When Anna Helfrich moved in October 2020, she locked two of her family’s high-end mountain bikes in a storage locker in the parking garage below the apartments in her Westminster complex.
Within five hours they were stolen. Whoever took them left other valuable items and placed the lock they cut on top of the neatly folded tarp that had covered the bikes.
“It was heartbreaking. I felt like they were mocking us. But it was clear that the bikes were targeted,” said Helfrich, who posted her stolen bikes on the online registry BikeIndex.com.
A month later, Bryan Hance, one of the co-founders of Bike Index, got a note from a user of his registry that helps track stolen bikes. The user pointed to a bike shop in Juarez, suggesting the shop was selling stolen bikes. The shop only allowed access to internet users in Mexico, but Hance routed his access through a VPN and took a look at the shop’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
Within minutes he had matched several bikes listed for sale at Alexander’s Bike Shop with bikes reported stolen in metro Denver, including Helfrich’s custom-built ride.
As Hance dug deeper he uncovered a pipeline that has ferried dozens, if not hundreds, of high-end bikes stolen in Colorado to this shop in Mexico.
“We’ve all heard that urban legend-type thing that all our stolen bikes end up in Mexico, but no one has been able to really prove it,” Hance said. “No one has ever quantified it. Until now.”
Late last year Hance, a cybersecurity consultant who co-founded Portland, Oregon-based Bike Index in 2013 as a side gig, started collecting images and details of every bike listed for sale by the owner at Alexander’s Bike Shop in Juarez. The shop was adding dozens of carbon-fiber, full-suspension mountain bikes to its inventory every week, with prices below typical resale values, but still above $5,000.
Without identifying the name of the shop, he gave his growing list to cycling groups in Denver. By January 2021, he had more than two dozen bike owners with police reports identifying their stolen bikes in the Mexican shop.
“One hundred percent that was our bike,” Helfrich said of the photo sent by Hance in early 2021 of her boutique-branded Grimsley hardtail 29er with components she had acquired and installed.
Hance, along with a team of volunteers, kept capturing images and details of every new bike. They searched for an investigator in Colorado or Mexico who could help.
Meanwhile, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser was investigating a ring of thieves using Facebook Messenger to organize smash-and-grab burglaries of bike shops. A statewide grand jury’s Nov. 17 indictment charged eight men in 29 bike shop burglaries. The operation involved breaking windows of bike shops and stealing $985,000 worth of high-end mountain bikes between December 2019 and June 2020.
The November announcement of the burglary ring noted “credible evidence” that the group worked with fences – criminals who traffic in stolen goods – “to move the bikes out of the state and possibly into Mexico.”
“We saw that and we were like here’s a ton of evidence – almost a year’s worth of data and evidence – proving that bikes stolen in Colorado are ending up in Mexico,” said Hance, whose research showed that some of the new bikes listed on the Alexander’s Bike Facebook page were stolen in Colorado a little more than two weeks earlier.
Hance did not work with the grand jury. (A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said he could not comment on the ongoing investigation into the bike-theft ring.)
But the Bike Index team investigation overlapped with the grand jury’s.
“I saw bikes on this guy’s list that had bike shop stickers from bike shops that were named in those indictments,” he said.
“The idea that a bike being smash-and-grabbed in Colorado and winding up for sale in Juarez Mexico a couple weeks later is way outside of everybody’s threat model – be it victims, law enforcement, and even us until now,” reads a comprehensive report on the Colorado-to-Mexico bike pipeline published this month by Hance’s team at Bike Index. “Our research, combined with the Colorado Attorney general’s indictments, should realign people’s thinking on this issue.”
Where the grand jury focused on bike shops, most of the victims who were identifying their stolen bikes in Hance’s images were people whose bikes were stolen from garages or vehicles. Hance suspects there’s an even larger organized criminal enterprise than what the grand jury uncovered.
“I think every bike thief within a few hundred miles of Denver knew how to get bikes to this guy in Juarez,” Hance said.
On Dec. 16, Hance published an exhaustive report identifying Alexander’s Bikes, with a detailed spreadsheet of 1,077 bikes and 15,000 screenshots with bike descriptions and sales prices in Mexican pesos. Hance also downloaded and posted several TikTok videos posted by Alexander’s Bikes showing hundreds of high-end mountain and road bikes hanging from the walls and ceiling in a warehouse and workshop. The Mexican cycling community reacted instantly to the report, Hance said.
“Mexican cycling Facebook picked it up and went to town on this dude and like not in a good way,” he said. “They came out in solidarity, like ‘screw this guy.’ It just exploded in the Mexican cycling community.”
