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Beginners’ Guide to Bike Security
If you’ve just bought a new bike, you’re probably busy planning weekend rides or enjoying your new-found commuter freedom. That’s as it should be. But if you’re not also thinking about security, you’re forgetting a fundamental part of bike ownership.
Knowing how to keep your bike secure and safe from thieves is vital. Once you’ve spent hours, days, or even weeks poring over bike brochures and talking to bike shop staff about your new pride and joy, you’ve already committed plenty to your bike. The last thing you want is for it to be stolen when you’ve only just got started. Not to mention the hundreds, or possibly even thousands, you’ve have spent on it.
Hundreds of thousands of bikes are stolen each year in the UK. Theft numbers are dropping, and have been since their mid-1990s peak, probably due to better security and awareness on the part of bike owners. Nevertheless, theft remains a significant problem. Around 290,000 bikes were stolen in England and Wales in 2017, but the real number is likely to be much, much higher. 71% of bike thefts are never reported.
Nearly everyone will leave their bike unattended at times. And any time your bike is out of your sight, it’s vulnerable to theft. Unless you only ride it on circular routes from your house, without ever stopping at a pub or cafe, and keep it inside your house at all other times, it could be stolen. Very few people use their bikes like that. Most will want to leave their bike outside shops, or at a station, or their work car park at least some of the time. It’s also not unusual, particularly if you live in a flat, to lack any safe indoor space to keep your bike, meaning you lock it on the street most of the time.
The bad news is that a really determined thief armed with the right equipment will probably be able to steal almost any bike if they really want to. Locks can be cut through with bolt-cutters and angle grinders, garages and sheds can be broken into. The good news is that taking a few simple security precautions will prevent a large proportion of potential bike thefts.
If you want to keep your bike as safe as you possibly can, this comprehensive guide will help you do it.
Locking your bike is, naturally, the most important part of bike security. A lock is not something to skimp on: it is usually advised to spend around 10% of the value of your bike on a lock. So, if you have a £500 bike, budget for a £50 lock. If you’re buying a new bike, it’s worth factoring in the cost of locks (as well as any other accessories that are essential for you - such as high-vis clothing or panniers) when you do your budgeting. The cost of extras, including locks, can add up considerably, meaning that new bike owners are often tempted to skimp to save money.
Don’t be tempted to do this. If you are, reframe your thinking: a lock is an essential part of bike ownership. If you don’t have the budget for a decent lock, either save a little bit more, or be willing to slightly downgrade your choice of bike so that you can afford the right lock for your bike.
Also remember that once you have a lock, you’ll need to use it. Always. Sounds obvious, but many bike owners have nipped into a shop for five minutes leaving their bike unlocked outside only to come back to find it stolen. It is a hassle finding a bike rack and locking it every time you leave your bike, but it’s essential that you do if you value your bike.
Choosing a lock
Bike locks in the UK are rated by the Sold Secure scheme, run by the Master Locksmiths Association to test and rate locks and security devices of all kinds. The scheme puts bike locks into either gold, silver or bronze categories. You’ll see their rating marked on the packaging if you’re browsing in a bike shop. Always buy a gold-rated lock. If you have bike insurance, using a gold-rated lock will probably be a condition of the insurance (more on insurance later).
The downside of gold-rated locks is that they can be pretty heavy and bulky. Some cyclists choose to use less heavy duty locks if, say, they’re going out on a country ride and will only need to lock their bike to nip into a pub to buy a drink or use the toilet. This kind of risk assessment is up to you. It’s true that the likelihood of someone cutting through a lock outside a country pub on a summer’s day is fairly low, compared to the risk of the same thing happening at a busy inner-city junction. Ideally, avoid the issue by cycling with friends and taking turns heading inside while one person watches the bikes. It goes without saying that for urban cycling, especially in London and other cycle theft hotspots, a gold-rated lock is essential.
There are two main types of bike locks: D-locks and chain locks. Talk to any long-time bike owner and you’ll probably hear a few vociferous opinions about which is the better type. Here, we run through the pros and cons.
