Tips for bicycle security on Caltrain

After the recent theft of my bike off of Caltrain, I started thinking a little more about bicycle security on the bike cars.  I come from an InfoSec background, and a large part of being successful in that field involves understanding how “the bad guys” go about their attacks.  I starting thinking about the bike cars with the same frame of mind and started to think about how I would steal a bike from the train if I so desired.  The argument here is that, the more potential theft gambits I know of, the better equipped I will be to defend against those thefts.

Now I know that some of you will be thinking “But Ross – you’re just telling the thieves how to do it!”  It is a common statement, and open to some debate.  On the one side are those that believe that publishing information about how to engage in a particular harmful act (breaking into a computer system, stealing a bike, whatever) only serves to make the criminals more efficient.  On the other side of the argument there are those that maintain that the criminals can come up with this stuff on their own, and our ignorance of these techniques only makes us more likely to be victimized.  Obviously I belong to the second group.

I’ll also offer some of my own suggestions on how to help mitigate the risk of getting your bike stolen from you.

I’ll start off with an examination of how the perpetrator was able to get away with my bike, which was less than 15-20 feet away and in plain sight, without me even being aware it had happened.  This scenario is put together with bits and pieces of information I got from the conductor and other passengers at the time.

The “plenty of time, grab-n-go” theft

The prerequisite for this theft involves a location where the train is sitting idle for long periods of time.  Specifically, this takes place at either San Francisco 4th & King for southbound trains, and San Jose for northbound trains.  Our victim boards and places his bike against one of the racks.  He then goes to his seat – turning his back on the bike by necessity.  Furthermore, most of us will be slightly distracted as we sit down – pulling laptops out of our bags, eating the Subway sandwich you just purchased in the station, whatever.  All of these provide moments of opportunity for our thief to notice your inattention, grab your bike from the rack and head out the door.  As soon as they hit the platform, they can jump on the bike and be out of the station to the street – probably faster than you can even get out of your seat and out the door, alert the conductor, or whatever.  If you happen to be sitting on the top level of one of the older cars, your path out the door after the thief is even further hindered.

The “pretend to be a regular commuter” theft

This method is probably more effective on crowded trains, and again may benefit from being carried out before leaving either the SF or SJ stations.  People standing around, shuffling bikes can often block your view of your bike from your seat, further setting the stage for our thief.  In this situation, our victim is already on the train with their bike in the racks.  Our thief boards with a bike of his own (crappy and disposable, we would assume) and loiters near the doors.  When the thief feels the time is right, she will approach the rack where our victim’s bike is and remove it from the rack – acting as if she is simply putting her bike behind the victim’s.  This is not an unusual occurrence on Caltrain as folks organize the bikes to ensure that those getting off first don’t have to move other bikes out of the way.  But already our thief has the upper hand.  Perhaps she already kn0ws this is your bike and as casually checking to see if you are watching.  Even if not, though, she’s already got the bike in her hands and gained an advantage.  Time this (by fumbling around, whatever) and you can actually spring towards the door as soon as the chime and “Caution, the doors are about to close” announcement comes on.  Our thief is out the door and, even if our victim is fast enough to catch her, the doors are already closed and the train is beginning to move out of the station.  Sorry – you’re bike is gone.

Protecting yourself

Caltrain doesn’t allow you to lock your bikes to the racks – for understandable reasons.  However, there are some things that you can do to help alleviate the threat – most of which result in making your bike appear as a more difficult target:

  • While you can’t lock your bike to the train (or other bikes) you can lock your bike to itself.  Put your UBolt or chain through one or both rims and through the frame.  This eliminates the possibility of a riding getaway, and may actually fool more ignorant or less observant thieves into thinking the bike actually is locked to the rack.
  • Remove the saddle and take it with you.  Or – another approach is to turn the saddle around backwards.  Again – hindering the quick ride away.
  • Place your bike in the racks farthest from the door.  Truth be told, however, mine was in the fourth rack from the door of one of the older style train cars.  Still, bikes close to the door sure feel like easier targets.
  • Watch your bike very very carefully until someone else places there bike on top of yours.  You might want to notice where that “outside” bike is going, too, so that you can pay attention at that stop.
  • Sit as close to your bike as possible.  Hell, maybe just stand next to it depending on the length of your commute.
  • Take removable stuff like cycling computers and lights with you to your seat.  Yes – these can get stolen too, and are a lot harder for you to notice when it is happening.

