How to Lock a Bicycle

A photographic guide to bike security

Bike theft is a deterrent against riding for some potential cyclists—especially those who’ve lost bicycles in the past—but attention to bike locking can help secure your bicycle against would-be thieves. Our illustrated guide starts with one of our recently arrived commercial bike racks, new enough that it is not yet anchored. Our first tip: make sure your bike rack is secure! Since our rack is not yet installed, these locking scenarios are for demonstration only.

All good bike locking starts with some basic principles:

  • Bike lockers, cages, or putting bikes inside are the best options for long term or overnight parking
  • When parking outside look for:
    • secure, anchored outdoor bike racks
    • bike racks where there are two points of contact with the frame provide security and stability (ie: post-and-ring bollards, inverted-U, loops, staggered wheel-well, wall mount, “coat-hanger” racks)
      • bike racks where there is only one point of contact (wave, small-arm bollard) are good for security when well installed, but can provide less stability to the bike
      • avoid comb racks (also known as grid or schoolyard racks) whose only point of contact is the wheel.
    • good lighting
    • high or medium traffic areas
    • high visibility
  • When buying a U-lock (known in some places as a D-lock), get the smallest one possible. If the lock’s center is filled, it is much harder for a thief to bring tools in to break it.

The Simple-U

A black U-lock is filled by wheel, bike frame, and commercial bike rack
Bike locks are most secure when they are the smallest possible size.

All good bike locking starts with The Simple-U. In this image, you see the U-lock passing through frame, wheel, and outdoor bike rack. It is put through the “back triangle” of the frame, so it does not have much room to slide around, which makes it hard for a thief to manipulate the position of the lock to get a car jack or other lock-breaking tools into it. This position also makes it impossible for the thief to bring the lock to the ground to be smashed. Bikes locked this way in a public place are unlikely to be targeted by thieves, because any work to break through the lock will be obvious to passersby.

The Been-Roped-In

A dark green bike is locked with a u-lock in the back triangle, cabled to the front wheel
An efficient way to commute: bike to the transit stop, park the bike, and take transit the rest of the way.

As with all bicycle locking, this starts with The Simple-U, where the U-lock contains frame, back wheel, and bike rack.

The addition of a cable, locked around the front wheel, makes this the Been-Roped-In style. The cable is hooked by one end to the U-lock after being threaded through itself around the front wheel of the bike. Note that how this cable is positioned through the forks of the bike makes it impossible to spin the wheel and cable to place on the ground. Off the ground positioning makes all locks more difficult to cut through. It also makes any attempt to cut the cable more obvious to people on the street.

Where the bike rack has a rounder/larger width, like these steel circle bike racks (and similar stainless steel circle racks), the cable can also go through the front wheel and around the rack itself for additional security.

The Double-Trouble

This modification uses a second U-lock rather than a cable lock to lock the front wheel to the bicycle frame.

The Lonely-Post

A green bicycle locked to a U-shaped outdoor bike rack is missing its seat
Taking your seat means a thief riding your bike will be uncomfortable and obvious.

Taking a seat off every time you go inside can be impractical, especially with a seat like this one, which is not quick release. However, quick release seats are often targeted, and bringing them with you is one way to make sure you have a seat when riding home.

There are advantages to taking your seat even if it is not quick-release: in a high theft area, pulling out your tools and taking your seat with you can make your bicycle a less attractive target. Most thieves blend in after they’ve stolen a bike by riding nonchalantly away from the scene of the crime. Those that are balanced over a seat-less pole are pretty obvious. They’re also more likely to injure themselves: you’ve made your ride uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

The Quick-but-Careful

A green bike’s front tire is removed and locked with the back tire to an outdoor bicycle rack
If you are only carrying one lock, a U-lock that can secure both tires is a must-have.

When you have quick-release wheels, not locking them is giving them away for free. If you only have a U-lock, remove the front wheel and lock both wheels together with frame and rack, keeping the lock within the rear-triangle. This U-lock was selected specifically for this Quick-but-Careful locking method, having just enough room for two wheels, the frame, and the bicycle rack. There is no way for a thief to get tools into the lock to force it open.

The Locked-and-Loaded

An open black bike locker contains a bike, a helmet, and a pannier.
A bike locker can be used to store gear as well as provide bike safety.

Bike lockers are the most secure form of lock up, especially when leaving a bike for a longer term—three hours or more. Reliance Foundry bike lockers come with a wheel track to help support the bicycle as it is steered in.

A huge benefit to using a bike locker is the space available inside to store gear: panniers, helmet, cycling clothes, and clip shoes no longer have to find a place in a back-room or desk at work.

Other helpful hints and devices

A custom bike seat on an older bike is locked on with bicycle chain
Bicycle locking strategies can involve protecting individual elements like seats or handlebars.

The Seat-Right-Down

One way to secure a seat is to chain or cable it to the frame. On most types of saddle, this will hook through the seat rails. Cables are a common solution if they are small enough to fit through the rails. Some cyclists prefer the thicker, hardier DIY a solution of repurposing old bike chain. Bike chain solutions are more permanent, so the seat should be adjusted to the perfect height first. If a rider is worried about scratches on the bike’s finish, the chain can be slipped through an old inner tube before hooking up.

The Bike-Kabob

Another handy device to prevent wheels from being stolen is the “locking skewer.”

Quick release wheels are clamped to a bike’s frame with the use of something called a skewer, which runs through the axle, and works like a clamp. To put a quick-release wheel on, the axle is placed into slots called dropouts at the bottom of the fork on the bike.
The skewer’s clamping lever is closed, causing the skewer to grab the forks tightly, keeping the wheel on. All it takes is releasing the lever and the bike’s wheel can come out again. They are handy for changing a flat, but are also handy for thieves in the market for wheels.

A locking skewer replaces the easy release lever with a cap that needs a specialized or personalized tool to open. Sometimes, a seat can be locked with the same tool. Different manufacturers offer different solutions, so it is worth deciding on what should be secured this way and then shopping around.

DIY Wrench-in-the-Works

Many of the fixtures on a bicycle have standard hex heads that are tightened and loosened with an Allen key. This means a bike thief interested in parts can carry around a bike tool and harvest what they can. Some cyclists super glue ball bearings into the sockets to prevent this from happening. Acetone can be used to remove the ball bearing if adjustments, replacements, or repairs need to be made.

The Wallflower

Some bikes are dressed up to the nines and attract attention. Others have odd paint, weird stickers, tape on the seats, or distinctive wear. If an incredible bike wears an odd assortment of decorations, it will often be passed by. The thief wants something easy to sell and hard to trace.

There’s no place like home

The chance a bicycle will be stolen increases when the bike is parked outside overnight. For this reason, should a rider return to a bike and find it damaged, figuring out how to get it home is often a good choice. Occasionally a committed bike thief, especially one looking for a specific model of bike, will damage a bicycle so that it might be left overnight, giving the criminal a chance to return and work at length. When bikes are brought inside at the end of the day, their lifetime chance of being stolen falls drastically.

No one should be discouraged from cycling due to fear of theft. A good U-lock and a well installed commercial bike rack will discourage most thieves. Quick release wheels need additional attention, and can be locked with a cable, a second u-lock, or locking skewers. For additional security in high theft areas, ball bearings in bike sockets can prevent a bike being stripped for parts, and a chain or cable through the seat can keep it safe. For longer term parking, a bike locker can be a home away from home, getting the bike off the street and preventing it from being a target.

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