Bicycle thieves and hunter-gatherers
The Dutch firm VanMoof sells expensive city bikes, but widespread thefts meant it has had to turn detective
• The stolen bike must be somewhere nearby. Malte Thormeyer looks at the app on his mobile showing a map of Amsterdam’s canalside streets with a blue circle. He is standing right in the middle of that circle, surrounded by respectable old houses, but there’s no sign of the €900 (£795) black bicycle that went missing three days ago a few streets away. It is a familiar problem. “The signal only gives us a rough idea of the bike’s whereabouts. But it’s around here somewhere.”
Thormeyer, 26, works for the Dutch firm VanMoof. His job is to recover stolen bicycles under the company’s now two-year-old “carefree guarantee”. For €100 a year, or €240 for three years, VanMoof promises to find any of the firm’s bikes within two weeks if it is stolen – or they’ll replace it with a new one.
They call the team charged with keeping that apparently rash promise the “bike hunters” – but they are not brawny cage fighters prowling the streets, just ordinary workshop staff or even managers. When he is not on street duty Thormeyer works in customer support. Now and then, one of the two founders hits the trail, too. It’s all voluntary. “A bit like a treasure hunt,” says Thormeyer.
Today he is patrolling the streets on a sultry summer’s day equipped with a battery-powered angle grinder, a powerful Bluetooth receiver and two lists of stolen bikes. This hunter looks more like someone heading for the beach, in shorts, trainers and an open-necked shirt.
The Leidsegracht in central Amsterdam is lined with densely packed bikes in their hundreds. Wobbly wrecks fit for the scrapheap are squeezed in among sturdy traditional bikes still in perfect condition. And scattered in between them are some VanMoof bikes with their chunky aluminium frames, looking like iron tubes welded together. But the stolen bike Thormeyer is looking for is not among them.
City bicycles follow a conservative format: most buyers want reliability, a certain amount of comfort and a moderate price. The design of a typical Dutch road bike – three-speed gears, 28-inch wheels, dynamo-driven lights and a rear luggage rack – has only changed marginally in 40 years.
VanMoof was founded in 2009 by two brothers, Ties and Taco Carlier. The two engineers were convinced that more could be made of the classic bicycle. There was always a problem with the lights, for instance. “I was constantly getting tickets from the police because the light was broken,” says Taco Carlier. “Either the dynamo cable was broken, or the lightbulb was broken, and I kept losing the battery-powered clip-on lights.” The solution was an LED system integrated into the bike frame. The bicycle chain was slotted into a specially adapted narrow casing to stop it rusting or slipping off. And they built the bicycle lock into the frame itself so that it does not have to be wrapped around the handlebars or the saddle. “Bikes in Amsterdam get rough treatment,” says Taco Carlier. “We wanted a robust bike that would still be elegant.”
The first VanMoof cycles were well received, but after the initial hype sales stagnated and the firm started to lose money. “A lot of people told us: ‘Yes, that’s a great bike, but it’s not worth it for me’,” says Carlier. “My friends were riding bikes that were just about fit for scrap because they thought an expensive bike would only get stolen. Our first city bike at the lower end of the range cost €600. And nobody wanted to just leave that standing around somewhere.”
Bike theft is not just VanMoof’s problem. It is everywhere. Some 96,507 bicycles were reported stolen in the Netherlands in 2016. That may not sound a lot in a country with 22m bicycles, but the police estimate the real figure to be three or four times higher. In Germany, 332,486 bikes were reported stolen in 2016 – and the underreporting is probably comparable.
For most people, reporting the theft of a bike to the police is a futile gesture. In Germany in 2016 the detection rate for bike thefts was about 8.8%; in the Netherlands it was about 7%.
Yet it is a crime with serious consequences as western countries try to combat pollution and obesity by encouraging more people to switch to two-wheel transport – bicycle thefts put many people off riding a bike. In a 2014 survey in Dublin, 16% of those who had had their bike stolen said they had not replaced it and had given up using bicycles. In a French survey in 2003, 23% said the same.
Bike theft is often seen as an unavoidable nuisance, like wasp stings or broken door keys. But perhaps it is not so inevitable after all.
“We often simply give things a try, and that is how it was with the hunt for stolen bikes,” says Carlier. In 2014 VanMoof produced a pedelec (a bicycle assisted by an electric motor, otherwise known as an e-bike) costing €2,250. It had a very special feature added: a Global Positioning System (GPS) transmitter. In fact, the company never planned that its staff would go out in search of stolen bikes. “We just wanted to gain some experience of how it would work,” says Carlier.
The first e-bike they sold was stolen in Rotterdam after just two weeks. Thormeyer was still doing work experience in marketing at the time and he took a train to Rotterdam right away. The bike had been stolen in the city centre, but it had been left in a station car park out in the suburbs. It took Thormeyer two whole hours before he found it in an overflowing bicycle storage. The sad remains of the sawn-off lock were still sticking out of the frame. No fewer than six policemen turned up to cut through the lock the thief had put on it, and to marvel at the new miracle: a firm that hunts down stolen bicycles. But they had no time to hang about to catch the thief, so he (or she) got off scot-free.
In less than 24 hours the customer had been reunited with his bike. In the following weeks, Carlier often set off in the evening after work in pursuit of his quarry – and to learn more about bike thefts.
