A False Sense of Security

This one actually works

Mike Flanigan’s recent bout of misfortune crystallized in my mind something that I’ve sort of known for a while, but I’ve failed to publicly acknowledge until now: cable locks provide a false sense of security and offer no real protection against bike theft. While cables may protect your bike against opportunists, real bike thieves have figured out that even the toughest cable lock can be disabled in mere seconds.

Back in 2006, Scott Elder did a piece for Slate in which he attempted to break a number of popular bicycle locks including a pair of cables, four U-locks, and two chains. His “bike-jacking arsenal” as he called it, included an 18-inch crowbar, 30-inch bolt cutters, a hacksaw, and a claw hammer. He declined to use power tools because, as he said, “if a criminal crew with the proper power tools and a van wants a bike, it’s as good as gone.” Here’s what Scott found:

  • Cable locks are essentially useless and are easily disabled with either a bolt cutter or a hacksaw.
  • All U-locks are not created equal. Smaller, more expensive U-locks are more resistant to breakage than larger, cheaper U-locks. If you’re going to use a U-lock, plan on spending $75-$100 for a good one.
  • Chains offer the reach and versatility of cables, while providing protection similar to the best U-locks. The downside is that they’re expensive and heavy.

If you value your bike, go out today and purchase a high quality U-Lock or a heavy duty chain designed specifically for locking bicycles or motorcycles. And please, please don’t fool yourself into thinking a cable lock truly protects your bike.

What type of lock do you use?

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37 Responses to “A False Sense of Security”

  • Croupier says:

    I actually bought the Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit lock last year after reading Scott Elder’s review. I use it in conjunction with a KryptoFlex cable securing my wheels and seat. It’s a heavy, burdensome bicycle security system that scares children. On the other hand, I still have my bike.

  • Ben says:

    I rarely leave my bike unattended. At work, my bike comes inside with me and sits in an unoccupied cube. But I do have a (less than $50) mini ulock. I was made to believe that it didn’t matter how much you paid necessarily, but how small the lock was. I might have been mislead. I believe my ulock was $30, and it’s just big enough to lock my rear wheel (through the rear triangle) to an immovable object. I use a cheap cable lock to lock my front wheel against lapses in honesty. I plan to buy a dyno hub for my next bike, and am thinking about buying pitlocks to keep that secure.

  • Joel says:

    Chain + wheel lock should be an option on the form.

  • vcspinner says:

    I use a cheap cable lock. My bike isn’t expensive. When I started doing this, I budgeted for it be stolen once a year. 10 years later, it’s never been stolen. Caveat – I’m in a relatively low-crime suburb.

  • bill says:

    No option for chain with integrated lock — which is what I use (Abus). I wouldn’t trust it in NYC but…

  • Doug says:

    I read the same article last year and bought the New York STD + Kryptoflex combo. The STD is a little bigger than the mini or the fahgettaboudit, but it’s way easier to to a “Sheldon lock” around the types of racks we have in Syracuse. I did get to test the lock’s New York-ness by locking my bike on the street in Manhattan overnight; either through strength or intimidation it worked! Cumbersome and heavy, but it works, period.

  • Jim says:

    Context is, of course, a very real part of security – where do you live, and where do you park your bike? I think it’s well understood that a cable lock is not as secure as a U-lock; it is equally true that some neighborhoods are safer than others, and that the population of “real bike thieves” is not uniformly distributed. Unfortunately, my sense is that the proportion of serious thieves is highest in areas that are otherwise the most bike-friendly. Here, where there isn’t much of a bike culture, there also isn’t much of a black market for bikes or parts. So, I take the threat of opportunistic theft seriously, and lock accordingly – but favor common sense over equipment in the war against more serious robbery. That said, I may well look into getting a better lock!

  • Rob in Seattle says:

    I’m assuming in my answer that “<$50 U-lock" means a U-lock that costs *less than* $50. (I forget how those symbols work if there's no operand on one side.) Of course, I bought my Kryptonite U-lock about 18 years ago about the same time I bought the Bridgestone RB-T it protects. All the various bits hung off this commuting bike are more of an issue I think–blinkies, water bottle, Niterider headlight, etc. What a hassle it would be to take all that stuff off to duck inside to get some groceries! I've been lucky so far. Nothing has disappeared.

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    No option for rusty old bike + cheap lock…

    I’m also in the camp of bringing my bike into work and otherwise and infrequently locking it in low crime areas. If I have my laptop in the panniers stopping on the way home isn’t an option unless I want to schlep it in the store without a bag or case…

    If I had a desirable bike I would roll with a short U-lock (less room to insert a bottle jack) plus a cable for the detachable bits.

