Choose the Best Bike Lock

April 10, 2009

Crowbars, hacksaws, bolt cutters, and Bic pens…life can be tough for a bike lock. As the spiraling price of oil entices more and more people to trade gas pedals for bike pedals, the pickings are getting rich for savvy bike thieves, especially if new riders aren’t taking proper precautions against theft. So lock and load and hit the road with these bike security tips.

DON’T BE A CABLE GUY (OR GIRL) The least effective way to secure your bike is with a cable, which provides a minor deterrent but does little to actually prevent theft. If the cable is less than three-eighths of an inch thick, a pair of basic wire cutters will snip it. If it’s thicker than that, it can still be cut in less than five seconds with a standard pair of bolt cutters. Cable locks are better than no lock at all, of course, and may dissuade casual thieves. They are also lightweight and inexpensive ($10-$30); consider them for low-crime areas.

GET OFF THE CHAIN GANG Heavy-duty chains certainly look intimidating. They provide more security than cables and have the advantage of length, which allows you to chain your bike to large-diameter objects, readily secure both the frame and tires, or use a single lock to secure multiple bikes at once. But even the mightiest links can’t stand up to a good pair of bolt cutters, which will sever most chains in less than 60 seconds. Squared-off links make it slightly more difficult for bolt cutters to get a grip but do not prevent a thief’s concerted effort. If you opt for a chain, look for thick links and a plastic or nylon sheath that prevents pinched fingers and scratches to your bike.

U BETTER BELIEVE IT U-locks provide the best bike security. Period. Resistant to bolt cutters, crowbars, and hacksaws, they are the most effective thief-repellent on the market. But they are not all created equal. There is a direct correlation between weight and security; versions with thicker steel are more theft-defiant, though heavier than their thinner counterparts. (Kryptonite’s toughest U-lock, the New York Fahgettaboudit, weighs in at nearly five pounds!) The quality of the steel also makes a difference. Cheaper models tend to use unhardened, brittle metal that is more susceptible to hacksaws and may crack under the pressure of a car jack or other device. Pricier versions feature  saw-resistant hardened steel that will deform rather than crack under pressure; expect to pay $50 or more for a quality model. When shopping for a lock, choose styles that fit snugly; large gaps provide crowbar-wielding thieves with more leverage.

BEHOLD THE MIGHTY PEN In 2004, a small media storm erupted when it was revealed that many of the cylindrical locking mechanisms commonly used in U-locks could be readily opened with the fat end of a Bic pen. (Numerous online videos demonstrate the trick.) Locks produced between 2002 and 2004 are reportedly most vulnerable, though any lock produced before 2004 is at risk. Manufacturers have since addressed the issue with new key locks and other changes; consider upgrading your lock if it’s more than three years old.

PAYBACK No lock is truly invincible. Given enough time and the right tools, a determined thief can overcome even the most powerful lock. So consider another aspect of bike security: the free insurance many lock manufacturers provide for theft. Covering up to several thousands of dollars, these policies can help ease the sting of a lost bike, but keep in mind that in order to qualify you must register your lock with the company before the theft occurs. And expect a lengthy approval process before any compensation. Details vary by company and by lock style; be sure to read the fine print.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.