The bicycle lock you thought worked doesn’t work

As fun and efficient as cycling is, it has a significant problem: Bikes are easy to steal.

Last week on Twitter, for example, a cycling pal documented the theft of his bike in the Twin Cities and noted that the cable locks don’t work. “Use only a ‘U-lock’,” he advised.

There’s a problem with that. U-locks don’t work, either, City Lab’s John Metcalfe writes today. His bike was ripped off in San Francisco.

The MacArthur bike rack is well-lit and in sight of a station attendant. Given the short period of time my cycle was there, and the fact the thief got away with ease, I guessed it was stolen in minutes. And according to San Francisco Police Department Officer Matt Friedman, that guess is probably correct: “Two minutes,” he says. “Or less, in some cases.”

Friedman runs the department’s Twitter feed, @SFPDBikeTheft, and has dealt with a fair share of cycle rustlers. In my case, the thief obviously didn’t use a battery-powered angle grinder, he says … And while the BART officer I met said it could’ve been a pry bar, Friedman disagrees.

Rather, Friedman believes it could’ve been a “jack attack.” That’s when a larcenous creep modifies a car jack so it can slip into a U-lock and pry it open like a clam. “They shave down part of the jack so it can fit in between the U-lock, and crank out the lock and explode it,” he says. “It bends it enough where it actually breaks the lock, and they remove the U-lock at that point.”

Metcalfe says the lock company doesn’t even think it was that technique, that it was a simple pry bar to twist the lock open. Easy peasy.

So what’s plan B?

Avoid the popular larger U-locks, as nice as they are when it comes to easy securement to a variety of racks and posts. Instead, buy a small one that fits right up against the frame.

Slater recommends city dwellers use an Evolution Mini-5, writing: “The issue is that oftentimes riders lock up in a high-risk area and do not create this snug fit—rather, they have the U-lock dangling around the top tube and an immovable object and the thief spots this opportunity.”

As to where to lock it, Friedman says to go through the rear triangle and rear tire, and then put another cable or U-lock through the front tire. “Bike thievery is all about time,” he says. If jacking one bike doesn’t look easy and quick, a thief will likely move to another.

And just to throw out a couple other tips for urban riders that I’ve learned the hard way: Replace all your quick-release latches with locknuts and skewers to prevent your bits and pieces being snatched up like candy, and always write down the serial number (usually located under where the pedals meet). There’s always the chance during the next chop-shop bust the cops will find your bike, even if by that point it’s just a cannibalized frame.

  • Kassie

    It isn’t about having the best lock, it is about someone else having an easier bike to steal. If they want your bike, they will take it, but most thieves are opportunistic and if there is an easier bike to take, they might pass yours by.

    I use a U lock that cost $100 and is small. I also use a cable for the tire not locked with the U-lock, it can still be clipped easily, but less likely someone will clip it just for a tire. We always lock our bikes, even in the garage.

    • Ed Kohler

      Better lock, or less desired bike.

      • Kassie

        That’s true too. I removed all the stickers on my bike, so it looks a bit less desirable.

        • Hugh Gitlin

          When the shock on the mountain bike (that I don’t use mountain biking anymore), I replaced it with a rigid fork that doesn’t match the rest of the bike. Not very attractive, but still a great frame & component set.

        • Addy

          Kassie, I think we all know that’s a damn fine bike you’re riding around. If I were going to jack a bike, it would be yours, dood. :o)

  • Dave

    “The bicycle lock you thought worked doesn’t work”

    This is true of any lock when up against a motivated thief, no?

    • jon

      Locks keep honest and lazy people honest.

      The only exception that comes to mind is when a lock is so integral to the design of what is being taken, that it can only be circumvented by destroying the value the thief hopes to gain.
      Document safes for instance that require a torch to cut open, but the torch would burn up the documents inside before it got to a point where you could get the documents out.

      Of course applying the same logic to a bicycle means either way you no longer have a way to get home.

      • CHS

        There is already two groups of people doing just that, making the bike the lock itself. One group was from Seattle, another was from South America. Two different ideas, but the premise is that you use the frame of the bike as the lock, so breaking the lock destroys the frame. It was featured here on MPR at some point, but I can’t remember the details.

  • Nicoliolio

    If you live in Minneapolis, register your bike with the city. I know it seems pointless but it really could help.

    My bike was stolen out of my backyard in South Minneapolis and recovered within a few days at a pawn shop in better condition than I left it. This happens rather frequently in the Twin Cities.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I ditched my bike and subscribed to Nice Ride so I don’t have to worry about locks and stealing.

    • Kassie

      Sadly, the closest Nice Ride station is 2.5 miles from my house. A large chunk of St. Paul still doesn’t have bikes.