The bike hunter’s first mission was successful, but it wasn’t easy. He spent 12 hours tracking a customer’s stolen bike around Paris before it became clear the bike was on its way out of town. So the bike hunter chased it all the way to Brussels before finding the bike — loaded on a delivery truck bound for Casablanca, Morocco. One call to the Belgian police, and the bike was brought back to the VanMoof company offices in Amsterdam for a checkup before being returned to Paris.
One of the main reasons to cough up $2–3,000 for a VanMoof smart bike is security. Where countless other startups are trying to solve bike theft with smart locks and handlebars, the upstart Dutch manufacturer embeds GSM and Bluetooth sensors in its smart bikes in order to track them if and when they’re stolen. It’s a safety feature and a selling point: buy a VanMoof, and not only do you have a more secure bike, the company hopes that eventually thieves will just know to avoid them in the first place.
Instead of putting its customers at risk of a standoff with bike thieves, though, the company promises it will handle the grunt work. And while VanMoof has recovered about 10 stolen smart bikes since they went on sale in 2016, this past weekend the company hired the first employee of a new new dedicated “bike hunter” team and started chronicling the adventures on Medium.
Spending half a day scouring a city only to have to travel to another country is a rather inefficient way to recover a stolen item. It’s also not sustainable for a small company like VanMoof. But this James Bondian approach isn’t without reason. In fact, it has to do with the compromises associated with tracking something using a GSM signal. VanMoof says the bikes’ cellular signals are easier to track when they’re moving, meaning they’re always going to expect a bit of a chase on a search-and-rescue mission.
As the first bike hunt was underway in Brussels, VanMoof sent another employee, Brent van Assen, to Casablanca to track down another bike that had already been smuggled in from Paris. Van Assen is the company’s manager of global operations, and he’s also in charge of the new bike-hunting team. But in Casablanca, van Assen’s search met much harder luck. He tracked the bike to a Casablanca neighborhood that was in such bad shape that the Moroccan taxi drivers were hesitant to bring him there. “The first taxi driver said, straightaway, ‘I’m not going to take you there,’” van Assen tells The Verge. “We tried to tell him we needed to get a bike and he said ‘You’re my responsibility if I take you there, and it’s not safe to do that,’ and he just took off.”
Another problem was brewing, too: the bike’s GSM signal had vanished. So after finding another taxi driver (and digging a little deeper into the company wallet), van Assen hitched ride to the neighborhood where the bike’s signal was last spotted by his equipment.
There, he hoped to track the bike using Bluetooth, VanMoof’s backup recovery protocol. The bike hunters can use the strength of the bike’s Bluetooth radio to estimate where it might be, similar to how Tile trackers work. You have to be within Bluetooth range of the bike for this, though, which was a problem in this particularly run-down neighborhood. Each time he got out of his cab, van Assen says he and his cameraman were approached by beggars. Van Assen was unfamiliar with Casablanca, so he had to rely on his cameraman compatriot to translate. “According to the taxi driver, they were trying to rob us,” he says.
Van Assen contacted the local police, like the other bike hunter had done in Brussels, but hit another wall. “We went to the police and asked if they could help, and they just straightaway said, ‘No,’” van Assen says. “The police said ‘Look outside, we have more things to worry about than a stolen bike. You shouldn’t even be in Casablanca.’”
VanMoof has mentioned leaning on local police since it started touting the ability to recover a customer’s bike, but the idea only goes as far as those police forces are willing to help. And in Casablanca, the authorities offered none.
Disappearing GSM signals and the compliance of local police forces are obvious hurdles for the recovery process, but Dave Shoemack, the company’s marketing director, is still hopeful. Since VanMoof doesn’t have the resources to hop country to country tracking down every stolen bike for years on end anyway, Shoemack thinks the most important thing for the company to do is make sure thieves are aware that VanMoof bikes have these tracking features.
“If [bike thieves] start talking and saying ‘You shouldn’t steal a VanMoof’? That’s what we’re after, because then our riders are protected in the first place,” he says. That’s a big part of the reason why VanMoof is using Medium to document its recovery efforts. What’s more, Shoemack believes the awareness is already spreading. In fact, he posits that the incident in Brussels caused word to spread to whoever had the second bike in Casablanca.
“The guys in Brussels who had that bike, they didn’t get arrested — they just had to take the bike off the truck,” he says. Shoemack thinks that someone involved in that particular theft sent warning ahead to the ringleaders in Casablanca, which is why the second bike’s signal went dark.
Whether the stolen bike in Casablanca is in pieces, or if it’s sitting idle in a basement somewhere out of the reach of a Vodafone cell tower, doesn’t really matter to Shoemack. VanMoof gave up the chase and already delivered a replacement bike to the customer, honoring the “piece of mind guarantee” that it offers on this particular model.
Replacing bikes, or even hunting down stolen ones, won’t change the fact that bike theft is a big problem in Europe. Some estimates have a bike being stolen every few minutes across the continent. The people at VanMoof know this — the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, is a hotbed for bike theft — and it’s why they decided to fight it in the first place.
But van Assen says he never expected to discover what appears to be a fast track to a bike black market in northern Africa. In fact, the last place his taxi driver brought him before van Assen gave up on the hunt was a warehouse full of dubiously sourced bikes, which the owner said he bought off of cargo trucks from Brussels, Paris, and other parts of Europe. VanMoof’s first few official hunts may have been thrilling, but the company (and its bike-hunting team) clearly has a steep hill to climb.