A bike lock might be the only thing that stands in between having a bike or not. According to the National Bike Registry, 1.5 million bikes are stolen a year!
Bikes can be stolen from outside homes, restaurants, the back of cars, nearly anywhere. College campuses are one of the places that have the highest number of bicycle thefts reported each year. The University of California reports that more than half of the personal property crime that they deal with each year involves a stolen bike.
Why Bike Locks are Important
In a study done with 2,000 participating bicycle owners the participants reported the following sad – but – true – facts.
- Nearly one half of the study participants had a bike stolen at some point in their life. Most of those people had more than one bicycle stolen from them in their life. Out of the 2,000 participants, a whopping 961 of them reported that they had been victims to bicycle theft.
- Bicycle recovery is not always the top priority of the local police departments. The authorities have violent and severe crimes to deal with first, and stolen personal property like bicycles is not considered something of major importance.
- If your bike is stolen, the odds tell us you probably won’t find your bike again. Only 2.4 percent of stolen bicycles are ever recovered, even if the police actively search for the missing item.
- Even if your bike has been registered and photographed, there is a slim chance of finding the bike again
- Only 36% of the people who have a bicycle stolen report the theft to the authorities
- Only 8 1/2% of bike owners take the time to register their bikes with the authorities
- The majority of bicycle thefts occur within two miles of your home. Most people are more trusting in their own neighborhoods and of the bike owners that have bike locks more than one half of those owners said they often forget to lock their bikes if they are riding in their own neighborhood or in a familiar neighborhood. I know — I’ve had two bikes stolen from my own yard in my lifetime! I found one again a few blocks away, but the other was gone forever.
Let’s say you have invested in a great new bike. Maybe it is a commuter bike, or perhaps you splurged on a nice road bike. You got the model you wanted, had it fitted to that it fits you like a glove. You love riding it. The problem is that when you aren’t riding it, sometimes it needs to be in a spot where thieves can spot it.
You need a bike lock if you leave your bike in public or quasi-public areas for any time at all. Undoubtedly some of you are saying that you cannot be certain that your bike will not be tampered with or stolen even if you have a bike lock in place. Unfortunately that statement is true, but with the newer bike locks you can be far more certain that your bike will stay safely where you left it, and since a crook will have to work ten times as hard to steal a bike with the newer lock technology in place, they are far less likely to even try to take your bike.
Types of Bike Locks
U – Locks
U- Locks are exactly what they sound like — a big ‘U’. All things being equal, U-shaped locks tend to be highly effective, assuming the lock is of good quality and the right size for the bike. They can be bulky, but they are resistant to tools like hammers and chisels. The average bike thief is not going to easily break the horseshoe shaped piece of metal. These locks have a horseshoe shaped, thick piece of metal meant to be be placed around a pole or stabilized object and around the frame of the bike. To cut one, you need to be carrying some pretty serious tools.
You can buy U–locks in small to medium sizes and in large sizes. The smaller versions will lock one wheel of the bike to an immobile object and the larger locks will lock both wheels to the immobile object.
U-locks can be a bit clunky to carry around, a consideration for some folks.
If the U–lock that you use is too large for the bike you have then there will be enough of a gap left after you lock the bike to a pole that a thief could get a crowbar, or some other pry bar between the locking mechanism and the pole and gain enough leverage to break away the lock. You want it to be snug, but not so tight that you can’t can cover what you want with the lock. And keep in mind that a fat bike, electric bike, or other abnormally-shaped bike might have funky dimensions that cause many U-locks to not fit right.
Cable locks are a mixed bag. They are easy to use and convenient, but they just don’t protect your bike as well as the other options.
Cable locks are very versatile and they are easy to thread the cable around the frame of the bike and around a stable object. They are a deterrent to bike theft, but they are not going to secure your bike as well as a U-Lock would because a good pair of bolt cutters will normally cut through the cable and the thief can ride away on your bike.
