How to keep a bike thief at bay, if only for a while

This is for Yelli in Berlin, who, like the best two of the three of us, had her bike stolen.

Remember how we made the little red-haired girl’s bicycle too crappy to steal? We sent away for some stickers that make a new bike look all rusted and splotchy, so that a thief passing by wouldn’t give it a second look.

Last time I looked, she still had her bike, so it must be working.

cycling-bicycle-theft-lock-cut-throughBut a bicycle that we thought really did look too crappy to steal got ripped off sometime after we came back from our lovely weekend of cycling along the banks of the Elbe.

It was my wife’s bike and we’d bought it the week we moved to Hamburg after leaving Hong Kong in mid-1997.

I wonder if this is a sign of the times, a signal that things are getting so dire even for thieves that they’re willing to steal any bike that doesn’t have weeds wrapped around a rusty chain. I mean, the bike was 12 fucking years old!  It did have new parts on it, but not many, and the frame looked scratched up and sloppy.

Sometimes you hear a story where a stolen bike is found for sale on craiglist and somehow recovered, or like the commenter whose neighbour called out for Chinese food and was astounded to see the delivery guy riding her own bike which had been stolen a year before, but those are huge exceptions.

Most stolen bikes are never recovered, so how can you make sure you can lessen the chances of having your bike stolen?

In my opinion the best way is to make sure you have a damn good lock – or two – and no matter what you’re using, never leave it outside overnight.

So which lock to buy?

I’ll tell you which one not to buy, and that’s any lock with a wire cable like the one in the photo. Even the best ones can be snapped through with a set of bolt-cutters. We were dumb enough to assume my wife’s old bike wasn’t worth stealing, and so only had an Abus security level 8 cable lock on it, the same kind of lock which had been snapped through six months before on the little red-haired girl’s new one.

The U-shaped locks made famous by Kryptonite are perhaps the best choice, but they have their likryptonite new yourk fahgettaboudit u-lockmitations. They’re heavy, you can’t put them around both wheels unless you remove one, and they’re awkward to work with.

That said, the Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit U-lock rated highest in security in a Slate.com survey. Bikeradar.com also raved about it, saying the small size makes it nearly impossible to lever apart.

Though they are probably less secure I prefer a chain, especially the Abus line, because they’re easier to work with. Abus grades its security on various levels from 1 to 25. A level 25 lock is the heaviest and made for securing motorcycles, but cyclists can also use them for locking them up overnight inside if you’re careful not to bend spokes working it through the wheels. This chain is extremely heavy though, and not meant to be lugged around on a bicycle. It’s also really expensive.

The next step down is the one I have – the Citychain level 15. It’s a good compromise between ease of use, weight, price and security. I bought one for home and one for the office. I leave one at the office locked up around a post and one at home so I don’t have to haul it back and forth.

bicycle-abus-granit-wba100-wall-floor-anchor-wandankerIf you have a place in your building to install one, pick up a wall anchor, because simply locking even the best lock around the frame and wheel is no good.  The lock must be around a fixed object – especially if you have insurance on it, which I’ll get to later.

You need a decent hammer drill to install the bolts, but once it’s in, it’s in for life. I suppose you could remove it with a jackhammer, but if a thief is going to use a jackhammer it’s going to attract a bit of attention.

For those who can’t avoid locking up their bike in a high-traffic area, it helps to have two different types of locks. That way, a thief who specialises in breaking open a certain type of lock will pass yours up, unless he has both the expertise and the tools to break into the combination of locks he finds on yours. Worth thinking about if you really value your bike.

Another thing to seriously consider is bicycle insurance, because you can practically forget everything you’ve read up to now. ALL bike locks can be broken into.

A very short clip:

In Germany you can insure your new bicycle against all perils including vandalism, misuse, breakage, wear and tear, sheer stupidity, and of course theft. The monthly rate you pay is based on the retail price of your new bike. As long as you buy a lock worth at least 20 euro – which seems to me like a rather cheap lock – and the bike is locked up to a fixed object through the frame, the bike is insured 24 hours a day. The price is based on a sliding scale according to what you paid for the new bike and lock, which is also insured.

Check it all out – in German – at wertgarantie.de.

It may look expensive to pay, say, 15 bucks every month for insurance, but when you consider how much it costs even to get a blown tire repaired at a bike shop, let alone replace worn brakes, chains, sprockets, bearings and chainrings, it’s probably worth it in the long run. And you have the peace of mind that if the bike is stolen, something that seems to be happening way too often these days, you can get it replaced no problem.

And with someone else doing all the repairs, no black grease to clean off your fingers anymore, either.

PS: There is simply no end to the debate over which lock to get.  Check out the bike forums and get spoked.

