Or lock it and still lose it? I bought a bunch of expensive locks and watched two burly ‘bike thieves’ smash into them within seconds. But it’s possible to make life difficult for professional thieves: there are locking techniques that will make your precious harder to half-inch. [Note: I produced the video above for Northumbria Police in May 2009. A more hi-res version – suitable for iPhones, iPods etc – can be found on the Quickrelease.tv podcast on iTunes or as a direct MP4 download].
I’d be a poor bike thief. I’m just not meaty enough. To break into a hundred quid chain you need to be beefy but, critically, you must also “want to bust into the lock like your life depended on it.”
This was the advice given to me by Mr X, a very strong, very determined gentleman from Essex (that’s him below) who claimed he could breach expensive locks in seconds. I recently bought a load of such locks – you may be using them on your pride and joy right now – and Mr X was true to his word. He used 42-inch bolt cutters to quickly smash into locks that are meant to be able to withstand determined attacks.
Watched by his partner-in-crime Mr Y (that’s him above), he took up to 42 seconds to breach locks that Sold Secure, a British security products standards body, claim offer sound protection for at least five minutes.
When I tried to cut into the same locks I failed. I pushed, I grimaced, I jumped up and down and used all my might, but not even with the big, heavy bolt cutters could I make much more than a dent in the expensive chain.
However, I was surprised at how easy it was for a weakling like me to breach a different – but still costly – lock using smaller, less conspicuous bolt croppers. The so-called armour over a thick cable was about as easy to cut through as the plastic casing. Even I could get into this lock within ten seconds. According to Sold Secure it should have held me up for five minutes, but by bending it to expose a joint I cut through this luxury lock like the proverbial hot knife through butter.
Am I giving would-be bike thieves tips and tricks to launch their careers? I don’t think so. Pro thieves are already out there using these techniques and ‘specialist equipment’. Wannabe thieves could Google themselves some techniques in seconds.
Locks are there to foil the opportunist thief, and slow down the professional, but nothing (except bikes like this and this, produced for an ad campaign) can offer 100 per cent security.
If your bike is valuable – to a professional thief – the level of protection you’d need to carry to prevent it going walkabouts would make it unrideable.
Yet even with cheaper locks it’s possible to make life difficult for professional thieves. There are locking techniques that will make your bike harder to half inch.
But just as professional thieves can get past house security alarms, no bike lock is impregnable. Channel 4 newsreader and CTC president Jon Snow has had bikes stolen from the ITN building, even when they were well locked in a caged compound with a security camera keeping watch.
Ever been locked out of your house? Call in a locksmith and you’ll be surprised how quickly he can gain entry. Using a slim, specialist tool and some deft jiggling he can bypass what you thought were super-secure locks.
Professional house-breakers use these secret locksmith tools. Common or garden house-breakers use bricks.
A bike lock – even the most expensive in the shop – doesn’t guarantee security, it buys you time. If a bike thief scans your security and sees it will take more than a minute to breach your system, he’ll look for an easier target.
Use one or more of the security tactics below and always lock your bike close to other bikes. It allows the thief to see there are bikes easier to steal than yours. Tough on the poor saps who have their bikes nicked but that’s not your problem.
There are twelve measures you can take do to reduce your chances of having your bicycle stolen.
1. Don’t ride a bike.
This is a very secure option. If you don’t have a bike, it won’t get stolen. But don’t think this is just a bike problem, even £50k cars are stolen. No amount of security systems guarantees immunity from theft.
2. Ride a rubbish bike
Or one that looks rubbish. Thieves are on the look-out for easy touches, bikes they can steal easily. But they are also on the look out for bikes they can shift on eBay or down the pub or on the street market. Branded mountain bikes are the easiest to sell on.
So, keep your sexy MTB for your weekend warrior trips, cycle in town on a hack bike.
This can be a genuinely crap bike – rust is your friend – or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Disguise a good bike with tatty tape on the frame tubes or these clever ‘rust stickers’, but to go the whole hog you’ve got to disguise the components, too. Could you really bear to take a rasp to your Shimano XTR rear mech?
If your rubbishified bike still has the basic shape and look of a mountain bike, it could still be nickable. One of the best security devices on the market is the drop handlebar. Thieves, on the whole, give these a wide berth. Nobody down the pub wants a touring bike, even if the front and back racks are state of the art.
