Bike Commuting 101: Locking Strategies

Bike commuters must often leave their bikes unattended for extended periods during the workday, providing ample opportunity for bike thieves to do their work. Storing your bike within a secure area is always best, but when a bike must be locked outside for the day, the following locking strategies will help ensure it will still be there when you return for the evening commute.

Invest in a Quality Lock – A high quality U-lock is your best defense against professional thieves; cheaper U-locks are easily defeated with a crow bar. A good one will run $75-$100. Cable locks are versatile and convenient, but most are easily defeated with a small bolt cutter. Bike-specific chains offer the reach and versatility of cables, while providing protection similar to the best U-locks, but they’re heavy and expensive.

Use it Wisely – Be sure your lock is threaded through one of the triangles in the frame, or if possible, through the rear wheel within the rear triangle (the rear wheel cannot be pulled through the rear triangle, and it’s extremely difficult to cut through a built rim). Locking the rear wheel in this way secures both the wheel and the frame.

Double Lock – It takes a pry bar to break a U-lock, and a bolt cutter to get through a heavy cable, so double locking is an effective deterrent against thieves who aren’t carrying both.

Quick Releases Make Quick Work – Bike thieves love quick releases. Wheels can be worth 25%-50% of the value of an entire bike, and if they’re held on with quick release skewers they can be removed in seconds. Use a heavy duty cable to lock the wheels to the frame, or even better, consider replacing all of the quick releases on your bike with Pitlocks or other similar locking devices.

Secure Those Accessories – If at all possible, it’s best to take your bags and accessories into work with you, but if you can’t, a lightweight “accessory” cable and lock will help protect the small items left on your bike.

Location, Location, Location – Be sure to lock up to something that’s immovable and at least as strong as a U-lock. Lock your bike in a high traffic area in plain view, and never leave your bike locked up outside overnight.

The reality is that no bike locked on the street is 100% protected from professional bike thieves, but taking the above precautionary measures will do much to thwart their efforts.

44 Responses to “Bike Commuting 101: Locking Strategies”

  • brad says:

    While I use a long U-lock like the one in the photo illustrating this post, most expert opinion I’ve read says that a short U-lock is the best because it’s hard/impossible to put a jack inside it. A jack will fit easily in a long U-lock and can be used to open the lock in a few seconds.

    The practical problem, though, is that a short-U-lock is often too short to be useable in many situations, including many bike racks and locking posts.

    My ideal locking situation is to be able to get up close enough to a post to pass a short U-lock through the back wheel, inside the triangle formed by the stays. The only way to get a lock out like that would be to cut through the wheel itself. But that ideal situation presents itself pretty rarely, and because my bike has a heavy front basket it’s not very stable.

    So I use a long U-lock and take my chances. ;-)

  • Logan says:

    Great advice!

    The best securing solution we have found for our bikes includes locking skewers (like the pitlocks you mentioned) and a mini u-lock. In our experience, this solution offers the lightest and most secure system that takes the least amount of time to set-up. We used to use more cables but we found that it was alot of work and made it feel like a hassle to use the bike on short trips. We hear that the mini u-locks have the lowest number of reports of theft because there is very little room left in them to pry or use a bottle jack on (I need to find the research source for this). Below are a few street films on grading bike locking that Tammy and I have found very entertaining. :)

    http://www.streetfilms.org/hal-grades-your-bike-locking

    http://www.streetfilms.org/hal-and-kerri-grade-your-bike-locking/

    http://www.streetfilms.org/hal-grades-your-bike-locking-3-the-final-warning/

    Cheers! :)

  • Don says:

    To minimize frame scratches, I use my crank and pedal as the main leaning support on the post. If in the rearmost position, this allows for the frame-and-wheel locking strategy. If I really cared, I might protect the crank somehow, but I don’t.