We think of cable locks as something you use when you are just running in to a coffee shop for a few minutes. They are easy to carry around, because they coil up into a small profile and can easily fit in to a backpack, jacket pocket, or you can even wrap it around your seatpost. They also are nice to snake around your bike when transporting it on a car bike rack. That extra bit of deterrent can be just enough to keep someone from pulling your bike off the carrier when you are in a store paying for your gas.
You can buy cable locks that have thicker reinforced cable — they are much harder for a thief to cut. The mistake a lot of people make is they buy a cable lock that has a thick material and then they use a padlock that is easy to cut to lock the two ends of the cable together.
When you buy a thicker chain to make it harder for a thief to steal your bike make sure that you also buy a padlock that is just as sturdy and going to be hard for the thief to cut or break. A thief will find the weakeast point.
Chain locks are similar to cable locks in that they are long, can roll-up, and are flexible enough to snake through various parts of the bike.
Chain locks are usually seen as stronger than cable locks, because the steel is thicker. However, due to the design of a chain — especially a circular one — they can sometimes be easily cut because a thief can get a good grip on the chain link with the cutter. It is best to use a chain with more square-shaped links. Just be sure the lock you buy is made specifically for being a bike lock, with a protection coating. Just any old chain will be to harsh on your bike frame.
If you look closely, bike messengers often use chain locks. It provides a combination of convenience (they need to come and go quickly) and some level of protection.
Locking Wheel or Seat Skewers
These theft deterrents are pretty easy to install if you have the special little wrench that comes with the skewer. Do not lose that little wrench because you are going to need it again in the future. The goal of these locks are to prevent your $400 rim or your $150 saddle from being stolen. You still need to use another broader bike lock at the same time.
The sad part about the locking wheel or or seat skewers is that they are as convenient for the thieves as they are for the bike owners. They are not all that hard to find and replicate. However, if you are simply planning to leave your bike somewhere for an hour or two, you might decrease the odds of your bike being the one that is targeted. Probably not the ideal overnight solution, though, if used by itself.
Bike Locks with Keys
In the past, people used the keyed bike locks that had cylindrical keys, and their biggest problem was anyone who had a ballpoint pen could open the lock. The newer keyed locks have been designed where they can no longer be easily picked to open.
Most of your U-Locks and cable locks require that you have a lock, like a keyed lock to hold the lock components together, and some of these locks with come with the keyed lock.
Most manufacturers give you two keys to open the lock so you have a spare that you can rely on if you ever lose or misplace your key.
Combination Bike Locks
The alternative to the keyed lock is the combination lock. You can stop worrying about someone picking your lock or about you losing your lock key when you have a combination lock in place.
Most combination locks require you to remember a four digit code that opens the locking mechanisms. These locks are commonly seen in conjunction with cable locks. They tend to work pretty well, but if someone has the right equipment, it all really comes down to the overall strength of the lock.
GPS and Chip-Enabled Locks
We are actively watching the chip-enabled lock market. There are some intriguing advancements out there from smaller startup companies, promising to provide a way for you to protect your bike through technology and GPS. The idea is that you would have a chip somewhere in your bike, enabling two things to happen.
First, when paired with an app, the bike would begin to make noise or chirp if it was taken while the alarm was enabled. Seems nice in theory, but we all know that as many as 99% of all car alarm triggers are actually false alarms. We don’t want the same thing happening to bikes.
Second, the idea is that if your bike was taken, you could figure out where it was, just like a Find My Iphone app does with your device. This idea has more merit, assuming a thief does not know how to easily remove the chip when he or she takes your bike.
More to come, as this market is still evolving and proving itself. We are reasonably confident, however, that within two or three years there will be reliable GPS-enabled options out there for the mass market, and we will be among the first to get one. What a gamechanger it could be for those of us who own bikes that we spent a lot of money on.
Using more than one lock
A lot of people have discovered that the safest way to secure their bikes is to use more than one type of lock at the same time. Many people use the u-locks to secure the main frame of their bikes to a strong bike rack and then they use a cable lock to lock their wheels or lock parts of their bike that might be easy to remove so a thief would have to take the time to get past two locking systems in order to gain access to their bikes.
