Nonconsensual rear bike wheel swap
July 20, 2012 12:52 PM   Subscribe

I had to leave my bike at a rail station for a few days. When I picked it up again it felt funny on the way home, and a close inspection showed someone had swapped my rear wheel for another almost identical one. Can anyone familiar with bike theft explain what happened? It's not totally the same, but the rear cassette is identical, the tyre of the same good make but with a heavier tread. The original wasn't anything special - the stock Bontrager off a 6yo Trek 7.3 hybrid.
posted by cromagnon to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe someone accidentally damaged your bike and this was their way of fixing it? It doesn't sound theft related.
posted by selfnoise at 12:55 PM on July 20, 2012

Check the rim wear. If the rim is close to failing, someone just made it your problem and not theirs.
posted by scruss at 1:23 PM on July 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Somebody trying to avoid paying 20-25$ to true a wheel?
posted by minedev at 3:48 PM on July 20, 2012

my guess is someone, not an a**hole, hit your bike with their car and fixed it.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:36 PM on July 20, 2012

Was the tire pressure really low when you went to get your bike?
posted by hydrophonic at 5:38 PM on July 20, 2012

Is the difference only the tire, or are the rim/spoke assembly different?
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:58 PM on July 20, 2012

Would anyone have reason to track your movements?
posted by RobotHero at 11:08 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have no useful ideas about the wheel swap, but I would encourage you to consider reevaluating your locking technique. The advice I follow is to put the U-lock around the post/bike rack/whatever and then around your rear rim, through the triangle of the frame. That way, it's necessary to cut the rim and wrench it out of shape to get the bike loose, which is not easy.

Have you seen the Hal Grades Your Bike Locking series?
posted by Lexica at 11:10 PM on July 20, 2012

Are you able to tell what specific rim and hub the new wheel has? This is really bizarre.

Stock wheels are shite, generally speaking, but they get stolen anyway. Stolen and replace, however, is unheard of. Everyone's guesses above are valid. I can't really think of any other reasons as to why this would have happened.

If I were a bike thief and in need of a rear wheel, I'd just gank your wheel. I wouldn't spend the time to replace it. Even then, why put a decent new wheel on and take a decent old wheel?

Look at the tire. Does it still have the little nubs that new tires have? Is the braking surface worn at all? Does the cassette have some wear? Is it still shiny and new? I'm wondering if they went to a bike shop and said "Gimme a wheel and tire that will work with a Trek Hybrid" or if they went home to their garage and got their own used wheel.

Weird, man.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:09 AM on July 21, 2012

Totally weird.

Probably not all that realistic a possibility, but you might remove the tire and tube, just to make sure that neither one is full of drugs or explosives or something.
posted by box at 8:43 AM on July 21, 2012

Response by poster: Hmm. Thanks for lots of interesting ideas. In case it helps:

1 - Bike wasn't locked near a road or anywhere with car access. Someone could have hit with a kicktruck or something, I guess.

2 - Not only was the original wheel nothing special, but it was out of true itself - enough that it was irritating and I was going to fix it.

3 - The tire pressure was fine on the replacement wheel.

4 - The entire wheel was swapped - tyre, rim, spokes, hub, axle, rear cassette, but not chain or rear derailleur. The replacement wheel is definitely used but in good shape, as is the tire. It has no makers name on it, but looks reasonable - in particular the quick release machinery is well milled and arguably of better quality than my original.

5 - I can't imagine anyone wanting to follow me or use me as a drug mule, although I'm going to have the back wheel off tonight and see if there's anything inside.

My best guess was:

It's a common-ish bike in a dimly lit area and the weather was appalling that week. Someone steals or kick in my wheel. Someone else who owns a bike like mine comes out of the station, sees in the rain what they think is their bike damaged and unrideable, goes home, picks up a spare wheel, comes back, fits it in the rain, tries to unlock the bike and feels sufficiently stupid that they leave and never come back.

Best guess at work:

Someone stole my wheel. They or someone else come back to steal the bike, bringing a spare wheel, fit it, get disturbed - perhaps by me returning.

