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Bike Index: The World’s Biggest Bicycle Registry that Actually Works

By Frantiska Blazkova

There’s that dreaded moment every cyclist is probably bound to encounter one day – you go get your bike but there’s an empty, sad space (and maybe a broken lock) where the bicycle should be. After you dash through that little five-stages-of-grief cycle, file a police report, and check every pawnshop in your city and all online-selling websites, you sigh and come to terms with the thieves just being a step ahead of you. But it doesn’t have to be that way – meet Bike Index.

Founded in 2013 by Seth Herr and Bryan Hance as a non-profit scheme, the Bike Index is the behemoth in the field of bicycle registration services, with 262,000 catalogued bikes, 780 community partners and tens of thousands of daily searches. During their six years of existence, the now 7-member core team managed to create an impressive, coherent, and entirely transparent system of registering bikes by their registration number – something a lot of people can’t even locate. Thanks to a clear structure and, most importantly, a devoted and engaged community, Bike Index’s recovery rates have been through the roof.

There are various reasons people hesitate to register their bikes – the habit of insuring bicycles is not widespread enough yet or there’s simply no local bicycle-specific insurance plan available. People often don’t even know registration is an option until it’s too late and their bike gets stolen. More times than not, the local registration process is drawn out, involves the police or showing up somewhere because you can’t register online and if you can, the sites tend to be buried or poorly arranged. And the registry entry is often for a fee or you just get a bike registration sticker, which is the first thing a potential thief removes – and people don’t want to pay for something that does nothing.

Why did the people behind Bike Index feel the need to create yet another bicycle registry system when there’s a decent number of them available already? As Lily Williams, the Communications Director at Bike index puts it, the Bike Index’s goal is to “be the single most effective, consolidated resource for registering bikes and for recovering stolen bikes.” She elaborates: “In just a few short years we’ve become the most widely-used bicycle registration service in the world, which is a testament to our user experience and effectiveness. Bike Index is universal, meaning that anyone, anywhere, can register their bike (for free). Their registration will exist forever, no matter where they live.” This is crucial as the typical schemes basically make your registration void once you move or resell your bike to someone else – or the thief takes it out of state and out of reach of the system you registered with. With Bike Index, the bike’s registration number stays in the database forever and is passed down to any current owner.

Bryan Hance described the project in an interview for The Best Bike Lock as: “Bike Index is definitely a labour of love for everyone involved. Cycling is a huge part of our lives and we want to make sure that everyone who rides a bike keeps their bike in their own hands. Because we’re a non-profit, we subsist mainly on donations. And sometimes we recover a $10,000 bike and get no donation in return. So of course, we’re also always looking to build features that will help us bring in revenue to keep Bike Index expanding and recovering more bikes.”

What’s extremely important, Bike Index is a community-based success story because who else will have your back than a person passionate about the same thing? There’s a number of local ambassadors who help to keep the community going and who always know what to do and how to help. We’ve contacted Jan Pecnik, Bike Index’s Director of European Operations, and he patched us through to two ambassadors, Ed Fritz and Mike Pavlik, who were kind enough to share their motivations below.

Ed Fritz, Crime Prevention Supervisions for Boise Police Department, Bike Index ambassador

Being in law enforcement, I might have a slightly different point of view than others. I am not an avid cyclist like many of the other ambassadors. I have enjoyed riding for fun but it’s not a passion. My passion revolves around helping others in my community. In assisting in locating and returning stolen bikes, I have seen how important bicycles are to people. I have encountered teens who ride to belong to a school team, to people who ride to commute, to people who ride almost as a way of life. When their bike is stolen a part of their life is stolen too. Locating and returning the bike makes them complete again. It brings me joy to see them smile when they get it back.  

Mike Pavlik, Bike Index ambassador

For me, the Bike Index ambassador role means being an advocate for all aspects of cycling in the community. By doing this, I often have opportunities to talk to people not only about Bike Index but proper locking methods and theft prevention tips. I applied to be an ambassador because it was a natural next step for my bike recovery efforts. I have been very involved with our local stolen bicycles Facebook page for a few years.

