How these Salt Lakers lost — and sometimes found — their stolen bicycles

Bike theft rates have remained relatively stable in Salt Lake City, but some cyclists are stepping up their tactics to keep their bikes safe.

Jovanni Avilez only planned to be at the Beerhive Pub for about 15 minutes. He left his vintage Pinarello mountain bike unlocked next to the pub’s window.

When he came back, the bike was gone. Avilez immediately started posting photos on Utah Facebook bike group pages.

Later that same day, a local bike shop owner who’d seen the Facebook post spotted someone riding Avilez’s bicycle and followed them onto Frontrunner. Avilez wasn’t there, but he said at some point after a confrontation, the police were called. Around midnight the Salt Lake City Police Department called Avilez.

He got the bike back. “I was in disbelief,” Avilez said, “I thought I’d never see that bike again.”

Summer’s long and warm days lure Salt Lake City’s lycra-clad canyon riders and casual bar hoppers alike. But while the ride to work, the library, park or brewery is breezy, fear sets in the moment it’s time to leave the bike outside.

For most, once a bike is stolen it’s gone for good.

There hasn’t been a huge uptick in bike theft this past June compared to last year according to Mark Wian, a sergeant with the Salt Lake City Police Department’s public relations unit. But “bike theft does happen in Salt Lake City,” Wian said.

And when it does it can be a true stick in the spoke of Salt Laker’s day-to-day lives. People must find other ways to get to work. A quick commute can turn into a long and unreliable one. Casual cyclists may choose not to replace their bikes and give up on getting around by pedal entirely.

“Bike theft really impacts people’s lives,” said Dave Iltis, editor of Cycling West. “If [biking is] their main form of transportation and they can’t afford a new bike, then you either have people who can’t get around, have to pay more for their transportation, or drive their car, which contributes to air pollution.”

There are other costs as well. In Salt Lake City, where cycling is often touted as a way to improve air quality, bike theft could force would-be green commuters back into their cars. A recent study found that 45% of respondents either stopped or biked less after having their bikes stolen.

Although there’s not much a cyclist can do to stop a truly determined bicycle thief, there are programs and steps they can take to reduce the odds, or at least boost their chances of getting their bikes back.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicycle lock is wrapped around a bicycle in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 3, 2024.

To angle grind or bolt cut

In addition to editing a cycling magazine, Iltis runs the Utah Stolen Bikes Facebook page and has some personal experience with bike-part theft.

His rear wheel, seat post and seat were nabbed off his locked bike parked at the Sugarhouse Sprague Library. The next day Iltis walked to nearby Fairmont Park, where stolen bikes often turn up.

He quickly found his wheel on the ground and took it back to his car. As he returned to the park, Iltis saw a man riding a bike with his seat post.

Iltis said, “Hey, that’s mine, and I want that back.” The man stopped and silently handed it to him.

“I don’t know that I would recommend everybody do that,” Iltis said, “but many people have recovered their bikes by going around in the neighborhoods near where they live.”

Now, Iltis uses two locks — a Bordo foldable lock and a small U-Lock to secure his rear wheel.

Locking his bicycle has worked. Iltis has never had an entire bike stolen in Utah. And anecdotally, he hasn’t seen many reports of thieves deploying angle grinders to cut through U-Locks.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bicycle locks sit on a counter at Contender in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 3, 2024.

“Every lock is a good deterrent,” said Ryan Littlefield, co-owner of the bicycle shop Contender. “There’s definitely some that are going to take more time to get through.”

Littlefield has the most faith in big chain locks with fabric coating. Kryptonite and a few other companies make high-end locks, but “given enough time, I think people can get through any of those,” Littlefield said.

Cami Davie had two bikes locked up with Kryptonite U-locks in the covered garage of their Avenues apartment. The bicycles were stolen earlier this year after someone cut through both the locks.

Luckily, Davie has renter’s insurance which will likely cover the cost to replace the bikes.

“It’s a battle between convenience and security,” Davie said. Keeping Davie’s bike in their apartment or in a locked storage unit would be safer. But Davie loves bicycling downtown without having to lug their bike down stairs.

When Davie replaces the bike, they plan to place a camera on their car facing the area where they used to lock up the bikes. Davie also plans to attach an AirTag. That way, if it is stolen again, at least Davie will have a better chance of finding it.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man waits at a bus stop with his bike in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 3, 2024.

Avoid confrontations, authorities urge

Iltis recommends that all cyclists register their rides on Bike Index, a nonprofit bike registry.

“The big advantage of it is once the bike’s up there if someone’s buying a used bike or comes across a bike they can cross reference it on Bike Index,” Iltis said.

Salt Lake City Police also have a separate bicycle registry program. SLPD’s Wian said just a few weeks ago officers found and returned a bike to someone from out-of-state. “These successes do happen,” Wian said.

While some people may put tracking devices on their bikes, Wian cautioned against recovering a bike on your own: “Don’t intervene. Don’t put your safety in a compromise. Let us do that.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bicycles are locked up outside a business in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 3, 2024.

“Safety is going to be of the utmost priority,” Wian said.

Joel Sehloff’s bicycle was stolen from the cab of a friend’s truck near Westminster in 2022. It was a " towny beater bike,” that Sehloff assembled with disparate parts over the years. “I think I spent about a six-pack on that bike, so I wasn’t exactly concerned about it being gone,” Sehloff said.

Months later, Sehloff spotted the distinctive bike in the tunnel under 1300 East near Sugar House Park, where some people were camping. He yelled, “Hey, this is my bike. I’m taking it back!” before grabbing it and pedaling it home.

“Salt Lake has opportunistic bike theft,” Sehloff said, “it doesn’t have aggressive bike theft from what I’ve seen.”

Even with good luck and expensive locks, it seems that the way to truly keep them safe is to live with them.

Sehloff and his wife store their eight bikes in their two-bedroom apartment. “For somebody to actually get to our bikes,” Sehloff said, “would be remarkably difficult.”