    Ever since I took off my rear rack, I haven’t had any place to put my U-lock when I’m riding without my pack. I don’t like those clip things that come with the lock. I am inclined to come up with a way to affix the lock to my flat bar, where the weight is barely noticed. One of these days.

  • Thor says:

    not without bias :-)
    get a folding bike and take it with you …. no locks needed

    Thor

  • brad says:

    @Don: here in Montréal I see a lot of cyclists who carry their U-lock on their person; typically hanging from their belt in the rear. This strikes me as convenient but dangerous, because if you take a spill the U-lock could break some bones if you land on it. Other people loop the U-lock through their handlebars. I use the frame clip that came with my U-lock; it’s not the greatest but it does keep it out of the way and secure. Someday I’ll get one of those folding Abus Granit locks, which are apparently very effective in part because they’re so rare the thieves don’t know what to do with them.

  • Daniel M says:

    I use a U lock plus a thin cable. I used to always put the lock around the rear wheel and frame where the two cross at the seat stays, but on Sheldon Brown’s advice/reassurance, I switched to a smaller lock which goes around the rear wheel only but inside the rear triangle so the frame and rear wheel, the two most expensive components, are the most secure. Unlike Sheldon, I start with a thin cable which I loop through the front wheel, then back through the saddle rails, and to the U-lock. I have been locking bikes of reasonable quality this way in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco since the 90′s and am still awaiting my first incident. I also lock up in high traffic/visibility areas and never leave the bike out overnight. Any bike can be stolen; my goal is to make mine more of a pain than the one on the next block. Keeping my fingers crossed.

  • Nina says:

    I’ve always wondered – where do lighter chain locks fall in the rankings? The kind that aren’t “New York” locks. Are they more risky than, say, a long u-lock?

    And how do thieves feel about those rear wheel locks on a super-heavy bike that would be very difficult to just carry off? Does that, in combination with a cable or light-weight chain add up to a useful lock? Is the rear wheel lock weird/confusing enough to U.S. theives to be a deterrent?

  • Alan says:

    @Nina

    Lightweight chains are ineffective. It’s my understanding that pros use vans, so weight is probably not a deterrent.

  • Fergie says:

    My locking strategy is simple: Don’t.

  • Tom says:

    If a professional bike thief wants your bike, it will be stolen, regardless of the type of lock used. The key is to make it inconvenient to opportunists or more difficult than the bike is worth.

    I use a rear wheel lock in conjunction with a chain. A professional will cut the chain and toss the bike in the van with the real wheel locked to figure that out later. The crackhead or opportunist will have to figure out how to beat two locks. Usually more effort than my bike is worth. He’ll just move on to the next bike.

  • Alan says:

    @Tom

    The good news is that, from what I understand, pro thieves are mostly looking for high-end carbon racing bikes. We probably only need to protect our lowly commuters from the druggies and opportunists.

  • Brent says:

    This subject brings up the old joke that all bicycles weigh fifty pounds: a ten-pound bicycle requires a forty-pound lock; a forty-five-pound bicycle requires a five-pound lock.

  • townmouse says:

    safety in numbers applies to locking too: always find a shinier-looking bike to park next to and park where there are lots of other bikes.

    It’s worth saying too that crime isn’t always as high as people fear. I used to take a train and then pick up my bike to cycle the last 3 miles to work every day so my commuter bike lived locked up in outer London every night (and all weekend) for over a year and nothing happened to it, including the one time I went to pack my bag to leave in the morning and found my lock still in it! My unlocked bike was still there. I don’t recommend it, of course, but you play the odds. Don’t let fear of losing a bike put you off commuting – although if your bike really is too precious to risk, you may need to get a less precious one for commuting on for no amount of locking will make you feel secure, and someone could always stamp on your wheel.

  • Barry says:

    Unfortunately my office only has an outdoor parking lot so I have to park outside. I have a small U-lock that I keep with me but I also have a second U-lock that I keep at work so that both wheels are secured and the frame gets double locked. I don’t know if this is the case for other cities, but DC has a law that all parking garages have bike racks (most provide it free of charge) so when I’m downtown I always park in the staffed garages.