However, there are some thieves who know what a good road bike is when they see one so the drop handlebar trick isn’t failsafe.
3. Marry your machine
Travel light, forget the lock, take your bike with you wherever you go.
This is a very secure option but can limit the places you’ll be welcome in.
A folding bike can increase your chances of slipping under the radar but not everybody appreciates the allure of a grime-encrusted bike, even one that concentinas.
4. Use a lock
Even one you can cut with a Leatherman is far, far better than no lock at all. Yes, blindingly obvious, but thieves are, by definition, sneaky. You can’t trust ‘em.
Here’s a sorry tale, repeated across the land every day: a law abiding cyclist nips into the Post Office “just for a second”, keeps a beady eye on his unlocked bike, turns away for a moment and then, poof, his bike is gone.
Locks aren’t just for long-term parking. Clunk click every trip.
There’s also a good case for locking your bike to an immovable object when it’s stored in a secure place such as your garage or shed. Fit a ground anchor and make the local no-goods sweat to get your prized possessions.
5. Use a good lock
This article shows that a determined, professional thief can breach seemingly impregnable locks. Such thieves are relatively rare. They could get into Fort Knox. There’s not a lot you can do to thwart a tooled up thief with time on his hands and just your bike in view.
Your bog standard bike thief isn’t beefy and equipped with long bolt croppers. He (nicking bikes is a male occupation) is more likely to be in need of a fix, desperate to sell your £400 MTB for a tenner, and will be equipped with basic tools.
This type of thief can be thwarted with almost any lock thicker and stronger than a thin cable.
Nine times out of ten, this would-be bike thief will pass by those bikes locked with meaty chains and u-locks and will attempt to steal those bikes ‘protected’ with flimsy locks. It’s simple to cut a cable lock, even those that look tough. Some have thick plastic sheathes that magnify the thin cable within. It’s very easy to open a combination lock, even without tools.
A cheap u-lock is tougher to crack than a thin cable lock. But even some expensive u-locks can be smashed in seconds with a small bottle jack. This is a specialist tool. A five inch hydraulic jack can be extended to ten inches, smashing almost any u-lock after just a few pumps, if there’s wriggle room, that is.
6. Be time sensitive
It pays to be security aware at all times but, if you live in a university town, there are certain times of the year when the bike theft figures go into overdrive. Basically, whenever there’s a new influx of students, there’s a ready market for ‘secondhand’ bikes.
At these times of the year, bikes are stolen hand over fist and it’s best to employ ultra secure methods of securing your bike. If you usually use two u-locks, a motorcycle chain and a Doberman, consider upgrading to three u-locks, another chain, two dogs and a security guard.
7. Think like a thief
Bike thieves don’t like a challenge, they’re not Pink Panther style cat burglars. They prefer easy meat.
Don’t broadcast obvious details such as the time you’ll be away from your bike. Locking up outside a cinema is a dead giveaway to a would-be thief. Ditto for railway stations, universities, schools and many workplaces. If you can’t lock up in a secure compound, park further down the street, away from the cinema/station/school, somewhere that overlooks a busy cafe, for instance. If a thief thinks you could be one of the patrons in the cafe, your bike is protected by a magic forcefield. Still needs to be locked, mind.
And always lock to a good, solid object. There’s a reason why Sheffield stands are hoops. Street furniture posts may look secure but could a thief hoist a locked bike over the top of the post? If they could, they will.
8. Lock everything
Specialist thieves thwarted by good locks attached down low and with few vulnerabilities can strip a bike of its components instead. Specialist tools required? An Allen key and wire cutters. That’s for half-inching the handlebars and stuff, for the wheels and seatpost all that’s generally needed is a palm.
Components attached with quick releases risk going walkies quickly. Consider switching to Pinhead skewers and seatpost retention devices. These ship with a special key which opens all the devices.
9. Add on the extras
Post-coding your frame (or, preferably, using Bikeregister-style chemical etching, and a visible, tamper-proof seal) or fitting a machine-readable chip the size of a grain of rice adds a modicum of security but, remember, all you’re trying to do is buy a few seconds and, as Tesco says, every little helps.
