has more than 10,000 followers. After her bike was stolen, Wetherhill searched for it online every day. “I used to imagine stealing it back,” she says. She thought it would be exhilarating.

Megan Kedzlie, a 26-year-old administrator from London, has lived out Wetherhill’s fantasy. Her £300 road bike was stolen from outside a gym in Clapton in east London in January. “I was gutted,” says Kedzlie. Within days, she says, the Metropolitan police closed the investigation, despite the fact the theft was caught on CCTV. But Kedzlie wasn’t willing to let her bike go. “At the end of the day,” Kedzlie says, “it was my bike.”

Eventually, she found it advertised on Gumtree. “They had taken off my pannier rack, added a light to the front and a bottle holder,” says Kedzlie. “But I had got some new tires recently, and I was pretty sure those were my tires.” Kedzlie arranged to meet the seller. Then she called the police. “The police woman said, ‘Do not pick up the bike,’” Kedzlie says. “‘Do not go. You could get stabbed.’ I thought, ‘That is true.’ But I was peeved.”

With her housemates for backup, Kedzlie met the seller. She inspected the bike, which she had registered with BikeRegister, the national cycle database. “I showed him the photo and the code and the crime number and I said, ‘This is my bike.’” The seller blustered for a bit, before disappearing. Wheeling the bike back home, Kedzlie was giddy with joy. But looking back, she knows it was reckless.

Most bike thieves are not violent. In Cambridge, police estimate that 70% of cycle crime is committed by people with substance abuse problems. “We have these chaotic, disastrous offenders,” says Tudor, “who tend to have heavy drug habits. They take bikes opportunistically. They sell them for a flat fee to informal handlers within local criminal networks, usually for about £50.” Tudor has interviewed these offenders. “They come across as quite vulnerable,” she says.

When charity worker Josiah Odigie, 26, witnessed someone attempting to steal a part from his bike in south London in January, his initial reaction was shock. But that dissipated when he realised that the thief “was a kid”, says Odigie – maybe 13 or 14. When confronted, the child began stammering, before apologising. “He said: ‘I feel so bad,’” Odigie says. The encounter ended with the child screwing the part back on to Odigie’s bike, and Odigie referring him to a local cycling initiative. Odigie sees this behaviour as symptomatic of a wider problem. Lewisham is among the most deprived London boroughs. “When I was growing up,” he says, “it used to be phones. Now phones are less valuable; bikes are quick, easy money.”

But some robberies are committed by more organised and violent criminals. “They make informed decisions about which bikes to sell and which bikes to leave,” says Tudor. Sometimes, gangs identify victims on high-value bikes and follow them home.

The first thought that went through my head was, ‘I don’t want to get stabbed for the sake of a bike’

“The first thought that went through my head,” says Phil Arkinstall, a 42-year-old telecoms worker from Walthamstow, east London, “was, ‘I don’t want to get stabbed for the sake of a bike.’” In June, Arkinstall was cycling down a path in north-east London when three men surrounded him. “One of the guys started to punch me,” he says. Another made off with his £3,000 road bike. Arkinstall was shaken, but unharmed. Days previously, a cyclist was robbed on the same path: he was hospitalised with a broken jaw and missing teeth. As far as Arkinstall is aware, no arrests have been made. “I guess the police know what they are doing,” he says uncertainly.

These incidents have eroded public trust in the police even further. “We have these ideas of what the police are there for,” says Andy Higgins of policing thinktank The Police Foundation. “If something bad happens, the police are there for you. Or they should be.” In policing terms, bike theft is a high-volume, low-level crime. But that’s not how its victims experience it. “These things may be mundane and transactional from the police point of view,” says Higgins, “but they actually are not to many people.”

Bike theft “disproportionately affects those on low incomes”, says Dr Will Norman, the walking and cycling commissioner for London. “Bikes offer cheap travel for people on low incomes, and replacing a bike is a big part of someone’s income. If you’re self-employed, or on a zero-hours contract, you’re less likely to be able to access things like a cycle-to-work scheme.” It took Wetherhill six months to save up for her ebike. Without it, she’s had to go back to doing deliveries on her old pushbike. Her earnings have dropped from about £80 a day to £50. “It’s a massive blow to me financially,” she says.