D-locks (also called U-locks) are one of the most commonly used locks, with good reason. A heavy-duty D-Lock is very hard to cut without bolt-cutters, but compared to most chain locks, they’re relatively lightweight. They can usually be transported pretty easily, either attached to a bracket on the bike frame, or in a backpack or pannier bag. The main disadvantage of D-locks is that you’re restricted to locking them to bike racks and not much else. Larger D-locks give you more flexibility, but they’re also easier to break, as thieves will have more leverage if they’re using a bar to try and force the lock open. Smaller D-locks are more secure, but they can be restrictive if you live somewhere without many dedicated bike racks. To make a D-lock more secure, try and fill as much of the lock as you can. Some cyclists remove the back wheel and place it in the D-lock along with the frame and front wheel, so there’s little space inside for anyone to force it open.
Chain locks are made up of a heavy-duty chain (often encased in fabric) attached to either a padlock or combination lock. Chain locks tend to be more secure than D-locks, as they can’t be forced open in the way that some D-locks (especially the bigger ones) can. They are also generally harder to cut through, though any lock can be defeated with the right equipment. Another significant advantage of chain locks is that they can be used to lock your bike to almost anything, and can lock more than one bike, which is handy if you’re cycling in a group. They are sometimes easier to transport, as they can be simply wrapped around the seat stem where they’ll stay put without clanking as a d-lock would. You won’t need a special bracket or to carry a bag. Their main disadvantage is that they’re heavy. This rules them out for many users as an everyday lock. However, if you want a lock that is used just to lock your bike in your garage or shed, or perhaps at work, a chain lock is generally the better choice. Some really heavy-duty chains are only usable at a fixed place - they’re not portable at all.
There are also thin cable locks on the market, but these aren’t suitable as a main bike lock. They could come in handy in the ‘five minutes outside a country pub’ scenario we talked about earlier. They can can also be good to use as a second lock to secure your bike’s wheels. Most modern bikes have quick-release wheel levers. That’s great if you need to change a tyre at the side of the road, but not so great for security. Thieves will often steal bike wheels even if they can’t steal the rest of the bike. One option is to get the quick release levers taken off - most bike shops will do this when you buy the bike. This won’t prevent wheel theft, as a thief could still use a tool to take off a wheel, but it will deter opportunists. It’ll also make changing tyres a bit more difficult, but if you’re mostly a city rider, this probably won’t be too much of a problem.
If you live in a high-risk area, or you have especially expensive bike wheels, you should use a second lock of some kind to secure your wheels. Many D-locks come with a cable that’s designed to be used with the D-lock. The problem with using cable locks as wheel locks is the same problem that there is with using them as primary locks: they’re not particularly secure. They advantage is that they’re lightweight and easy to carry around, which is important when you’re also carrying a heavy D-lock or chain lock.
The other option is to use a second D-lock. This is certainly the more secure option, and it’s recommended if you have a more expensive bike. If you have a relatively cheap bike, and could afford to replace its wheels if stolen without too much difficulty, you might decide that a cable lock is enough.
Where should you lock your bike?
Now you know how to lock your bike, but have you thought about where? To figure out what the best place to lock your bike is, you’ll need to start thinking like a bike thief.
First, make sure that you lock your bike to something that is a closed loop. Some bike owners have locked their bike to relatively short posts without thinking, and found that a thief has simply been able to lift the bike up and over the top. Some thieves have even been known to cut through thin railings or trees in order to steal a bike. Bike racks and cycle stands are usually the best option. In fact, the National Cycling Association recommends using the Sheffield Stands, as one of the safest options.
When choosing the rack or stand, beware of the small, low bike racks into which you slot your front wheel. These are designed to be used only if you still have sight of your bike. The only way you can lock your bike using one of these is to lock the front wheel to the rack. This means that the bike will not be secure, especially if you have quick release wheels, as a thief could simply remove the bike from its wheel and steal the rest.
Generally, it’s best to lock bikes in high-traffic areas where there is lots of CCTV. Places where there are plenty of shops and footfall are ideal, and conveniently, these will often be the places where you’re most likely to want to lock your bike. It’s especially important to lock your bike somewhere busy if you’re going to be leaving it overnight. Bikes left in dark alleyways overnight are going to be much more susceptible to theft than those left in brightly-lit areas that are busy until the early hours of the morning. Remember that it can be difficult to use power tools to open a bike lock surreptitiously, so anyone doing it will want to be as inconspicuous as they can.