“We want every cyclist ever to register in Bike Index because this would mean that everyone is keeping eyes out for stolen bikes as well and, ultimately, reducing bike crime. And we want to keep providing our service for free for anyone who rides a bike. You shouldn’t have to pay to protect your bike after you’ve already spent money on your bike. We want to encourage people to ride and get outside,” says Hance.

Bike Index allows cyclists to register their bikes post-theft, which is a huge plus. All of the people behind Bike Index have worked in bike shops. They’re all avid cyclists, so they know what shops and cyclists might be looking for in a registry. And it shows.

Besides a plethora of tips and my-bike-just-got-stolen first aid advice list, they also put together several guides on how not to buy a stolen bike online or what to do when you recognize a stolen bike on the street or a pawn shop, no matter whether you’re the original owner or a fellow vigilant cyclist. One thing is for sure – vigilante-style retrieve is the least recommended option, albeit in might sound the most satisfactory and tempting, in theory.

Bike Index was founded in 2013 by Seth Herr and Bryan Hance (pictured) as a non-profit scheme.

“In general, the work on recovering a bike is nothing short of a detective thriller. It requires some hard knowledge of the patterns appearing in the fences’ (stolen bike resellers) bike ads. Providing a name of the thief/fence makes the bike retrieval significantly easier for police, so some high tech tools such as image comparison software come in to play. To even get an image of the seller, some of our ambassadors need to be able to use software development tools to actually get the photo of the seller on some websites. And, of course, there are countless hours of hard work comparing bikes offered on sketchy marketplaces with ones registered in Bike Index, googling, even visiting courts to justify – all with one goal: bringing the bike back to its owner,” Bryan Hance told We Love Cycling over e-mail.

When asked about the most striking recovery stories from the top of his head, he lists a few. “There are some ‘stolen bike found inside a stolen car’ stories that I always find funny. I call this the ‘stolen bike turducken’ (editor’s note: North-American layered culinary speciality, google at own risk). We also have really long recoveries – 7, 8, 11 years, etc. Our (still quite fresh) record is the recovery of a bike lost for over 12 years and many, many, many stories of ‘this bike got returned by Bike Index before the owner even knew it was stolen’ – for instance this one. There are also some stories where police have texted us in the middle of investigations with ‘can you find me the owner of this bike’ and we have been able to do so and we’ve also seen a single-bike chase lead to a warehouse full of stolen goods. The most recent story I can think of are three bikes stoles from the same garage and found scattered in three random places – and recovered via Bike Index.”

Some stories also tend to lean on the bizarre and gnarly side of things. “Probably the scariest was the ‘bike was found the next day because the local paper ran an article about a murder… with a photo of the bike’,” concludes Hance, adding that the victim rode the bike one morning in New Orleans, LA, and someone from a local bike recovery group recognized the bicycle from the crime scene photos.

But each success story is nearly outweighed by frustration – mainly with systemic solutions to bike theft, and lack thereof. In some areas, Bike Index partnered with local shops, grassroots initiatives, bicycle clubs, local social media pages dedicated to recovering bicycles, and even some police departments that regularly turn to Bike Index to look up a particular’s bike owner, which is a great testament of the power of its community. But on the other hand, the main source of vexation is establishing any kind of dialogue with online selling platforms.

“Craigslist has always sucked. eBay is a little better but is such a monolith that it also needs a lot of work. And the newcomers like Offerup and Letgo are so amazingly, terribly bad at preventing stolen goods from being stolen on their sites that I could fill up a whole afternoon just talking about this. I can happily refer you to countless victims who get to watch guys sell their stolen bikes online with zero assistance from those sites, which is super frustrating,” explains Hance.

“These sites that have hundreds of millions in VC funding can’t get it together enough to know that a seller – whose name, phone number, and other details they have – is a six-time felon with a public arrest record and he shows up and lists a $8k carbon fibre bike for sale and can’t even spell the name of the bike right? It’s a total joke that they can’t do better.”

Bike Index also does periodical posts about recovered bicycles every now and then so you can read up on all the happy ends (and the sometimes nerve-racking stories connected to them), which are not only a great read but should nudge you to get your ride registered if you haven’t done so already. Give it a shot because the more, the merrier, and it’s free and the chance of recovering your stolen ride increases with every local user.