PS: Thanks for the tip - I'd usually lock a bike through the frame and rear wheel, but thanks to an intentional reduction in the number of bike rails outside my station, the only places left are often a rail running on top of a low wall, so unless I want to carry a six foot chain I have to lock it through the front frame under the headstock with the front wheel off the ground.
posted by cromagnon at 6:49 AM on July 22, 2012

Could someone getting off the train like you did have come back to their bike and found their tire flat, been in a hurry, lacked a pump, and swapped it out for yours, then come back and pumped/fixed their tire but left it on your bike?

In light of that possibility, look out for a slow leak.
posted by jamjam at 6:46 PM on July 25, 2012

Stolen and replace, however, is unheard of.
Nope, a similar, but materially different rear wheel theft happened to me two years ago. It goes like this:
As I was walking out of my building to drive someone to the airport, I noted that the chain of my bicycle (locked, as usual on the north side of our apartment building) was off the rear cog and therefore sagging. Things happen, someone may have knocked it, so I resolved to inspect it when I returned from O'Hare.
Upon my return, I did inspect it and discovered that, in fact, my rear wheel had been stolen. Stolen, yet in its place was another wheel, sitting in the drop-outs yet not bolted on... It did, however, have a perfectly good tire, fully inflated and the rim had no discernible hop or massive bend to it. รด-0.
I will spell this out for you, as processing this took me some minutes and a few conversations with passers by as I was working all the implications out.
Someone decided to steal the rear wheel that was bolted on to my trusty "garbage bike" (one that I'd found in the trash 4 years ago and fixed up to be a perfectly ridable piece of flotsam-looking bike). The thief must have known that a aluminum 27" rim in good condition is a pretty rare thing to find, and highly desirable if you ride vintage 10 speeds, as I do. So to upgrade his/her ride, they stole my wheel. But some form of compunction compelled them to leave theirs in its place. Literally, in its place... they put the axle in the drop-outs and draped the chain over the rear cog*.
So now my brain has essentially assimilated the situation: my wheel has been stolen, yet here's this other one right to hand. So I inspect it, and it's got all the things I hate. It's steel which is uselessly heavy, it's rusty, it's got one of those reflectors that bolts onto the spokes and makes it ride bloodgly, the axle needs to be repacked because it's gritty, it's got a chrome pieplate which is pretty but useless weight on an already heavy wheel. It's got a case on the smallest cog of the cassette which makes it harder to set the deraillieur properly, and WTF! why am I having to even think about what I need to do to get this wheel to be useful. Some jagoff just stole my perfectly serviceable wheel and now I have to figure out how to get this other one to work? --bubbling rage--
NO. dammit no. In some ways this is even worse than having one's wheel stolen outright. In that case you just go get a new one. But here, I'm left with a mechanical dilemma; of how to fix the situation given the materials in hand, when i don't like any of the given materials. Also, the garbage bike has some arbitrary strictures I've placed on it, in that it can only be repaired/replaced with found/scavenged parts. Furthermore, swapping wheels isn't always trivial i.e. spacing of the cog and the drops varies greatly between bikes. Chains, once worn into a given cog, tend to slip when presented with a new one. Why would anyone thieve a wheel just to sign themselves up for additional labor? And why have these damnable thieves signed ME up for additional labor?

So now I'm thoroughly bemused, and highly annoyed, such that I'm composing the snarky note I will leave on the pole outside where I used to lock my bike.
To the thief that stole my rear wheel on 8.31:
While I certainly appreciate the considerate gesture you made by giving me a "replacement" rear wheel for the one you were stealing, I feel that the more considerate gesture would have been to NOT STEAL THE DAMN THING IN THE FIRST PLACE. If, as I might assume, the replacement is not working out as well for you as you might have hoped, I will gladly accept the return of my wheel, here, no questions asked. Also, I was cultivating a colony of yellow sac spiders in the cassette, so be careful in the interim.

*The cassette was completely seized, so I ended up extracting the axle, which fit perfectly, and swapping it into a aluminum rim I found on a very thoroughly abandoned bike elsewhere. Still riding on that tire, too.

So, cromagnon, if'n it ain't too broke, and ain't too much of a downgrade, just ride it. Someone thought your rim was enough of an upgrade to swap, and you too will have a weirdly annoying story to tell.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 4:52 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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