The Right and Wrong Ways to Lock Your Bike

Before you lock up your bike, be sure you’re doing it right – riding home without a seat is embarrassing, riding home without a wheel is impossible.

By Anne Mathews

Illustrator: Thomas James

A man sauntered into our neighborhood bike shop and examined the display of locks. He hefted the most impressive one, a massive, heavy chain, looked at the price tag and frowned. “I don’t know if I can afford it,” he said to the shop owner.

“Can you afford to have your bike stolen?” the owner replied.

This is, in a nutshell, the basic logic of bike security. Bikes are light and easily transported, convenient qualities not only for bike owners, but also for bike thieves. So it’s worth taking a few simple steps to keep your ride locked down when you aren’t around.

Once you’ve decided to secure your bike, you’ll need a lock. There are several good options out there, depending on your needs.

Lock in hand, you’ll next need to decide what to lock to. In many cities, entire neighborhoods lack dedicated bike parking. When racks or locking posts aren’t handy, streetlamps are a decent option – as are sturdy street signs over six-feet-tall, or short parking meters with enough bulk at the top to frustrate thieves. Avoid locking to flimsy trees, bushes or removable poles. When locking to other infrastructure (such as, say, a stairway handrail), be considerate of others and also aware that building security employees sometimes remove bikes that seem hazardous.

While locking up, make sure your lock actually goes through your frame – rather than, say, around your seat post, where it can be conveniently slipped off. (You may laugh, but it happens.) Consider also what to do about the parts of the bike that aren’t secured by your lock. If your wheels and seat are easy to remove, try running your lock through a wheel as well as your frame and securing the quick-releasable elements separately or taking them with you. Riding home on a bike with no seat is embarrassing, and riding on a bike with no wheels is impossible.

Some folks prefer to lock up out of sight, while others favor well-lit, well-trafficked spots on the premise that it’s stressful to try and subtly saw through a lock in front of a teeming crowd of pedestrians. Either way, position your bike upright and out of the path of cars. I’ve seen an SUV sweep up onto a curb and right over the wheel of a Schwinn locked to a bike rack; the wheel issued a haunting cry as it folded.

If you think you can’t afford a good lock, ask yourself: Can I afford to replace my bike?

Tips to Help Keep Your Bike in Your Own Hands

Lock Types: Choose Wisely

My childhood bike lock was a sparkly pink cable combination lock the thickness of a drinking straw. At some point, I realized it could be snipped in half with a pair of elementary school scissors. (The combination could also be inferred by the loud clicking sound that the correct numbers made.) Such locks are largely symbolic gestures. Flexible cable locks are easy to use and good for locking to difficult structures, but they often fall into this “easy to breach” category. In Amsterdam, I watched an enterprising gentleman whip out bolt cutters and chop my much sturdier cable lock in two casual strokes.

U-locks are stronger, but their shape and inflexibility limits what you can lock to. (Side note: Watch out for old ‘Bic-able’ U-locks, whose round keyholes can be breached with the butt end of a ballpoint pen.) My personal favorite lock is an ultra-thick, heavy chain. It makes you look paranoid, but it’s very effective.

Locking Etiquette

Good locking manners are mostly intuitive. Don’t lock your bike to someone else’s (unless you know it’s OK with them, and they can get a hold of you when they want to leave). Avoid jamming your bike up against someone else’s in a crowded rack or bike pile. Make sure your bike isn’t blocking (or tangled up with) other bikes. And finally, be gentle if you lock to a tree – don’t trample vegetation or gouge bark. That’s a living thing, friend – treat it with respect.

27 Comments

  • Lorne

    I use a 3/4 inch thick plastic wrapped steel cable lock for mine, have used it all over Wasilla Alaska and Anchorage Alaska in both nice places and less than nice places. I’ve NEVER had my bike messed with, not once. I trust that 3/4 inch cable as much as an U Lock, I mean really, same difference, plus so much easier to lock to things.

  • Adrian

    Always use a quality U lock or chain (never a cable lock); Use two quality locks when necessary; Lock through the triangle and lock the rear wheel to the frame; Ensure your bike isn’t in the top 20% in terms of value and desirability. For all tips and details see: http://www.betterbybicycle.com/2014/02/how-to-prevent-your-bike-being-stolen.html

  • Garret

    I use two to three thick cable locks. I have come bake to my bike and the bike on ether side of me were stolen, but mine was there because it was more of a pain in the ass to cut all three. I feel it wouldn’t take that much longer to actually cut three locks, but I think they look at it and just don’t want to bother.

  • MamaVee

    I knew of someone who left his dutch bike witht he wheel lock outside his apt while he went in for lunch. He came back to find it had moved about 3 feet and was tossed in the bushes. While I def don’t want my bike tossed int he bushes- I will say you can’t get far carrying a bike with the wheel lock locked. especially if it’s a steel dutchie type…

  • Joe Bieniecki

    I made up a few cables out of shark fishing leaders, it is very hard to cut and has a 1000 lbs+ tensile strength. Both cables weigh nearly nothing and live in the bottom of my handlebar bag. Great for slipping through the seat rails, pannier attachment points, and even the vent holes on my helmet. Not for all day out of sight security for sure, but a inexpensive, lightweight way to stop the opportunistic thief who wanders by.

  • MarkB

    I carry an RV cable lock on the bike all the time — 6′ long, 9/16″ thick, for those sudden impulse stops that may come up on the commutes. When I KNOW I’m going to a destination that requires lock-up (work does not, the bike goes in the building with me), I slap the chain/padlock combo on the bike. It’s just too heavy to carry when I don’t need it.