Basically, though, there is one thing that protects you more than anything else you can do – watch your bike! Certainly no one is going to stare at their bike non-stop through their entire trip.  However, if you are vigilant at all of the station stops you can go a long way towards protecting your bike.  Clearly no one is getting away with your bike on a moving train!

Hope this helps others somehow avoid my fate.  Cheers, happy cycling and may all of your bikes arrive at the station with you!

Obituary: Fuji Absolute DX

January 11, 2010.  Approximately 9:30 am.  San Francisco, CA.  4th & King Caltrain station, aboard southbound train 236, still sitting in the station waiting for the 9:37am departure.  That was the last time I say my Fuji Absolute DX bike.  A brief moment of inattention on my part, and me and my bike were parted.  That is when some low-life thief took him from me.

But this post isn’t about that.  Rather, this post is an only-slightly tongue in cheek memorial to a great bike.  Nicknamed “Truck” for the utilitarian, hauling usage as my daily commuter, there were at least 5500 miles recorded on the cycling computer.  That’s before I took the computer off and moved it to another bike – and not counting all of the times I simply didn’t turn the computer on.

Truck has accompanied me through countless bus and train rides.   A frequent passenger on both the Amtrak Capitol Corridor and Caltrain commuter trains, Truck as rubbed wheels with fixies, mountain bikes, folding bikes and carbon framed wonders.

Over the years Truck has become more and more equipped – tragically the final addition of a super-bright light on the handle bars being used for the first time on that fateful January morning.

Full list of equipment attached to Truck at the time of parting:

  • Planet Bike Hybrid fenders
  • Super-bright front light – didn’t have it long enough to recall the make  🙁
  • Secondary LED white frog light on front – left attached “just in case” the other light failed
  • Planet Bike flashing red rear light
  • San Marco Ponza saddle
  • Blackburn rear rack
  • Shimano SPD pedals
  • (2) Threaded CO2 cartridges
  • Presta CO2 inflator
  • (3) tire levers
  • Multi tool with cool rubber case
  • Spoke wrench
  • Alexrims front and rear
  • Memories from many many miles

Truck was like a first girlfriend – so many things learned, so many new things experienced.

Truck – you will be missed.

Top signs you are a cyclist

Ironically, some of the clearest signs that you are a die hard cyclists actually reveal themselves while you are driving.  If you find yourself doing any of the following behaviors, there is a very good chance you are a cyclist.  If you find yourself doing more than one of these – well, there is no question about it.

You know you are a cyclist if, while you are driving, you:

  • Stick your hand out the window to point out a broken bottle in the road to the drivers behind you
  • Find yourself instinctively veering off the road towards the entrance to the bike trail
  • Get out of your car at a stop light to hit the cross walk button – certain that the light won’t be triggered by your presence in the lane
  • Tuck in behind semi trucks when you start to feel tired
  • Curse the guy directly behind you.  But you don’t call him a tailgater.  You refer to him as “that god damned wheel suck”
  • Yell “car back” whenever anyone passes you on the left – even on the freeway
  • Drink your Starbucks out of the side of your mouth without tilting your head back
  • Gently use your throttle at stop lights on hills instead of your break and refer to this effort as a “prefect trackstand”
  • Try and figure out how to switch your headlights to “flashy mode” in heavy traffic
  • Carefully measure the distance between the back of the driver’s seat and the gas pedal
  • Shift into neutral and drop down with your eyes barely over the steering wheel when going down a “steep hill”
  • Refer to the “steep hill” as a “descent”
  • Wonder why you can’t seem to drop the person in the passenger seat

Some really cool one-off bikes

I just found the Underground Velo blog.  There are some great pictures of some rather unique bikes.  Some of them are quite functional (this one looks purpose built for snow) and some are more on the artistic side.  However, the one linked to on Underground Velo called “SaltFats” – originally detailed at RatRodBikes – is an absolute stunner.

Both sites are well worth the look if you are into custom bikes:

http://undergroundvelo.blogspot.com/
http://ratrodbikes.com

Do It Yourself Frame Bags

Do It Yourself Frame Bag
http://www.flickr.com/photos/lenore-m/2864380344/

I’m pretty sure that I can’t sew – having never actually tried that I can recall.  However, if I could I’d definitely try my hand at making one of these.  It is an awesome idea, very practical, and potentially a fraction of the cost of commercial offerings for the same space on your frame.

Originally discovered on a site dedicated to Dollar Store Crafts, with detailed plans taken from the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories web site.