The owner of Alexander’s Bikes, Alexander Espinosa Perez, reacted to the backlash with posts denying any involvement in trafficking stolen bikes and promising to work with both Mexican and Coloradan authorities. Then the owner deleted Alexander’s Bikes’ Facebook, Instagram and TikTok business sites.
In an email interview with The Colorado Sun, Perez said he “never intended to offer stolen articles.” He said it is common for shop owners in border towns to buy from sellers in Mexico through pawn shops, thrift stores and flea markets. “Being that way, the source of the bicycles is unknown to us,” he said. “Not having constant suppliers makes it even more difficult.”
Perez said he only offered to sell bikes to Mexican residents because “we do not know how to trade in other countries.” To “prove our good intention,” Perez said he has stopped selling bikes and is trying to trace the origin of all his bikes before relaunching his business.
Hance said it is unlikely anyone will get their bikes back.
“But we are keeping our eyes open,” he said.
The chance that bikes would be returned to owners was always low. The purpose of the Bike Index investigation and report was largely to reveal the border-crossing scope of organized bike theft and shine a light on how Facebook enables traffickers of stolen goods.
“Look how much Facebook gives this guy cover. Look how lucrative this is and there are many more guys like this guy out there,” Hance said. “This problem is bigger and crazier and way more complex than anyone realized, including a bunch of people in the cycling industry and law enforcement.”
Basalt police saw a surge of bike thefts around the Willits community this summer. Officers joined with Snowmass Village and Aspen to create a growing database of stolen bikes. They’ve added 36 expensive mountain bikes to the list since June. They recovered one.
“I don’t want to speculate but it sure seems like something is going on that only high-end bikes are being targeted and then they go missing and are never seen again. It seems like there is more to this story,” said Basalt Police Lt. Aaron Munch. “It’s not a stretch to assume the bikes are ending up in Mexico. Proving that connection can be a challenge though.”
The Attorney General’s Vicious Cycle indictments accuse the ring of stealing more than $30,000 in bikes from Dave Chase’s Redstone Cyclery shop in Lyons in April 2020. The thieves hurled a rock through the front window of the shop on Main Street and took five carbon-fiber, full-suspension mountain bikes.
Chase filed a police report and said he never heard from the police again. He learned about the indictments in an online news report.
“Great job for the AG, but I am unimpressed with the local level of police work. If this amount of money was being heisted from local jewelry shops, they would have caught these criminals a long time ago,” Chase said. “Now we have the cycling community stepping up because no one in local enforcement gives a shit about small businesses or local bike shops.”
The same gang is suspected in stealing more than $250,000 worth of bikes in two smash-and-grab robberies in the same week in February 2020 at Tony Strong’s Evergreen Bicycle Outfitters shop. Strong was glad to see the eight thieves arrested, but he’s still feeling the sting of losing 30 bikes in the first-ever robberies for the shop he has owned for more than 15 years.
He got reimbursed by insurance but then his policy costs climbed. And insurance for every bike-shop owner increases when insurers pay claims on theft, he said.
“The cost of doing business is already quite high and now it’s more expensive,” said Strong, who was left without bikes heading into the pandemic mess and subsequent supply-chain issues that left bike shops pining for new rides to meet spiking demand. “The long-term costs are sometimes overlooked in these situations.”
The owners of Guerrilla Gravity suspect the indicted eight were behind a failed smash-and-grab in the spring of 2020, when would-be thieves damaged a garage door at the bike maker’s shop but could not get inside.
But the thieves who struck Guerrilla Gravity’s new location on South Broadway in November, “they really knew what they were doing,” said Rebekah Giaraffa, whose husband, Matt Giaraffa, co-founded the mountain bike company a decade ago.
The bike thieves on Nov. 9 did little damage and targeted only the highest-end bikes on the shop’s showroom floor. They took seven bikes. By Nov. 26, Hance found them on Alexander’s Bikes’ Facebook page.
Denver police told the Guerrilla Gravity team there was little they could do when the bikes ended up in Mexico.
Surveillance video shows the robbers moving efficiently through a pried-open window.
“They knew what they wanted. I think this is a bigger problem than law enforcement has the time and resources to handle,” Giaraffa said. “I think this ring is much bigger than what local police can handle.”
Helfrich, whose bike was stolen in Westminster, said she’s amazed at Hance’s investigative work and dedication. He not only recognized that the seller was likely fencing stolen bikes but he was able to track down dozens of owners. Unless someone buys that bike, recognizes it’s stolen and finds her, she’s not likely to ever see that Grimsley again.
“I guess I’m glad to see that our bike is enjoying Mexico as much as we would if we were there ourselves,” she said.