Bicycle Locks: Who is Deterred?

Cyclists have all sorts of ideas about whether, when, and how to lock a bike. On this subject, there are two trains of thought. One side has a casual attitude and thinks that bike theft won’t happen to them. They do things like leaving a bike, unattended, outside of a shop while running in for a minute to buy something  —  and then assuming that no one will take it while they’re gone. Or, they use a flimsy lock because the bike is outside, in broad daylight, where no one will have the nerve to steal it.

The other side’s mindset rests upon the idea that a bike is vulnerable to theft no matter what they do, for which reason they go to great lengths to secure their bikes, at all costs. By researching the latest anti-theft gadgets, and installing as many of them as possible, they hope to thwart common methods of bike theft. Such actions reduce the probability of their bikes being targeted for theft. In addition to the anti-theft measures, they invest in (and use) heavy duty locks with the highest strength ratings.

The key difference between these two trains of thought is not the safety of the bikes, but how long it would take a determined thief to steal the bikes.

A thief could walk off with or steal the bikes of the first group without much effort. Leaving a bike unattended, for even a short period of time, is an invitation for theft. Using a flimsy lock, like a thin gauge cable, makes it a cinch to cut the lock with common tools. Anyone can steal a bike under these circumstances.

By investing in anti-theft devices and heavy duty locks, the latter group makes their bikes less attractive targets for casual thieves. Well locked bikes will be passed over for easier, poorly locked bikes. But, if a bike has value — and most bikes do  — professional thieves, armed with appropriate tools, will steal them anyway.

No lock is infallible, and no bike is immune from theft. So, when the subject of securing a bike comes up, a balance must be struck between a cyclist’s convenience and protecting the bike.

The first thing that comes to mind is the lock itself. Among the best locks are the heavy gauge U-locks. These locks are rated by how difficult it should be for a thief to defeat them. While it takes longer to break this type of lock, the most secure ones are heavy, often weighing in the range of 5 pounds.

For cyclists whose bikes weigh 20 pounds or less, a 5-pound lock adds a significant amount of weight to the bike. Add this on to a bike fully loaded for commuting or running errands and the weight difference would be noticeable. A heavy lock discourages cyclists who want to keep their bikes as light as possible. Therefore, in this case, locking the bike is a deterrent to the cyclist, not the thief.

To combat this problem, cyclists might choose a lighter U-lock or a heavy gauge cable lock. The lighter weight will make locking a bike less of a burden for the cyclist, but it will also be less of a deterrent to the thief.

Additional strategies include combining locks by using a U-lock for the frame, with a cable lock to secure both wheels and the saddle. Small cables are available for securing just the saddle, but a long cable can be run through the front wheel and saddle and then secured with the U-lock placed around the rear wheel. Strategies of this type won’t protect all components from theft  —  just the most sought after ones  —  since thieves have been known to remove any and all parts of a bike for resale.

As upsetting as losing components may be, it beats losing the whole bike. Various products are available to protect wheels, saddles, and handlebars, however, unless cyclists park their bikes in high crime areas, going to this amount of trouble is more of a deterrent to riding a bicycle than to theft.

How well a bike is locked can have as much effect on whether it gets stolen as the type of lock used. Locking the bike in a well traveled, well lit area makes it a less attractive target to all but the most brazen thieves. Proper techniques, such as placing a U-lock through the rear wheel and securing the bike to a solid object, also make a bike harder to steal.

Too often cyclists lock their bikes to chainlink fences or other objects that are easy to break, lift or move. Having a strong lock won’t help if the object a bike is locked to makes it easy to remove the bike.

Before leaving a bike anywhere, a cyclist should consider what type of bike is being locked and where. In some situations a smaller U-lock through the back wheel will make it harder for a thief to gain the leverage required to break the lock. A longer lock may be a better choice in other situations, such as when the bike can’t be moved closer to a pole or when locking the bike through the rear rim and chainstays is preferable.

Another often overlooked strategy is removing the front wheel or seatpost and saddle to make the bike unrideable. Doing this will deter the casual thief who intends to ride off on the bike, but not the professional thief who may have a vehicle waiting nearby to transport the bike.

So, when it comes to bicycle locks, who is deterred? Sometimes it’s the cyclist, who is inconvenienced by the weight of the lock(s) and the burden of planning how to avoid theft. Other times, the thief is deterred when a bike is in a bad location for theft, or when a locking method foils their plans by increasing the time it will take them to steal the bike. In any event, locks are a deterrent. The question is: to who?




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