    Two great articles…

    http://quickrelease.tv/?p=327
    http://www.mechbgon.com/lock/index.html

  • Logan says:

    Great topic!

    Thanks to you and Michael for recommending Tammy to include locking strategies and repair kits in her ebook. One thing I would add to your advice of a good primary lock is to have some sort of additional security on your seat post and wheels. Cables will work fine for this however setting them up can take a significant amount of time and act as a deterrent to using them. When I set up Tammy’s new bike I wanted to make it secure yet easy to operate. Based on a rivendell recommendation we purchased some Zefal locking skewers for her wheels and seat post so all she had to do was lock her mini u-lock to her frame and turn her bike upside down if she had a flat.

    When we biked together I was astounded at how much faster she was at locking her bike without cables or chains! She was always waiting for me and my cables even though I had more experience bike commuting! ;) Since then I have purchase my own set of locking skewers and have been a big advocate for mini-ulocks in combination with hassle-free wheel and seat-post locks. Folks always worry and educate about the primary lock but I have seen many bikes here on campus made unridable due to a missing seat or wheel.

    Streetfilms.org has a great couple of videos that make this topic fun and educational :)

    The original: http://www.streetfilms.org/hal-grades-your-bike-locking/
    The sequel: http://www.streetfilms.org/hal-and-kerri-grade-your-bike-locking/

    Thanks again for your fantastic advice! :)
    Cheers,
    Logan.

  • David Fong says:

    I lost my much beloved Orange Clockwork that was parked in the safety of my company basement. Cable lock.

    The bike was sought after, I was followed in. D-lock (or U-if you like) only for me now .

  • jonathan s says:

    I have a SON hub, so I am VERY cautions. I use a pair of pitlock locking skewers (truly excellent stuff) and a small kryptonite lock.

    For reference, I think the wheel lock in the options refers to european style wheel locks on the frame… not locking the bike to a pole per se, but locking the wheels to itself. I’ve seen a couple of pics of these on this site.

    Alan, maybe add an option for locking skewers?

  • Helton says:

    I use a heavy duty chain with (big) padlock when letting the bike in open places a whole day-shift (at college), and a plastified reinforced cable (motorcycle style) which is very solid-looking when letting the bike for shorter periods of time in any place (shopping malls, supermarkets, errands). When I know I am going to need extra security (a whole day parked) I use both. I don’t care about weight, since it is a weight I won’t carry at all when riding the bike for sport, and it keeps me strong when going not-so-fast everyday commuting. My worst fear is not theft but robbery, someone with a gun taking the bike directly from me when it’s not locked :o( Never happened so far… :o)

  • Alan says:

    Hi Jim,

    I agree, context is important. I live in an area where bike theft is relatively uncommon, so I’ve been fairly lax in my habits (and perhaps a little lucky). That said, Mike’s situation, where a bike was locked in a busy area, in broad daylight, and in plain sight of many people, shows just how easy it is to defeat a cable. That, along with the many, many stories of stolen bikes I’ve heard over the past couple of years, motivated me to get more serious and purchase a heavy duty chain with mini U-lock. It may be a little overkill, but this is one of those cases where “better safe than sorry” feels better to me… :-)

    Alan

  • John says:

    I use an AXA Defender RL frame lock and plug-in chain. I love its convenience and security. I use the lock alone when I have to just secure the bike (like running into a coffee shop but from where I can see the bike), and I use the chain to make it really secure when I need to leave it by its lonesome.

    As stated, the lock and the chain both weigh a lot. But I have never been in a situation where I could not find a way to lockup securely. I even locked three bikes to a wrought iron fence once with my chain and lock.

  • Dave says:

    I’ve started documenting the locks I cut. http://www.flickr.com/photos/cold_iron/4355309220/

  • Alan says:

    That’s awesome, Dave. Thanks for the link….

    Alan

  • Matt says:

    I got a Kryptonite Evolution II lock from the LBS, then ordered three more identically-keyed ones from Kryptonite directly, which took like 10 weeks. Now the whole fleet has the same locks and same keys, so no wrong-key issues for anyone heading out the door. On the high-value bikes, I also put Pitlock skewers on the wheels. This only works on some frames (basically, you need a vertical dropout on back) but is low-key and keeps the wheels on. The keyrings with the Krptonite keys also have a Pitlock socket in case you need to fix a flat. Finally, on two frames, I have a since-discontinued but pretty-brilliant product that is basically a steel V-shaped wedge that gets pounded into the open bottom of your seatpost, and which has a cable with a plug attached to it. This plug dangles down inside the seat tube and you use a really long bolt on your seat tube water bottle cage, below which this plug is dangling. Voila! Seatpost won’t come out! At least not easily. The cable isn’t very thick and would be easy to cut, but it’s all inside the seat post/seat tube and not visible. Of course, you need a seat tube water bottle cage mount. And you’d better like your seatpost, because that steel wedge thing is never coming out. I like this better than an external cable which is both easy to cut and flags your seat as something worth taking.

