RBR Newsletter

More Ways To Outsmart Bike Thieves

Last week, we warned to be ever-vigilant to protect yourself against bike thieves, recommended a few super high-security locks and provided some tips to keep your bikes yours.

But, what if you don’t want to purchase and carry a heavy, expensive lock? Or, what if you forgot to bring a lock? Or maybe you want to bike around without having to worry about thievery, and you’re willing to get a “new” ride just for that purpose? Here are some ways you can usually stay safe without carrying a “real” lock.

Disclaimer: If you choose one of these workarounds, you still want to keep your guard up because any bike can get stolen anywhere. There are even bike hijackers who steal your ride out from under you. This happened to a friend while he was riding on a popular bike path in Anaheim, California. The thief was on foot and hiding a brick in his hand behind his back. He hit my friend with the brick, knocked him down and rode away on his bike before he could recover. The cops told my friend he shouldn’t ride on that path alone.

But once in a while, cyclists strike back, like the guy in New York City who caught a thief trying to steal his bike, knocked HIM down and locked him to a pole, wrapping his U-lock around the thief’s neck!

Hopefully, the following tips will keep your bike safe and the bike thieves away.

Get a folding bike. The idea behind folders is having a bicycle that gets so small, so quickly, that you can always take it inside with you to keep it safe. Some companies that make nice models include Brompton, Dahon, Bike Friday, Tern and Montague.

I’ve owned one of Brompton’s commuting models (which have fenders and lights) for years and my favorite “trick” is folding it (it takes about 10 seconds), carrying it into the grocery store and putting it right in the shopping cart. I’ve also ridden it to the movies and parked it in the next seat. It’s that small and convenient.

Make it so ugly no one would want it. This is an old trick based on the theory that if a bicycle looks ugly enough, the thieves will leave it alone. Again, there are no guarantees; however, lots of cyclists believe it works. Anything goes to uglify a bicycle, so think creatively. I’ve seen entire bikes and components wrapped with black electrical tape, house-paint full-cover coats -- tires and all, and even “trashcycles,” which are bicycles with refuse attached like a hideous parade float.

Ride a “junker” or “beater.” The idea here is similar to the ugly bike, but the trick is to find a crappy, heavily used and abused bicycle that’s so worthless, you actually don’t care if it gets stolen. Surfers here in Santa Cruz use this technique, usually pedaling rusted-out and even wrecked beach cruisers that look almost unrideable.

Or, you could go stealth and find a beater bike and retain the rat rod look but upgrade just enough of it so that it’s actually a nicely functioning bicycle. There’s an art to this and if you start looking you may see some surprisingly well-equipped commuting bikes that at a glance look ready for the dump.

The only caveat is to remember that commuting accessories like lights and bags attract thieves, too, as do quality components. So, don’t add too much bling that attracts the attention you’re trying to avoid.

Workarounds for when you forgot your lock

The following tricks are risky and should be considered a last resort only.

“Sabotage” your bike. Most thieves try to ride away on a bike. So if you make your bike impossible to roll, they’ll crash if they grab it, run and try to hop on. And that should give you the time to get your bike back.

On most road bikes, an easy way to do this is to open the front brake quick release mechanism (the little lever that spreads the brake pads wider so that you can remove the wheel). Next, unscrew that brake’s adjustment barrel until the brake pads are almost touching the rim.

Now, to lock the front wheel, simple close the quick release. With the front wheel locked, anyone trying to ride your bike will flip right over the bars.

Tip: Some city cyclists adjust their front brake cable tension so that the quick release becomes a front wheel lock like this (it also works as a parking brake, preventing your bike from rolling so it’s easier to stand it up and get it to stay).

Make your bicycle look broken. The concept with this trick is fooling the thief into thinking your bike’s not worth taking because it’s not even rideable, or is missing parts. The most common technique is to remove the front wheel and bring it in the store with you. But, some people also remove it and flip the bicycle upside down, so be creative.

Hide it. Out of sight, out of the thief’s mind is the idea. Last week I mentioned covering bikes that are in your garage or in your car. When you’re outside, if you can find someplace to really hide your bike, it can keep it safe, too. However, it’s still an unlocked bike, so don’t take anything for granted and get back to it ASAP.

Also, covering bikes and hiding them doesn’t always work. Because thieves know these tricks, too, and they’re happy to break into things, like vehicles, and look harder to find those things worth stealing. So, be careful, and good luck!


Jim Langley has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for 38 years. He's the author of  Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached 7,580.

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