Bicycle locks, which one to choose?

Almost every type of cyclist owns a bike lock of some type. Most of us purchased one when we bought our bike. Unfortunately these days with the amount of garage/storage break-ins and bike theft, people are finding out the hard way that the lock we use to secure our bikes when out and about are often inadequate for securing our bikes when they are in storage. This has of course always been the case as each different type of bike lock is meant to handle different tasks. Each having their own advantages and disadvantages.

In this post we’ll go over the most popular types of bike locks and their pros and cons, and how best to secure our bikes, not just in general but in specific circumstances. Different types of bike thievery, attacks etc. Knowing what type of attack is likely to take place and where is the first line of defense in securing our valuables.

Thieves:

The bike rack prowler (BRP)-

This is the thief most cyclists are aware of and generally prepared for. They usually are on foot or riding a bike or scooter, scoping different bike racks in an area. Bike rack prowlers are generally looking for the quickest and easiest score. They rarely target specific bikes and instead target locks that they are familiar with. They generally use brute force attacks of either cutting or breaking the lock if it can be done quickly. They look outside places of business, bars, clubs, sports stadiums, college campus etc. Any place lots of bikes are secured outside and for long periods of time. Doesn’t matter how much foot traffic. They are unafraid to cut a cable lock right in front of you as it only takes seconds and they are gone before you can process what happened.

Burglars-

Burglars are thieves who obtain access to controlled areas to take valuables. Either garage break-ins or following a tenant into a bike storage room/area or simply propping a door open or disabling the lock so they can take their time defeating locks or take multiple trips back and forth to take as many valuables as possible. Nearly all burglars are professional thieves. They scope their jobs. They usually work at night. They come prepared with tools for their jobs. They favor the path of least resistance and simplicity with the least likelihood of getting caught. The Watergate burglars for instance followed an employee during normal hours and put a simply piece of scotch tape over the latches of certain doors in order to easily get back in the building overnight to work uninterrupted.

Locks:

U-Lock or D-Lock

This is by far the most popular type of bicycle lock especially in urban areas and has been for some time. They can be purchased for as little as $20 to above $100. Not all are equal in cut resistance or resistance to other types of attacks, but enough different types of U-Locks are so effective against attacks that thieves in general see them and simply move on to easier targets. 

Pros:

Affordability. $20+

Efficacy against BRP’s within reasonable timeframes.

Availability. Can be purchased at any bike shop or good hardware store.

Medium weight, not difficult to throw in a backpack or pannier.

Cons:

Lack of efficacy against burglars. They come prepared to remove these specifically.

Hard to carry without a bag or pannier. Dangling on handlebars can actually damage components. And the mounted mechs to put them on a bike are typically plastics, prone to fail, and take up a ton of frame real estate.

Leaves wheels unlocked without a secondary means to secure.

Cable lock

Just like the name implies, usually secured at the ends with a padlock of some type. They come in a variety of lengths and diameters. These are very highly discouraged in urban settings for securing your bike/frame. BRP’s actively go out looking for bikes secured by cables because they are so easily cut. 

Pros:

Lightweight and compact, usually easy to coil up and carry in a handlebar bag etc.

Great option for cafe stops, or a rural grocery store on a journey/adventure. Any time you’re going to be away from the bike for a few minutes but the bike is within sight and a better lock would be cumbersome.

Great as a secondary lock, where your U-lock can’t reach both wheels.

Availability. Every hardware store or bike shop.

Affordability. This is the cheapest bike lock possible. Can be purchased for under $10.

Cons:

Actively targeted by thieves.

Can be defeated easiest out of all options, and usually in 2 sec or less.

Can take up more bag real estate than other options depending on size.

Efficacy is zero for longer than a few minutes in an urban setting.

Folding/Link locks

Somewhat of a newcomer to the bike industry and my personal favorite for out and about. They are easiest to carry out of all bike lock options, available in a multitude of different strengths, weights, lengths. Has well designed holsters that can easily be bolted to the frame in place of a bottle cage or just as easily tossed in a bag or pannier or even in your back pocket. These locks are specifically designed to be the best possible cross section of convenience and security in enough options to meet the needs of nearly any rider. 

Pros:

Lightweight or heavy, all dependent on what you value.

Compact. Easily the most compact option for any cyclist. Conveniently lives on the bike so it’s there when you need it. Eliminates forgetting your lock at home. (Still gotta remember your keys!)