  • patrick says:

    it may be important to mention that it is a bad idea to park in the same place every day. the pros are that people begin associating you with your bike and know when you’re around and when to visit etc.. but the cons are.. well obvious, if you have stalkers and such, and it allows bike thieves to plan and attack.
    Paranoid maybe, but you’re better off riding a couple different bikes and parking in different spots.
    maybe even tell your employer about your bike and how you would very badly like to park inside.

  • JRF says:

    Don: Prevent scratches? But every additional scratch enhances the effectiveness of the lock!

    Okay, I admit I’m a bit more careful with my ’09 LHT than my ’87 Trek 7000, but I’m sure that care will fade in time.

  • brad says:

    A totally unscientific survey in Montréal by Dumoulin Bicyclettes found that it’s not the price of your bicycle that determines whether it’ll be stolen, but rather the price of your lock. A guy who works there keeps his expensive Trek Soho DLX (belt drive) locked outside at night with an expensive U-lock, and has noticed a number of rusty old bikes on his street, locked with flimsy locks or chains, have been stolen over the past year while nobody has touched his.

  • Alan says:

    @Brad

    “A totally unscientific survey in Montréal by Dumoulin Bicyclettes found that it’s not the price of your bicycle that determines whether it’ll be stolen, but rather the price of your lock.”

    There’s a lot of truth to that. I bet the bright yellow of a Kryptonite New York provides quite a lot of deterrence, regardless of the lock’s actual strength (they are highly rated).

  • Mike says:

    I’ve heard many times that professional thieves will take any bicycle they can get quickly. I’ve also heard that they target high-end racing bikes, or popular mountain bikes. I’ve never seen any data to back up any of these claims. Perhaps they are all true.

    I’m in the process of replacing my car with bicycles, and I just got a bakfiets (Workcycles Cargobike), so I’m quite interested in this issue at the moment. It’s got an integrated rear-wheel lock. It weighs about 100 pounds, and it’s about 8 feet long. It’s also (to my knowledge) the only one of its kind in Winnipeg. All of these things should make it difficult to steal for resale, but it would also be quite difficult and slow to replace, and once we sell the car, we won’t have a really good substitute for it if it disappears. I suspect that I don’t really need anything more to keep it safe, but I’m still considering buying a 16mm or 19mm chain. Sure, it weighs 20 pounds (or more), but it’s actually easier to steer with some weight in the box than it is when empty. A U-lock (I normally use a mini with Sheldon’s technique on other bikes) is no good with the bakfiets; it’s too hard to maneuver it next to a typical bike rack.

    The videos from Almax (http://www.almax-security-chains.co.uk/index.asp?pg=19) are enlightening about how quickly it is possible to cut most chains with bolt cutters.

  • Ralph Aichinger says:

    Having had several bikes stolen over the years, I want to stress one factor that is important to my locking strategy: Make locking the bike convenient. The best lock won’t help if it is too cumbersome to actually use. That’s my reason for buying good U-Locks: I think they are much quicker to use than most folding locks, cables etc. My own locking discipline is a larger problem to the safety of my bike than e.g. some expert thief forcing open the lock with brute force. I think all my stolen bikes were either not locked at all, or not connected to some immovable object. Having a good way to carry your lock *always* on the bike is also important. The holder in the photo looks especially nice to me. If it takes five minutes find your lock in your bagpack, it is much less likely you will *always* use it, even if you just quickly buy something in a shop.

    Also it is a good idea to write down the frame number, an exact description of the bike etc.

    There is very little you can do to secure most components. Once a thief stole parts of my bike after what must have been 15 minutes of disassembly.