13 Responses to “How to keep a bike thief at bay, if only for a while”

  1. June 11, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    THANK YOU! Tausand Dank! I actually have recently bought a new (used) bike. I have not bought a lock for it yet due to my lack of research but I will look into the info you have here. I am really surprised about the U-locks. I just assumed they were the safest.

    Also, I had no idea you could have bike insurance here. Lesson learned.

  2. June 11, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for the info. My bicycle is kept in a basement and never left out overnight, so I’m not horribly worried about the 40EUR lock I have for it. But I have been thinking about getting something like your CityChain for the Vespa. Once again, it is in a rather safe spot at night, and generally safe where I park it for work. But there are times when I park it in strange neighborhoods and I’m a bit leery of the possibility that some thug will steal the cute little light blue girly scooter.

  3. June 12, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    When visiting Spain I was impressed with the system of picking up a bike at say, a station, cycling across town and depositing it at a depot near your destination. you could then go shopping, have lunch, go to a museum, then pick up another bike and ride home, leaving the bike at another nearby depot

    does germany have that system? Sadly, australia doesn’t.

    • June 12, 2009 at 6:38 pm

      I think they might be putting in a system like that in Hamburg, but am not too certain when. I know they have it in Paris. It’s called Vélib and is very popular. You can pick up and drop off a bike anywhere in the city, with stations every 300 metres or so. As tourists it’s kind of difficult to use though, because you need a French bank card, or that’s as far as we could figure out for the short time we were there last Spring.

  4. June 16, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    My brother (inspired of your other blog post with the little girl’s bike) took his process to the next level and just completely wrapped his entire bike in duct tape. It looked like a piece of crab bike, but has worked out extremely well. He lives in San Francisco in a neighborhood that a high theft rate and he still safely has his bike. Personally, I wouldn’t take this approach because I’d be self conscience of the monstrosity that I was riding on, plus he managed to make his $600 bike look about $65 and seems like a waste of money. I decided to waste my money a different way. I went online to Bike Locks and bought the most expensive Kryptonite U-Lock I could afford. After reading this article, I’m thinking of buying another just for the extra security. Reading these blogs usually get me a little more paranoid, but maybe it’s for my own safety.

    • June 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm

      Hi Ronnie,
      I inspired your brother to wrap his bike in duct tape? Please send a photo asap! I’ll post it! I love stuff like that.

      Getting a second lock is a good idea, especially if you’re leaving it for longer periods. Remember – never overnight outside, anywhere.

  5. June 20, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Whoa Ian… that is a HEAVY DUTY lock!
    I once heard that your lock should cost 1/4 of what you paid for the bike.
    It really makes sense when you think of it that way.

    • June 20, 2009 at 8:36 pm

      One-quarter? That’s a lot, I think. I’ve read 10 – 15% is about right. But I guess it all depends on how much you value the bike. Hard to put a price on sentiment. You get so attached to them…

  6. 10 zoeleon
    July 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    My NYC-strong Kryptonite lock has accompanied me to Berlin and now Madrid (which is 99% clueless about anything to do with bikes). The lock doesn’t help with the seat, however, as I, in a moment of unthinking idiocy left my bike locked on Gran Vía in Madrid at a time Critical Mass was scheduled to sweep through. Said sweep took my seat along, but aside from that, my bike is completely unassailable, which is particularly important in Berlin which has a lively market in used (and stolen) bikes and parts. The Krytonites are a bit difficult to deal with but when one gets them at the right angle, there’s space to lock both the front wheel and frame to a typical signpost.

    Regarding the city bike systems, I was recently impressed that Sevilla has that system, but as in Paris it requires subscription to an electronic card system. I heartily agree that something should be done for tourists. Not sure which city Nursemyra’s talking about; maybe Barcelona which is known as a bikers’ haven but I haven’t been for over two years and can’t seem to remember if they have this. Berlin of course has the Deutsche Bahn bikes which are available to rent…

  7. 11 Paul
    August 11, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks for this.

    I was wondering… seeing as you’re in Germany too. Is there a number I can call with a serial number to see if a bike is stolen? And can I register my bike I brought with me from China with the police?


    • August 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      Hi Paul,
      You can register any bike with the police as long as you can show that you bought it, but it’s not very likely it’ll do much good if stolen. If your bike’s worth anything to you at all, never leave it locked up outside overnight, and buy the best lock you can afford for daytime use. I don’t know if there’s a central number to call if it’s stolen…

  8. 13 Paul
    August 11, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks Ian,

    The problem I have is that My girlfriend and I had nice mountain bikes built for us in China when we lived there. We don’t have receipts and if we did they’d be in Chinese anyway! We could show that we brought bikes with us (they came with us on the plane), but failing that is there anything else that might satisfy them?

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