    Bikes, wheels or seat haven’t been stolen, yet. Not sure if my precautions have stopped anyone, I tend to be careful about parking them, but it all gives me some peace of mind.

  • Torrilin says:

    I use a large U-lock, and a wheel lock. Given the local racks, I use the absolute smallest U-lock I can… but that just isn’t very small. None of the gear on my bike is easy to steal, since there are no quick releases at all. And I’m lucky enough to live in a relatively low theft area. So far, I’ve been ok.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I usually use a cable lock, BUT I usually arrange it so that I can watch my bike through the window .

  • Brent says:

    I use a nice long OnGuard chain with two mini u-locks (disk locks.) One end goes through the back tire and either locks to the bike rack or loops around on itself. The other end goes through the front wheel, loops around the frame (and an additional stationary object, if available) and locks in a loop around itself.

    I feel pretty secure this way. Granted, if you cut the chain you could defeat both locks, but it is a very thick chain and if someone has the time and tools to get through the chain I don’t know that I could stop them anyway. The chain is heavy – but it has also increased my strength as a cyclist

  • Andrew says:

    When I first got my new commuter bike I was pretty paranoid and kept a cable permanently around the seat, and locked with a Kryptonite U-lock and a longer cable for the front wheel. Nothing has happened, fortunately, so it’s gotten to the point where I’m pretty lazy about bringing the cables with me, and just lock through the rear triangle to protect my rear wheel.

    I’m going to be adding a Brooks saddle to it, so I’m thinking I’m going to use a length of chain wrapped in innertube to permanently secure the saddle.

    Since I’m the ever-curious designer, I’m actually in the process of designing a frame-integral lock, such that if the thief breaks the lock, they render the bike unridable, nullifying its resale value. Obviously, it would only be able to work on new frames designed to incorporate it, and getting it to cooperate with rim-brakes might be an issue, but we’ll see…

  • Doug R. says:

    I keep my bikes right next to me in my place of work! At home, I protect them with a Remington 12 gauge and a bad attitude for thieves!

  • Lyle says:

    It’s been 11 months since I went car free and the first few months I was somewhat paranoid about leaving my new bike anywhere, but as time marches on and the scratches accumulate, it’s less of a problem. I have an 8 year old Trek ulock that works fine. The panniers are faded and ugly looking so my Allant isn’t an attractive target.

    However, context is everything and if I lived in San Francisco, chances are that my bike would have been stolen 15 times over by now.

  • Russ says:

    A few months ago my son was unable to remember the combination to the “OnGuard” cable lock locking his bike to a bike rack. I had provided the cable lock and thought it fairly beefy. I borrowed a neighbors old banged up 12 inch bolt cutters and expected the cable to resist these things. Wow…I cut the cable like butter in less than two seconds!! No more cable locks for me!!!!!

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I lock my bikes up outside work unless it’s going to rain. There’s not a lot of room inside, and sometimes a load of freight will make it difficult to extract a bicycle from its nook, so I try to keep it outside as much as possible. The upshot is that the wall facing the bike racks is nothing but windows so I can check out my bike (and other nice bikes that roll up) easily.

    Interestingly, I’ve discovered that Seattle is apparently a relatively low bike crime area. I will frequently ride up to work at 5:45 in the morning and see coworkers’ bikes that were locked up all night, usually with nothing more than a mini u-lock around the top tube. The only thing I’ve seen stolen yet is a seat-tube + saddle. I told the person they should be happy their wheels (just as easily stolen) were left and that a used seat-tube + saddle combo can be had for $20 if you shop at the right places.

  • Wijnandt T de Vries says:

    Bicycle theft is a great impediment to more cycling!

    Sigh…

  • 2whls3spds says:

    I use the AXA Defender that John mentioned. Great lock and convenient to use. I seldom leave bikes locked up anywhere I cannot keep an eye on them for very long. Having suffered too many stolen bikes over the years. Sadly most were stolen out a locked garages, in one case they actually beat a hole in the wall of the garage, they must have been watching the house and knew we were gone.

    I do use a cable lock on occasion, but will definitely be upgrading to a better quality Ulock for all my bikes.

    Aaron

  • RI Swamp Yankee says:

    Long, thin shackle works best – I’ve got the OnGuard Bulldog Mini. The shackle is too tough to go after with anything but industrial-grade bolt cutters or an angle-grinder, but it’s too thin to slip in even a stubbie jack, especially if you lock using the Sheldon Method and there’s a wheel and seat-stay in there as well as the signpost/rack.

