Groningen’s illegal bike trade
The buy cycle
It’s cold, too cold to be out looking for a thief.
I pull my jacket tighter around myself as students pass me in the street in drunken runs or stumbles from one bar to another. I keep walking, hoping for someone to appear or that someone I ask knows something. But no luck.
My lack of Dutch really isn’t helping tonight, and after three hours of trying – it’s 2 a.m. – I’m tired, cold, and this has gone nowhere. Fed up, I think ‘Fuck this,’ and turn to go back to my bike. As I turn right towards the Forum, a tired-looking man approaches me.
‘Excuse me, I’m homeless. Can I have some change?’
‘Yeah, no problem’, I reply.
As I begin to dig in my pocket, I ask: ‘Do you know where I can get a bike, maybe?’
The man suddenly turns energetic. ‘Oh, you want a bike? I’ll get you a bike’, he says. ‘Come on.’
Two thousand thefts
The Netherlands is home to more bikes than people. You see them packed into overloaded parking racks, cluttering footpaths in messy lines, even decorating Groningen’s canals on Sunday mornings after chaotic Saturday nights. It’s great until yours inevitably goes missing.
Behave like it is your own bike, and then they don’t call the police
‘We have a cycling city, which is beautiful, but there is a dark side to it too, because there are so many bikes stolen’, says communication student Milou Kemkers, who’s been the victim of bike theft twice in one month this year.
There are around two thousand bike thefts reported to police in Groningen each year, though the number of actual thefts is likely higher, since many people feel it is pointless to report their bike stolen. When it happens, after you finish swearing, your options are to go buy one, rent one, or find yourself a ‘bike guy’.
‘Just do it. Behave like it is your own bike, and then they don’t call the police’, says Martin, the homeless man. He makes money stealing and selling bicycles to students in Groningen. ‘People steal and sell so many bikes here that they are for everyone. One bike in Groningen has three owners.’
The music from the bars is pulsing lightly in the distance and carries across the cobblestones to where we sit and talk on a wall under the leaning figure of the Forum. ‘I sell to the students all the time’, he tells me, sipping from a bottle of Heineken he had found closed and sitting on the street.
‘Most students know me because I always walk with a bike’, he says. Sometimes, students take videos of him and post them, saying: ‘If you want a bike, you should buy it from him.’ He claims to have seen one viewed over 10,000 times, which helps him sell bikes ‘because then they trust you’.
The prices vary depending on the quality of the bikes, but they are significantly cheaper than those bought in stores. Sometimes it’s a bit of a haggle, but he will usually get around 30 euros per bike, though he has gotten as much as 400 euros in the past.
This month, four students came up to him and said: ‘Hey man, can I ask you something? Can you fix four bikes for us?’ ‘If you give me 50 euros each, I’ll fix you in twenty minutes’, he replied. After a quick trip down to the station with his electric saw, he had them ready for collection.
What is the other guy doing right now when his bike has been stolen?
He is far from the only one in the city doing this. ‘When you know what to do, it’s not hard’, agrees Frank, who stole and sold bicycles while he was homeless in Groningen for nine years. ‘I picked bicycles on a clear day on the Herestraat near the HEMA: People go in, I walk up to the bicycle, break open the lock, and I’m gone in thirty seconds.’
According to Martin, the best place to sell bikes is around 6 a.m. on the Grote Markt. There are so many thieves that students often come to him asking for a bike after theirs has been stolen, he says, or he will approach those who have had their bikes stolen and offer them a new one.
This can be a welcome alternative to renting or buying for some. ‘Swapfiets is really expensive nowadays, and the police can’t do anything about it when your bike is stolen’, says Nathan, a Dutch student who bought a stolen bike with a lock from a man for 2 euros on a night out in December. A punishable offence, though the evidence is gone now, as three days later the bike was stolen in front of his house.
Not everyone is so happy with the deal after it’s made, though. Like Linda, another student, who recently bought a bike on a whim for only 10 euros after a night out. ‘I specifically asked if this bike was stolen, and he said it wasn’t — which was the biggest lie of all the lies.’ It was a bargain, but, in the end, she won’t even use it. ‘I feel quite guilty about it, because it’s someone’s bike’, she says.
In the past, everyone had some change, but now it is very hard to get your living together
Michael, who studies at the Faculty of Economics and Business, recalls saying to his parents: ‘Look, I think I am being dumb in this situation. My friends buy a bike for 5 euros, and I have spent 17 euros per month.’ But he feels he can’t be party to it when he thinks to himself: ‘What is the other guy doing right now when his bike has been stolen and I’m buying it for 5 euros?’
Others are just weary of the whole cycle. ‘Sometimes it feels like we are sharing the same bikes because they are stolen so much’, says Milou. It’s a little sad because cars and public transport are expensive, she says. ‘You don’t know who you are stealing from, like some people can go without it, but some people are dependent on bikes.’
Everyone involved in these street deals is outside the law. Bicycle theft itself can get you a fine of 300 euros and up to a month in jail for repeat offenders, being caught buying a stolen bike will cost you around 250 euros. Crime, however, according to Frank, isn’t always by choice but a necessity on the streets.
‘Everyone is paying with a card. In the past, everyone had some change in their pocket, but now it is very hard to get your living together’, he says. This makes bicycle thefts more common, he feels. ‘It’s not easy to come off the streets. Once you get into the vicious circle, it’s fucked up to come out.’
Unfortunately, not everyone does.
‘In the last three months, seven people I know have died on the streets’, says Martin. Either the cold, the drugs, the rough sleeping, or a combination of them all will exact a heavy toll on a person, he says. ‘Two years on the street is long — try living on the street for one week!’
Soon he hopes to be out of this situation, having to sell bikes. ‘Nothing you can do on the streets is a positive influence in your life’, he says. ‘It’s always a negative. In the end, it always brings you trouble — or it brings you death.’
The names of some of the sources in this story – Martin, Frank, Michael, Nathan, and Linda – have been changed at their request. Martin asked and received 15 euros for the interview.
Last week I saw a man stealing the thing protecting the bicycle chain. It was in front of the station and I felt stupid because I originally asked him if he needed any help. I passed him again later and he had the thing in had while riding another bike. I don’t even know what I was supposed to do. It’s not like the police is gonna show up in time and I don’t want to put myself in any potential danger you know? But I felt so bad for the person who owned the bike.
“Martin asked and received 15 euros for the interview.”
Martin is now a drug-addict