No matter what kind of cyclist you are, it goes without saying that you love your bike. Maybe you’re tackling rocky trails with those thick tires and ripping down mountainsides. Or maybe it’s a road bike, sleek and elegant like a greyhound. Or, maybe it’s your dear commuter bike with a personality and a story to go along with it. No matter what ride you rock, chances are you’d be mighty pissed if it was stolen. Hence the sad fact that you need a bike lock if you plan on riding your bike and leaving it parked just about anywhere.
PSA: Bike theft is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon, so it’s wise to protect your bike at all times. It has been repeated time and time again, but we’ll drive it home — every bike lock can be cut. It’s only a matter of what tools a thief has, and how much time he or she has to do the dirty deed. However, some locks take more time and effort to destroy, which makes thieves think twice about wanting to take the risk of getting caught.
The secret to buying a bike lock is to identify the amount of security that is right for the environment where you live and bike, along with considerations for user-friendliness and portability. In this article, we’re going to give you advice based on our experience as not only bike lock testers, but avid cyclists and bike-lovers.
Choosing a Basic Lock Type
Bike locks, like ice cream, come in many flavors and it’s up to you to decide on your favorite one. These days, there are four main types of bike locks: U-locks, chains, folded, and cables. Some bike locks on the market even combine two of these types. Types differ regarding the level of security they provide, versatility, and ease of use and transport. Your choice depends on what level of security is necessary for the neighborhoods you’ll be leaving your wheels. However, you’re also going to want to consider how easy the lock is to use and if you’re willing to lug it along with you.
These are comprised of hardened steel molded in a “U” shape, and they are usually covered in rubber or plastic to protect the paint on your bike and reduce rattling while riding. The two ends of the “U” (the shackle) connect to the locking mechanism, a crossbar that closes the “U” into a “D” (and is opened and closed with a key or a combination dial). The most secure U-locks have a tight dual locking system, whereby if the “U” is cut with a portable angle grinder (or another power tool), the ends are still locked tightly. This means that there won’t be much movement in the bar ends if it is cut through. In this case, the bike thief has to make two cuts to get it off the frame or bike rack. Hydraulic bottle jacks are also employed by criminals to bust U-locks, though much less common. Less expensive models usually take one cut before they are pried apart.
In general, this type of lock is going to take a committed or professional bike thief with power tools to crack open–making the theft more difficult, but not impossible. As a general rule of note, U-locks tend to be heavier than other types of locks, and due to their rigid shape, more problematic to carry. Depending on the size of your frame and tires, you might be limited on what you can lock on your bike, and what you can lock it to.U-locks are as close to a gold standard as bike locks get when it comes to security.Photo: Ross Robinson
These consist of a steel chain with a sheath to protect your bike’s paint. The ends are connected via a padlock of sorts. The variation in security here has to do with the thickness of the chain and the quality of the padlock. A thick chain of hardened steel, with smaller gaps between the links, and a top-quality padlock or disc lock is the toughest chain to break. Chains can be broken by torsional force, so a small gap between the links leaves little space for the insertion of a lever. If a thief has the right tools, however, it takes one cut from the padlock to defeat a chain lock. Chains are flexible and have a large diameter, which makes securing them to immovable structures easier. However, they tend to be bulky and weigh more than other security devices.The two chain locks selected and reviewed by our experts. The Hiplok is on the left, featuring 8 mm thick links. The Fahgettaboudit Chain is on the right, consisting of thicker 14 mm links.Photo: Jenna Ammerman
The most unique design belongs to folding locks. They are made up of multiple steel bars connected by rivets that allow them to pivot independently of each other. This provides much more flexibility than rigid U-locks, which is most useful when the structure you’re securing your bike to is abnormally shaped. This type of lock is excellent for easy transportation because they weigh much less than U-locks and chains and they fold up into a compact size. They won’t weigh you down or take up tons of space in your messenger bag. The main drawback is the level of security they provide, which falls in the low to middle of the range. They tend to be weakest at their pivoting joints.The FoldyLock Compact is certainly that: it fits easily into a jersey pocket on a long ride or into your backpack or saddle back. The joints move easily and at just over 2 lbs., you’ll hardly notice it’s there.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
Let’s just be real here — we almost never recommend a cable lock for anyone who cares about their bike. They offer very little security and can be compromised using most hand tools in a matter of seconds. The only exception here is if you have only the most basic needs, or it you want a separate cable lock to secure your saddle or front-wheel in addition to a stronger lock securing your frame and back wheel.