The loss of a bike is an inconvenience that has financial implications, but it also represents something deeper. “We pay a lot of tax,” says Kedzlie. “We put faith in the fact that we are supposed to be in a system where police can look at thefts and assaults, but then something happens and this item that I have loved and used every day is gone.”

In response to growing public anger, the home secretary Suella Braverman announced in August that police forces will investigate all “reasonable lines of inquiry” when dealing with crimes such as theft. But the police, Higgins points out, “already have a duty to follow all reasonable leads”.

One force determined to tackle cycling crime is Cambridgeshire constabulary. “We were hammered,” says Insp Ed McNeill, “with cycle crime. Per capita, Cambridge was the worst place in the country.” Since 2020, they have reduced cycle crime by 60% by promoting bike registration, upgrading cycle parking and imposing criminal behaviour orders on repeat offenders. “We don’t always get it right,” says McNeill. “We will get receipt of information and sometimes we don’t act quick enough.”

Police forces had their real-terms funding cut by 19% from 2010/2011 to 2018/2019. “People get very angry about the police and their shortcomings,” says Tudor. “But they are operating in a very limited sphere. They are constantly given political directives they have to adhere to. They have funding cuts. They have staffing cuts. It is an impossible task.”

A bike thief at work.
Cambridge reduced cycle crime by 60% via a range of initiatives. Photograph: Olaf Doering/Alamy

It is not that the police don’t care about bike theft. “Every police officer you speak to,” says Tudor, “gets really frustrated.” And the public does recognise the pressures the police are under. “I am not here to bash the police,” says Parker. “They have to prioritise what they can do.” But the impact of such thefts can be profound, whatever their official categorisation. After Wetherhill’s bike was stolen, she grew depressed. “I couldn’t face going outside,” she says. It was difficult to motivate herself to go to work on her old pushbike. When she did, everything was harder. “Pushing all that weight takes a toll on your body.” She is looking for a new job. “Something office-based, with less risk involved.”

And there is a societal cost. Research from Transport for London shows that 62% of people reduced the amount they cycled after their bikes were stolen. “Cycling plays a huge role in improving health,” says Norman. “It reduces congestion and carbon emissions. It improves mental health. It provides cheap transport for those who need it. It reduces car use. If people are having their bikes stolen, it has a significant impact on the positive change we’re trying to bring about in cities.”

There are signs that things might be improving. Norman tells me that London saw a 13% fall in reported bike thefts between 2021 and 2022, according to Metropolitan police crime figures. He is in the process of implementing the first ever cycle parking plan in the capital; secure bike parking is now a requirement for all new developments.

But there is a limit to what police can do. Most bikes are unregistered, making it impossible to prove ownership. (Anyone can register their bike for free at Tudor believes commercial reform is necessary. “We need to mandate the registration of bikes at the point of sale,” she says. There is a need for education around locks; people should buy the best-quality lock they can afford, ideally one with a Sold Secure gold or diamond rating, or angle grinder-resistant locks from Hiplok and Litelok. Companies such as Spokesafe allow members of the public to rent secure bike parking for a fee.

A bike lock attached to a bike railing.
Visual reminders of the crimewave are a common sight across the UK. Photograph: Thomas Winz/Getty Images

But even a registered bike, secured with a sturdy lock in a well-lit area, can be stolen and resold within hours online. “The thing about bikes,” says Tudor, “is that it’s so easy to sell them.” She would like online platforms to require frame numbers to be listed on adverts, to enable buyers to check if those bikes have been reported as stolen. “They say it would drive business elsewhere,” says Tudor, “and introduce complications to the listing process.” In reality, she feels their unwillingness is commercially driven – such a move would reduce sales. In the absence of these measures, people should ask for a bike frame number before purchasing a secondhand bike – a reputable seller will have no qualms providing this – and run it through BikeRegister’s online portal to ensure the bike they want to buy hasn’t been stolen.

Without these reforms, it is likely that much-loved bikes will continue vanishing from railings and lamp-posts and sheds across the country. Often, only a seat post remains, or a frame, or a solitary wheel – visual reminders of this crimewave. Not that Wetherhill needs a reminder. She still searches for her lost ebike online, although she has scant hope of finding it. She wouldn’t consider buying an expensive bike again.

“You just can’t have one,” Wetherhill says. “Because it will get stolen. And that is very demoralising.”