Lock em up: How to lock your bike correctly!

A far too common scenario: You lock your bike up in order to run some errands only to return to find it missing parts, or worse, gone entirely. Bike theft is a serious (and very annoying) problem but there are steps you can take to minimize the chances of your bike being stolen.

There are many reasons why people don’t lock their bikes correctly, so I’m going to focus on the top two: lack of knowledge and poorly designed bike locking structures. As a heads up, it’s important to recognize that not all bikes will be able to use this advice verbatim. Baskets may interfere with locking while recumbents and even BMX bikes might not have the same geometry to make these techniques work. What’s important is that you identify where the critical points are on your bicycle and take the proper measures to secure them.

Photo by: Daniel Oines

Doing it right!

Bicycle locks serve a dual purpose in terms of protecting your sweet ride. The most obvious is that they act as a physical link to secure the bike to a non-movable object. Simply speaking, a bike lock stops anyone from just waltzing past and taking it with them.

The second role a lock (and proper locking technique) serves is of deterrence. Bike thieves (like any other thief!) don’t usually have a lot of time when it comes to stealing. The more hurdles you place in front of their way, the more time it will take them to circumvent these measures and the greater the likelihood they will choose to steal a different bike instead. To a thief, a whole bike is the most preferred target but if they can’t get that, in order of value they’ll go after:

  1. The rear wheel;
  2. The front wheel;
  3. The seat and seat post;
  4. Accessories such as bike lights, and finally;
  5. Random parts like levers, shifters, entire quills, etc.

As rear wheels have a cassette (the rear gears) and freewheel, they are almost twice as expensive as a front wheel to replace.  Having parts of your bike stolen sucks, but if it happens, it’s far more preferable to lose a part of lesser value than a more expensive one.

Lock em up!

To effectively secure your bike, you’ll need two locks; a primary one such as a U-lock and a secondary one such as another U-lock, chain or cable. If you have two U-locks or two sturdy bicycle chains you’re all set, but if you’re using a cable lock as your secondary as I assume many people are, how you use your locks is very important.


U-lock

Chain lock

Keyed cable lock

Combination cable lock

Looped end cable

When using a U-lock and cable, the cable should only be used for securing lesser expensive parts like the front wheel and the seat. Cable locks can be cut in a matter of seconds and are therefore significantly inferior to even a cheap U-lock.

Note: If you only carry one lock with you, and your front wheel has quick release hubs, either switch the skewers to locking or bolt types or remove your front wheel and lock it with the rear wheel to the rack.
If you have a quick release seat post, do the same or remove it and take it with you.

Warning! If you are only using a cable lock to secure your bike, STOP and go buy a proper lock right now. I’m serious! 

If you carry only a single U-lock, this should be used to secure the rear wheel and frame and there are two schools of thought about which way to do it is better. In my opinion, both are equally effective since in both cases the weakest link remains the lock.

The first method comes from Sheldon Brown and involves only locking the rear wheel to a solid object by passing the U-lock through the rear triangle of the frame.

U-lock around solid object and section of rear wheel inside the frame’s rear triangle.

This method works because while the rear wheel can be unbolted from the frame, the thief would still need to pass the entire rim through the rear triangle which is impossible due to its size, or cut the rim to free the frame. If you use a small U-lock such as a Kryptonite mini (pictured in the photo), this may be the only way to secure the rear wheel and frame anyway.

While it is true that with this method the bicycle’s security can be compromised by cutting through the rim, one needs to consider the effort required in doing so and the probability that the thief would most likely just cut the lock instead.

The second method consists of wrapping the U-lock around the frame, rear wheel and the solid object. This method ensures the frame itself is directly secured, however with a smaller U-lock or if you remove and lock your front wheel with the rear wheel, this may be difficult to do.

The advantage to this method, especially with larger size U-locks, is that it minimizes the amount of available space a thief has to insert a jack or pry bar between the shackles.

U-lock around solid object, rear wheel and solid object.

No excuse!

What’s the point in lugging around a 2 kilogram Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit if you’re going to ‘fahget’ to lock your bike properly? It’s like buying a home alarm system only to leave it off and the windows wide open when you’re on vacation. Even the most expensive lock can be rendered useless if it’s not being used correctly.

Get in the habit of locking your bike correctly each and every time. If it’s a stop for a coffee or a quick dash into the bank, make a habit of securing your bike correctly and it’ll become second nature before you know it.

Rack em up!

Part of the reason why bikes are stolen can be attributed to poor rack design. Many bicycle racks are not designed with security in mind and are instead made to look aesthetically pleasing or occupy as little space as possible. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if most designs were conceived by people who don’t even ride bicycles.

A quality rack should provide two points of contact, should be made with quality materials, be properly secured to the ground and should be located in a high-visibility area.

The following are some of the common variations of bicycle racks that can be found out in the wild and how each rack can be better utilized to protect your ride. For simplicity sake, all examples are provided with the presumption that the cyclist is using a U-lock and a cable (either with an in-line key or combination lock or of the looped end variety).

