Locking up your bike in a metropolitan city

What you should know to keep your bike safe

Photo by Author

If you’re in a metropolitan city, you might be surprised by how many bicycles go missing each year. This also applies to Canadian cities; though we may have the reputation for being nice and polite, we have our problems that would suggest otherwise.

Have you ever watched hidden camera videos of attempted thefts on unattended bait bikes? A thief can look like anybody — gender, ethnicity, age, how poorly or how well dressed they are — it doesn’t matter. There are dozens of compilations of these videos online, but not in your city, right?

You can find many heartbreak stories about bike theft locally, but probably a good number of them were preventable. If you’re not sure about bike security, keep reading to make sure you don’t make the common rookie mistakes.

1. Location, location, location

The bike rack and its surroundings

The part of town you’re in isn’t always the determining factor for safety. Sure, there are always areas having property crime being more common than others, but there are stories from all parts of town. The neighbourhoods where you “don’t get that vibe” might surprise you, for when you have that false sense of security, you may take unnecessary risks with preventable theft.

Inspect the bike rack. Is it highly visible from street traffic, foot traffic, and windows of businesses? Is the rack mounted to the ground firmly? Try to shake it and shake the bars a bit. Have the rails or bars been cut or rusted through? If it doesn’t appear sturdy or if it looks like a sketchy spot, move on.

If the rack is okay, are there other bikes on it or closeby? Locking your bike among others could lower the odds of yours being the target. Not that you’d hope that someone else’s gets stolen, but it is a numbers game. And presumably, there would be a higher chance of another bike owner coming back to approach the rack, which would deter a thief.

If your bike is pretty sweet looking and you have a set routine, regulars in the area might take notice of how predictably it is left unattended. Some thieves are random opportunists, but some are stalkers who study their prey. You might want to consider mixing it up a bit if there are enough safe looking options, but once your bike is being stalked they might be determined to nab it.

Lastly, where on the post or rack you should place the lock. Don’t lock it around a post such that the bike and lock together can be lifted over it. Don’t lock to a bar with an open-end or part of the rack that can become open by loosening a bolt from the ground. Nothing where the lock can be slipped off (this mistake is more common than you’d think). Stick to closed loops of solid metal, if possible.

Location on the bike

Exactly where on your bike to place the lock is another important part. Many of us have seen the rusted front-wheel chained to the rack for months at a time but with no bike in sight. The front-wheel comes off pretty easily; always ensure that the frame is secured!

If your lock is big enough, try to get the frame and the rear wheel together, locked to the rack. If the lock can’t get around all of these, then get a thick part of the frame at the very least.

To get the rear wheel and the frame with a smaller lock, one trick is locking the rack to the section of the rear wheel inside of the rear triangle of the frame. A thief would technically have to saw through the wheel to remove the lock to free the frame, but then the bike becomes unrideable. At that point, it would be easier for the thief to just break the lock.

Figure 1. Inside the rear triangle. Image by Author

Once the frame and/or rear wheel is secure, you can either take the front wheel with you, or you can use a second lock if you’re really diligent. Leaving it unsecured is as far as most people are willing to go, and that’s usually safe.

Indoors

When locking indoors, the only safe option is inside your actual house or apartment/condo suite. Not inside the garage, and not the “secure” shared bike room in your building. Every bike I’ve ever owned in life that wasn’t locked inside my living quarters has been stolen. This includes bikes locked inside the garage.

Workplace bike rooms could possibly be safe, as long as they are not shared with too many companies in the building, and there are 3 or more doors (hopefully locked) between your bike and the public. The number of employees who have access to/keys for this room should be very low.

2. Length of time

Minutes

We’ve heard it all: “Only 5 minutes”, “just 2 minutes”, “I turned my back for literally 30 seconds”…but often, they didn’t lock it up. Well, some of them actually did, but only used a cable lock or have locked it improperly. This innocence and naivety, the trust of your fellow man, is what some people prey on. There isn’t a need to get cynical though; just be more prepared.

