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How to deter bicycle thieves: securing and locking your commuter bicycle

7 comments

Intro

Before talking about securing a bike I’d like to put forward four ideas that might help you deal with bike theft more efficiently.

First, there is no such thing as complete “theft prevention“. You can’t “prevent” theft any more than you can “prevent” accidents or illnesses. You can minimize the chances of something bad happening, but you can’t prevent it entirely. Given enough time, skills, determination and the right tools anything can be broken into, cracked, cut, and stolen. Theft deterrent is a better term and a better strategy too. What you want to aim for is not a total elimination of any possibility of theft, since that is impossible, but at making your bike difficult enough, and undesirable enough, so that chances are thief would pass it and move to an easier and more valuable target. Basically, a bike *will* be stolen, you just want to make sure it’ll be somebody else’s bike, not yours. It’s blunt, it’s harsh, but that’s what it comes down to.

Second, “security” and “convenience” are mutually exclusive. Just like in the realm of computing: as you increase security, raise login and password requirements, introduce biometric readers, etc., using computers becomes less and less convenient. So, there is often a need to draw a line somewhere, to realize how much convenience you’re willing to give up for the increase in security and how much is at stake. What is it that you’re trying to protect, how much is it worth, and how much effort, time and money you want to spend on protecting it before security itself becomes a bigger hurdle. Do you really want a $90 Super Duper Bicycle Lock to secure a bike you bought on Craigslist for $30? Do you want your security solution to be so cumbersome that it’ll prevent you from using your bike in certain situations? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps avoiding the inconvenience of losing your ride is worth putting that expensive lock on a less expensive bike. Or perhaps the bike was cheap, but one of a kind, and you really love it, so it justifies using an expensive lock on it. Or indeed, it makes more sense to just buy another cheap bike if this one gets stolen, so investing a large chunk of cash in a high-end bike lock is an overkill. The choice is yours.

Third, security as applied to bikes has two aspects: the bike itself and the environment. There are physical solutions that apply to the bike itself, and there environmental solutions to consider, namely the location of your bike. What I’m trying to say is that you can secure your bike by using physical devices, such as locks, chains and cables or you can simply put the bike in a more secure location, such as you workplace. Most of the time it’s a combination of both: locking it down and choosing an appropriate location.

Fourth, there are two predominant types of theft: theft of opportunity and deliberate theft. Theft of opportunity is easier to deter. It’s when somebody passes by and just sees an easy target, they might go for it even if they were not really looking to steal anything. People have weak moral brakes. Even an average “honest” person might be tempted to grab something that’s unsecured, and say they “found it”. Deliberate theft is when someone is out there, prepared, outfitted with tools and deliberately looking for stuff to steal. This is harder to deter. These are the people who identify their targets and go after them, they know how to deal with most prevention measures. They’re determined, they have the time and the tools and they make living stealing bikes. If they don’t steal something, they won’t make money. The same way you get up in the morning and go work, they get up in the morning and “go to work” and they come back home with someone’s bikes.

Preparing the bike

Besides using locks and chains to secure your bike you can prepare your bike in several ways to make it less desirable and harder to steal, to lower the chances of theft.

My first advice is not to commute on a flashy, new, expensive bike. I think that’s a no-brainer. Unless you have a highly secure environment (you can take the bike inside your shop, office, classroom, etc) no physical security will prove enough for such a bike. It will eventually get stolen or vandalized. I know we all enjoy new stuff but an older bike can be just as fun to ride and just as capable as a brand new bike. Get an older bike to be your dedicated commuter bike and get a nicer bike for your other rides. Also, commuting is a chore for the bike and it causes wear and tear. Riding a simple bike will lower your maintenance costs.

Remove all factory decals, wrap flashy parts or colorful parts of the frame with a black shrink tape (electrician’s tape, stretch-n-seal tape, etc) or even spray-paint them. Cover up fancy lettering on your tires with a black magic marker, etc. Some people go as far as sanding off any etched brand name logos from derailleurs, levers, brakes, etc.

If you like stickers, go for it, go sticker crazy. Put all kinds of weird stickers on your bike. Stickers are pain in the butt to remove and they make your bike easier to identify and, at the same time, less valuable as an item for sale. Although, it might be still stolen just for parts.

