Inside the Mind of a Bicycle Thief


Illustration by Charlotte Wall

If you’ve owned a bike and lived in Las Vegas for long, you probably know the feeling. The anger, frustration, confusion. The sense that you’ve been had.

Specific, accurate numbers are tough to come by (Metro doesn’t keep them), but one thing’s clear: the black market of stolen bikes and parts in Vegas is booming.

“It’s a big problem here. Huge,” says Jimmy Martinez, general manager of Bike World. “We hear about people getting their bike stolen all the time. Not just the bike, but the front wheel or the seat or parts like that. For a while, people were just stealing the handlebars.”

Sean Breckling, who attended grad school at UNLV, had two bikes stolen on campus. Both were secured to racks with U-locks.

“It’s an emotional thing,” says Breckling, an avid cyclist. “The bike that you rode around on every day is suddenly gone. It kind of freaks you out. You feel violated.”

Having been “violated” myself, I wanted to learn more about this black market. Who steals the bikes? How do they steal them? What do they do with the bikes once they’re stolen? How do they justify their actions?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I sat down with a bike thief at a fast-food restaurant on the south Strip. (A mutual friend arranged the meeting.) “Joe,” who’s 40 years old and homeless, is thin and sunburned and sports a reddish beard. He was wearing a black ball cap and an NFL jersey. He said he has been stealing bikes for 10 years in places including California, Colorado and, most recently, Southern Nevada.

Here’s what else he had to say.

Illustration by Charlotte Wall

How’d you get started in the business?

I don’t know. Desperation, I guess. Also, the demand is really high. People are into good-quality, high-dollar bikes and they’re willing to spend a lot of money on them.

But how, specifically, did you get started?

The people I ran with. It’s what they were doing. Other than that, just money. People throw down a thousand bucks for a brand-new bike.

What were your early impressions of the business?

How easy it is. It’s impossible to secure a bike. Period. There’s deterrents and things that slow you down, but there’s not a lock on the market that can stop me. If I want a bike, I’m going to get it.

What are the tools of your trade?

Mainly just a cable cutter that I keep in my backpack. It’s pretty small, but it gets the job done. It will hack through a big cable. I can also snap a U-lock with a bigger pair of bolt cutters. I don’t usually carry those around, but I try to keep one within a short distance.

I pick locks, too. That’s my thing. I keep a few picks on me as well.

Where do you look for bikes in Las Vegas?

Campuses are hot spots. High-end bikes paid for by mommy and daddy. They’re really nice bikes and for whatever reason they just lock up the front tire with a cheap lock. It’s insulting. I’ve come across $3,000 or $4,000 bikes that are locked with a $10 lock. Away I go in 20 seconds flat.

I try to be smart, fast and invisible. I try to be In-N-Out Burger. You blink and it’s gone.

There’s not a lock on the market that can stop me. If I want a bike, I’m going to get it.

Where else do you target?

Casinos. It’s funny. People like to park their bikes in front of the guard shacks. The guards either don’t give a damn or they’re dumb. I can get a lock off just as fast as you can get your key into it. I wave at the guard on my way out.

There’s a lot of great mountain-biking around here, and the tourists have nice, new bikes and they just leave them on the back of their car or RV overnight. I don’t know if they’re lazy or their insurance is good or they live in a really safe place, but they just leave them there.

What do you do with a bike after you steal it?

I sell it. I probably go through 70 or 80 bikes a year. I like to ride them, too. Sometimes I ride them for a week, then dump them, because a high-caliber bike is just going to get stolen from me. I go with a lower-end bike myself.

How do you sell them?

I prefer cash, but that doesn’t always happen. A lot of times I trade them for drugs, meth. That’s probably the main person buying them: drug dealers. They can’t get enough of them.

What do they do with them?

Most of their clientele is on foot, so they’re looking for bikes. And at the beginning of the month, because of Social Security or disability, many of them have enough money to buy a bike.

For a $2,000 bike, I’m lucky if I get $300 or $400 cash. I might get $700 or $800 worth of drugs for it, though. You go from bike thief to drug dealer. Drugs are also in demand here.

What’s the craziest experience you’ve had stealing bikes?

I was at Humboldt State in California in the middle of the day and me and another guy were hovering by a rack near a bus stop. There was a nice, brand-new road bike chained to it. I was on my knees getting ready to cut the cable and a university cop came up behind me.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Waiting for the bus.”

But he knew what we were doing. He ended up arresting me. He ran me and I went to jail for a warrant, but not for stealing the bike, because I hadn’t done it yet.

Illustration by Charlotte Wall

What does your police record look like, as far as drug and bike activity?

I have a bunch of drug felonies. Possession. A manufacturing charge. But I’ve never been busted for bikes.

I’ve been lucky, I guess. And once I’m on the bike, you’re never going to catch me. I’m a blur and I go any which way. Over curbs. Across medians in heavy traffic.

How do you justify what you do?

I don’t. I know it’s a shitty thing. It’s terrible. I have bought really nice bikes that have been jacked from me. Nothing pisses me off more. I want to kill the person. I want to kill the person when it’s a stolen bike that gets stolen from me. [Laughs.] I don’t try to justify it. It’s a dirtbag thing to do.

What advice do you have for cyclists?

Kryptonite Keeper. It’s the only lock that’s kicked my ass. It’s expensive, but when you have a $3,000 bike it’s worth it. It’s unpickable.

What other advice do you have?

Don’t get off your bike.

What Other People Are Saying

“[It] doesn’t really matter what the bike may retail for; it gets you $20 to $50 on the streets, whether it’s a $100 Huffy or a $2,000 Raleigh.” —Jamie, formerly homeless

“To prevent bike theft, there are a couple different things you can do. We always recommend a good, name-brand U-lock. We also recommend a good cable, where you can lock it around the frame and to something sturdy. The cable goes through the wheels, so nobody will steal them. Of course, if somebody has tools, they can steal anything, but this prevents the quick steals.” —Jimmy Martinez, general manager of Bike World

“I bought a bike once that was stolen from UNLV. I got it on Craigslist and I thought the price was off, because it was $80 but sold regularly for $550. I figured it was a ‘moving and need to get rid of it’ thing. Then a lot of bikes were stolen from UNLV and they had a pic of the one I had bought from this really sketch guy in an apartment complex on Twain. I turned the bike in with a printout of the exchange and I think they ended up arresting the guy.” —Kristen, bike buyer

“Bike thefts on campus are sporadic by nature. Sometimes thefts increase on campus, but when this occurs Police Services moves in immediately to educate the campus and catch the perpetrators. Bike thefts on campus are no more of a problem on the UNLV campus than they are on any other campus.” —Hobreigh Fischer, UNLV police spokesman

“As I was walking out of the Bellagio with someone’s $635 they’d left in a slot machine, I decided to go out of the parking area entrance. I saw this person put a Specialized bike that was worth $3,000 up against the wall and run into the casino. No one was around, so I jumped on it and pedaled off on my new bike and with a wad of cash in my pocket. It was a grand day, don’t you think?” —Craig, homeless person

Vegas Seven