Mike is a West Berkeley cyclist who recently took his Cannondale Synapse out for an early evening ride along Grizzly Peak Boulevard.
“There’s often a nice shoulder for bicyclists and it’s a nice road,” he says, “just kind of forested and winding and quiet.”
As he was approaching the intersection of South Park Drive, he came across three or four men chilling in and around a parked car.
“I wasn’t really concerned because nothing’s ever happened up there,” says Mike, who spoke to Berkeleyside on the condition his real name not be used. But just as he passed, one of the men whipped out a pistol, and “they kind of lunged at me, they all ran at me. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on?’ I started yelling and just booking it full speed. They got in the car, and I remember turning around seeing them pointing a gun at me and I was completely terrified.”
Tires screeched as they pursued him along the boulevard. “It was pretty much rush hour,” he says. “There were cars and people everywhere. They didn’t care.” He whipped onto a side road that was closed to traffic. “They stopped their car at the top, pulled out their gun again and pointed it down the hill toward me. But I was going fast, and I sped away.”
A series of robberies
As he would later learn, Mike was unlucky enough to fall in the middle of a vicious sandwich of armed robberies against cyclists in the hills behind Berkeley. On March 23, two men in a car ran a cyclist off Wildcat Canyon Road and took his bike at knifepoint. On April 10, two men with a gun stole an expensive mountain bike from a 15-year-old Berkeley Hills student riding on Grizzly Peak.
In that case, the men were wearing blue medical masks and were hunched over a dark-colored Volkswagen Passat pulled to the shoulder. “When they saw me, one guy (Suspect 1) nodded to the other guy (Suspect 2). Suspect 2 then called me: ‘Hey!,’” emails the student, who also didn’t want his real name published.
“I stop about 10 feet in front of their car on the right side of the road. 2 walks toward me, lifts his hoodie, and reveals a handgun … 2 says ‘Give me the bike’ and I try to convince him not to take it (I know it sounds dumb lol). I say, ‘Please don’t take it, I just got it, it’s brand new, blah blah blah.’ Then he says ‘Give me the bike’ again, but this time he pushes his gun into my left thigh. Then, I decided to let go of the bike.”
Berkeleyside readers have written in about their own attempted bike jackings, one on April 6 on Redwood Road and another on March 27 on Grizzly near Fish Ranch Road, when two cars tried to box in a female cyclist. And the same evening Mike was accosted, on March 29, gun-carrying robbers also took the bikes of two cyclists nearby on Grizzly.
“I was surprised because they didn’t seem like easy targets,” says Julia Sherman, president of UC Berkeley’s Cal Triathlon team, who came across the cyclists while biking with a friend. “They both were relatively big guys, probably mid-30s, and clearly fit if they were going up Grizzly for a sunset ride. It made me nervous because I was like, ‘Well if I’m out here with this other kid, and I’m a girl and they’re targeting two men, that doesn’t make me feel safe.’”
The Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff is handling the incident on Wildcat Canyon and the Oakland Police Department the robberies on Grizzly. The sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Oakland police said they’re aware of two incidents on Grizzly and that both are ongoing investigations. In the meantime, local cyclists have been feverishly speculating in bike shops and online forums about why criminals are targeting cyclists in the hills.
Phil Tucher, co-president of the Berkeley Bicycle Club, puts it in the context of a larger crime wave that recently swept over the East Bay. “There was an April 9th Oakland Police Department release saying there’ve been 32 robberies in 24 hours,” as well as three homicides, he notes. “So these are legit desperate times.”
Though he didn’t get a chance to ask them, Mike is convinced the people who chased him wanted his Cannondale, which is valued between $7,000 to $10,000. “I’m such a poor target otherwise – I mean, I’m moving at 15 to 20 miles per hour,” he says. “There are hikers and walkers all over the place if they’re looking for anything convenient.”
Sam Salzeider, general manager at Mike’s Bikes on University Avenue, says as times get tougher, people are looking “for ways to make a quick buck.”
“And if you’re out for a nice road-bike ride, you’re probably ill-prepared to fight back against folks who are desperate and looking for a quick way to get a bike.
“There are bikes up there that are over ten-thousand bucks – I’m sure of that because we’ve sold those bikes here,” he says. “I think they’re picking that area because road bikers go up there to get away from the traffic of downtown, and it’s kind of wooded and there aren’t a ton of eyeballs that can see what they’re up to. And they can just ditch out – there are different directions to get off the hills.”