Remove the head badge or replace it with something weird. I have a rubber monkey face glued to my head tube.

Keep the bike dirty. Don’t go out of your way to clean it regularly. Just keep the drivetrain clean and lubricated, but leave the frame and wheels dirty.

Remove any unneeded gadgets. When parking your bike remove all items of value from it and take them with you. Your lights should be removable. Don’t leave your helmet attached to the bike either, take it with you.

Remove all quick-release (QR) levers from everything that has them and replace them with bolts. If your seatpost has a clamp (a.k.a. seatpost collar) with a QR lever replace the lever, or the entire collar, with a bolt. You can use a hex bolt or a security bolt if you’d like. Again, this is not about preventing the theft, but just about discouraging theft, making it a slower process.

Typical quick release (QR) seatpost clamp

Typical quick release (QR) seatpost clamp. To remove the saddle you just pull the lever to release and pull the entire seatpost out.

Seatpost collar with a bolt

Seatpost clamp with a bolt. This one requires a hex wrench to undo so it might deter a potential thief

Universal Cycles has a wide selection of seatpost clamps. You may also be able to remove just the QR bolt from your seatpost clamp and replace it with a bolt and keep the clamp. A regular bolt and nut might work, or you can get a special binder bolt. Just make sure it’s stainless!

Replace the quick release skewers on your wheels with hex or torx head skewers that require a wrench, or even security skewers that use proprietary bolts. This illustrates the “security versus convenience” idea: you will need to carry a wrench or even a proprietary tool in case you get a flat, but the chances of your wheels getting stolen are much lower.

Typical quick release skewer

Typical quick release (QR) skewer. To remove the wheel you lift the lever, which loosens the skewer, then pull the wheel out. No tools are required.

Hex bolt skewer

Hex bolt skewer. Instead of a lever, this one has a hex bolt (usually M5) that needs to be tightened with a hex wrench. Not a 100% security since it requires a common tool, but it might discourage a thief. As an added benefit, these skewers can be tightened more than regular QR skewers.

I use Halo hex skewers on my bikes. Another, more secure type, is one with uncommon triangular bolt such as these Delta HubLox Skewers. And on the higher end are the OnGuard locking skewers. All these can be purchased from Universal Cycles.

However, one of common bike locking techniques is to remove the front wheel and lock it together with the frame and the rear wheel with a beefy u-lock. So having bolt skewers might not be necessary in such case. Although, IMHO this is an overkill, I’d rather have the front wheel attached with bolt skewers and use a cable to secure it. Sheldon Brown confirms this: “don’t take your bike apart to lock it, it is really bogus“. Plus, I have disc brakes and re-inserting the front wheel is a bit more difficult than a regular wheel without a disc rotor.

Location

It’s quite obvious that the best way to keep your bike safe is to keep it inside your workplace, near you. Talk nicely to your management, see if they will let you take your bike inside the building. Be friendly, don’t make demands and legal threats. Yes, there is the new “bike in the buildings” law in NYC, but it only applies to “commercial office buildings with at least one freight elevator. It does not apply to residential buildings”. So buildings that have no freight elevators are not required to accommodate bicycles. So don’t be a smartass and don’t wave the laws in their faces. That won’t fly.

See if the business you’re working for has a bike shed or other dedicated bike storage or semi-secure bike parking area. Many do, just never advertise it widely.

If you can’t take your bike with you inside, check nearby parking garages and lots. Because of another recent NY law (a link to a PDF file) many parking garages now offer bicycle parking: “garages or lots that accommodate 100 or more vehicles must provide bicycle parking at a rate of at least one space for every ten vehicle spaces”. It’s not totally secure but beats having your bike right on the sidewalk for everyone to see. Many parking owners don’t really want bikes anywhere on their lots but they have to comply with the law so they have set prices very high to discourage people from bringing their bikes over, like $150 a month or something asinine like that. Many are genuine though and see this as an opportunity to bring in a few easy extra bucks and they charge a buck or two per day, which may be worth it. Or you can get monthly bicycle parking at many locations for $50.

Otherwise look for places with many bikes already parked. Squeeze your bike somewhere in the middle between other bikes, if possible. Make it harder to get to and if there are nicer bikes around, then your bike might be that much safer.