The different species of cyclists

You can’t have been riding for very long if you haven’t noticed the various niches of cyclists.  You start with the Roadie / Mountain Biker / Commuter segments and get more nuanced from there.

Well, it just so happens that I found a rather funny writeup of this very phenomenon on the website of  Turin Bicycle – a bike shop in Everston, Illinois.  I’ve never actually been to the shop (Or Everston, for that matter) – this is a purely “found on the web randomly” type of thing.  But the first couple of lines were enough to prompt me to read on:

Listen up! This is a tongue-in-cheek overview of some of the more interesting and dedicated cyclists you may see and meet. No offense is intended. We’re just trying to have some fun and brighten your day. We fit into a few of these categories, too! No cyclists were harmed researching this article. Credit approval required. Your tire mileage may vary.

I encourage you to check it out.  I suspect you’ll find yourself in one of the categories.  Enjoy.

Celebrating the “cycle” of life

Just celebrated my 36th birthday with my family.  Just me, my wife and the three kids.  Good times.  Being a cyclist, there was definitely an overriding theme to the gifts – due to both my family knowning me, and a couple of “hints” about what I would like.

So what does a cyclists 36th birthday look like?  Well:

  1. I’m still older than Mark Cavendish
  2. I’m still younger than Lance Armstrong
  3. I’ve never ridden pro, but I can still ride with the “Masters”

Socks!

And the gift list?

  1. Blue, long sleeve Perl Izumi jersey (Comfy!)
  2. Arm warmers (Toasty!)
  3. 3 new pairs of socks.  (Sweet!)
  4. and 3 new BlueRay movies – clearly intended for the post ride recovery/relaxation period 🙂

So at 36 I know I’ll never ride in the pro peloton – unless I get filthy rich and buy my way into some silly sponsorship, ride a stage type deal.  I’ll also never be as fast as those young bucks that blow past me on the trails.  I’ll also never be as fast as some of the “old” guys that blow past me on the trails.  But I am faster than most of the people I interact with on a daily basis, and I’ve got many thousands and thousands of miles lined up for these legs.

There are big plans for this coming year.  I want to try my hand in an actual criterium at some point.  I’ve also got a century on the schedule (the Tour de Cure) as well the Seattle to Portland ride – either a double century, or two centuries back to back on consecutive days.  Sounds like a good year for this old fart.

There you have it – a cyclist’s blog entry about a cyclist’s birthday.  Cheers to all, happy new year and I’ll see ya out there.  I think I’m gonna go out for a ride now.

Making bikes more “car like” by throwing electronics at ’em

I ran across a blog posting “At MIT invented a ‘smart’ bicycle wheel” [sic] detailing some MIT folks and an electronics laden rear bicycle wheel they’re playing with.  More than the details of the post itself,  it struck me that it is exactly this kind of things that can lead to more wide-spread bicycle usage.  Adding bells and whistles to bicycles can make them more “car like” – and thus more accessible and user friendly to average folks.

That being said, there is still something that draws me in the other direction.  Sure – it is made of high-technical synthetic materials, and was designed using modern computers and possibly a wind tunnel.  But there is something very alluring to me about the apparent simplicity and elegance of a modern road bike.  I still don’t like riding without indexed shifting, though.  Hey – a guy’s gotta have standards.

Follow Ross To Work Day #4 – Caltrain and The Office

9:37am I depart San Francisco on the second train of the morning. Caltrain has something of a slightly troubled history with velo commuters, generally surrounding bicycle capacity on their trains.  Caltrain has specific, dedicated bicycle cars with a fixed number of spaces for bicycles.  So, unless you have a folding bike (which can go on any of the train cars – not just the bike cars) you will potentially be denied entrance to the train if all of the available slots are full – known as “getting bumped” in the Caltrain rider vernacular.

In the past year Caltrain has done a lot to improve this situation.  My commute home from Palo Alto on one of the Bullet trains is one of the busier train stops, and getting bumped used to be a regular occurrence for me.  Looking back, however, it seems it has been a very very long time since I’ve had to wait for the next train.

They’ve increased their capacity in two ways.  First, they started to remove seats to allow room for more bike racks.  Each rack takes the space of about 4 people seats, and holds 4 bikes.  In addition to adding racks in the bike cars, they’ve increased the number of trainsets rolling with two bike cars.  That means that some of the trains can handle 80 bikes at one time.

