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. They’re also easily resold, infrequently tracked down by law enforcement, and too often perceived as an “assumed loss,” – many people simply expect to have their bicycle stolen at some point. As a result, bike theft is an absolutely massive – and growing – problem in many cities worldwide.
As the number of bicycles on our streets increase, so too do the number of people trying to make a quick buck off of their vulnerability. But your bicycle doesn’t have to be an assumed loss. By taking a few simple precautions and investing in a decent lock or two, you can basically ensure your precious ride will always be exactly where you left it.
The first step in securing your bike is choosing the right lock. There are several good options out there, depending on your needs. 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.
If you live in a city and you want to hang onto your bicycle, a cable lock should only be considered as a wheel lock or secondary security, rather than your primary lock. They’re simply too easy to snip, and even an inexpensive bicycle can be an attractive option to thieves if the barrier to stealing it is so easily trespassed.
U-locks are the most popular lock option for urban riders – so much so that the image of a small U-lock in the back pocket or belt loop has come to be emblematic of bike messengers and fixie culture. They’re strong, reasonably lightweight, and easy to transport. However, the shape and inflexibility of a U-lock does limit what you can lock to, which is what leads many riders to cables or chains.
An ultra-thick, heavy chain with a strong locking mechanism is a great, although cumbersome, option. It makes you look paranoid, but if you don’t mind the extra weight it is flexible and very effective.
Beyond the standard U-lock, chain, and cable categories, there are a number of types of locks worth looking into. Folding locks, invented by ABUS and since recreated by a few other brands, offer the security of a U-lock with the flexibility of a chain. They’re also lightweight and very easily transported, quickly making them the favourite of urban and recreational cyclists alike.
Frame locks, which have long been popular in Scandinavian countries, are slowly gaining in popularity in North America along with the growth in the upright bike market, although in most North American cities should only be considered a secondary security measure.
Lock in hand, you’ll next need to decide what to lock to. In many cities, entire neighborhoods lack dedicated bike parking. When bike 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 ensure thieves won’t be able to simply lift the locked bike over the meter. Avoid locking to removable poles (some street signs are screwed in at the bottom with removable bolts, rather than cemented in), or cables and other infrastructure that can be snipped such as a chainlink fence.
If you want to be extra neurotic (and why not), do a quick check of the bike rack to ensure it hasn’t been tampered with. In a few extreme cases, thieves will cut through a bike rack with a angle grinder at night, then cover the cut with a sticker. The next day when people lock up to the rack, the thieves can come around, remove the sticker, and simply slip the locked bike off the rack.
If you’re locking to other infrastructure such as a stairway handrail or private fence, be considerate of others and also aware that building security employees sometimes remove bikes that seem hazardous. If a private fence has a “no bikes” sign, respect their wishes. Not only will it prevent them removing your bicycle for you, but it’s the considerate thing to do.
How To Lock Your Bike Up
While locking up, make sure your lock actually goes through your frame’s triangle – rather than, say, around your seat post, where it can be conveniently slipped off. You may laugh, but it happens. Walk around any city and pay attention to the bike racks, and you’ll soon notice a staggering number of front wheels locked on securely, with the remainder of the bike nowhere to be seen. Through the frame, every time!
For the absentminded among us (guilty), a quick tug on your bike after you lock it can be a great way to ensure that you’ve a) got the lock through the frame, and b) got the lock onto the post. More times than I’d care to admit, I’ve hastily locked my bike up while running errands only to return and find I simply attached the lock to the frame, failing to actually fasten it to the rack it’s casually leaning against. Luck in that regard can only last so long.
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. There are locking systems, such as Pinhead, which are designed to secure the small, removable components of your bike, and carrying a cable or cable lock is a great way to secure your wheels.
Riding home on a bike with no seat is embarrassing, and riding on a bike with no wheels is impossible.
Where to Lock Your Bike Up
While comprehensive and reliable data on the subject is scarce, the minimal data available indicates that in most cities, the majority of bike thefts actually take place in crowded areas. While it would seem like well-lit, well-trafficked spots would be safer on the premise that it’s stressful to try and subtly saw through a lock in front of a teeming crowd of pedestrians, bike theft is so quick and efficient that thieves can operate unseen in a crowd, and many people are less careful with their locking style when they feel their bikes are being “watched over” by the crowd.
So, whether you prefer to lock up on back streets or Main Street, the main thing is to ensure you’ve locked your bike well. As to the particularities of the position, lock your bike upright and well out of the path of cars, street sweepers, and other heavy machinery. 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.
Also be cognizant of pedestrians and other road users. While it may seem obvious, too many people lock their bikes straight across a frequent walking path, awkwardly close to a doorway, or in an obtrusive manner to city infrastructure that needs to be used by people, such as a bench or a garbage can. Be respectful of other people’s used of shared space, and as a result they’ll be more likely to respect bicyclists.
Similarly, with other bicycles, 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, and make sure your bike isn’t blocking (or tangled up with) other bikes.
To Lock to Trees, or Not to Trees
Finally, we come to the issue of trees. While most people agree that locking to trees should always be a last resort, there remains a small division in the bike community on whether that option should ever be called upon at all.
Videos like this one, showing a man cutting a tree down in order to steal the bike locked to it, provide an extreme example of why we shouldn’t lock to trees. But even in less egregious cases, locking up to a tree can damage the bark, break the branches, and otherwise stress the tree.
As a general rule, locking up to trees should be avoided. Ride a little father to find something metal to lock up to. In some cities, the municipality will wrap tree trunks in a plastic barrier to keep them safe from bicycles, but a better option than using that “infrastructure” would be to call your council member and request real bike racks instead. If you absolutely must lock up to a tree, do so gently. That’s a living thing friend, treat it with respect!
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