10. Look out for white van man
He’s not only a menace to cyclists when driving, he could be watching your bike. Pro thieves often track their targets beforehand. Your bike is especially vulnerable in the two minutes after you first lock it. A team of thieves may employ a target tracker as well as a cutter and get-away driver.
11. Leave your lock elsewhere
Huge meaty chains and beefy D-locks are extremely heavy, a disincentive to carrying. If you lock up your bike in the same place each day, leave a gert big lock in situ. Nobody will be able to take your lock (well, not without a great deal of bovver) and so it’s always there for when you need it. Use a lighter D-lock (and cable for the front wheel) for when you’re out and about, flitting from place to place.
12. Use two styles of lock
A key tactic – popular with couriers – is to lock with a chain and a u-lock. Even pro thieves may only carry one type of tool (less incriminating, if caught), and will be flummoxed by two different styles of locks.
Want to have a laugh at a thief’s expense? Watch this motorcycle nabber falling from a moving van to the accompaniment of the Benny Hill chase music:
FILL THAT LOCK
A up-to-date u-lock with a 16mm thick shackle will be pick-proof, Bic-proof and largely impervious to hammer strikes, chisel attacks, pipe bending and cutting by anything other than workshop grinding tools.
But a twenty quid bottle jack, easily bought on eBay, can breach many u-locks in seconds. I know, I’ve seen it done.
The small bottle jacks – known as ‘stubbies’ – are specialist tools, not much use for jacking up cars. A stubby slips into a coat pocket and can ‘open’ a u-lock almost as quickly as the key holder.
But the thief needs wriggle room. A bottle jack can only be used on a u-lock where there’s space to squeeze in. Fill that space with frame, spokes and security post and the bike thief will choose to breach a u-lock with space. ‘Bad Bones’ slip on to u-locks to fill space but at only 2.5mm thick they can be easily cut. Kryptonite has a tougher lock stuffer. Quickrelease.tv was given first view of the prototype:
An oil-actuated bottle jack can’t work at every angle: a thief will search to find a shackle lock with plenty of space to fit a bottle jack and jiggle it into position. It was instructive to watch our friendly ‘bike thieves’ at work: Mr Y could open shackles with his bottle jack when the conditions were right, but had to give up when the shackle couldn’t be jiggled into an accessible position.
“There, that’s how to lock a bike,” said a frustrated Mr Y.
So, use a short u-lock, fit it around the bottom bracket, not the top tube. Make it a tight fit every time.
Look for bike racks that make such locking tactics easier. The best Sheffield stands are those in an ‘M’ shape not a ‘U’. Lock at the lowest point of the ‘M’.
It’s best not to ‘fly lock’ your bike to post with a small sign on the top, the kind of posts advertising parking restrictions and the like. Bike thieves can wriggle locked bikes up and over these posts.
However, a young designer called Anthony Lau has created the Cyclehoop, a fitting that can turn these posts – and pretty much any slim lamp-post – into secure stands for placing your locks down low. These could be mass-produced and dotted all over cities. London is currently trialling Cyclehoops in some boroughs.
YouTube has lots of bike theft videos which demonstrate a variety of lock breaching techniques. There’s a famous one from the Neistat Brothers of New York City. They used a hack-saw, bolt cutters and – hilariously – an angle grinder to snatch their own bike in broad daylight: passers-by didn’t bat an eye-lid, allowing even slow and cumbersome lock-breaking techniques to be used at will.
This video has had 580,000 views.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Cheap locks can be breached by cheap tools, as demonstrated on this YouTube video of ‘Frits’, a Dutch bike thief:
Frits was interviewed for Dutch TV. He’s now renounced his former occupation and gave this advice to viewers:
“Buy a more expensive bike lock.”
Yes. But, don’t forget, spending more doesn’t always get you more security. Expensive bike locks tend to be breached with more expensive tools. The bigger bolt cutters can cost hundreds of pounds and have expensive jaws which need replacing every 30 ‘cuts’ or so. Such specialist equipment is a big investment – or can be stolen from building sites.