Made of twisted or braided steel with a coating of rubber or plastic, the ends connect in a lock (sometimes connect with hinges while other cable ends are secured firmly inside the lock). Variability within this category includes cable thickness, lock strength and type (combo or key), and if the cable is coiled or non-coiled. Generally speaking, cable locks with a higher number of braided wire strands are the strongest, as they are tougher to cut through than cables with fewer braided strands. Cables tend to be lightweight, with the coiled versions being the simplest to transport, either in a bag or wrapped around your bicycle’s frame. Their large diameter and flexibility also give them more versatility in securing your wheels to immovable objects.
Yet, please keep in mind that cables are the quickest and easiest to cut through with simple and inexpensive hardware. As a result, we rarely recommend them for lockups that last more than a few unsupervised minutes. The best way to think of these locks? These are the solution to the “snatch-and-grab” opportunist who sees an unattended bike, hops in the saddle and rides away, leaving you stranded and at least a few hundred dollars in the hole.On the left is Kryptonite’s KryptoFlex (coiled cable) and on the right is OnGuard’s Akita (non-coiled cable.)Photo: Rylee Sweeney
When Should You Use a Bike Lock?
Chances are, if you’ve ever had a bike stolen, your reaction to this question is very different than someone who hasn’t. A bike lock should be used when you’re parking your bike in a public setting, even when you’re sitting in a coffee shop and can see it clearly. Bike thieves operate on opportunity; if they think they can snag your wheels with little risk to themselves, they will. Even in a crowded public place, a thief may not hesitate to cut through a wimpy lock and make off with your bike quickly.
Bike theft is a very common problem. Using a bike lock is a useful preventative method to keep the worst from happening to you. Granted, it isn’t a guarantee. Still, choosing a lock is just as important as choosing a saddle because it should be used just as often. That said, we want to encourage you to find the perfect fit; a bike lock that suits the security needs of where you are riding and one that makes it easy to form the habit of using.
Transporting Your Lock
Although the style of lock and level of security sometimes become linked in people’s brains after browsing options on Amazon, there are lots of styles out there that come in varying degrees of security. So we recommend you choose your transport style, then take into account your security level because it is more probable that you’ll like (and thus use) your new lock. The first aspect of style to think about is where on your bike or person you’d want to carry your new lock.On the Frame
If you’re new to the cycling world and you are using your bike to commute, mounting your bike lock to your frame is a solid recommendation. There are many types of locks that include an easy to install (and if you buy it at a shop, they might install it for you) bracket that mounts onto your seat post or another part of your bike frame that you then clip your lock into while you ride. The frame absorbs the extra weight of the lock and, with correct installation, you shouldn’t notice it much. A heavy lock on a bike frame feels lighter than a heavy lock in a backpack.
That being said, not all frame mounts are created equal, and if the one that comes with your lock doesn’t perform well, there are aftermarket options available for you. Because a lot of consumers tend to complain about the frame mounts that accompany U-locks, our reviewers tested the Huldit U-lock Holder, which straps any-size U-lock to your frame with adjustable velcro straps. We really liked this mount, which was easy to use and it didn’t slip much on our commutes on mildly rough roads.The HuldIt bike lock holder fits all models of U-locks and can make mounting them to your frame easy-peasy.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
We also loved this aftermarket lock for another very important reason: for the shorter bike commuters out there, who due to the smaller frame size of their bike, have less room for water bottles on the frame. In the case of a smaller frame, you might lose one or both bottles if you mount the lock to the frame, which sucks if you’re serious about your hydration, you have a long commute and it’s hot outside. However, the HuldIt let us keep both our bottles by allowing some flexibility on where we could mount the lock on our frame.An aftermarket mount offers a workable solution for mounting U-locks on smaller frames.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