Some people use more than one cable lock so they can thread a cable lock through the spokes of both tires and then around the frame of the bike and around a sturdy immobile object like a metal pole. Many people recommend this kind of dual-lock combination as the best approach.
Our 5 Favorite Bike Locks for 2021
New York 1210 Chain Lock
The New York Chain 1210 bicycle lock works best with an Evolution series – 4 14mm bike disc lock. This locking system is manufactured by Kryptonite, one of our favorite brands when it comes to lock devices. The New York 1210 is made of a 12mm six sided chain formed out of 3T hardened manganese steel so it is almost impossible to cut this chain. A thief has to be carrying a serious tool to make a dent in it.
It has a protective nylon cover over the chain and it has hook and loop fasteners that the lock is placed through to hold the pieces in place. The 4 disc lock has a 14mm max force steel shackle that is cut resistant, and the cylinder of the lock has been reinforced so it is drill and pick resistant. It even comes with a sliding dust cover that protects the internal portions of your cylinder and extends the lock life. Find it here on Amazon.
Kryptonite LS U Lock – Best U Lock
We mentioned earlier that U-Locks have been found to be the most effective, that is why this is the most secure lock on our list. The Kryptonite 2079 New U Evolution Heavy Duty Bicycle U – lock also comes with a 4’ Kryptoflex double loop bike cable for securing your wheel. We think this is the best U-Lock on the popular market today.
The U-Lock has a hardened double deadbolt designed so twisting the lock off of this system is going to be virtually impossible to do. It also has a disc style cylinder that is made to be both pick and drill resistant. The 13mm steel is strong enough to give a thief a run for their money….. at a minimum, they are going to need to be traveling with some serious tools if they want to cut it. It resists smaller bolt cutters and leverage attacks done with a crowbar or pry bar.
It comes with three keys and an LED key fob that you can replace if you desire to do so. Find it here on Amazon.
Kryptonite Kryptoflex Cable
The Kryptonite Kryptoflex 1518 Combo cable is a 15mm braided steel cable that is flexible so you can position the way you want it to be through your bike frame, through tire spokes, or however you like. This one comes with a key for the lock, but its close cousin from Kryptonite has an integrated four digit combination lock built on it and you can reset the combination easily. Either one uses similar cable material which is the important part.
This is a great lock for people who want a convenient lock that is easy to carry, or throw into a backpack. It is long enough so you can snake it around many parts of your bike, securing wheels, the frame, and other components.
The cable is designed to be cut resistant so any thief that wants your bike is going to have to work extra hard to get it. Find it here on Amazon.
OnGuard Doberman – Best Coil Lock
This is a cable coil lock that has a steel ball combination lock that is permanently forged to the medium duty 185cm x 12mm self-coiling cable, used to secure your bike to a sturdy pole or other heavy frame. It might be the best coil bike lock of the options that we commonly see on the market.
Having the combination lock built-in prevents you from needing to carry another lock, and the cable coils up into a nice, tight unit, able to be carried easily in a backpack. Any coil bike lock is not something to use for long-term visible storage, but it can be great to secure your bike if you want you need to do a bathroom break or want to run in to a shop for a few minutes. We like the visibility of the numbers on the lock combo, something that some lock makers seem to overlook. Their designers must not have old-person eyes!
A simple coil lock that does its job well. Find it here on Amazon.
Knog Strongman Bike Lock
This is another U-Lock that is fashioned from 13mm hardened steel so it can stand up to the majority of bolt cutters without being damaged, but it has a bit more of a sleek and modern-looking design. The key mechanism is smooth and it has a double lock so if anyone wanted to remove it they would have to make two cuts to do so. A nice touch is the silicon mounting frame, for putting it on to your bike. You obviously wouldn’t do that with a carbon road bike, but if you are trying to lock a more basic bike, it could work well.