  • David White

    You only need to lock near a bike with an easier lock than yours to break open, doesn’t have to be a nicer bike, although that helps!

  • William Nye

    Looks like I need to remove 20lbs from my Orange Krate and get a lock that weighs nothing. Maybe a shoe lace will do the trick.

  • Eric Berg

    This means I need to find a -12lb lock for my city bike! The wheel lock works great on it, as it’s too heavy for anybody to want to carry away, even if they did want to steal it.

  • nomad@playful.com

    When I was a courier/ messenger, a long ‘U’ lock went through the front wheel and around a fixed object into the main triangle. I was never at a particular pick-up / drop for more than 10 minutes, and this is a good temporary locking position. It’s also fast on, fast off. With the key lanyard round your wrist, the lock can go from holster to locked on bike in under a minute. With an expensive bike you can go to full chain locking, through both triangles and both wheels around an object, but to me, for short stops, that’s unnecessary.

  • Wut?

    The lock is still attached to the wheel and there’s no way you are easily cutting through that, and it makes the bike unusable anyway.

  • NotAshamed

    You can wear it as a bandolier and pretend to be Chewbacca! Droids don’t rip peoples’ arms outta their sockets when they steal bikes.

  • Angry Sam

    While it makes intuitive sense to lock the rear wheel and the downtube, it’s kind of unnecessary. As long as you put the lock around the rear wheel at some point inside the rear triangle, you should be fine.

  • Thomas Arbs

    When you secure your bike with the strongest lock to the saddle tube, be aware that it is suddenly easier to saw through the tube. By removing the saddle first, and reinserting it later, the thief conveniently stabilizes the damaged part of the frame.

    Re the Dutch lock, I have one, they are extremely convenient and actually quite hard to break, but obviously only secure your bike against riding away, not against carrying it away. So they are only good for the shortest of hops into the baker’s or a café where the bike stays in sight. – Yes, you won’t even leave your bike unlocked when it stays in sight, lest you think you can beat the thief riding your own bike…

  • Jonathan Peterson

    There’s an old rule that your bike and lock together must weigh 40lbs. You got a swanky 20lb road bike – you need 20lbs of chain and ulock. You got a 38lb crapbike, you need a 2lb craplock. The main things to remember – ALL locks can be beaten given enough time and always lock your bike near a NICER bike.

  • Sue

    Can anyone comment on the efficacy of the dutch lock? That’s the one that’s mounted on the back of the frame and slides through the rear wheel.

    • M

      The frame lock on my dutch gazelle kept it from getting stolen once the thief cut through the chain which had locked the frame and front wheel. They were so unfamliar with the frame lock (in LA) that they abandoned the theft in progress because a bike that heavy that you can’t roll off isn’t worth the effort (according to them).

  • Mark B.

    I replaced my QR skewers with locking-type units, and carry a LARGE, THICK U-lock and finger-thick cable whenever I even THINK I’ll have to park the bike. Whether alone, or with the kids, the cable loops through the wheels, around whatever anchor is there, and the U-lock traps the front triangle of my bike. There is very little slack in the cable when I’m done.

    One time, some thug watched me lock up four bikes as he walked to his car; he kept repeating, “That’s a PEEWEE HERMAN LOCKUP!” Annoying, but he wasn’t getting the bikes!

    I go fewer and fewer places where I could take the bike inside, so “scoping out” available lockup spots has become an art. Is mine/ours more difficult than the next one over? ALWAYS, sometimes more so than a motorcycle!

  • R.simpson

    Why bother , get a Brompton and take it with you!

  • O. Emry

    The lock needn’t enclose the frame–you can secure the frame by locking the rear wheel within the rear triangle. There is no way to pull the rear wheel through the rear triangle, and you can use a smaller lock this way (and smaller locks are harder to force open). You’ll still need a cable if you want to secure the front wheel, of course.

  • Bud

    I carry a U-lock + cable combo and I usually lock the front wheel and frame with the u-lock and use the cable to secure the rear wheel and seat (I like my Brooks saddle and wouldn’t want it stolen, either). Kim G is right on about being harder to steal than the next bike. Another way to be harder to steal is to replace quick release wheel skewers with locking skewers and quick release seatposts with locking seatposts. I lock up in NYC fairly often and knock on wood, so far so good….

  • Dwayne

    My problem with the big chain is they usually weigh almost as much as my bike. I don’t want to carry it.

  • Kim G

    You don’t have to make your bike impossible to steal, just more difficult than the next one over. Sounds harsh, but… I look for a nicer bike than mine (easy to find) with a worse lock, and I park mine next to that. I spent an entire semester locking up next to a Jamis with a cable lock through the front wheel only (I did say something to the owner when I eventually ran into him).

  • Joe Lorentzen

    There is not a chain or cable that cannot be broken. Basically, you are attempting to keep the honest person – honest.

  • Colin Bryant

    If you are only capable of locking through the frame and one wheel, make it the back wheel, since it’s more expensive to replace, than the front.
    Nobody pays any attention to another person (thief) at a busy bike rack. I go for the less occupied place to lock, up, since a thief will stand our more there.

  • James Twowheeler

    Remember to buy a bike with an integrated o-lock. That way you only need to carry one lock for the frame and front wheel. https://www.google.ca/search?q=o-lcok&tbm=isch

    Also consider a good, heavy (15kg+) bike, which will be less attractive to cut and-and-go thieves.

Subscribe to our Magazine

Available in both print and digital editions!

Subscribe