  • Paul Dorn says:

    Another approach is to have an “urban beater bike,” a ride that is less appealing to thieves. Use your expensive bike for weekend joy rides; use a serviceable but less appealing bike for daily commuting. I’m lucky, and can now bring my bike into my office. But I usually use the two lock strategy (cable and u-lock.)

  • Don says:

    @brad
    Yeah, I’ve gone around the bars as you describe, but it seldom stays put and to me any movement is disconcerting. I’m thinking of laying the lock on a three-point system–one spot on the stem and two on either side of it on the bar–which there’s room for on my flat bar. I’m tempted to try velcro.

    @JRF
    It’s true that a little “patina” is the best form of camouflage. My other bike, the ’91 Bianchi hybridenstein, is well lived in, looks like garbage on a rack but still rides like a dream. The avoidance of scratches is primarily a nod to civility, kind of like polishing your shoes on the back of your pant leg. : >)

  • Doug says:

    My technique is to primarily keep the bike inside, but when parking outside, use the lightest weight lock possible. Of course, the trick to that is living somewhere semi-rural and low crime, like Montana! The side benefit to this technique is that not only does your bike remain safe, but the riding in a rural area is much more pleasant!

  • Nick says:

    Henry at Work Cycles knows a lot more about a lock’s deterrence value than I do. Here’s what he has to say.

    http://www.workcycles.com/home-products/parts-accessories/high-tech-antitheft-bicycle-spray

  • Bob P. says:

    With all the downsizing, my bike has its own cubicle.

  • AndyN says:

    A point of technique – When locking to a staple or other vertical post, I prefer to orient the drivetrain side of my bike away from the post. It lets me get my frame closer to the mooring, and because I use a small sized U-Lock to minimize leverage options for thieves, every inch counts. As a side benefit, the drivetrain gets less scuffing and abuse from being knocked around by other folks.

  • Nick W. says:

    I used to carry my small U lock under the saddle, over top of a wedge bag. (Also had a cable looped through the seat rails, and stashed in the bag) U lock was pointed towards the front. Never had any problem with it getting in the way. Now I usually carry it in a handlebar bag.

    Other locking options I use are a frame lock and Pitlocks all over the place. I have a dynamo front hub, so it seemed like the Pitlocks were a good idea. BTW: Pitlock makes more than skewers. They also have specific bolts for seat posts, disc brakes, and threadless headsets. Pricy, but probably worth it.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    Thankfully my employer has secured bike parking (otherwise my commuter would be a lot crappier), but when I leave it anywhere I use a small U-Lock though the rear wheel, inside the triangle and Pitlocks on the wheels and headset. Given that the front wheel is a Schmidt dynohub and the rear a Rohloff, the wheels are my main interest. Finally, I don’t leave my bike out of sight if I can help it.

    On the townies we’ve had good luck with Abus frame locks and the plug-in chains.

  • Ted says:

    I recently found a bunch of new Bicycle Club locks at $6 each. I think these were much more expensive at retail price. Anyone had experience with these?

    These locks are made by the same people who make the The Club for cars: steering wheel locks. The Bicycle Club locks are “0″ locks and allow you to shorten them to a 6″ length or expand to 12″. That’s a great function in that I can shorten the length to suit whatever I’m locking to.

    So far my Cannondale hybrid has not been stolen. But truth is, I live in a low crime area, my commuting is to the store or coffee shop, and therefore the bike is left outside for only 30 minutes or so.

  • Jen says:

    For those who like researching the effectiveness of particular brands or products — There are a few lock rating agencies in the UK and Europe that readers might find interesting:

    http://www.soldsecure.com/ — in the UK; the website is a bit cumbersome, but you can search for all bicycle locks with a Gold or Silver rating, for example.

    and a Dutch lock rating agency: http://www.stichtingart.nl/sloten_resultaat.asp
    It’s in Dutch, but the locks are listed by manufacturer and the brands don’t need translation; the star rating system is pretty self-explanatory, with a “2″ rating indicating an acceptable level of security for bicycles for insurance purposes, and a “4″ rating for motorcycles (you can get theft insurance for bicycles in the Netherlands).