    The thieves in the white vans will get your ride no matter what – they’ve got three foot long bolt cutters, angle grinders, air chisels, whatever they need. They tend to only go after name-brand rides they can sell for some serious cash to disreputable bike shops or overseas. No, your LHT or Atlantis, as fond as you are of it, is not in the same league as the megabuck roadie numbers. You really only have to protect yourself from small-time thieves, the ones swiping everything from Walmart cruisers to Trek Sohos to shill for two hundred bux a pop on Craig’s list. Bike’s a bike, right? Even a good cable lock won’t protect you from them – too easy to snip with concealable hand-tools.

  • townmouse says:

    When I commuted in London, leaving my bike locked up at the train station every day, I used a U-lock and a cable (for the front wheel) and always locked up next to a shinier bike and in view of the CCTV. London has a bad reputation but I have to say that in two years the only thing stolen was the front light bracket – twice. It was a high traffic area, and although there were a lot of damaged bikes (wheels kicked in, etc) I think that mostly happened overnight. Once I even left it unlocked by mistake and lived to tell the tale. Now I live out in the sticks I’m much less careful about my bike & leave it unlocked all the time when popping into the shop. Of course, everyone else leaves their car outside the shop with the keys in the ignition and the engine running so I reckon my bike will be the last thing pinched! So maybe you should add ‘park it next to something more desirable’ to your list?

  • Gussy says:

    I generally don’t lock my bike up anywhere. It sits outside my work for 3-4 hrs at a time, me in the basement. When i go out i don’t look it either. You may be wondering where i live, in rural BC. Plus i have a very distinctive bike and if word got out that it was missing, it would be found. Who is going to drive at least 3hrs to steal a bike? Someone that wants it anyhow. Saying all that, i do carry a small lock in my back basket, if it is going to be left overnight somewhere. Drunks like to steal bikes at night.

  • EcoVelo » Blog Archive » Our Locking Strategy says:

    [...] Gussy in A False Sense of Security: "I generally don’t lock my bike up anywhere. It sits outside my work for…" [...]

  • Bill says:

    Logan,

    Don’t put too much faith in the Zefal locking skewers – apparently a magnet will lift the internal pin and unlock them.

    I’m fairly lucky, my workplace is surrounded by chain link fences and has guards at the gates, any my bike is not in sight of the street. In town I rarely park the bike for more than a few minutes out of my sight. And my commuter doesn’t look like anything special, wit no decals, no lugs, non-leather saddle and inexpensive racks and fenders. It wouldn’t be an easy bike to shill on Craigslist. Not being an attractive target goes a long way towards not being a victim.

    Bill

  • randomray says:

    Hey Alan why no opinion in the poll for no lock ? It’s either in sight or at a secure location . There is the rare time for a quick stop at a convenience store , but they might as well steal a car then . I wonder how many people take 5 to 10 minutes lock up thier bike to go inside for a minute ? Different areas would mean different actions , but if they want your bike they can get it . Bill is right an ugly bike is much less likely to be stolen . It works for cars too .

  • EcoVelo » Blog Archive » Bike Commuting 101: The Bare Necessities says:

    [...] lock. A high-quality U-lock is a must. Even if a person has secure bike parking, it’s good to carry a lock for shopping, [...]

  • voyage says:

    Not so fast knocking good padlocks. The rack itself is also a factor. Consider the racks at:

    “It’s a Zoo Out There, Don’t use Cable Locks”

    at:

    http://onespeedgo.blogspot.com/2011/03/its-zoo-out-there-dont-use-cable-locks.html

    It’s my understanding that a good padlock goes up inside the the inverted “coffee can” (my term) and one could also throw on some U-locks for added layers of protection. It’s an interesting idea.

    And yet, my problem with racks has always been damage to the finish of my bike. My bikes seem to be allergic to racks. It seems only a beater bike can be stored on a rack. Do they steal beater bikes? I’m glad I have an office. And a wife.

  • Kurt Jensen says:

    With my new recumbent with a dynohub, I’m using the small, Kryptonite U-lock, Pinhead skewers on the front wheel, headset and expensive-to-replace seat. I feel confident enough with the skewers to lock the bike through the front wheel or fork. I leave nothing on the bike when locked: computer, lights, they all comes off. The Dualdrive rear wheel is currently available to anyone with a 15mm wrench but Pinhead is coming out with products for solid axles sometime this year. If I were going to leave the bike locked for a few hours (unlikely; I’d use a different bike in that case) I’d add a cable to the mix for the rear wheel.

 
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