The 4.5 lbs of the Kryptonite New York Standard U-Lock felt quite balanced and only noticeable to a discerning rider when attached this way, even after a long commute. And let’s not even mention the TiGr Mini which weighs a mere pound and is hardly noticeable no matter where you put it. Folding locks are much smaller, taking up less space on the bike frame, and also weigh less. Other ways to carry the U-lock style include securing it to your top tube and then dealing with the awkward one-handed re-adjusting as you’re riding (not recommended). Another popular way is to bungee the U-lock to your back rack or front basket, which works well if you don’t mind the extra time it takes to secure the lock. Lastly, you can loop it through your saddle stays at the back (if it fits) and let the lock hang above your rear wheel, but be sure it does not interfere with your tire, and know that your rattle factor will be high.The lightweight INBIKE is compact and easy to transport around town with a solid mounting bracket.Photo: Jenna Ammerman
Cable locks wrap around your seat post, top tube, or handlebars. This is one of the greatest things about coiled (and non-coiled, to an extent) cables – they transport effortlessly because they are lightweight. The lack of security they offer, however, stops them from being a viable choice in many areas (see the How Burly? section below). If you want a lock that attaches to your bike while you’re riding, you are looking for a U-lock, a folding lock, or a cable lock.On Your Person
Another option for transport style is carrying your lock on your person or in a bike bag (like panniers or a handlebar bag). This method opens your doors to all sorts of locks but is limited by the amount of weight you want to carry. U-locks range in weight but expect 3-4 lbs in your messenger bag or panniers. The Hiplok Original: Superbright is our favorite model to wear. It has a velcro strap that feeds through the backside of the padlock and back on itself, creating a belt to wear while commuting. Although chains with padlocks are criticized for being too heavy, the Hiplok model is roughly the same weight as a heavy-duty U-lock. An average-sized person can likely handle 4 lbs wrapped around the hips better than that same weight in a backpack. That said, no one is going to want to throw the Hiplok over their spandex jersey before a training ride.Our far and away favorite for portable chain lock is the Hiplok Original. Our testers were stoked that it’s actually quite comfortable when worn around the waist.Photo: Jenna Ammerman
No bike lock is invincible. It’s sad but true. There is a huge degree of variability when it comes to how quickly different products can be broken into, though. When it comes down to choosing a lock, first determine what level of crime you’re up against. We like the way Kryptonite breaks it down in their How to Choose Your Bicycle Security chart. A rough estimate of crime level (ascending from more to less bike theft) is: “Major Metropolitan Area,” “Metropolitan Area,” “College Campus,” “Suburbs,” or “Rural Area.” Next, you decide what the riskiest lock-up (in ascending order from most likely to be stolen to less risky) is: “Overnight Lock-up,” “All Day Lock-up,” “Couple of Hour Lock-up,” or “Quick Stop Lock-up.” For perspective, the riskiest scenario involves locking your bike up on the street in a large metropolitan area and leave it overnight. The least risky scenario is if you needed to lock your bike up for a few minutes in a small town.No lock remained unbroken following our security tests. Here’s part of the aftermath on the garage floor.Photo: Jenna Ammerman
If you live in a large metropolitan area, city, or college town, you need a U-lock or a chain with a substantial padlock. Within the U-lock category, some locks are harder to compromise. Kryptonite’s line of New York U-locks like the Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit U-Lock Mini, the New York Fahgettaboudit Chain and Disc Lock, and the Standard are harder. Quality chain locks like the Hiplok Original are in a high/medium security category. Not quite the burliest, but impervious to handheld tools. Mid-level security U-locks are those like the Kryptonite Evolution Mini-7 and the budget-friendly Kyptonite Kryptolok.
What differentiates mid-level from a high level? Mid-level locks are rumored to pop open when an expert pry bar thief gets some leverage between the “U” and the frame, but it isn’t an easy task. It does happen, however. High-security U-locks require two cuts with an angle grinder to break out your bike as opposed to the one cut needed for mid-security U-locks. This is due to the dual locking crossbar in the high-security locks that don’t allow the bars to move, even if they are cut. Check out the reviews of locks in the Kryptonite New York series, as well as the ABUS Granit X-Plus 540, for more information on these uber-secure dual locking U-locks.This lock needs one cut and plenty of hammering or two cuts to be removed from most bike racks.Photo: Jenna Ammerman
Not in a city? If you are a rural resident that sometimes travels to cities, buy the lock that represents the highest level of crime that you’re up against. We recommend picking a lightweight lock for these needs, and one that is easy to use. Folding locks are great for these environments, providing more security than cables but also being lightweight and a snap to use. Lightweight chains can also be a better option than cable locks in small towns.
How Much Should You Spend on a Bike Lock?