Look for dedicated bike racks first. Check out NYC DOT Bicycle Parking site for the official NYC DOT bike racks throughout the City. Locking your bike to subway fences, light posts, road signs, USPS property (mailboxes), etc is illegal and your bike might be confiscated. MTA in particular is VERY anal about having bikes locked to the fences and handrails around subway station entrances and bus stops. It’s a sure way to have your bike taken away. The same goes for private property: some property managers can be very zealous and won’t have a problem cutting your locks and removing your bike from “their property”.

Having your bike alone, in the middle of a deserted block is probably not a great idea. But don’t be fooled by busy, heavily trafficked areas. Don’t let your guard down, still lock the bike as you would everywhere else. First, most people don’t care. They would not react if someone was cutting your chain with a torch in the middle of 5th Ave. This is the New York’s “Not My Problem” syndrome. Second, many thieves are con artists too. They can look like they “belong”. They might be wearing a backpack, a messenger bag, cycling clothing and no one will pay attention to another “cyclist” fussing around with a bike.

Don’t ask people to look after your bike unless this is someone you know and trust. They might say “sure”, but they might walk away, get distracted or just bullied by the thief and they won’t fight for your bike.

Therefore, always lock your bike with all you’ve got regardless of the location.

Time

It’s obvious that leaving your bike outside overnight and during early and late hours puts the bike in much higher risk than during the day. There is not much you can about this other than making sure your bike is not worth the effort and locking it down with beefy locks. Those parking garages might offer overnight parking too and some level of security: people are less likely to wander into a parking garage.

Locking the bike

How to lock your bicycle depends on how much extra weight you want to carry, how much time you want to spend locking and unlocking it and how safe the location is. See the opening thoughts on security versus convenience.

There are several choices of bike security devices: U-locks, chains and cables.

U-locks are the toughest and most difficult ones to cut. Be aware though that some U-locks can be picked easier than cut. Read some reviews and get one that is hard to pick. I personally have a combo lock since I’m known to forget or lose the keys which would present a significant problem.

Chains are very hard to cut but they use padlocks which are the um… weak link since they can be cut easier than the chain. The chains are also very heavy. With a proper lock though (read on) high-end chains are very hard to cut or break.

Braided steel cables are the lightest but also the easiest to cut with a regular bolt cutter. They often use regular padlocks too which are again: are easy to cut. The best cable is the one with a lock integrated into the cable and one that uses a round key or a combination lock.

When choosing a padlock for a chain or a cable look for disk padlocks. Most modern high-end bicycle chains come with proper disk padlocks. They’re more difficult to cut than standard padlocks since the shackle is very short and provides no area for a bolt cutter to grip and the shackle loop is too small to insert a crowbar to twist-break the lock. Although, most use standard flat keys and are likely to be picked by an experienced thief. Some locks like this Kryptonite New York Chain Lock have round keys, so they’re harder to pick. Although the shackle on this lock is too large. A disk padlock with a round key or other “3D” key is the best.

Standard padlock

Standard padlock. Since the shackle is long it’s easier to grab with bolt cutters.

Disk padlock

Disk padlock. The shackle provides literally nothing for the bolt cutters to grip when this lock is placed on a chain.

The best way to lock your bike is to use a combination of the above devices. Two devices are always more difficult and more time consuming to break than just one. So this might make the thief pass onto an easier target. You always want to place the device and/or the lock in a position that makes it hard to cut. Cutters work best if one can find some place to rest them to provide leverage. Also, cutters need a firm grip on the item being cut or they’ll slip. So placing your lock in a hard to reach place makes it harder to cut.

Thieves rarely cut frames, since that would make the bike useless and it’s hard to cut a frame, unless they strictly do this for parts, mainly wheels, but that’s really, really rare. Also, cutting wheels is hard and extremely rare too since there is so much tension and compression on the rim from spoke tension that it would make a saw jam and rims can be surprisingly strong and difficult to cut with a bolt cutter as well. According to Sheldon Brown it never happens.

When using a U-lock use the smallest one that will fit your bike. The smaller the U-lock the harder it is to find a good grip on it with bolt cutters.