Efficacy, better than a cheap u-lock and some options will compete with mid-level U-locks. I have had the opportunity to test a variety of link locks via prying, pulling, twisting, hacking, bolt cutters and all attempts were ineffective in normal conditions for reasonable amounts of time. And even the most effective known method to defeat them quickly takes practice and proper technique.

Cons:

Can actually attract attention from curious thieves due to them being new/unusual. I’ve personally had at least 3 attempts made on mine. None of them defeated the locks but did damage one enough that I couldn’t fold it back up anymore. Their design says to thieves that it’ll be easier to defeat than they actually are.

Price is expensive! Usually $70+ for even a basic option.

Availability, only at bike shops and with the current world wide bike parts and accessory shortage, often unavailable.

Lack of efficacy against burglars. The same tools used to defeat u-locks will defeat any link lock.

Can’t typically be used to secure both wheels, the same as a u-lock. Only effective with a secondary means to secure them.

Heavy duty chain locks

These are not the same as chain you get off a large roll at a hardware store. These are hardened steel with links 10mm or greater thickness, squared or octagonal, covered in a sash to protect the frame and ideally cut resistant designed to gum up an angle grinder or other high speed power tools. The best ones will use a padlock with an iron shackle shroud and the shackle will be made of some type of hardened alloy as well.

Pros: (really only one)

Efficacy. These are as tough as it gets as a primary means of securing your bike frame to something solid. They are as resistant to cutting, hacking, pulling, prying as you can get. In fact thieves are more likely to cut something your bike is locked to rather than the lock to try and defeat them. They are so effective you will see them on motorcycles, Vespas, boats, securing gates, all sorts of uses. You can get them in a variety of lengths and dimensions. You can even have them custom made from a locksmith for length, lock, how it’s keyed, fit it with a puck lock like they use to secure shipping containers even.

This is IMHO the only option available that can provide some protection against burglars. Of course they can be cut with the right tools, but even with the right tools and the proper know-how, it is still very time consuming to get through these types of locks when properly utilized, often needing several blades changed out to get through a single link just once and still requiring a second cut to defeat it. If a burglar is looking at bikes in a storage room and all the others have U-locks or no locks, and you have a heavy duty chain, chances are they’ll skip yours over.

Cons:

Expensive! Usually starting $150 and the sky is the limit.

Heavy. The heaviest in fact. And the more secure the heavier they get.

Lack of convenience. Most people who use these locks do not use them out and about. They leave one at home to secure in the garage, and maybe a second one at the workplace. And the more secure they are the more space they can take up. They are the least convenient lock available. Mounting them on the bike can rarely be done without exacerbating wear on the bike especially cables and housing and causing dings and paint damage. Even in a pannier or backpack the weight causes excess wear on the bag and the mounting attachments. 

Availability. You can only get specific options from a locksmith. Some bike shops may have some offerings like the Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit, but for the same price a locksmith can get you set up with a custom lock and chain and even have it keyed to your house key or any other key ideally.

A note on lock picking:

In all my years of experience I have yet to see anyone lose their bike (or any other goods) to a thief via picking. It just doesn’t happen. And given a little bit of thought it’s easy to see why.

Lockpicking is first a means of covert entry. The idea is to get into some type of secured access undetected. Most thieves are never going to return to a targeted place so there is no reason to favor covert means of entry. They want to get in, get valuables, and leave. Why spend X amount of time picking a deadbolt when they can simply break a pane of glass on the door and turn the deadbolt from inside? The same goes for our bikes locked up outside. Why spend any time picking the lock when they can cut the lock?

Lockpicking is second a skillset that requires patience and hours of practice. If a thief has the choice of spending months practicing picking locks vs $35 cable cutter or a $50 hydraulic bolt cutter, which do you think makes more sense?

I mention this as many lock manufacturers will brag about this in their security ratings on the product (security ratings they make up and then self assess to products they designed) and while resistance to picking is certainly not a bad thing, it’s really an unnecessary feature that you should definitely not pay more money for. It is simply better to focus your dollars on other features.

2 Responses

  1. Pretty good. I thought I saw something to rebut, but now I can’t find it.
    You may want to mention the cheap cheap padlocks, like warded and the combo locks like for school lockers.
    I doubled the weight of my Continental with a 5 ft. 3/4″ cable and a Master #5 padlock. Remember, this was 1972-1979.

    1. Yeah, I thought about mentioning any ML padlocks that are susceptible to combs, but again, it’s just as easy to pop those open with two open ended wrenches and probably costs less than a comb. Or, a basic bolt cutter.

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