Throughout our testing process, we heard a lot about the 10 percent rule. That is, plan on spending about 10 percent of your bicycle’s worth on a suitable bike lock. Although we think this is reasonable, be sure to consider the security guidelines above. The bicycle protection plans offered by manufacturers cover a lot more than that, however. For example, the $103 Kryptonite New York Standard comes with a $3,000 bike protection offer. Companies like OnGuard and Kryptonite also offer protection for motorized vehicles and locks used in the E.U. Major caveat: Read the fine print on these. There are several requirements to make these policies worth it. In the end, it might be better to invest in a high-quality lock rather than to depend on any one of these “guarantees.”
This is good news for the folks on the more expensive side of the spectrum, but what if you own a $300 bike in San Francisco? You still need a U-Lock costing about $50, which is 17 percent of your bike’s worth. View this purchase as insurance and think more about your security needs than the arbitrary 10 percent guideline. Additionally, think of the time, effort and money it costs you if your front (or jeez, rear – even costlier) wheels are stolen. Worse yet: imagine if the whole bike is gone. Again, it’s not just the cost of the bike, but the time and effort it’s going to take to replace it, and (in the meantime) figure out a way to get yourself from home to work or school. For bike commuters, a stolen saddle or front wheel means having to buy another way home…then to work again. Buying a decent lock is worth the money, time, effort, and frustration of having all or a piece of your bike go missing.
Bike Locks If You Are Wearing Spandex
If you bike for training purposes, the last thing you want is more weight making you slower on the uphill. You’ve most likely considered weight as one of the major considerations when buying your bike. This bike is also probably way more expensive than your town cruiser that you use to run errands or get groceries.This lock weighs… a lot. It’s something you’re going to notice in your jersey pocket, which is something we don’t recommend.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
So what do you do when you stop for a bathroom break or go into a store to get more water? Lightweight locks have a specialized use here, despite being low security. Locks like the OnGuard Akita, and Kryptonite KryptoFlex fit in a handlebar bag or wrapped around your frame for quick stops. We have a sneaking suspicion that we don’t need to tell you to be careful, but be careful. Don’t leave your bikes out there for too long with only a cable to protect them.Bike thieves really stop at nothing to crack even the most secure locks– they are even using giant dogs! OK, we’re joking about the dog part, but you really need to do your research not only on the lock you use but where you’re going to park your bike. It’s unrealistic to expect any lock to protect your bike in very high-risk situations if you leave it for a long period of time.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
Bike Locks If You’re Not Wearing Spandex
If you ride your bike for transportation reasons–say, to commute to and from work–it’s also important to consider a lock’s weight, dimensions, and versatility because let’s get real here: not everyone has a shower at work and who wants to walk into an 8 a.m. meeting gross and disgusting because of the extra 15 lbs. you had to haul along with you up the 21% grade hill your office is perched upon?
Aside from weight, let’s think about how a lock fits into your life– or, more accurately, how it’s going to fit into your bag or on your bike. Bigger in some ways is better (a larger lock allows you to lock it to more stuff) but if you carry a small messenger bag already stuffed full or purses, you might not be able to carry it around. Most bike locks come with a frame mount, but be sure that the one you want to purchase does and that it will fit your bike.
And half of you are rolling your eyes right now, but pick a model you can actually use. Nothing’s worse than trying to man-handle a lock when you’re running late. And if your lock is a hassle, you’re more likely to leave it behind.The Evolution Mini-7 is a tough U-lock, but it’s small enough to fit into a large purse or messenger bag.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
How to Use Your Lock Most Effectively
Once you decide on the product that’s right for you, check to see if your new lock comes with an insurance policy. Some manufacturers offer insurance to reimburse customers in case of theft. However, you have a limited amount of time (sometimes just a week!) to sign up, so be sure to register it immediately. Also, if this is a major factor in your decision making, be sure to read the insurance policy. The stipulations tend to be rather strict. For example, some exclude customers living in New York, and some require you to send in the busted lock for inspection before any compensation is doled out. Furthermore, check to see how much money you stand to receive if your wheels get jacked — it might not be all that much. Once you’ve taken this step, file away your receipt and your registration info in a safe place to find it again in case of the unfortunate event of theft. The week you buy a lock is also the time to register your keys if the manufacturer offers a key replacement program.
