High-Tech Handlebars and Anti-Theft Alerts

New technology is making it harder to steal a bicycle and get away with it.

Bike with cheap lock that also has GPS tracking.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Corey Hodgson/Unsplash.

According to the National Bike Registry, an estimated 1.5 million bicycles are stolen each year. It’s a big problem, especially in urban areas and on college campuses. And besides learning to lock up your bike properly, there’s little you can do to prevent it: A savvy thief can easily break a cheap lock, saw through chains and car-mounted bike racks, and disappear into the distance. Once nabbed, your bike will likely get a new paint job—to make it more difficult to spot—or take a run through a chop shop, where bike thieves will disassemble and reassemble bikes with different components to further confound visual tracking efforts. High-end bikes may also cross state or country lines to be sold far from the jurisdiction hunting them.

While you can do your best to store your bike safely, indoors or locked securely, there’s always a chance it could end up being stolen. But luckily, new technology is making it easier to keep tabs on your bike’s whereabouts and giving you a leg up if someone does nick your ride.

Invoxia’s Roadie GPS Tracker is a cheap and versatile option—albeit a simple one. The Roadie is a micro-USB rechargeable dongle you could stash in a saddle bag. With up to eight months of battery life, you can stow it and forget about it, using its accompanying app to track your bike’s location when it’s locked up out of sight. The app offers three different tracking modes depending on your needs, which check in on the device every one, five, or 10 minutes and alert you if it detects movement. You can also use the app to set security zones: If you lock your bike to the same rack on your university campus, for example, you could set a security zone there and be alerted if the bike leaves that vicinity. A purchase (currently $84) includes a three-year subscription to Invoxia’s low-power GPS network; after that, you pay $9.99 per year.

GPS tracking is certainly not a new idea. In the past, these kinds of devices have been on the bulky side—something you’d need to affix to the outside of a bike frame and something an observant thief could easily identify and remove. Some that were designed to be inconspicuous—like this GPS unit masking as a tail light—just didn’t work that well. Others, like this unit that fits in a bike’s head tube, offer only simple and limited tracking capabilities. As a smaller and often less costly alternative to GPS, Bluetooth-based solutions have also cropped up, but these can be less persistent and less reliable once out of range from your phone or a mesh network. Now, GPS technology has become more practical as the chips have gotten significantly smaller and more efficient in parallel with improvements in connectivity and battery technology, and mobile apps offer a wider breadth of tracking options.

While products like the Roadie GPS Tracker are more situation-agnostic, other devices have been cleverly designed with cycling specifically in mind. The Sherlock Anti-Theft Tracker, for example, is an ingenious solution: In addition to being small—about the length of your smartphone—it’s designed to fit inside your handlebars, flexibly sliding into place and replacing one end plug. Inside, the device houses a GPS chip, Bluetooth, a SIM card and GSM cellular connection, and a motion sensor for detecting movement even if its location hasn’t yet changed. Through Sherlock’s app, you can track your bike with two different modes: a park mode, which alerts you if the bike is moved from its current location, and a theft mode, which lets you share your bike’s location with authorities. With all that tech inside, its battery doesn’t last as long as that of the Roadie GPS. Sherlock needs to be recharged every two weeks, but its app will notify you when it’s time. It’s priced around $151 and comes with two years of internet service, which costs $3.72 per month after that.

Building on Sherlock’s idea, there’s also now the Wink Bar, a smart handlebar that has GPS tracking completely built-in. The handlebar includes some other useful features as well, including integrated 224 lumen front lights and a guided navigation system that makes use of those lights by illuminating one side or the other if a turn is up ahead. The handlebars last up to three weeks on a single charge. After a successful Indiegogo funding campaign, the Wink Bar will begin shipping in Europe this March and North America and Asia by 2019 for $337.

The last two solutions present a problem for thieves. For completely integrated solutions like Wink’s handlebars, it would be extraordinarily difficult for a thief to make a quick getaway without those attached. And for an option like Sherlock, you’d still get a notification if the tracker was removed and tossed aside, giving you a few crucial moments to alert the police or run out to your bike. While adding a discreet GPS tracker to your bike isn’t going to prevent it from being stolen, it can help you feel at ease when you lock your bike up outside at night. It could also net positive effects in the long run: As more and more bike owners adopt this kind of technology, it could help deter bike theft by making it easier for authorities to follow and apprehend criminals—at least until they figure out some way to get around it.