    As a European agency, the locks are slanted to what is available there, but it’s still useful.

    For the categories, the translations are:
    BEUGELSLOTEN – D-locks/U-locks
    KABELSLOTEN – Cable locks
    KETTINGSLOTEN – Chain locks
    REMSCHIJFSLOTEN – Brake disk locks (motorcycles)
    RINGSLOTEN – Ring locks. These are the rear wheel locks you see on many European bicycles though in and of themselves they are not considered adequate for theft prevention; they are included as supplementary only, or leaving your bicycle for a minute or two in a low-crime area.
    VOUWSLOTEN: Folding Locks
    STALLINGSELEMENTEN/VLOER- EN MUURANKERS — anchors, wall anchors, stalls, etc.

  • john says:

    great article if only for the sake of keeping this in the forefront of our thoughts. i’ve never had… wait a minute… better not say it..
    however, i can’t imagine the feeling of losing a bike.

    one thing comes to mind though, not sure if i read it somewhere or it was told to me, but it always sounded like a great idea.
    backcountry skiers use these portable alarm/whistles that help in locating people in emergencies. if there was a way to attach a small, but very audible, high pitched alarm that would be triggered by a thief wrestling with a locked bike, i’d bet that that would an effective deterrent. maybe there are some ‘bike mc giivers’ out there that might even couple this alarm with pepper spray, or that ink that explodes when bandits attempt a heist at a bank. the possibilities are endless. i can see a time when all would be bike thieves are walking around the city covered in pink paint, rubbing their eyes and bumping into one another as the paddy wagon gathers them up with a giant dog catching net !

  • Logan says:

    Here are a couple tips I learned from a Davis student/bike mechanic who had bike messenger parents regarding lock strategies. ;)

    1. U-locks ride pretty well underneath the saddle. This method seems to hold the weight well, doesn’t make too much noise, or get in the way of riding.

    2. Use beeswax and a ball bearing to fill the recess of every bolt of a component you fear being taken. He mentioned this works best on opportunistic thieves who work in the dark or want a fast loosen and grab get-away. When needing access to these bolts for your own needs the beeswax is easily removed with an extra 30 seconds of patience. ;)

  • cbd says:

    As someone who is relatively new to the bike commute and using the bike as my primary transport around town, I appreciate the locking tips. Bike theft is very common in my area. Friends have had everything from the whole bike stolen to random parts — even just the brake wires!

  • Robert says:

    I was biking to work and locking up outside for a whole year until I finally got around to asking the building manager if I could leave it inside somewhere. Not only did he say yes, but he even put up a wall rack with six bike hooks. I then brought over an old pump and some basic tools and patch kits, so we now have a bike nook used by myself and a couple other employees year round. It was so simple and cheap, I highly recommend that any other bike commuters try to set up something similar.

  • Bob P. says:

    @Robert – I did the same, I asked the building manager. He offered a bike rack indoors, but I installed Pletscher kickstands on both of my rides, and he granted me permission to bring them in. I mostly ride my Gary Fisher Simple City 8, which is a gorgeous bike. I now have people stopping and asking about bike commuting. Hopefully it goes a little viral. I offered to meet a few of my colleagues along the road to introduce them to riding in traffic.

  • John says:

    Would sectioning the cables and allowing the removal of say, a one to two foot length from them (to be stored in your backpack and taken into work), be beneficial in hampering a thief? It would require the application of some form of quick-disconnect fittings, but if it resulted in a bike that couldn’t be ridden, it seems to me that it would be passed over in search of easier prey.