When using a U-lock, lock your bike to an immovable object by putting the U-lock around your seat tube and, if possible, through the rear wheel. Some people would also remove the front wheel and lock it all together, but as I said above that’s a bit of overkill, but it’ll work. If you can’t or don’t want to remove the front wheel and/or the distance around the seat tube and the rear wheel is too great for a U-lock, just lock the seat tube with the U-lock and then run a chain or a cable through the U-lock and both wheels while crossing the main triangle of the bike. Alternatively, use the Sheldon Brown locking method and simply use the U-lock on the rear wheel. As mentioned above thieves really don’t bother with cutting frames or wheels. Sheldon Brown believes this is adequate protection.

The best cables are probably the ones with a lock integrated into the cable, since separate padlocks are easy to cut. Also, most bike specific cables are weak and overpriced so I use heavy duty, contractor grade Master Lock cables I get from Home Depot. They’re under $20 and thicker than most bike specific cables I have seen. The one I have had a combination lock built in and it’s long enough to be run through both wheels.

Avoid coiled bicycle cables. They’re very hard to run through things, I mean they’re really, really annoying to use. Just use a straight cable and a Velcro strap to keep it rolled up for storage.

Coiled cable

Coiled cable. Avoid these like fire. They will make your life miserable :(

Straight cable

Straight cable with a Velcro strap

Shorter and thinner steel cables can be used to add extra security to your saddle too. Run the cable through the saddle rail and through the frame. You can use a cable with loops on both ends and a small padlock or stop by a shop and have the cable welded or clamped into a loop. Since you don’t remove the saddle that often this will take the padlock out of the equation. Sure, such cable can be cut relatively easily, but remember that we’re not talking here about total prevention but about providing a deterrent to slow the thief down or to make them move on to an easier target. A bolt-on seatpost clamp and a steel cable will like stop most thieves from stealing your saddle.

A steel chain is harder to cut than a cable, but also a lot heavier to carry around. And you need a massive padlock that is at least as strong as the chain itself, otherwise the padlock is the weak link and it make the whole chain pointless. I see people carrying enormous chains wrapped around their waists with puny padlocks every day on my commute. I think it’s more of a fashion statement that actual security. As I mentioned above: high-end chains already come with proper, tough disc locks.

Don’t lock your bike to objects that can be moved, that come apart or if your bike can be lifted over them, such as parking meters or wooden, plastic, etc objects that can be easily cracked, smashed or cut. Yeah, I’ve seen that.

Also, be aware of a trick the bike thieves are using. They would cut a signpost, or any other tubular object that looks like a good object to lock a bike to, then insert a piece of pipe inside and “reassemble” the signpost, then put a poster or a sign around the cut. Then they will wait for someone to lock their bike to it. They simply lift the top part of the signpost to remove it and lift your entire bike off from the bottom part of the signpost. Clever? Yup. Works? Yup. So check if the item you’re locking to is solid and not booby trapped!

Also, when locking your bike make sure it’s stable and it won’t fall over when someone bumps into it. I’m sure many of us saw bikes locked close to a curb that were destroyed by a car or truck because they fell into the roadway.

Using a bike cover

You can buy a cheap, black rain cover and cover your bike while it’s parked and locked, and you might also run one more cable on the top of it. Although, I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of this, but it covers not just the bike but also its security devices so the thief won’t know what’s under there. It’ll increase the amount of time they would need to investigate the bike under the cover. It’ll make it more inconvenient, so perhaps the thief would look for another, easier target. Although, one might also argue that this may increase the thief’s curiosity: “what’s under there that it requires a rain cover?”. I’m still inclined to believe that a cover would provide an additional deterrent. Thieves are not out there to “investigate and research”, they’re out there for quick and easy grabs. They want to get out of sight as quickly as possible.

Bicycle registration

NYPD offers a free bicycle registration program. I don’t know about other states. Go to NYPD Crime Prevention Site and scroll all the way down (sorry, it’s not directly linkable). From that site: “Bicycle is marked with an identification number using an engraver. A decal is affixed to the bicycle, which is difficult to remove. In the event that it is removed “void” appears on what remains of the decal. In the event that the bicycle is stolen and recovered, it can be traced back to the owner through I.D. number.”