Caltrain has a little more of a “Big city commuter train” than the Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains.  There is not quite as much room in the seats, for one thing.  Also, of the two types of cars only one style has any table top surfaces at all.  Of the cars that do have tables, they are tiny in comparison to the Amtrak cars.  Also, electrical outlets on the train cars are rare and seem to be intended for servicing the train more than providing power to riders power-hungry electronic gizmos.

All that being said, I’m not sure I’ll call the ride unpleasant – it just feels a little more like mass transit.  City bus like almost.

Menlo Park Station

Caltrain travels up and down the pennisula in a basicly north/south line between San Francisco and San Jose – stitching together SF’s hipsters and the Silicon Valley’s techsters.  Even with frequent stops, it is by far faster compared to driving, especially during peak traffic times.

Cool places passed include Tesla Motors – with their rows of electric powered, Lotus bodied sports cars.

Train pulling away from Palo Alto heading south. My last stop for the morning.

Finally, I jump off at Palo Alto.  It is a short couple of blocks to the office where I work – and I walk in the door at about 10:37 or so.  It has been about 4 hours and 15 minutes since I left my driveway.  During that time I’ve:

  1. Traveled about 116 miles
  2. Reached a top speed of about 80 MPH
  3. Averaged about 28MPH – including stops waiting for busses and trains to leave – across the entire trip
  4. Drank 3 cups of coffee and eaten 119 grams of carbohydrates
  5. Burned approximately 413 calories.
  6. Written 1.5 blog posts
  7. Napped about 15 minutes
  8. Read about 10 or 15 emails
  9. Come into contact with countless people
  10. Actually spoke to 5-10 folks
  11. Saw a hawk flying right next to the train window
  12. Dropped my phone under the train seat trying to get a picture of the hawk flying right next to the train window
  13. Stopped at zero gas stations or toll booths, and was stuck in my car for zero minutes waiting for traffic jams to clear
  14. Felt very happy in the fact that, although my commute is up to 6 times longer than most, I’m contributing substantially less CO2 emissions than drivers.

There you have it.  Thanks for following along with me on my trip to work.  Unfortunately, the application I was hoping would allow me to post an exact map of my route isn’t allowing me to upload right now.  At some point I’ll get that map and post it here online.

Until then – it is a busy day, and I’ve got work to do.

My desk at work

— FIN

Follow Ross To Work Day #4 – The Amtrak Leg

The Amtrak Bay Area Commuter Train (aka Amtrak Capitol Corridor) is actually a fairly comfortable service.  The run hourly or less between Sacramento and Oakland, with some of the trains heading east as far as Auburn, and south/west as far as San Jose.  Almost all of the cars have standard electric outlets to allow you to power your laptop and other electronics without fear of draining your battery.  That, coupled with the fairly spacious seats with either full tables or fold down trays makes working on the commute a very viable option.  In fact, the entire previous post was done in transit between Davis and Fairfield.

They also have a cafe car – or, more accurately, a snack bar.  Drinks and a couple of microwaved offerings make up the menu.  And yea – alchoholic beverages are available.  The prices are a little on the steep side, but nothing compared to, say, a hot dog at a sports arena.  You’re always able to bring your own food along as well.

On this morning, the train left right on time – 7:00am.  I often get a kick out of watching the auto driving commuters on I-80 coming out of Sac heading towards Davis and teh Bay Area.  Usually I get to be all smug about the fact that I’m, not stuck in that traffic.  Today, however, traffic seemed pretty light.  [video clip]

I was finally able to catch some video [video clip] of the delta between Fairfield and Suisuin Bay.  Everytime I go through here I always imagine Lord of the Rings, and Gollum leading the Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes.  OK – guess I’m a geek…

Across the bridge near the Suisun naval reserve fleet, past petro refineries, past C&H sugar, Richmond and Berkeley and finally Emeryville.  From here, I transfer to a bus that takes me across the Bay Bridge [video clip] to the Caltrain station and 4th & King in San Francisco.  Time for another train.

Some mornings, however, I’ll traverse SF a little differently.  Depending on timing, weather and my general mood, I may actually take the bus and get off at either the Hyatt in the Financial District, or the Ferry Terminal.  From there, I’ll ride along the Embarcadero to Townsend street.  Makes for a nice, quick and generally enjoyable ride.

That’s it for Amtrak – and I board the Caltrain #236, leaving San Francisco heading south on the peninsula at 9:37am.  Last leg of public transit for the morning.