Stop (bicycle) thief! Inside an ex-Microsoft
wunderkind’s Canadian crusade to save your
bike | Financial Post
as of Mon Nov 11 2019 22:30:59 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
Stop (bicycle) thief! Inside an ex-Microsoft wunderkind's Canadian crusade to
save your bike
Bike theft is a crime that impacts an estimated two million North American
cyclists annually to the tune of $650 million.
J Allard, tech guru, former Microsoft mega-star and creator of the Xbox,
wants your bike. Not to steal it, but to protect it from thieves
Rob Brunt was having a hard time picking an outfit. He had a meeting to get
to and, as a Vancouver police officer, he was often in uniform, which did not
seem like a good fit, not for a face-to-face with J (James) Allard, a former
mega-star at Microsoft Corp. and the so-called father of the Xbox gaming
A suit and tie didn’t seem right either, so Brunt struck what he viewed as
a compromise between being too dressy, and not dressy enough, and arrived
five minutes early at The Rocky Bottom Brewery in Bellevue, Wash., in a
collared shirt, fancy jeans and polished dress shoes.
“I made sure I got there first,” he said, “and then I see J walking in, and
he is wearing a hoodie, torn-up shorts, skater shoes and a ball cap. He was
the answer to my prayers.”
Allard is a beer-drinking, pizza-eating, bicycle-loving genius, and the
ultimate anti-tech bro, whose nascent post-Microsoft mission, isn’t birthing
the next Silicon Valley unicorn, but declaring all-out digital war on bike
Brunt, known around Vancouver policing circles as “the bike detective,” saw
Allard as a winning ticket, exactly the kind of tech-savvy sidekick he had
been seeking for months.
Nobody has ever been promoted to captain of the police force because of
the work they’ve done on bike theft
But for Allard, known around tech circles — and even by his mom — merely as
J, the Canadian city the cop hailed from was the perfect laboratory to
further test drive 529 Garage: a free, smartphone app/online bike registry
intended to unite cyclists, bike-shop owners and police in a multi-pillared
community effort to reduce a crime that impacts an estimated two million
North American cyclists annually to the tune of $650 million.
“We weren’t planning on Canada,” Allard said. “But then Rob called me.”
It is a good thing he did, too: in the four years since Allard and Brunt’s
beer-and-pizza summit in Bellevue, the number of reported bike thefts in
Vancouver is down nearly 40 per cent, to about 1,800 from 3,068, according to
police statistics, while the app itself has caught fire among B.C. cyclists,
and now boasts 100,000 users province-wide while also migrating east, with
Red Deer, Alta., Brandon, Man., Regina, Guelph, Ont. and Ottawa all signing
on in recent months.
To register a bike, users input its model, colour, make and serial number
and upload several photos showing them with the bike. If the bike gets
stolen, the victim issues an alert and an electronic all-points, bike-theft
bulletin is then sent to any app user within a 15-kilometre radius of the
crime — plus bike shops and the police.
If police then seize or recover a bike, they can check it against the
registry and the photos, and if there is a match, bingo, the bike gets
returned to its rightful owner, a joyous reunion that almost never occurs in
other major cities such as Toronto these days.
Vancouver Police Detective Rob Brunt, left, and Project 529 founder J.
Allard in Vancouver. Allard built a an app to help combat bicycle theft after
his own bike was stolen. Darryl Dyck for National Post
The Toronto Police Service’s Property and Video Management Unit building in
the city’s northeast corner is among the saddest addresses in town for a bike
lover. Picture a big-box store, only with shelf after shelf after shelf of
stolen and recovered or seized goods. Beer, booze, blackjack tables, a
dentist’s chair, video-lottery gaming terminals, mattresses, boxes marked
bio-hazard and, at one end of the facility, near several plastic barrels
crammed with old rifles, thousands of bikes in orderly rows.
Some of the bikes are dusty with rusted chains and warped tires. Most are
brand names in good condition: there are Treks, Norcos, Giants, Schwinns,
Cervelos, racing bikes, mountain bikes, fat bikes, even bikes with baby
Abel DaSilva, acting police supervisor in charge of the bike collection,
grew up in west end Toronto where his first bike was a blue BMX. Someone
stole it from his backyard.
“I learned to ride on that bike,” he said, wistfully. “I loved that bike.”
