Apple AirTag as Bike Retrieval Aid

Apple’s AirTag lets you find things you misplaced or can’t find. Keys for example. The problem with the AirTag is that it anticipates you considering exes as “things you lost” that need retrieving. Or at least monitoring. For this reason, if your stalker plants an AirTag on – say – your car, a prompt on your phone notifies you that an AirTag is close, and an audible noise helps you locate it. The speaker in the AirTag also, of course, helps you find your keys. But it also helps the perp find the AirTag on your bike.

This means Apple placing anti-stalking ahead of object retrieval (in case of theft) creates a conundrum, but there are workarounds which I’ll get to. As object retrieval, people (e.g., me) who use AirTags as cheap LoJacks go in and remove the speakers. The perp’s iPhone still gets a prompt. We hope that the lack of diligence that created the perp’s need to steal rather than to prevail in life in the traditional way works to our favor.

I have AirTags on everything I value enough to want to go get if it gets stolen. Including all my bikes. But not limited to bikes. I have AirTags on my dump trailer, my horse trailer, and on Cody, who just turned 1 year old a couple of weeks ago and who will jump into anyone’s car if that person will just open the door. Incluing the Fedex and UPS trucks. Cody's AirTag is black taped into a fold in his black collar. Pretty stealthy.

One Apple account can host up to 16 AirTags and these half-dollar-sized units cost around $20 apiece of you buy them in bulk ($78.99 for a 4-pack today at Best Buy and Walmart). Of course you need to be an iPhone person. If you’re an Android person it’s a Tile you want. Today I’m writing only about AirTags.

Where to put this thing on your bike? We’ve got ours in several places on our household’s bikes. The most notoriously hidden location on any of them is just inside the bottom bracket of my Quintana Roo SR6, and I did that on a whim because I had to pull the crank and BB out anyway for another maintenance job. So I took the opportunity to throw an AirTag in there and it’s not hard (if you have the tools) to pull a SRAM cranks and T47 BB once I need to change the battery. iPhones appear to have no trouble seeing an iPhone inside a carbon frame.

Some folks put them under the handlebar tape. I don’t prefer this as the AirTag is sufficiently large that the device is quite “proud” of the handlebar and if you do find a place that won’t interfere with your handhold positions it’s a pretty obvious location to a thief (especially if he grabs your bike by the handlebars where the AirTag resides). You could of course just put it in your behind-the-seat bag. But if a perp is looking for an AirTag that’s a pretty likely place to search.

One Slowtwitcher said he puts his “under the bottle cage.” Nice idea. I’d like to see how that’s done, because I couldn’t fit it under my frame cages. The current version of the 4iii power meter has tech that works (as I understand it) exactly like the AirTag, and without the speaker. Muc-Off has an AirTag holder built into a tubeless valve. Assuming the valve is compatible with the wheel I can’t imagine a perp finding it there. But the AirTag is pretty big and this won’t work in a road riding application (38c tire or larger).

On my other road bike – a Cervelo R5 – I put it under the seat. There are waterproof carriers for these (one such carrier is in the shot highest above and just below) but honestly AirTags are pretty waterproof. The main reason I like an AirTag holder is that I can aggressively glue that holder to the saddle, and I can unscrew the cover and get to the AirTag to change the battery.

By the way, AirTags on bikes are how Slowtwitchers whose Pontevedra bikes were in freight forwarder hell knew where their bikes were (from Richmond to Chicago to Los Angeles).

About removing the speaker in an AirTag. I’ve watched a fair number of videos on how to do this, but there is one by a guy who has discovered how to successfully get inside the AirTag without braking the tiny clips that hold the AirTag’s halves together. Some folks prefer not to remove the speaker but if you want it outa there this is the video to watch:

My wife’s Litespeed presented a particular problem. Because it’s a metal frame I didn’t feel that confident the BLE signal could be seen by an iPhone and, besides, that bike’s tubes are small enough it would’ve been hard getting an AirTag inside. I tried putting it under the handlebar tape but it was just too obvious wherever I put it, including down around the shifter area. Her particular saddle has no obvious place to hide it. So, there’s her saddle bag, which is so large and stuffed with so much stuff that a perp would probably give up trying to find it. But I thought I could do better.

Yes, it’s on this bike, and I don’t think it’s too obvious where unless you’re a bike person. I spray painted it black and Gorilla Glued it underneath the Wahoo puck on her head unit mount. It’s kind of an ugly job but it works. I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to unscrew the cap once the battery dies. I’ll cross that bridge in a year.

Anybody’s iPhone will detect a nearby Airtag and you can use that detection to locate your device or item. For example, an AirTag fell off my dump trailer a few weeks ago and is apparently sitting on the side of a freeway in greater L.A. (Note to self: don’t rely entirely on the 3M 2-sided tape that comes on the aftermarket AirTag holders.) When I look for my dump trailer on FindMy that AirTag was last seen 13 hours ago.

If your perp is an Android user you’re out of luck. Kind of. He just has to be in the vicinity of an iPhone owner. His partner in crime, for example. Or his mom, over for a visit and with no idea her son is a douchebag. (I like to think moms will unknowingly rat out their ne’er do well kids.) At some point that AirTag is likely to pop up on your FindMy. Then what?

Welp… that depends on where you live and which law enforcement you choose to help you. I’ve read numerous stories of police declining to help because, after all, “it’s just a bicycle.” Were it me and if I’d found myself in that situation I’d first ask the police what they intend to do. If they were shy about taking action perhaps I’d nicely approach the perp directly. If anyone had found my bike I’d be overjoyed to pay $100 for a successful retrieval.

AirTags are reasonably precise. Very precise based just on the tech used. As I understand it the tech Apple uses to fix a location for an AirTags is UWB - Ultra-Wideband – a radio frequency. Any iPhone that is generation 11 or later has this tech built-in. If your device has been fixed using UWB it’s likely within a foot of wherever the map says it is. So, technically, the iPhone that detects this AirTag has a known location because of its GPS. The iPhone’s UWB signal locates the AirTag distant from the iPhone. This fixes the location of the AirTag. Then, again limited to my often-flawed comprehension, actual communication between the AirTag and an iPhone is via Bluetooth.

While UWB’s accuracy is within 30cm you’ll find stories on the web of folks who actually locate their devices 30 feet away from where the map says it is. This is perhaps one reason law enforcement is shy about accusing someone if your device is in a tract home or mobile home park. So, the AirTag works well, or doesn’t, at stolen item retrieval depending on all these factors. (Good luck finding the perp if he’s got your bike in a multi-story apartment building.)

The image above is the map on FindMy where my AirTags are and I know that this isn't exactly where these items are. There is some gap between technical and actual map accuracy.

Here is that thread on our Reader Forum where users describe how they’ve deployed their AirTags on their bikes.