  • Derek says:

    The municipality where I catch the train in the morning has just finished taking out these nice locking box contraptions that had 3 bars that went through your wheels and frame. You could use a u-lock or just a padlock to secure the whole thing. The way they were designed, it would be very difficult to get a pair of bolt cutters into a position to cut a padlock. I really like them, but the municipality renovated the station and I suppose decided that more traditional wheel bender racks would be best (I would love to hear who they consulted on that).

    These new racks have not been installed yet, so people have been locking up to railings and other stationary objects. This morning I locked up along a rail/fence thing next to a new-looking womens design Diamondback comfort bike. I did not see the owner, but I felt bad for her (I assume it was a woman) because it seemed all she had for security was a padlock, which would have been more than adequate with the previous devices. However now she was reduced to securing a single brake cable to one of the thin verticle spindals of the railing.

    I thought about taking a picture to send to bikesnob, but needed to get moving to catch a train.

  • Pete says:

    @John-
    You’d need to make sure the thief noticed – a big yellow sign or something. Of course, It wouldn’t stop a thief with a van.
    Puma makes a bike that has a tension cable as the down tube – take the cable with you and the bike is unridable!
    http://us.puma-bikes.com/bikes/disko.html/
    You could theoretically do this to any frame if you install couplers to make the down or top tube removable. But, by the time you’ve spent all that money could have bought another bike.

  • John says:

    @Pete-
    A sign sounds like a good idea, especially if you made a habit of always parking near a surveillance camera. It could read: Dear Bike Thief – Smile, You’re On Candid Camera!

    It may be more effective that one would think, as those types live in the darkness with their lives dominated by fear. Play to that and you’ve added another tool to the arsenal.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    Someone I always think of William Gibson’s “Virtual Light” when I think of bike security. In it the heroine (IIRC) was a bike messenger, and her bike frame tubes were filled with capacitors. When she wanted to secure her bike she simply hit a button on a key fob and presto!, the bike was electrified, taser-like, until she disarmed it. Not sure how realistic this idea would be, but it sure would be a clever one.

  • j. pierce says:

    One thing many of my coworkers do is leave their heavier, more secure locks attached to the bike racks at work – if you feel the only place you need the extra security of a heavy duty lock is when leave your bike alone for most of the day outside while you’re at work, and a lighter more convenient lock is sufficient for your errands and other trips, it can make sense.

    The frustrating thing in my town is the number of bike racks that are basically unusable because of the number of beater bikes that are constantly locked to them, many of them for multiple seasons and basically unrideable (flats, broken wheels, snapped brake cables etc.) Many of them in what would otherwise be high-traffic, high turn around areas. I’m reduced to trying to stretch a cable lock around a tree when I go to the coffee shop, and I don’t think it’s that great for the tree, although I am careful about it.

    The other hassle is that in a couple of places, the city has commissioned “artsy” bike racks from a local metal worker; they’re really beautiful and fun, but in places where we need more bike parking they’re a hassle, as they take up more room, yet hold fewer bikes, than traditional racks.

  • Mark, Sweden says:

    Well, both my bikes have been stolen by a thief using, most likely, a NiCad-battery powered angle grinder (heat and grinding residue on locks/walls). Would have taken about 10-15 seconds per lock…

  • gigs from home says:

    A point of technique – When locking to a staple or other vertical post, I prefer to orient the drivetrain side of my bike away from the post. It lets me get my frame closer to the mooring, and because I use a small sized U-Lock to minimize leverage options for thieves, every inch counts. As a side benefit, the drivetrain gets less scuffing and abuse from being knocked around by other folks.

  • kitty says:

    Another thing about the object to which you secure your bike: besides securing the bike to an object/pole/post that cannot be moved, make sure it’s either tall enough or has something at the top so the thief can’t slide the bike up and off the top.

    Also, if you get a nice comfy expensive saddle (like a Brooke’s) have it installed with a seat leash/cord as a deterrent. Easily cut with bolt cutters, but again – the harder you make it for petty thieves, the better your chances of keeping your stuff!

 
© 2011 EcoVelo™