The locking space is quite tight, so you can’t get it around anything too large. Find it here on Amazon.
Do Bike Locks Work?
We often are asked if bike locks really work. The fact is that a skilled thief who has tools and really wants your bike can probably get it. The goal of a lock is to deter them. You want to make it difficult enough to take your bike so it isn’t worth the thief’s time. Or, you want it to take enough time so they risk being noticed by someone.
On the other hand, some bikes are stolen by “joyriders”. These are the folks who are really not trying to steal your bike and sell it on the black market, but rather just want a bike to get them somewhere, or aide in their drunken evening, and then they plan to leave the bike along the side of a trail somewhere. For these thieves, a bike lock can work quite well.
Still, if you are cruising around on a $3,000 Felt, it might be best to try to bring it indoors with you. The other popular option is to get a cheap old “townie”, a second bike that you can take places but that won’t be attractive to knowledgeable bike thieves.
What About Bike Tracking Chips, Devices, and Apps?
We are watching the market of bike tracking devices and chips closely. We see several that are getting rounds of funding, and hitting the market in Europe. There are a few available in the U.S., but we do not have enough first-hand experience with them to recommend them. We like the concept, though. You have a chip in your bike, and if it is stolen you track it just like you would with your FindMyPhone app. Seems brilliant, unless the thief can quickly remove the chip.
In fact, the University of California Berkeley used dummy bikes with chips inside them to arrest more than 30 bike thieves, and reduce bike theft by more than 40%. The bike lock of the future may well include a tracking chip and app. Until then, secure your bike!
Other Bike Theft Prevention Tips
- Remember to register your bike when you get it. Take the time to do the registration so that if your bike is stolen then you will be able to provide the authorities with all of the informationthey need to be able to start searching for your property. Lots of recovered bikes sit in police warehouses, but they have no idea who the rightful owner is.
- Do not leave your bike outside at night when thieves have the cover of darkness to hide what they are doing. Bikes can undoubtedly be stolen in the daytime as well, but leaving a bike out at nice is just making it easy for the thief.
- Two or more locks are more secure than just one lock. Many experience bike commuters like to use one U-lock and one chain lock.
- Remember to lock-up your bike when carrying it on a car bike rack. Let’s say you are driving an hour to a nice ride, and decide to go in to a convenience store to grab some snacks. If your bike is not locked to something, it is pretty easy for a thief to have it off your rack in a matter of seconds.
- Do not lock your bike to a tree. You can damage the tree, and if the tree is small in circumference then a thief can just cut the tree to get your bike
- Lock your wheels and your saddles. Thieves can easily snatch these components from your bike so make sure you take precautions to make them hard to remove from your bike.
- Park your bikes with other bikes. There is safety in numbers. Also having other bikes in the bike rack increases the difficulty of getting to the locks on each bike, and the thief will know that they are taking a greater risk of a bike owner catching them in the act.
- Create a file about your bike. Have the serial numbers, receipts where you purchased the bike, and photos of the bike in this file. If your bike is stolen you can easily show the authorities exactly what they are looking for. Consider adding your bike’s info to the National Bike Registry.
- If you leave your bike in your garage go ahead and lock that bike to something permanent in the garage. Most garages are fairly easy to break into and people often leave garage doors open. Of course you likely feel that your bike is safe inside your garage but to make sure it is safe put it on a bike rack that is bolted to the garage and then lock it to the rack.
- Do not give your combination to your bike lock out to other people and if you have to do this then make sure that you change the combination frequently to prevent theft.
Jim is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and has raced in more than 3 dozen USAT-certified races. He is also an avid trail runner and gravel bike rider.
His areas of expertise are in endurance training, cycling, triathlon technique, race direction, and training plans. In addition to writing extensively about the endurance world, he has managed gyms and fitness centers in the US. Jim is a longtime writer for Complete Tri, Compression Design, and his work can be found on the resource pages of many triathlon and cycling clubs in North America.