A storage depot where local police keep seized bikes
Saskia Vanderstichele

The sad tale of bike theft in the capital

Florence was sure she wouldn’t be had.  When she bought a brand new longtail bike of the Tern make for five thousand euros.  She took her precautions.  Florence kept her bike in the locked bike shed in the secure garage of her block of flats in Vorst (Brussels).  She thought she was safe.  Florence even registered her bike on the mybike.brussels database and had an air tag tracker to find her bike if it was lost or stolen.

The 35-year-old experienced six weeks of pleasure on her bike.  “When I entered the garage that morning, I immediately noticed something was amiss.  The door to the bike shed was open and apart from a few filings on the ground there was no trace of my bike!” she tells Brussels media outlet Bruzz. “They had even taken the broken locks with them”.

The tracker identified a property in the neighbouring borough of Anderlecht.  Florence informed the police.  The police asked her to be patient because the theft formed part of a larger investigation.  One week on and the tracker shows Florence’s bike is on the move!  Now it’s reached the Poincarélaan, where there are regular coaches to Spain and Morocco.

“Suddenly the signal disappeared” explains Florence.  “I guess somebody noticed the tracker.  I rushed to the scene, and I saw how bikes were being wrapped up and loaded into vans, but I didn’t notice my one.  The doors of several of the vans had already been closed”.

Fortunately, Florence was insured and was able to purchase the same bike again. She now stores it in her kitchen!

Florence’s experience is no one-off.  Police in Brussels have noticed how bike thieves are choosing to target expensive electric bikes.  “These are bikes that can be sold for a lot more money than a conventional bike” says commissioner Guillaume Henaut of the Brussels North police zone.  “Often, they are so heavy you can’t store them in your flat.  The shared areas of a block of flats are far more vulnerable”.

“It seems many bikes are stolen to order” adds Tijl De Groot of the Brussels/Elsene police zone.  He is head of cybercrime in his division and has set up a special Facebook page: Véloflic Polbru.  It’s helpful in returning stolen bikes to their rightful owners.  “Many bikes are recovered, but that’s certainly not always the case for particular types of electric and cargo bikes.  When they are stolen, they seem to vanish from the surface of the earth”.

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De Groot shows our reporter the storage depot where police keep seized bikes.  Most are part of theft investigations.  Here we find some eighty bikes, but admittedly few longtail bikes.  “This shows that professional gangs are at work.  Gangs that possess a network of fences.  The bikes probably soon end up abroad”.

Florence’s account underlines a new trend: more and more often thieves are striking in blocks of flats, in the shared areas where all the residents have access.  Bike-stealing in no longer limited to the public domain.

De Groot concedes most thefts still happen out on the street, but it’s shifting.  “We know of cases when thieves have followed expensive bikes to the front door of the garage.  Burglars breaking into a property also often gain access via the garage and the first expensive item on their foray is an expensive bike.  If it had been an ordinary bike, they would have probably passed it by, but with such an expensive specimen at hand the burglary is a success from the outstart”.

Social control inside buildings is smaller than out on the street.  It means the thief can often set to work in relative peace.

Commissioner Henaut speaks of a colleague, who locked an expensive mountain bike using six locks and two alarms: “The bike was in a locked bike shed in a block of flats and still got stolen.  All that was found were two grinding discs used to slit the locks.  It had taken quite a while!”

De Groot notes five or six locks only provide relative security: “Several locks will deter thieves and it’s also important to attach your bike to a fixed point, but we ourselves have done tests with grinding discs.  The truth is nothing will stop a motivated thief!”  

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