Post and ring

The post and ring lock is pretty much a symbol for cycling in Toronto. With over 17,000 in use across the city, the bike rings are famous due to their design and because of their historical significance. Since then, adaptations of the post and ring can be found in many cities around the world. A benefit to the post and ring is that it offers two contact points for two bicycles to be secured. To park at one, the bicycle is secured to the post with the chainring (the front gears) facing outwards.

Why the post?

There is a known vulnerability with Toronto’s post and ring racks where a sturdy bar inserted between the ring and the post can be used to force the ring to snap.

Since the ring snaps at it’s weakest point which is adjacent to where the ring connects with the post, a thief would need to remove both sides of the ring before sliding the bike upwards off the post.

Note: a project is underway to replace the rings with a new reinforced version. As well, some posts have two rings installed as a temporary countermeasure.

Bike locked to post, not ring.

However, when a single bike is already parked at the post it’s a 50/50 chance they’re parked backwards, so you may need to park in the opposite direction to avoid the handlebars from banging.

Hanger racks

Hanger racks are a fairly common variation and can usually be found in places like universities, businesses and bicycle parking spaces adjacent to public transit hubs. These types of racks are identifiable by their horizontal top bar with perpendicular triangles or rings hanging from it. Most people use this type of rack by pushing their bike in front-first. The problem with doing it this way is that since the horizontal bar is too low, you’re forced into a predicament: Either you use your U-lock to secure your front wheel and frame to the rack or you secure your rear wheel and frame with the U-lock and use the cable to keep it connected to the rack.

When using a U-lock and cable, parking front first means you either have to leave your more expensive rear secured with an easy to compromise cable or secure the rear with the U-lock and use the cable to lock it all to the rack!

To fix this problem, simply flip your bike around and park it rear first! Doing so allows you to secure your frame and more expensive rear wheel with the U-lock while using the cable to secure the front wheel to the frame. Plus as an added bonus, you won’t have to deal with untangling your handlebars from someone else’s bike when you leave.

Parked backwards, the rear wheel and frame are now properly secured. Hurrah!

A, H and J-racks

While the hanger racks can be adapted to properly secure your bike, it is much harder with A, H and J-racks (named because when seen from the profile, the rack forms one of these letters). This type of rack has vertical ‘prison bars’ which you are supposed to push your front wheel through.

Ignoring the point that bikes with wheels wider than a road bike will probably not fit between the bars, it is nearly impossible to secure a bike properly to these types of racks as the top horizontal bar restricts how far in the bike can be placed. This design forces you to use the U-lock on the front wheel only and secure the rear wheel and frame with a cable.

This particular rack in question also had the added bonus of not even being secured to the ground which is great news if you’re a bike thief with a pickup truck.


Parking at an A, H or J-rack is a great way to make sure that only your front wheel is there when you get back.

If you have to park in one of these racks, the best places are on either side where the vertical beams are located. Here you can at least secure the bike by parking backwards and  using your cable to keep that front wheel where it belongs.


If you must, this is the only secure way to park in these types of racks if you care to see your bike again.

‘Lowboy’ floor racks

There is a special place in hell reserved for people who design racks like this and the businesses who use them to serve their cyclist customers. Floor racks are designed for you to roll your wheel in and say goodbye to the rest of the bike. Like the J-rack, the design of the floor rack makes it almost impossible to secure your bike with a U-lock unless you turn your bike upside down.

As well, since the weight of the bicycle is supported only by the wheel, you end up putting an excessive amount of lateral force on the rim.


Note: While the white bike’s frame is locked to the rack, the rear and front wheels have quick release levers and are not secured. Bonus points: Secondary cable lock isn’t even being used!

Variations of the floor rack exist, from the basic curved corners type like the example above to the multi-level platform. How they look for the most part doesn’t matter: They’re pretty much all shit. Unfortunately, these types of racks are favoured by businesses that want to call themselves ‘cycle friendly’ but don’t want to invest resources or space for cyclists. There are however variations of the floor rack which are slightly better.


Floor rack with vertical support brace.

These types of racks still use the traditional floor mounted wheel anchor but offer a vertical support brace. While a marked improvement since they provide a means to attach a U-lock to the frame and wheel, these variations still provide only one point of contact and only secure if the bike is parked backwards.


While this is still not a great rack, parking backwards will keep the frame and the rear wheel hopefully in place. (Yes, I forgot my cable ^_^)

Mini inverted U racks

On Bloor Between Church Street and University Avenue, you’ll find a series of bicycle racks that were implemented during the 2008-10 Bloor Street revitalization project. These racks are essentially inverted U’s but are so damn small and boxy they actually are quite difficult to use properly.

Part of the problem is that these racks are wider than almost all U-locks manufactured, meaning it is virtually impossible to secure your frame, rear wheel and front wheel with a single lock. Also because of the shallow depth of the lock, it can be very difficult to get your bike close enough to the post without butting into the other bike.


At a width of 3.25″ this U-lock isn’t wide enough for the rack…

… and at a height of 7″, it makes locking a tight squeeze…

… which means that when you finally get it locked, you’re more exhausted than the ride there.