Would a savvy criminal be able to calculate a bike’s worth from a car window? It’s not inconceivable.
“Pro thieves know as much about bike models and components as a lot of bike-shop employees,” says Salzeider. “They do their homework and know their stuff almost to a scary degree.”
The Berkeley Hills student says he had just gotten the loam-gold colored Transition Sentinel NX in February and it was valued at over $5,000.
“The bike they took was dope,” he says. “I’m not sure whether they knew the bike was worth a lot. They didn’t seem like they knew a lot about bikes, but they could’ve. It’s not difficult to tell whether a bike is high-end, so they might’ve just waited for a nice-looking one.”
Bikes are a prized commodity nowadays, thanks to the pandemic and the vagaries of the worldwide supply chain.
“I believe it all started with the Trump tariffs in late 2019 that really hampered the way these manufacturers build all their bikes,” says Fernando Mungia, one of the owners of the Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative on Shattuck Avenue. “That forced them to change the way they make and distribute their items, and then the pandemic hit, which caused a perfect storm because most people needed a sort of escape. Factories across the seas were shutting down or limiting their production, so not only was there a 400% increase in demand, there was a lot less products that were being manufactured because the pandemic slowed or stopped their manufacturing process.”
Bikes and bike components today are still stretched thin, Mungia says. “That means third-party sellers like Craigslist or private sales are definitely increasing in their value. So that definitely could have something to do with it.”
Which police department do I call for help?
It doesn’t help the victims of these crimes that the police presence in the hills is fractured over many agencies. Overseeing various sections are the Berkeley Police Department, the University of California Police Department, the Oakland Police Department, the Contra Costa sheriff’s office, and police from the East Bay Regional Park District.
“Part of the challenge on the Grizzly Peak stretch is there’s some uncertainty about which police force has jurisdiction because there’s some overlap there,” says Paul Hainsworth, race promoter for the Berkeley Bicycle Club’s annual Berkeley Hills Road Race. “If you call 911, they won’t always know who to route you to.”
Mike’s call to the police to report an attempted robbery was confusing to everyone involved. “I said I’m on South Park (Drive) and they go, ‘Like in Novato?’ And I said, ‘No, in Berkeley.’ They transferred me to Berkeley, and they said, ‘Actually, you’re in Oakland’s jurisdiction.’ That was my fault, I guess, but how would anybody know up there, honestly? It’s like a park.”
Riding in groups
So how are local cyclists coping in the wake of these robberies?
Many of the cyclists contacted for this story say they’ve noticed an enhanced police presence in the hills since the robberies. Still, not everybody’s on board at the moment with riding those high-altitude, forested roads.
“I think our team is avoiding Grizzly,” says Cal Tri’s Sherman. “Everyone’s making their own decisions and I’m sure some riders are still riding it, especially in groups. But I don’t think people are doing solo Grizzlies right now because that seems to be a place where they’re targeting people.”
Mary Ann Jawili, president of the 500-strong Grizzly Peak Cyclists club, says she heard people are avoiding the area.
“It’s not what the club has recommended to our members. In fact, we have a weekly ride along Grizzly Peak Boulevard after work during the week, so we’re not avoiding the area at all. We’re just trying to be more vigilant, riding in groups, just being more careful and aware and prepared in case anything happens,” she says.
“We’ve seen that a lot of our members have settled on stable groups to ride with and we encourage that,” says Maya Wolf, a board member of the Berkeley Bicycle Club. “Letting somebody know your intended route before you head out, so if you don’t come back they know roughly the area you were in, and carrying identification on your person and not your bike at all times – those are the main things I’ve been communicating.”
Tucher of the Berkeley Bicycle Club says he doesn’t blame folks for weighing personal safety against pandemic-driven cabin fever. “The victims of these crimes are out there trying to take care of themselves, trying to somehow stay sane and relaxed and get some fresh air and exercise. Definitely, my heart goes out to them.”
Protecting your bikes
To protect their bikes, perhaps the easiest thing cyclists can do is write down their serial number and register their rides on Bike Index to help track stolen property. One person on the Bay Area Cycling on Reddit opined it might be time to “start carrying Mace,” though another pointed out: “They have a gun and a car (or other weapons) and most likely 2+ dudes. Me with Mace in road shoes with Clif Bar strength isn’t gonna stop anything.”
Salzeider at Mike’s Bikes advises against making self-defense choices.
“Maybe if they want to carry Mace or something like that, they can,” he says. Thankfully, he notes, “We haven’t installed any gun racks.”