Although, ideally, you shouldn’t leave your bike outside overnight, lots of bike users will need to do this sometimes, such as when staying with friends. Try and avoid leaving your bike in open car parks overnight, such as hospital or college car parks, which aren’t locked up and can be magnets for thieves. If you have to leave your bike locked outside your own home, invest in a heavy-duty chain lock that you can leave at your house. When you get home, lock your bike with a D-lock and then nip inside to get the chain for an extra layer of protection.
Be careful, though, that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re locking your bike somewhere busy, it’s not at risk of getting stolen. One reformed London bike thief told Cycling Weekly that he found more poorly secured bikes in busier areas with CCTV than in quieter ones. He said “The more central you got the worse the locks, where people let their guard down more.”
He put this down to the feeling that many have of safety in numbers. Where there are lots of bikes, many feel that there is less need to lock them up well. Areas with lots of bikes can be magnets for thieves. That doesn’t mean your bike can’t be secure somewhere busy, but it does mean that you need to make sure you pay just as much attention when you’re locking it up on a busy road as you would somewhere quiet.
How to lock your bike
Locking your bike up so it’s really secure is about more than just attaching it to an immovable object - though if you’ve done that, you’re halfway there. Assuming you’re using two locks so that you can secure both wheels and bike, here’s how to do it:
Lock the frame first. If you can, use the same lock to also lock the front wheel. Never lock your bike by the wheel and not the frame!
Then, lock the back wheel. Ideally, you should lock this wheel to the bike rack too. If you can’t do that, lock it to the bike’s frame.
Ideally, lock your bike so that the lock itself is facing towards the road. This will make it more difficult for a bike thief to try and smash the lock.
Bike security at home
Cyclists often spend a lot of money on a good lock for use outside the house, before coming home and leaving their bike unsecured in their garden or in a rickety, unlocked shed. This is a huge mistake: around half of bikes stolen are taken from people’s homes, rather than from the streets. That means that you’ll need to spend just as much time thinking about how to keep your bike safe at home as you do about how to keep it safe away from home.
If you’re leaving your bike in a shed or garage, you should make sure that there is decent lock on the door that is kept locked at all times. You should also make sure your bike is locked to something inside the shed or garage. This is where many bike owners fall down - they assume that locking the place where the bike is, is enough. But if you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked in your garage, you shouldn’t leave your bike unlocked there either, especially as bikes are much easier to steal than cars. You can buy a wall-mounted rack or anchors designed to be attached to the floor. Both are usually a good, easy to install solution. Your bike can then be locked to this with a heavy-duty chain lock.
Another option is to buy a dedicated bike shed. They can be pricey, but they are often worth it, especially if you live in a high-crime area. Look for a police-approved, metal shed with a secure lock, that can be bolted to the ground. Sometimes, these sheds are small enough that they can be installed in small terraced house front gardens. This would mean an end to carrying your bike through the house when you get home from work, only to have to do carry it back through the next morning.
The bike you ride can help encourage or deter thieves. It’s no secret that most bike thieves will look for higher-value bikes to steal. After all, they’ll have to go to the same effort to cut through a lock on a £200 bike as they will on a £2000 one, so they’ll naturally gravitate towards more expensive bikes. Don’t think that mid-range bikes are particularly safe, though. There are far more of them around than those at the top end, so they’re eminently stealable. Anything worth over £200 in the resale market is generally worth stealing as far as thieves are concerned.
If you have a high-end bike, you might be better off saving it for weekend jaunts and buying a cheap, inconspicuous bike for commuting and shopping. However, if you only use a bike occasionally around town, or you have limited storage space at home, this might not make sense for you. If you do need to lock an expensive bike up around town, make sure you pay extra attention to all the security tips in this article.
Use the heaviest lock you can reasonably cycle with, and try and avoid leaving it anywhere overnight or for long periods. If you’re not worried about aesthetics, you can sometimes put thieves off by making your bike look as unappealing as possible. This isn’t an option for everyone, but covering your bike in garish spray paint will definitely lower its resale value and put thieves off. Of course, it’ll also lower the value if you want to sell it yourself. So, it’s probably not something you’ll want to do to anything other than a run-around that you plan to ride the life out of.
If a full paint job is too much, obscuring the branding, even if it’s just with gaffer tape, might help deter thieves as they won’t be able to instantly pick out that yours is the expensive bike worth stealing.