With this type of rack, the ‘Sheldon Brown’ technique is impossible to do unless the rack is unoccupied and you lock your bike with the open section perpendicular to your frame and not parallel (i.e. in the picture above, the bike is rotated 90* around the post in either direction).

I’m really not sure who designed these racks, let alone allowed this deviation from the City of Toronto’s Guidelines for the Design and Management of Bicycle Parking Facilities since only one point of contact is made.

Wrap it up Kate…

Locking properly isn’t fool proof and at the end of the day if a thief really wants your bike, there’s a good chance they’ll get it. Some people who’ve been a victim of bike theft get lucky and recover it later, but for the rest it’s never seen again. By minimizing the ease in which your bike is stolen, you can at least maximize the odds that when you return it’s waiting just where you left it, and in some regards that’s the best anyone could ask for.

If you have any advice or opinions about my suggestions (especially if you think I’m wrong on something) let me know in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Lock em up: How to lock your bike correctly!”

  1. Great post, I’ll have to try some of these (I ride around with a 2 kilogram Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit). Question and a comment though:

    Re: post and ring, does locking it to the rear wheel secure the bike so that it stays upright? This doesn’t have much to do with theft prevention, but I’ve always locked mine up near the top, because I find it annoying when there’s another bike locked to a post, and it falls over if you so much as tap it. I consider it common courtesy to make sure your bike doesn’t end up sprawled out on the sidewalk, in the way of pedestrians or other bikes.

    And in the case of the hanging rack, I guess people with rear racks+basket setups are SOL on the rear wheel option.

    1. I haven’t found that by locking this way the bike has any opportunity to fall over, probably because the lower triangle stops it from leaning more than about 25* from upright and locking through the wheel prevents rolling. Also, the higher on the wheel you lock the bike, the less lean you’ll get.

      I think most bikes end up being sprawled out on the sidewalk when they’re locked only to the down or top tubes or if a cable lock is loosely used. Since they’re not snug to the post, the have a good chance of collapsing.

      Baskets are indeed a problem and there’s no real way around that depending on how big the basket is and how far the hangers protrude. For hanger racks if they are largely unoccupied, locking on the periphery is perhaps the next best solution, but it’s going to take some creativity. Same goes for any type of rack that offers little lateral clearances on either side.

      ^kn

  2. This post about bike parking, locks and racks is really good. It is one of the better written ones around, and the pictures are quite helpful as well.

    However, you should have added the disclaimer “Your Mileage May Vary”, as you make a critical assumption that turns out not to be as useful for many of us as it could be. That assumption is that we are all riding full sized adult sized bikes with full a double triangle safety frame. When we start using folding bikes, kid sized bikes, or alternate frame geometries, some racks start to have more advantages than this post gives than credit for; meanwhile the other racks you praise become completely useless.

    As I have discovered with my own kids’ bikes, things become very different. However, I will agree that A,H,J Style (aka “Picket Fence”) style racks are utterly useless, and deserve the same special place in hell as the “Lowboy” (aka “Ankle Breaker”) style racks.

    The “Floor rack with vertical support brace” aka “Peak’s Campus Racks” are what the city currently installs for Bike Corals in the city, and actually are much better than what this post would suggest. You suggest that the ONLY way to use a U-Lock is on the back wheel, however being able to lock only the frame with the U-Lock is sufficient provided you are using a second lock, like a cable lock. This rack allows the fame to securely locked to the rack with a U-Lock, even with different frame styles and sizes. Personally, I have yet to find a bike that this rack is not compatible with. Everything in my family’s fleet of bikes have fit and been locked in this rack.

    Kids bikes with wheels less than 24 inches (less than 60cm) cannot use the “Hanger Style” racks at all. This is a useless rack style for use in Junior Schools, or in high schools where kids ride BMX bikes.

    Lastly, I agree that the City’s Post & Rings (aka Lolipops) are great, as just about any bicycle can be locked securely to it. However, like on-street parking, they are only intended for short-term use (ie less than three hours). Employers, retailers, schools, and other destinations all have to do more than rely on the city to install Post & Rings for those of us who ride bikes.

    1. That’s very true, I did skip over other types of bicycles when putting this together and the fact that some riders have baskets on their bikes. An error on my part indeed but I’m glad you pointed it out.

      For the most part, adaptations of these strategies can be made on a range of bikes, including mixtes, single tube and step-throughs, however you’re right in that folding, some full suspension and bmx bikes may have to find an alternative way. As well, size indeed matters as some cycles can better utilize a design that works poorly on another. Perhaps I was a bit broad reaching with my title when I addressed this as a definitive guide for locking a bike as it certainly is not and a disclaimer is a good idea for me to add.

      The reason I’ve stated that riders with a single U-lock should only use it on the rear is because that and the frame are the most valuable items and therefore should be secured as best as possible. I’ve got a real problem with cable locks as they offer an illusion of safety but are actually incredibly easy to cut. If you have quick release wheels and only a cable securing them, I give it only a few seconds before it can be taken off the bike.

      In a week or two I’ll be making a video on cable lock vulnerabilities to see how fast they can be compromised with conventional tools. I think the results will be quite interesting and will shed light on how unreliable cable locks really are… or I’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out I was wrong.

      ^ kn

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