You can just walk into any NYPD station and ask for this. It’s free and it takes 10-15 minutes. It can’t hurt having this done, unless you’re the paranoid type and are afraid that the cops will now be tracking your every move :) An officially looking Police sticker on your bike will probably make most people think twice. Or, in the worst case scenario your bike, or at least the frame, might be returned to you if the Police ever recovers it. I’ve been told that the NYPD recovers many bikes every year but they have no way of identifying them so they are never reunited wit their owners.

Electronic bike alarms

There are electronic bike alarms on the market. They are usually powered by 9V batteries and have motion sensors. You configure them first by entering arming and disarming codes and sensitivity levels. You arm them like a regular car or luggage alarm. If a bike is moved they would first give a loud warning chirp. If the bike is moved again within certain time from the first chirp (usually 3 seconds) a loud alarm will sound. Turning off the alarm will require entering a code. They either have a keypads with 5 digits or 3 letters. The alarm is really loud, ear-piercing high pitch sound that is very unpleasant and attention grabbing.

However, I have tried three different ones under $50 and I can’t recommend neither of them. They lose settings spontaneously and become useless until you reconfigure them again. That is usually an unintuitive process that you’d need the manual for. They also drain the batteries very quickly. 3-4 weeks at most. I had one that lasted less than two weeks. A 9V battery every two weeks is costly unless you buy rechargeable ones. Even then the problem is they’d die without a warning mid-day and become unusable. Only one model would give “low battery” warnings. Also, despite the claims, and the obvious requirement, duh… they were not totally waterproof. Pouring rain would short the battery and disable the alarms. One of them would also randomly go off. Very annoying. In particular if you keep your bike at home and/or at the office/shop. And one of them plain broke within few weeks. It was something like $15, not worth the cost of return shipping.

I have also tried one alarm designed for luggage. It was a much higher quality product than the bike specific alarms. It was also the most expensive one at $50. It kept the settings and it was easier to use. It was very small too and powered by a coin battery. However, it wasn’t waterproof and it wasn’t sensitive enough. Walking away with a bike wouldn’t trigger it unless the bike hit a bump.

Since I haven’t tried any others I can’t make any recommendations.

Cheers!

Adam

Written by Adam DZ

June 4th, 2011 at 2:56 pm

  • nycbikecommuter

    Yes, U-locks are the toughest but also least convenient. I think I’ve read the same thing where they were testing locks with a grinder :)

  • Andrew Brown

    Still using two U locks and pinheads for me. Mind you, I found a look in bicycling magazine a few months back where the tester took and angle grinder to it. The Ongaurd Mastiff lasted longer than the Angle grinders battery.

  • http://nycbikecommuter.info/ Adam

    So I had a bike stolen too! After Sandy my workplace asked us not to bring bikes inside due to construction everywhere (we were hit hard) so I was locking it up outside for a while. I’ve let my guard down; I thought it was pretty safe because it was on the business property, off the street so I only locked it up with a cable. It lasted less than a month:( I suspect the construction workers but the Security didn’t have a very good video footage because the camera was obstructed by scaffolding :(

    The good part is that it was pretty beaten up by then. Pretty much needing a total overhaul and I was thinking about building a new bike, so it was not a terrible loss. But it still sucked to be sure. So I’m riding my Surly Disk Trucker now and I take it inside again and keep it locked up in a server room and I carry a u-lock in case I need to stop anywhere.

  • ballroomdru

    I use pin heads and two U locks. There is a guy who locks up a $1500 road bike around the corner from my Manhattan job who uses two Kryptonite NYC locks. If i had his bike I would use pin heads in addition.

  • ballroomdru

    Unfortunately no. But I have learned a few lessons and gotten some advice. Now I always lock up at an actual bike stand/lock spot. The place with several bikes.

  • http://nycbikecommuter.info/ Adam

    Sorry to hear that. Getting your bike stolen sucks. There is no way you can keep your bike indoors? U locks are good but heavy as heck to carry around.

  • ballroomdru

    Last year I started my bicycle commuting journey. My first bike, a Mongoose I had bought in 1996, was stolen from the front of my workplace. Coiled cable locks suck. I got a great craigslist deal on a mountain bike three days later and that was stolen within two months. Chains are good, generic locks suck. My current bike is locked with a pair of U-Locks. One Sheldon Brown style and one front wheel one. I might get hex nut skewers so I can stop carrying two. But the ability to use a cable between the two locks and through the wheels makes my bike look like even more of a PITA to steal.

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