DaSilva never saw that bike again, and most of the bikes he oversees today
Bike Theft by the Numbers
2 million North American cyclists impacted by bike theft
$650 million Value of bike theft in North America
Five Number of bikes J Allard has had stolen of the 30 bicycles he has
After 37 days (in theory), they get shipped to Police Auctions Canada, a
police charity, and sold to the highest bidder. In other words, if you are in
Toronto and looking for your stolen bike, it is possible the police are the
middlemen, at present, between the bike being found and the bike being sold
to someone else.
“When all your officers are tied up on scenes for homicides, for shootings,
for stuff like that, it kind of takes your resources away from doing
bike-theft investigations,” said Scott Mills, social media officer with
Bike theft simply can’t compete with gangs, guns, murders, robberies and
assaults, even though stolen bikes are a key spoke in the urban crime web.
Thieves, said Rob Brunt, the bike detective who was a beat cop on
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for more than two decades, don’t drive cars;
they steal bikes, using them as getaway rides from break-ins. Stolen bikes
are also street currency and easily traded for drugs. An organized dealer can
have a lucrative side business selling hot bikes on Craigslist. Arrests are
“Nobody has ever been promoted to captain of the police force because of
the work they’ve done on bike theft,” Allard points out.
Project 529 founder J. Allard displays the app on his phone. Darryl Dyck
for National Post
But maybe change is coming, with an unlikely crusader leading the charge.
Allard wasn’t thinking about bike crime when he left Microsoft in 2010, at
least not until his yellow, custom downhill mountain bike got swiped from a
secure parking garage in Seattle.
“I’ve owned at least 30 bikes in my lifetime and had about five stolen,” he
said. “But it was really the last one that got me fired up enough to do
Allard reported the theft of that bike to Seattle police. His friends
circulated the news (and images of the stolen bike) on social media. He
waited 30 days until he got a call from a friend telling him his bike was on
eBay. The police told him they don’t investigate “eBay crimes,” while
encouraging him to bid on the bike, which he did, noting, during the process,
that the seller was also auctioning several laptops, Home Depot gift cards, a
high-end camera lens and a bunch of iPods.
For reasons unknown, the bike was abruptly pulled from the auction site, so
Allard bought a laptop from the seller instead. Using his tech smarts, he
sifted through the hard drive and found its rightful owner’s name.
I’ve owned at least 30 bikes in my lifetime and had about five stolen.
But it was really the last one that got me fired up enough to do something
After Allard turned several more somersaults, the police finally went to
the seller’s home and seized his yellow bike, but they wouldn’t return it to
him unless he provided a serial number, which he didn’t have. Ultimately, he
found it, because he knew everybody with a similar custom downhill mountain
bike since they all rode together.
In the end, the mother-of-all-bike-recovery missions had planted a seed:
here was a problem Allard wanted to fix.
“Anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of your cycling friends will have a
bike theft story,” he said. “I hated that it became normalized in the cycling
culture, but more so, that theft is a meaningful deterrent from getting new
riders to adopt the mode. We need less congestion. We need less obesity. We
need better mental health. We need more moments to slow down. We need sparks
of joy from our childhood.”
In short, Allard’s view is that we need more bikes on city streets,
especially bikes that don’t get stolen.
The 50-year-old has attacked that issue with the same missionary zeal that
was the stuff of legend during his 19-year run at Microsoft. Scott Henson, a
senior executive who overlapped 15 of those years, was witness, as he
describes it, “to the comet streak across the sky.”
J Allard playing an Xbox Live racing game at Microsoft offices in Redmond,
Wash. back in 2004. Anne Marie Musselman/The New York Times files
It was Allard who, as a young gun in the early 1990s, recognized the
internet as a game-changer and urged his superiors, by way of an eloquent,
internally circulated 16-page memo, to get with the program. It was a similar
story with the Xbox. Allard and Bill Gates, meanwhile, became like “two peas
in a pod,” Henson said.
After Xbox launched in 2001, Allard shut himself in his office, handwriting
thank you notes to a team of 300-plus. Each note included details specific to
the individual it was addressed to.
“Most executives wouldn’t do that,” Henson said. “I still have my note.”
One common thread through Allard’s time with the company was his passion:
when he bit into something, he bit right through. That passion has continued
with Project 529 (the corporate name for the 529 Garage app). That passion
also drives Henson, now a partner at Carbon Innovations, a Seattle company
tackling carbon emissions in the building industry, bananas.
