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The rampant bike-jacking gangs terrorising London’s parks

Early one Friday at the start of this month, Miguel Varona was cycling around Archway junction on his way to his regular ride in Regent’s Park. He knew something was wrong as soon as three men, dressed in black, pulled up alongside him on a moped. As they went past, the trio looked closely at his bike, then turned after they had passed by, clearly targeting him.

“It sped towards me and the second man tried to take my bike,” he recalls. Varona, 49, is a keen racer, and considered trying to outpace the trio. On second thoughts, considering his young family, he stopped and handed over his beloved Trek Madone, worth several thousand pounds. As the moped sped into the distance, he noticed it had no number plates. He’s been nervous about riding ever since.

For many, cycling in London is an intimidating prospect, with accusations from the London Cycling Campaign that Transport for London has been “shamefully slow” at improving safety at junctions where cyclists are at risk. The increase in violent attacks is yet another black mark for cycle safety.

One of the riders said he was going to kill me and shouted: ‘Is your bike worth more than your life?’

Varona is one of many who have been targeted by organised robbers in the capital in recent months. Figures released around the new year show that around two bike-jackings a day are taking place in London, with muggers often on mopeds and threatening victims with machetes. They target cyclists riding specific makes and models — Regent’s Park is the most recent location — but it’s an epidemic across the capital, from Richmond Park to Victoria Park. This week, a gang even worked out where one of Varona’s fellow riders lived. They waited outside his flat until he left, then smashed in the door and took two expensive bikes.

Sean Epstein is the chair of Regent’s Park Cyclists, a collective of over 35 cycling clubs based around the North London park. I meet them in the park at dawn, as cyclists whizz past. Epstein says that since September last year, the community has seen a big increase in attacks with the crimes carried out by professionals. “They’re using bikes that have had their plates removed, they’re using balaclavas,” he says.

“Every incident is basically exactly the same MO, very quick, very surgical”, and all in a “very targeted location, very early in the morning”. Epstein says the crimes have put many people, especially women, off riding. A survey by the group late last year found that 90 per cent of cyclists felt less safe since the attacks.

Cyclist Eliecer Alvarez, who was attacked by a gang (Eliecer Alvarez)
Cyclist Eliecer Alvarez, who was attacked by a gang (Eliecer Alvarez)

Eliecer Alvarez is one of them. The 26-year-old north Londoner, who works in IT, was also targeted when cycling to Regent’s Park just after dawn. A group of four men on e-bikes started to follow him. Realising he was about to be robbed while at a red light, Alvarez sprinted as fast as he could when it went green. He wanted to keep his Pinarello Dogma S, worth £12,000. Two of the men on e-bikes pulled up alongside Alvarez and started hitting and kicking him as he rode. “I had to go in zig zags. I started kicking them, screaming ‘help me, somebody help me’,” he says. It got very dangerous. “One of the riders said he was going to kill me,” Alvarez says, and shouted: “Is your bike worth more than your life?”Alvarez was saved by a bus driver, who turned into the road, stopping both lanes of traffic, while a lorry driver and a homeless man helped too. The men on the e-bikes sped off.

Alvarez called the police, but was disappointed when they arrived. “They told us ‘You don’t have to worry about this — they are just young people messing around’,” he recalls. He thinks that the police are unconcerned because they feel the riders can get new bikes on insurance, so are waiting for a serious injury.

“It really affected me a lot. I stopped cycling for three months,” says Alvarez, who had hopes of becoming a professional rider. He stopped going for morning weekend rides in Richmond Park, avoiding the “Hunger Games” of London’s roads. These days, his dad normally drives behind him in a van on his way to Regent’s Park.

Bike thieves using a moped near Richmond in 2021 (CCTV)
Bike thieves using a moped near Richmond in 2021 (CCTV)

Epstein also feels the response from the police has not been good enough. “They say ‘there are millions of safe bike journeys, and a few hundred represents a really small proportion, and it’s not a significant issue for us to deal with’”, he explains with frustration. “In fact, this is organised violent criminal activity in specific areas and specific times so actually it would be quite easy to have some police officers here and try to look at the CCTV,” Epstein says. “We can’t defend ourselves, we’re vulnerable, and the police are just not interested.”

He continues: “While the victims are physically hurt and mentally traumatised, the wider effect is that people don’t feel safe. Every time I leave the house, I feel like I’m running the gauntlet, and every time I leave the house, my girlfriend is asking me not to, basically.”

The crimes are undoing much of the work on diversity in the sport that had improved during the pandemic. “It’s been a real setback for overall cycling participation,” he says. The group is now doing a “house-to-house, door-to-door” pick ups, so that people feel safe. If they could, they would hire private security.

Islington cycling club members Gráinne McNamara, Clare Cornell, Rachel Dufton, Sarah Freeman and Madeleine Lasko (Lucy Young)
Islington cycling club members Gráinne McNamara, Clare Cornell, Rachel Dufton, Sarah Freeman and Madeleine Lasko (Lucy Young)

Clare Cornell is the secretary of Islington Cycling Club, a women’s group with hundreds of riders. On her way home from work, she was followed by four men dressed in black, who ambushed her by her house and took her Brompton. “It has a lasting effect, because you always wonder: ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be out on a bike, maybe I shouldn’t have this bike’,” she says.

Bethan Lloyd-Glass, a member of Regent’s Park Roulers, started driving to the park, and has had several friends go off the sport, including her sister. Audrey Pirot has fitted an alarm to her bike after one of her friends was violently attacked by a moped gang on a day when they were both riding. It was reported last week that one victim was told by police the bike-jackings were being carried out by an Albanian gang who were shipping the cycles to Russia.

In 2021, professional cyclist Alexandar Richardson was attacked by four men on two motorbikes in Richmond Park. One of the bikes rode into him “at around 60kph”, while the other dragged him to the ground. After being threatened with a machete, Richardson handed over his £10,000 machine. One of the culprits was convicted for that attack and two others in the last year.

Regent's Park Cyclists (Lucy Young)
Regent's Park Cyclists (Lucy Young)

But the thefts keep coming. A man in his forties had his £12,500 bike stolen by a group last summer in the Lea Valley. He lost teeth, broke his jaw in two places, as well as his collar bone and scapula.

A Met spokesman said: “There are over 1.2 million bike journeys a year in London, the majority happen without incident. But we’re doing all that we can to prevent robberies and thefts targeted at cyclists as we understand it is a growing concern for some Londoners.”

The police are trialling ways of tracking stolen bikes. For some, police help can’t come soon enough. Miguel Varona doesn’t cycle as much as he used to. “I thought the trauma would be temporary but it isn’t,” he says. “I don’t feel safe going out on the bike.”