As we recently reported, bicycle theft is rampant in American cities. If you use your bicycle, there is always a chance it will get stolen. After all, it has some positive economic value and it is left unattended on the streets. That makes your bike an inviting target for a criminal.
The only line of defense against bike thieves is your bike lock. If you’re going to actively use your bicycle and leave it on the streets, you have to lock it properly otherwise it will get stolen. If you lock it, but not the right way, it will get stolen. If you lock it the right way, even still it could get stolen, but at least you tried your best.
Image credit: Champaign Cycle.
So, here’s how you lock your bicycle. First, we’ll lay out the principles of bike locking that you should keep in mind. After that, we’ll suggest to you the “optimal” bike locking method that you can follow or customize to your own security needs.
The Principles of Bike Locking
1. Your bike should be more secure than the bike parked next to it. There is old adage, if you are camping in the woods with a friend and see a bear, you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun your friend. Similarly, you will never be able to 100% secure your bicycle, but you can make your bike the least accessible target on the block for a thief.
2. Never ever ever ever rely solely on a cable lock to secure your bike. Ever. These cables can be snipped so easily it will blow your mind. You wouldn't tie down your bike using Twizzlers, don’t tie down your bike using cables.
3. The smaller the U-lock the better. Not only is it lighter to carry around, the smaller size gives the thief less room to mount a leverage-based attack on the lock (ie pry it open with a crowbar).
U-locks come in all different shapes and sizes.
4. Use multiple locking mechanisms. With one u-lock, there is no possible way to secure all the components on your bike that a thief might steal. You need a u-lock plus something else (another u-lock, a cable lock, locking skewers, etc).
5. Make your bike ugly. Well, not too ugly, you still want to love your bike! For example though, this author’s bike seat has a hole in it that’s covered up with a piece of a electrical tape. This seat has no value whatsoever to a criminal because it’s damaged. Why not put a piece of tape on your bike seat and deter criminals from ever taking it?
A fine but crappy seat.
How to Lock Your Bike the Right Way
The method is adapted from the Sheldon Brown bike locking strategy. The late Sheldon Brown was an authority on nearly all things bicycling related and we are lucky that he left us a corpus of his knowledge on his website. According to Sheldon, almost everyone you see locking their bike is doing it wrong!
The primary component in this strategy is a mini u-lock. This ulock goes through the back wheel (inside the rear triangle of the frame), securing the bike to something solid.
The beauty of this approach is it locks the rear wheel and the frame, even though you’re not technically not even locking the frame! It turns out, according to Sheldon, it’s impossible to pull the frame away from the wheel when the lock is positioned in the triangle of the bike frame.
Is there a weakness in this method? Well, you could cut the rear wheel to pull out the bicycle. In practice, Sheldon argues, this doesn’t happen because cutting the wheel is very hard to do and you’d be destroying a very valuable part of the bike. If you are worried this issue, you could use a slightly larger u-lock that can go through the rear wheel and part of the frame.
The second component of this strategy is to secure the front wheel via cable look, skewer or even a second u-lock. This is to make sure your front wheel is secure. Front wheels aren’t that expensive so it’s unlikely a thief will break out tools to only steal a front wheel (they will steal it if the front wheel is not secured at all though).
Want extra protection? Try the double u-lock method:
This author uses the double u-lock method only when leaving the bike in bike theft prone areas for extended periods of time. It’s heavy to carry around 2 locks!
And that concludes the Priceonomics primer on locking your bicycle. Notice any mistakes? Here's one: the author forgot to remove his lights from the bicycle after locking it up each time. Make a bonehead mistake like that and the lights probably won't still be there when you return. Stay safe and secure fellow riders!
Oh yeah, Priceonomics is hiring engineers!