Written by Matt Caywood
Bike theft is a huge problem, affecting 25% of all bike owners. I’ve personally had three bikes stolen in my lifetime, and in North America, 2 million bikes are stolen each year, up 25% in 2020 (in NYC). Seven percent of victims quit cycling completely. The lack of secure bike parking is one of the most cited reasons by cyclists for not riding more often. All in all — it’s a major factor holding back biking and more sustainable cities.
Secure parking isn’t always available, and locks can all be broken. So what can you do to make sure you can track and recover your bike if stolen? Put a tracker on it! The ideal bike tracker would have: Long battery life (recharge once a year), low cost ($5–10/year), be easy to set up and use, and easy to conceal so thieves don’t spot and remove it…
AirTags make great trackers for analog bicycles and e-bikes
When Apple released AirTags, they changed the game by making bike tracking much more accessible. The reason is that AirTags don’t need to subscribe to a mobile network — they communicate wirelessly with people’s nearby iPhones over Bluetooth, and those report the location of the AirTags they encounter, securely, and only to their owners! As a result, AirTags cost around $25, last for one year with a standard cheap replaceable battery and are easy to set up.
In cities, with many iPhones and other devices around, AirTag location reporting is accurate enough for you to find your bike if it’s stolen. [Disclaimer — I don’t recommend trying to recover the bike yourself, you should call the police once you’ve located it.]
The one issue with using an AirTag as an anti-theft device is that Apple has added some features to prevent stalking (good), which make silent bike tracking and recovery more challenging (bad). If a thief (1) has an iPhone and (2) returns to their phone’s personal home location, they will be alerted on their phone to the presence of an AirTag.
Many thieves don’t have iPhones, but there are first-hand reports of more organized thieves being savvy enough to understand Apple’s alert means they need to search your bike for an AirTag. The AirTag’s speaker may also occasionally make noise to prevent silent stalking.
You can find instructions online on how to disable an AirTag speaker, but if your bike is costly, I would suggest installing two Airtags on your bike, so a thief who finds one believes they’re in the clear.
Concealing an AirTag on your bike
How easy is it to conceal an AirTag on a bike — and still change the battery yearly? There are many locations you can choose from, ranging from hidden (inside the stem, mounted under the seat, under a mudflap, or on the frame) to camouflaged (as a reflector, bike light, or other accessory). It’s a good thing so many options are available, as it makes it harder for thieves to zero in on one location.
Bell: the AirBell (+ AirTag) fits an AirTag under a normally sized bike bell. It works well as a bell too and makes it fairly easy to replace the battery. Highly recommended, especially if you need a bell.
Water bottle cage or frame: Great value. The Knog Scout (no AirTag required) is a bike alarm and tracker in one package, and easily fits under a water bottle cage. (A minor issue is that it lacks the NFC capability of AirTags that allow you to precisely locate them within 50–100 feet — since we’re talking about bikes, not your wallet or keys, this isn’t a dealbreaker.)
Under seat / anywhere with a ziptie: use a pet collar case plus AirTag, which has two attachment points — and zip ties. (I don’t recommend AirTag keychains or loops because they only have one attachment point and will rattle around.
Reflector: a Reflector (+ AirTag) that conceals the airtag. Who doesn’t need another reflector? There are a few different styles of reflector available, so I picked the one that is reliable and looks most like a conventional reflector.
Stick-on option, for under a mudflap or rack, the Moment surface mount with AirTag. When you change the battery, you’ll need to pull it off and replace the adhesive. Gorilla’s Mounting Tape Squares can also be used if you just want to stick the AirTag somewhere dry, but it’s not as secure and not as well camouflaged.
Stem: A new option is to replace your stem’s top cap with an AirTag holder that you can decorate with a sticker to make it leass obvious. I haven’t tried this but some reports say the signal carries a long way, making it easier to find your bike.
What about Android users?
I haven’t tested the Tile Sticker, but some people recommend it for Android. I have used Tile devices in the past, and they work reasonably well, although in my experience not as smoothly as AirTags.
The original: GPS trackers for high-end bikes
GPS tracking units for bikes have been around for a few years, using small versions of the same trackers used for cars, trucks and cargo. The bike’s GPS location is communicated over mobile networks (e.g. 4G) to give live updates.
This works, but the two major problems are cost (between the hardware tracker and annual data plan, you’re paying at least $50/year) and battery life (recharged 5–25 times per year, easy to forget and hard to remove hidden hardware!). If you expect to find your bike in rural areas where there aren’t many mobile phones around, you might benefit from this solution.
So why AirTag your e-bike?
Right now, the fraction of e-bikes being GPS tracked is minuscule — but even if only 1 in 100 bikes is tracked, over time it’s almost inevitable that organized bike theft rings and stolen bike fences will be busted. So do your part, spend the $40 to AirTag your bike and give yourself some peace of mind!
Matt is CEO & founder of Actionfigure, an innovative start-up, "making our world more sustainable with products that make it easier for people to move more efficiently, decreasing emissions and improving quality of life."
CONTRIBUTOR, E-BIKE LOVERS