Once you’re ready to ride and use your new gear, be sure to do all your research on how to lock it up properly! Many bicycle thefts happen due to user error. It’s important to know how to use your lock to maximize security. The most secure lock won’t protect your biciclette if you use a weak locking technique. Furthermore, an improper locking technique might void your insurance policy in the case of theft. Here are some basic pointers to get you started on your quest to make your bike a tougher target:
How to Lock Your Bike
Secure as much of the bicycle as possible to the immovable object. If possible, secure both wheels and the frame. One option is to remove the front wheel and secure it along with the back wheel and frame to an immovable structure. However, if your lock doesn’t allow this level of security, consider the value of each part of your bike, and lock the highest valued parts first. Always secure the frame first, then the rear wheel, then the front wheel. Never be satisfied by just locking up a wheel to a rack, as they can be removed quickly, leaving you to aggressively google “how to convert bike wheel into a unicycle.”Make sure you remove the front tire and lock it to the rear tire, frame and bike rack for the most security.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
Be sure to get a tight fit, filling up the inside of the chain, cable, or U-lock with as much of your bicycle as possible. This minimizes the amount of space that potential thieves have to use their tools, making it harder to break open. Also, if your security device has a keyhole, make sure it faces down toward the ground. It makes it more difficult to pick. Furthermore, take any removable items with you that want to return to, such as lights, saddlebags, water bottles, and even your seat if it isn’t incorporated into the lock.Once you find the lock you like (and that is exactly right for your situation), locking and unlocking your bike will become routine. You might even find like-minded cyclist who will clue you in on the safe places to park your wheels.Photo: Rebecca A. Eckland
Locking Wheel Skewers
If you think a bike lock or two isn’t enough, there are additional methods of securing the components of your bike, particularly your wheels. Traditionally, most road bikes are fitted with quick-release skewers. These enable a rider to quickly repair a flat tire (which can happen fairly often, depending on where you are commuting.) These can also be hugely useful to thieves, however, who can snag a wheel in seconds even when it’s secured with a cable lock.
Locking skewers require that you use a hex key to remove the wheel. This adds a bit of security (the thief will have to have the right tool to remove them– so it’s not a guarantee, but it’s something)– but that also means that changing a flat tire is going to require you an extra step. If you don’t mind the expense of this aftermarket product, this extra security is worth consideration. If you have a newer bike, however, it’s pretty likely that you have through-axel bugs, which already require a tool to remove.Hex key skewers require a specialized (and much less common) tool to loosen, which adds some security to your wheels.Photo: Amazon.com
Where to Lock Your Bike
Always secure your bicycle to immovable objects or structures. Bike racks, lamp posts, and trees are good examples, as they are fixed in the ground or concrete. Some bicycle roof racks are also considered immovable objects when used correctly. Avoid using structures that are held in place by only a few bolts, such as “No Parking” signs. With a few quick turns of a ratchet wrench, the sign is removed, allowing the thief to slide the bike up and over the post. We also don’t recommend locking to wooden fences, chain link fences or anything that can be easily cut through.Shrink doubt by habitually locking your bike in the safest area closest to your destination.Photo: Jenna Ammerman
Seek out areas where other bikes are locked up, and make sure that the area is well-lit if left out past dark. Lock up your bike on streets with a high volume of foot traffic. A lonely set of wheels on a quiet, dark street might attract the wrong kind of attention. Also, most bike criminals “case” bicycles that follow the same routine every day. So, mix it up! Don’t park your ride in the same spot every day at the same time. Find other bike racks, trees, etc. to which you can lock your bike. Remember: moving targets are much harder to hit, and by moving your bike, a thief can’t come up with a timed plan of attack.
For more insight on proper bicycle security, there are videos available online, such as from Art’s Cyclery, that provide further instruction.
To prolong the life of your security device, regular maintenance is key. How frequently you do this is largely dependent upon your climate. If you live in a harsh climate with high amounts of rain and snow or an area near saltwater, monthly maintenance may be necessary. In other climates or regions, though, a little lock love every two to three months should suffice.
Focus your cleaning and lubrication efforts on any moving parts and areas where parts attach, such as keyholes, deadbolts, the ends of u-lock shackles, and cylinders. Clean these parts first with a rag, using a spray product like WD40 if there is any visible corrosion or heavy grime. After cleansing, apply a lubricant. We generally recommend a dry, Teflon-based lubricant to use on locks. Lubricate as directed on the bottle or box. Make sure to insert your key and turn it several times to spread the lubricant around.
Our final piece of advice might be counter-intuitive: but if you own an expensive bike or a bike that would be of considerable cost for you to replace, never ever lock it up and leave it for long periods of time. Period. All bike locks can be defeated. The best way to keep your bike safe is to use a bike lock paired with common sense regarding the situation in which you’re parking your bike. If you follow that simple rule, your beloved bike will more likely remain yours.