Hours

A few hours locked outdoors while you’re indoors, can be a risk, but if you’re a commuter or use your bike for errands this is a daily necessity. By exposing your bike more often than others, you need to balance that with due diligence.

Overnight

Unless you really don’t care, I wouldn’t recommend locking any bike outside overnight. Not that it’s guaranteed to be gone the next day, but every night is a chance and you can’t keep testing your luck and win forever. Being constantly outside can also rust it out much more quickly.

3. Your bike

Carbon bikes

These bikes are higher risk because they 1) are often quite the attention grabber, 2) are quite light and fast so the thief can make a speedy getaway, and 3) can be very expensive.

You don’t lock up a carbon bike out of sight when you’re out and about. It’s either sitting between your legs or locked up privately indoors. If you must have a beer or coffee with your riding pals, don’t let it leave your sight — literally.

You don’t have to take this advice of course, but it is up to your best judgment to keep an expensive bike safe. I’d also hope you have bike insurance, but many places have a maximum limit far less valuable than a carbon bike.

All other bikes

No matter what your disposable income is, or how much you paid for your bike, it is always a bummer to have it stolen. However, if it doesn’t cost more than a used car, you might be okay with leaving it locked up and unattended. For how long and where exactly, might vary depending on your attachment to it, or your faith in humanity.

The branding

Some buy the brand-names that are normally only associated with mid-range and high-end prices, and usually, these brands are so distinctive that you can recognize them from a block away.

Sure, you can select a model with more subtle decals than is typically seen with the brand, but then nobody can see you riding a [insert flashy brand here]! Jokes aside, even with stealthy decals, most high-end bikes will just look high-end, period.

4. Types of bike locks

Cable lock

Great only as a secondary lock to get your front wheel secured to the frame, while there is another primary lock securing the bike. Thieves might skip the bike that’s got two locks on it when there are easier targets nearby (unless yours looks worth the extra effort).

Chains

Chains vary in strength, shape and material. A bolt cutter would make quick work of chains with a smaller or medium thickness. A heavy-duty chain made from hardened steel with hexagonal links is apparently very strong against cutters. The downside is the weight.

U-shaped or D-locks

These locks can be good, depending on brand reputation and quality. A good quality one will have a warranty. More importantly, is how you use it. It may be very tempting to buy a larger one so you can fit it around larger shapes, but this can backfire. Leave too big a gap in the “U” section, and you will leave it vulnerable for tools to bust it open using extreme pressure. Try to fill that gap as much as possible and angle the lock so it is very difficult to use a tool on it.

Folding locks

These are pretty neat, as you can dynamically fit them around different sizes of posts and racks. A high-quality one might be as secure as a D-lock, but they have a similar weakness with gaps.

A thief’s toolkit

No matter how strong of a lock you have, there is always a stronger tool. A battery-powered angle grinder will get through the toughest of locks in minutes. While such a tool would attract attention, a thief might plan this out in certain areas with less risk of being seen or with an easy escape.

Do some research

Brand names, model numbers, lock lengths can have their weaknesses or disadvantages. Can the lock be picked, can the combination be hacked, can the locking device be forced open/apart? Just Google how to pick or break [lock name].

Plan on what you’re buying and don’t cheap out on a lock. Study how thieves use their tools and search for common weaknesses and easy targets. Then, make your choices this in mind.

5. Registering your bike

Not only should you register your bike for warranty reasons, but you should also consider joining an online community like 529 Garage or Bike Index. If neither have a strong presence in your area, try checking with your local authorities or searching the local cycling community for theft recovery programs.

Conclusion

We have to face the fact that nothing is truly safe from theft. Though we shouldn’t let that make us give up, because diligence does pay off or at least puts your property less at risk to those looking for an easy target.

Professional geek. Wannabe cyclist.

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