It’s not just your bike that you have to worry about getting stolen. Lights, pannier bags and toolkits can all be taken. Remove anything that you don’t want to be stolen off your bike, every time you lock it up. Apart from it being irritating to lose them, having lots of stealable accessories on your bike simply brings it to the attention of bike thieves, who might then decide to try and steal your whole bike, rather than just stripping it of its extras.
Be aware of thieves’ tricks
If you come back to your bike after it’s been locked up somewhere and something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Bike thieves have all kinds of methods designed to confuse or trick bike owners into making their bikes easier to steal. If your bike seems as if it’s been tampered with, get it home as quickly as you can.
Bike thieves will often try and sabotage a bike lock to encourage the owner to leave the bike locked up overnight. They’ll then come back to the bike after dark and cut the lock when there are few people around. Sometimes, they’ll mark the bike in some way to make it easier for them to find, so look out for cable ties or stickers on your bike that you didn’t put there.
They’ll often use superglue to fill the lock so you won’t be able to unlock it easily. If this happens, nail varnish remover will often be enough to dissolve the glue so you can unlock the bike. If that doesn’t work, you might need to hire an angle grinder to get the lock off before the thieves come back with their own. Some thieves will also deliberately puncture your tyres so that you’ll be more likely to leave the bike where it is overnight. So, always carry a puncture repair kit so you can fix your bike in this situation. If you’re a regular rider, it’s something you need to know how to do in any case. If you’re unsure how, many bike shops will run maintenance courses. It’s well worth going on one.
Another trick that is designed to confuse bike owners into unlocking their bikes is to put a second lock on it, often a flimsy cable lock. The idea here is that the bike owner will remove their own lock, and then wander off to try and find a way of removing the second, new lock. But, the bike thief will be waiting and ready to pounce, and can simply unlock the second lock and ride off without arousing any suspicion.
One final thing to look out for is for damage to bike racks themselves. Bike thieves have been known to cut through bike racks and then gaffer tape them up. Once a bike is locked to the stand, they simply need to cut the tape in order to steal the bike. This is a particular problem with bike racks that are situated away from high-traffic areas, such as in car parks.
If the worst happens…
If your bike is stolen, and most regular cyclists will suffer a theft at some point over a few years of riding, there are things you can do to lessen the pain and increase your chances of getting your bike back.
Firstly, always have insurance. Specialist bike insurance can be had for as little as a few pounds a month, and is very much worthwhile, especially if you’re a commuter leaving your bike locked up in town on a daily basis. If you rely on your bike to get to work, and it’s stolen, it’s good to know you’ll have the money to buy a new one if you need to.
You might have bike insurance already as part of your home insurance. That’s often good enough, especially if you don’t ride a particularly expensive bike, or you don’t often leave it locked up away from home. Make sure, though, that you check the excess. This can be high on home insurance policies, and might amount to a significant sum if you ride a fairly expensive bike. Also make sure that the insurance covers your bike away from home, as some home insurance will only cover bikes kept at your house.
Nearly all insurance policies, whether bike-specific or not, will require you to have adequate locks, both at home and away from it.
You should also register your bike with the National Cycle Database. This helps put thieves off stealing your bike and will help you find it if they do. All you need to do is enter your details in the online database, and they will send you a security kit. This kit will include a logbook, so you can prove ownership, a marking kit, which will give your bike a unique number, and warning stickers, to let potential thieves know your bike is registered. If your bike is stolen, you can flag it as such in the database, which is shared with all police forces in the country. If they recover your bike, they’ll return it to you. Recovered stolen bikes that the police can’t find owners for are usually sold, so it’s well worth doing this.
If your bike is stolen, whether or not it’s registered, you should always report it. Bike crime is generally underreported, partly because there is a perception that it’s not taken seriously. But police are increasingly working to reduce bike theft. You may not get your bike back, but if you don’t report, you definitely won’t, so always do it. Once reported, you can give the police a helping hand by keeping an eye on eBay, Gumtree and Facebook selling pages for your bike. Bike security isn’t the most exciting part of bike ownership, but losing your bike to theft is one of the worst things that can happen to a bike owner. Do everything you can to keep your bike secure and you’ll be a happier rider.