“I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make J wake up to what probably
could be the most impactful thing he could do with whatever time he has left
and to go tackle climate change,” Henson said. “But J is his own guy. What he
gets behind, he gets behind.”
More Bike Theft by the Numbers
30-50% Estimated per cent of J Allard's friends who have a bike theft
1.5 million Number of users registered on the 529 Garage bike recovery
$7,000 What J Allard charges the Vancouver Police to access his 529
The difference in getting behind a niche industry such as bike theft,
however, is that Allard isn’t some big shot at a trillion-dollar company with
troops to muster and all the necessary resources to spend. He is co-founder
of a small startup, with a partner, Lara Ferroni, in Washington, D.C., an
employee in Chicago and a cop buddy named Rob in B.C.
Allard, a hockey nut, is originally from Glens Falls, N.Y., about three
hours south of Montreal. As a kid, he worshipped Guy Lafleur, and saw him
play twice at the old Montreal Forum with his dad. As an adult, Allard bought
a ski cabin, since sold, in Whistler, B.C., using it as a snowboarding base
during winter and a mountain bike hub come spring.
Home now is Bellingham, Wash., where he does all the graphics for the 529
Garage app and web pages, resets user passwords, blogs, provides tech support
to client cities, does outreach at public events and responds to about 350
emails daily. The app now has 1.5 million registered users, and is rooted in
several U.S. cities, including Portland, Ore., as well as several Canadian
“I don’t know if he still writes all in lower case but, oh my god, that guy
can type fast,” Henson said. “You got to wonder how fast his brain is going.”
Abel DaSilva, Toronto Police Services Acting Supervisor, Property and Video
evidence Management Unit stands among stolen, seized and prisoner bicycles in
Scarborough, Ont. Peter J. Thompson/National Post
Alas, even brilliant, rapid-typing Microsoft legends have weaknesses, and
Allard’s involves money.
“J is horrible at asking for money,” Brunt said. “I budgeted over $20,000 a
year to pay for his program. But it took him three years to invoice anybody,
and he has set it so cheap — he charges the Vancouver Police Department
$7,000 a year. I keep telling him he has to start asking people for more
A curious thing about Allard is that he may have earned boatloads of cash
at Microsoft, but he isn’t remotely motivated by it. He sold that chalet in
Whistler, partially to underwrite Project 529, but mostly because he felt
like he wasn’t using it enough. He only buys used cars. He takes public
transit, wears his shoes and socks until they have holes in them and claims
concert tickets as his biggest monthly expense. (He has seen Kiss 28 times).
“There is nothing wrong with being a boot-strapping CEO,” Allard said. “But
it’s been six years now.”
Part of the problem is the potential client base. It took Brunt three
months to get 529 Garage up and running in Vancouver, and that was with the
chief’s blessing and the bureaucracy onboard.
Anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of your cycling friends will have a
bike theft story. I hated that it became normalized in the cycling culture
In Toronto, conversations are years in, and the would-be bike detective in
charge of the Project 529 file is a one-man band. According to police
corporate communications, he is bullish on the program, but currently on
But Allard hasn’t lost heart, at least not yet. It is just a matter of time
until more cities embrace his low-cost, almost no-cost, fix for bike theft.
Meantime, he will always have Vancouver, and stories like the one Manuelle
Chanoine shares to keep him motivated.
Chanoine’s blue Norco Valence had all the bells and whistles, lights, a
kickstand and a rack.
“It’s my bike,” she said. “I love my bike.”
The Vancouver resident used it to commute, shop and generally get around.
Then, last February, she got a call from her boyfriend. Her bike was gone,
stolen from the shed outside their building near Granville Street and West
Broadway. Her initial reaction was disbelief, followed by sadness, followed
by a grim sense that her bike was gone and wasn’t coming back.
Recovered stolen bicycles at the Vancouver Police Department Property
Office. Darryl Dyck for National Post
Instead of surrendering completely, she issued an alert on 529 Garage. Two
days later, she spoke with Brunt.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Who gets their bike back?”
Allard smiles at the story; reunions happen, sometimes the good guys win.
“You know, we get some pretty nice emails every day saying we are doing
good stuff, and that’s probably our primary source of revenue,” Allard said,
chuckling. “Honestly, at the end of the day, I just want to help people.”
Published on November 8, 2019. Last updated on November 8, 2019
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Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race
- H.G. Wells
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