Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Locking Up Your Beloved Bicycle

I recently asked a friend who started bike commuting back in May how it was going. Not so well, it turns out. His rear wheel was stolen weeks ago and he hasn’t replaced it yet due to the cost. I asked him how his bike was locked. Apparently, he had a single U-lock through the front wheel and inside the diamond frame, secured to a sign post. I see bikes locked this way all over town, essentially securing the front wheel and frame but leaving the valuable rear wheel and hub (especially valuable if it’s an internal gear hub) up for grabs.

Similarly, a reader recently related to us how his bike was stolen:

The front tire was U-Locked to a bike rack and the frame cable locked to the U-lock and the whole set up was in the basement of my apartment building which is supposed to be locked all the time. Somebody got in somehow, cut the cable, stole somebody else's front tire and left me bike-less

This was an even worse lock-up job than my friend's, even though the reader used two locks! So before I talk bike locks, I implore everyone who loves their bike to brush up on how to secure it by visiting Sheldon brown’s “lock strategy” page.

Sheldon Brown Lock Strategy

Here’s a quick summary. You need two locks, a mini U-lock and a short cable. Here's Sheldon Brown's explanation:

The cable lock will secure your front wheel to the frame and any convenient object, and the U-lock will secure your rear wheel and frame. If you have a quick-release seatpost bolt, replace it with an Allen head bolt, and stop worrying about having your saddle stolen.

The U-lock can be a mini because it only needs to go around the rear rim and tire. It does not need to go around the frame as long as it is somewhere in the rear triangle.

Sheldon Brown demonstrates how to lock a bike. Credit: Sheldon Brown.

U-lock/Cable Lock Combos

I recently tested an Onguard lock that includes a mini U-lock and a cable.

Tested lock. Credit:

Let’s concede up front that this is not going to be as good as two separate locks. Unless you bring a padlock for the cable lock, the thief only needs to defeat the mini U-lock. But most thieves don’t even mess with U-locks because, as the two incidents above illustrate, there's much easier prey to be found and bolt cutters are the tool of choice. Here's my Raleigh fixed gear, secured with the Onguard lock combo:

Secure: Neither wheel can be stolen without first defeating a lock. Click for big. Credit: freewheel

It was the only bike on the rack with both wheels secured!

I like the fact that Onguard is selling the mini U-lock/cable combo. It’s an acknowledgement that Sheldon Brown, as usual, was right, and it makes it convenient for the consumer to get what they need in a single purchase. If this becomes the industry standard, I think we’ll see less wheel thefts and fewer discouraged newbie cyclists.


Adam said...

Sheldon Brown's theory about bike locking, that it is difficult/nearly impossible to cut through the rim, has been debunked. He was a great guy, and certainly knew his stuff, but he was dead wrong on that count:

When using a U-lock, always secure the frame itself to a stationary object, and don't use the ultra tiny ones that can't go through both the frame and a wheel rim at the same time. I put the U-lock through ether the seat or chain stays AND through the spokes, as my rim and fender are too large for a standard u-lock width. I also use locking skewers instead of quick release (there's no good reason for quick release unless you're in a race) and recommend a short independent supplemental locking cable, to lock the front wheel to either another stationary object or to the frame itself (not to the U-lock, as if you use an independent locking cable a thief needs to foil two locks to steal the bicycle - plus long cables are clumsy and threading through the wheel and the u-lock is a pain in the butt - and leave thieves w/ only a single lock to foil)

Freewheel said...

Adam, that's no debunking. As Sheldon Brown says, "this just doesn't happen in the real world." Consider how conspicuous the thief has to be, the damage inflicted on the coveted bike, and the energy expended. That just doesn't happen in the real world, and unless you can cite a real occurrence (as opposed to a youtube setup), Sheldon Brown has not been debunked at all.

Freewheel said...

PSA: If you're considering taking a hacksaw to your bike for the purpose of a youtube video, please consider donating your bike to Bikes For The World or some other worthy organization instead.

Anonymous said...

Although it's a little more expensive than the u-lock/cable combo, I greatly prefer using locking skewers like the Pinhead system (I believe OnGuard has a licensed version of it as well). These replace quick release skewers with skewers that can only be removed with a special wrench that comes with the skewers. Some sets also include a seatpost bolt and stem bolt. This allows me to just carry a smaller u-lock which I lock to just the frame on the main triangle.

Anonymous said...

Barry Mason summed it up with two good locks.
Lock your front wheel and forks to a bike stand and your rear wheel and frame to the bike stand. If you cant lock your front wheel to to a bike stand then lock it to the frame and use a D or chain lock as your main lock.
I use Pitlock security skewers and bolts on my bikes to avoid the wheels, saddle stem, and A head from being taken, but I still use two good locks to avoid the bike from being twisted on itself and snapping the lock - you don't need any tools to pinch a bike!
Lock the bike frame at two points and it cant be twisted.
Sheldon Browns downfall on locking just the back wheel is if somebody tries to steal your bike and yanks it or it gets pushed by accident it can cause the back wheel to buckle.

James Knaack said...

I also use and recommend the Pitlock locking skewers; although they are pricey, at around $120 for a full set securing the headset, seatpost, and front and rear wheels, the convenience of needing only to carry a u-lock and the peace of mind of not worrying whether my bike will be intact when I return are priceless. Although I have also used your demonstrated approach of cabling the front tire to the U-lock, I am not sure if it is accurate to say that a prospective thief would need to defeat the U-lock before stealing either wheel; wouldn't the thief be able to make off with the front wheel after simply cutting the cable?

Freewheel said...

carfreepvd - thanks for mentioning the pinhead system. Another option - though not as secure -- would be old bolt-on wheels. The thief would need a wrench, but probably would not be interested in a front wheel without QR anyway.

Anon - Barry Mason was like the Chef Ramsey of bike racks! He is was right, of course, two high quality U-locks (or D-locks if you prefer) are the most secure. But most cyclists don't want to carry one heavy U-lock around with them, let alone two.

James - you're right, the front wheel can be stolen by cutting the cable.

graciela. said...

RIght now I use a u-lock for rear tire+frame, and I use the cable for the saddle and front tire. Wish I had a better idea of securing the saddle since cables are easily cut. Like others, I'm thinking 2 ulocks are probably better to secure both tires. I have to suck it up and just get another one.

It takes me like a good 8 minutes to lock up my bike. Kind of crazy but I figure there will be lower hanging fruit to grab. I see badly locked bikes all the time. I was thinking of making some leaflets or something and putting them on those bikes. No one likes a lecture, I guess. But I see baskets, quick releases, accessories left like we live in a different kind of world.

Anonymous said...

We tried to cut an Onguard lock with a 4 foot pair of bolt cutters and a 175 lb man with his feet of the ground on the top handle and the bottom handle on the ground all it did was scratch the U
It was my bike

kfg said...

"skewers that can only be removed with a special wrench"

They've invented something that works even better with a special wrench. They call it a "nut."

Tom said...

I was visiting the beach last week (Deleware). There were 42 bicycles at the beach entrance on my street. They were mostly beach cruisers with trailers and baskets and the like. How many of them were locked? None.

Anonymous said...

More on parking your bike here:

Neil Pennington said...

Locks that are made especially for bicycles are better than buying just any type of lock. I’ve learned this from my locksmith Perth friend. I have three different types of lock including that U-lock.