Wheels: How High-End Bicycles Went from West Coast Streets to Jalisco’s Shadow Market

Take a moment to guess which products you’d be likeliest to find in a shadow market, using two handy criteria. The first: do you enjoy consuming them? The second: are they cheap and easy to fake? In these categories, smartphones rank high. They’re pervasive, and will become even more ubiquitous as the world’s ten billion people jump from the four billion who own them today to 30 billion owners in the coming decades. Opinion is divided on their level of fun, and they’re awfully difficult to knock off; every few years, a fake iPhone surfaces in Cairo, offering a few of the bells and whistles of a phone for the price of a pair of flip-flops. But, suffice it to say, there’s no black market where you can haggle over the authenticity of an iPhone 12. Shoes stand in stark contrast. Thanks to their low cost, high markups and enticing contemplation of what might be possible for your little piggies, shoes have long been a shopping temptation. But, increasingly, they are also a source of material temptation. One reason for this is their wide-ranging variety. As Angela Durand, the director of Portland-based Bait & Tackle, an accessories consultancy, told me, ‘Once upon a time, there were just black and brown shoes. But today, with leopard and different textures and shiny finishes, shoes are free to dazzle us for all kinds of reasons.’ Shoes also lend themselves to thievery, something that will especially irk fashionistas.

The Unlikely Story: THE THREAD of Theft and Recovery

An unlikely storyline, like the title of a Doris Day movie, has recently surfaced in the epic drama of modern crime; theThread, or the high-end bicycle of the West Coast, meets surveillance, theft, and the ingenuity and persistence required to combat international gangs. Bicycle theft is not just a problem in San Francisco, nor is it a purely local issue with a local solution.


And it started with Bryan Hance, a person whose bicycle obsession extends well beyond bicycles themselves. Co-founder of Bike Index, he’s become a beacon in the bicycle community, protecting not just their bikes, but also the sense of good will and support that binds them together. A $8,000 stolen BMC Roadmachine posted on a Jalisco, Mexico, Facebook page kicked off an investigation into a shadowy criminal organization at the centre of an enormous transnational bike theft business.


Stealing bikes is no longer the product of opportunistic crime. Today, bike theft comes with methods of extraction that are as sophisticated and bold as the bikes themselves. Thieves use angle grinders to cut through locks. There are even accounts of thieves identifying favourite rides and bikes through Strava feeds. This is a new kind of monster. And as bikes become more popular during the pandemic – ironic considering the annual increase in bike thefts – the seedy underworld of street thievery is booming.


What has brought eye-popping intrigue to the saga is the cross-border dimension it reveals. Fancy bikes, ripped from the streets of Silicon Valley, appearing for sale in Jalisco spoke to a sophisticated operation. It was Constru-Bikes – or at least, what appeared to be a legitimate business, presented in the same way on the web – that emerged as a key nexus of the sprawling machinations.


This potential isn’t something Hance is exploiting alone. Bike Index, the registry’s reporting mechanism is designed to foster the same sense of shared effort that makes bike culture so appealing. After Hance reported the crime to the cops, its network began to mobilise. ‘Using the community aspect of cycling, which is so integral – and because we had the technical chops of Bike Index, its tool could send out alerts to everyone in a 20-mile radius from my location,’ he said. What Hance hints at might be a new way to tackle crime in the digital age: a program constructed in the image of a powerful network, designed to harness the power of its own fragmented users.


For every bike that vanishes there is a story of loss: a member of staff who needs their bike to get to work, an enthusiast’s bespoke build, a family’s pastime, not just financial assets, but pieces of lived life and dream. These ripples of loss have far-reaching consequences. They connect to issues of security and trust and to community wellbeing.


This story is also a study in community, and of how communities formed by shared affinities can withstand this kind of tragedy. From the use of open-source intelligence to the potency of crowdsourced investigation, the response to this disaster points ways to not only recovery, but also to giving these communities greater resilience.

UNDERSTANDING OPEN: A Behind-the-Scenes Glance

The word open was there, from the beginning. Open-source, of course, but also open communities, open information sharing. ‘Open’ has a philosophy: it is about accessibility, it is about collaboration, it is about transparency. With Bike Index, it is about having an accessible database of stolen bikes, collaboration to recover them, and transparency to create trust between cyclists. The philosophy of openness helped increase the power of Bike Index, turning it into an answer for the people experiencing the fear of bike theft.

But in the end, the story of ultra bikes smuggled from the West Coast to the covert hamlets of Jalisco is not just a story of crime. It’s a story of communalism, of tech’s potentialities, and of the unstoppable power of people who share a bond. Next time you’re out there spinning, don’t just pedal for yourself, pedal for the person next to you. Because every turn of the spoke is what makes a wheel sturdy. Every member of a community makes it stronger.

Jun 13, 2024
<< Go Back