There were some surprises: nearly all of the stolen bikes never left the district where they had been stolen. They were also sold on very rapidly, often within hours. Carlier was usually too late to confront the thieves. He just encountered people who claimed they had not been suspicious about the low price they had paid or the sawn-off lock in the frame. And a good third of the bikes he was looking for had never been stolen at all. “It’s amazing how many people simply forget where they have left their bike,” says Carlier.
What began as improvisation has now been a regular service since 2016. About 60% of their customers buy the anti-theft guarantee, according to VanMoof. The firm sells about 17,000 bikes a year, but the precise figures are a trade secret. Carlier says only: “One of our bikes is sold somewhere every half an hour.” That brings in enough money to fund even very elaborate searches.
About 150 thefts are reported to the firm every year. But the customer has to inform the police first, because the bike hunter team only works on thefts that have been officially reported. When the hunters find the bike, they let the police know. But as the police usually have more important things to do, the VanMoof people are often allowed to break the locks themselves in Amsterdam. By force if necessary. Thormeyer says: “With an angle grinder you can open anything; anything and everything.”
If they actually find somebody with the bike, the situation needs delicate handling. Most of the new “owners” say – sometimes fairly convincingly, sometimes less so – that they paid a reasonable price for the bike. At the very least they claim they did not know it was stolen. Thormeyer remains unfailingly polite. After all, he knows the police hardly ever pursue the matter further.
More rarely, Thormeyer will come across new “owners” where the case is clear cut. A German tourist from Mönchengladbach rode a missing bike to and fro between the Netherlands and Germany for weeks. When Thormeyer tracked him down in Amsterdam, he freely admitted to having bought the bike in the street for €10. The police took charge of him straight away.
Then there was the drug dealer who was offering two bikes on Marktplaats, the Dutch equivalent of eBay. Thormeyer turned up pretending he wanted a test ride. On the street, he compared the frame number with the data bank – the bike had been reported stolen. When the police arrived at the man’s address, they also found a sizeable cache of illegal substances.
But the most absurd case was probably when a fairly clueless man turned up in the firm’s Amsterdam shop to buy a new charger for an e-bike he had brought with him. He obviously did not know how the battery worked and could not explain why he needed a new charger. VanMoof phoned the lawful owner and said: “We think your bike has been stolen.”
“No way,” replied the owner. “It’s in my basement.” But then he went downstairs and came back in a state of shock. “That’s unbelievable,” he said. “How did you know?” The entire contents of his cellar had been cleared out. VanMoof had found his bike before he had even noticed it had gone.
Small needles in a large haystack
According to Taco Carlier, they find the stolen bike within two weeks in 70% of cases. In two cases the trail covered several thousand kilometres: they found one bike in Casablanca, Morocco, with a medical student who handed it over without any fuss. In the Romanian city of Cluj, a bewildered policeman refused to help, asking: “You travel round the world for a bicycle?” Thormeyer tried to explain that thanks to the signal they had traced the bike to a little wooden shed, but the officer refused to get involved.
Then there are the ones that got away. Thormeyer can still sometimes follow them on his computer: for example, a bike stolen in Paris that was taken via Bourges in central France to Oujda, Morocco, where the new owner takes the same route to work every day.
Hunting bikes is not easy. Despite the tracking devices, it is like looking for an old vaccination certificate in an untidy attic full of junk. You know roughly where to look, but only roughly.
VanMoof is no longer fitting its bikes with GPS trackers. On an ordinary bike, where the dynamo powers the transmitter, GPS transmitters consume too much energy. Instead, VanMoof is now working with a GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) signal, which identifies an approximate position on the basis of the three closest mobile-phone transmitter masts. For locating more precisely, Thormeyer’s team then uses a Bluetooth transmitter. That allows them to identify the precise property in which the bike is to be found.
Thieves lose interest
Unfortunately, the GSM signal is only precise to about 100 metres and the Bluetooth receiver often only makes a connection when the object is very close. So every search, especially in a city such as Amsterdam with hundreds of bikes packed into tiny spaces, is a test of patience.
On this hot day in May, Thormeyer rides on along the Leidsekade, the Prinsengracht and finally down to the Keizersgracht. Most of the time he does not even brake when he sees a VanMoof bike. With a quick glance he can see that the bike is too old, that it has no display in the frame or that it is the wrong colour.
Suddenly he screeches to a stop. There’s a black VanMoof with a new lock outside a supermarket. The original lock has been broken off. Thormeyer kneels down to look under the bike. The frame number is covered with dirt and hard to read. When he has finally made it out, he checks on the data bank. But he’s drawn another blank and nobody has reported this bike as missing.
After an hour he gives up – for the time being. He’ll try again in a day or two. He has two weeks to find the bike. And the odds are that he will find it, as Amsterdam bike thieves have noticed – the firm makes their life as hard as possible. VanMoof can now actually disable the motor of an e-bike remotely from its headquarters – leaving it as comfortable as a piece of scrap iron with dented wheels.
“Thieves in Amsterdam have got wise to us,” says Thormeyer. “Our bikes simply don’t get stolen so often these days. And when one does get pinched, the thieves flog it on within an hour or two for €10 or €20. They know the bike is not worth very much once we are on their trail.”