It was a crisp Winter morning and I was on my way to interview a man called Omar Terywall for the first time. To get to his boathouse, I passed some spectacular college architecture, world-class institutions, and the picturesque River Cam. For many students, this is the Cambridge we know and love, but I was about to be introduced to a hidden, uglier side of the city and Omar’s battle against it. 

Cambridge is plagued by bike thefts: it has the fourth highest rate of reported bike theft in England, and it’s estimated that 25 bikes are stolen in the Cambridgeshire region every day. 

Worse still, most bike theft in the city is going unpunished. Less than 5% of bikes are recovered because bike theft is viewed as a lower-priority crime type and the police lack the resources to act on each case. 

For Omar, these figures are hugely disappointing – he’s grown fond of the city he’s called home for the last 30 years, and he “doesn’t like bad people getting away with bad things”. 

So, in August 2019 when Omar saw on Facebook that someone’s bike was stolen, and the police said they couldn’t help for another two weeks, Omar was all too happy to help. 

He tracked down the stolen bike on Facebook Marketplace and arranged to meet the seller. When they met, Omar checked the frame number of the bike to ensure it definitely was stolen. After checking, he accused the seller of stealing the bike, which led the man to become abusive and enraged. Omar held his ground, unphased by the thief’s aggression, and eventually the thief gave the bike back to Omar.  

After this successful result, Omar realised the positive difference he could have on tackling this pernicious issue. This inspired him to start the Facebook Group, Official Stolen Bikes in Cambridge, and within a few months, the group grew to over 5,000 members. It became clear very quickly that Cambridge residents and students were willing to rally together to protect their community against bike theft. 

Members of the group can post about their stolen bikes in the hopes other members have seen them and can also share pictures of abandoned bikes. Some members of the group even share pictures of people they see stealing bikes to warn bike owners in the area. 

The group is ruthlessly effective. Omar has already recovered over 500 bikes thanks to the members of the Group, which he calls “the eyes and ears of Cambridge.”  

“I’m going to drop you back at the boathouse and then I’m going to this person’s house, I think I know who they are.”

One of the people Omar has helped is Sam Riley, who in his third year at Trinity Hall, had his bike stolen.  

“I’m quite careful, that’s the irony of the whole thing,” Sam told me, “I have three locks for my bike!” After wheeling his bike into a boathouse to quickly use the toilet, Sam returned to find it had been stolen. 

A friend recommended contacting Omar, who got back to Sam within a few hours and told him to report the incident to the police and check second-hand marketplaces. Very quickly, Omar and Sam had spotted it on Gumtree and arranged to meet the seller, but the thief got cold feet and called off the sale. 

Then, “in quite a surreal moment,” Omar turned to Sam and said, “I’m going to drop you back at the boathouse and then I’m going to this person’s house, I think I know who they are.”  

Upon arriving at the house, Omar spotted Sam’s bike in the back of the thief’s car, so he called the police to ask for assistance. Unfortunately, the police were too busy that night to do anything, but at 6:30 the following morning, Sam got a call from the police saying they were going in and arresting the man. 

Sam found the whole experience a “whirlwind and incredibly frightening” and he was initially apprehensive about contacting Omar: “Vigilante justice isn’t something I want to be involved with.”  

However, after meeting Omar, his perceptions of the group changed. Talking to someone so knowledgeable and experienced was comforting, and Sam believes Omar treads the line between effective action and taking the law into his own hands very well.  

The level of data Omar now receives means he is perhaps more effective than the police at dealing with bike theft: “Anytime that someone puts a post up on our page, especially if there’s CCTV footage or still footage of someone stealing a bike, within 15 to 20 minutes, I can probably tell you who that person is, where they live, who they hang about with, and where they were five minutes ago.” 

While the Facebook Group has been hugely successful, the rapid rise in members has also brought challenges. Omar receives no money for running the Facebook Group, so he has to juggle managing the site with a full-time job running a rowing experience company and being a father.

"you see how much of an emotional attachment people can have to a piece of metal. For a lot of people, it’s more than just a bike.”  

When I asked Omar why he continues to run the site voluntarily even though it involves putting himself in potentially dangerous situations for people he doesn’t know, he replied, “I get so many people that message me, and you see how much of an emotional attachment people can have to a piece of metal. For a lot of people, it’s more than just a bike.” 

He told me about the heartbreaking story of someone who had spent too much money on their bike, only for it to be stolen. Because she was still paying off her bike, the theft pushed her into a serious state of depression which meant she had to take time off work. Eventually, this led to her losing her job, causing serious financial hardship which led to her losing her house, “all because of a bloody bike.” 

While this is a rare case, it highlights the emotional and financial pain that losing a bike can create. 

Omar also faces the challenge of how to balance the group’s frustration towards bike thieves with the desperately sad circumstances many thieves face. Some are just vulnerable children (as young as 12) who are groomed by older people to steal bikes for them. Omar tells me other thieves include drug addicts whose addictions are so bad, that stealing a bike to pay for a fix is a case of life or death: “If they don’t get that fix, they will die.” 

To combat this problem, there is now far more moderation on the Facebook page. Omar is incredibly sympathetic towards vulnerable thieves and doesn’t tolerate aggressive and abusive comments against thieves. While he understands the frustration, Omar is more focused on reuniting owners with their stolen bikes. 

As the new academic year at Cambridge begins, Omar is keen to educate the incoming students on how to prevent bike theft. In his four years running the Facebook Group, Omar has noticed that bike thefts seem to spike in August, just before term starts. Omar believes this is because thieves can sell their stolen goods to the incoming freshers who are desperate for a bargain. 


Mountain View

In conversation with Jimmy’s homeless charity

Omar warns freshers to do their due diligence when buying a bike. If it looks too good to be true, or, “if you are buying a bike from a Julie and a Jamie turns up” it could be stolen. In our conversation, Omar also stressed the importance of getting good-quality locks and avoiding bike theft hotspots. 

When buying a bike, it’s recommended to capture the seller’s details and check the frame number on BikeRegister to see if the bike is listed as belonging to anyone else. Once the bike is purchased, most Cambridge colleges also recommend registering it with them in case it’s stolen. 

I ended my conversation with Omar by asking him about his vision for the future of the page. He smiled at me and replied, “Good question.”  

Omar believes the page is now working amazingly well, running as the virtual neighbourhood watch group he intended. So, after four years of running the site, Omar thinks the time may soon be right to slowly back away from running the Group.  

While it will be difficult to give up something he’s worked so hard to create, Omar is optimistic about the future of the ‘eyes and ears of Cambridge,’ and believes they will keep the streets of Cambridge safer for a very long time.