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.
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:
- The rear wheel;
- The front wheel;
- The seat and seat post;
- Accessories such as bike lights, and finally;
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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!