Some thieves operate in pairs, with one as the breaker, the other the look-out. Motorcycle thieves operate out of (stolen?) white vans and sometimes also turn their attention to bicycles, especially high-value ones. A white van can carry all sorts of heavy cutting equipment and is also useful as a shield to work behind.
Mr X and his mate Mr Y are lovely blokes. They aren’t thieves, but they’re concerned about motorcycle and bicycle security. Or lack thereof.
They’re both meaty and can breach hardened steel chains in just over half a minute.
I bought a box of locks and gave them to the lads. None of the locks lasted very long in their hands. The tabulated results are here.
In fact, on the some of the locks, it took longer to get past the pesky zip-ties on the packaging than breach the actual lock.
To breach the tough, expensive chains Mr X and Mr Y had to work at it, even with the 42” bolt cutters. When the chains snapped after 40+ seconds of hard effort the links shot apart in an explosive fashion.
It’s a brutal technique, hard to disguise. To deaden the sound of the ‘explosion’, and hide some of the tool, some pro thieves use a thick blanket.
TAG YOUR BIKE
Electronic radio indentification tags are the size of a grain of rice, can be hidden inside a bike’s frame, and, if advertised to a would-be thief with a sticker, can be a deterrent. In the UK,
many police forces use RFID readers to spot whether any recovered bikes can be easily repatriated with their owners. If you’re bike doesn’t come with a RFID chip – some do – retro-fit one from a company such as Mobitag. Then register your bike for £13.99. The tag database is linked to the Police National Computer. Bike and owner details are also registered on immobilise.com, a free national database. Even without tagging the bike you can register your bike details free of charge so now bikes stolen in one police area and found in another can be identified.
BIKE THEFT HURTS CYCLING
Cycle theft is a serious disincentive to cycling. According to a French study, only 25 per cent of cyclists re-buy a new bike after a theft, and of these 10 per cent buy a cheaper bike than they had before (20 per cent cheaper on average). A further 23 per cent won’t return to cycling at all.
The study reports that 20 per cent of stolen bikes were not protected with any form of locks. 90 per cent of those which were locked were secured with an easily cut lock. The moral is clear.
Many locks now come liberally plastered with ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’ logos supplied by Sold Secure.
Sold Secure was established in 1992 by Northumbria and Essex Police with the backing of the Home Office and is now an ISO-quality accredited test house for all manner of locks and ground anchors. It’s a not-for-profit company owned by the Master Locksmiths Association and charges lock companies a four figure sum for the testing of each lock. Each lock also attracts an annual fee payable to Sold Secure.
Sold Secure says its lock breaching methods are those commonly in use by thieves, with the information provided by police and insurers.
Sold Secure technicians attack locks with a tight-knit selection of tools. Depending on whether it’s Gold, Silver or Bronze being tested for, the tools include screwdrivers, junior hacksaw, pliers, stillsons, steel tube, ball-peign hammer, HSS hacksaw, punch set, club hammer, TCT hacksaw, freezing agent, cold chisels, 24-inch wrecking bar, scissor jack, slide hammer and lock picking tools. The tool set does not include stubby bottle jacks or bolt cutters. D’oh.
Sold Secure’s Gold standard is awarded to those bicycle locks which can resist a combination of tools for five minutes per attack. I was able to breach a Gold certified product with 36” bolt croppers in ten seconds.
Sold Secure says its tools are those that “a typical burglar would carry.”
Following complaints about Sold Secure’s testing regime, Trading Standards officers are currently testing a batch of motorcycle locks in an attempt to see whether they can be breached quicker than claimed by Sold Secure.
A Trading Standards spokesman said the “results of the screen testing will determine whether any further formal tests are carried out.”
The spokesman said any formal investigation would look at “whether the product is being manufactured to the same standard it was when the approval was given.”
Motorcycle security products have to pass the tougher Thatcham standards, and without accreditation many insurers won’t insure the motorbikes being locked.
Another standards body you may see on some locks is ART of the Netherlands. Sweden has its locks accredited by SSF and Germany uses VDS.
Lock manufacturers which export worldwide have to pay the testing bodies in each country. However, the better known lock companies have in-house testing rigs and break-in regimes that far exceed the subjective testing of some of the standards bodies, a fact that rankles with these manufacturers, forced to pay for ‘independent testing’ in order to sell into a market.
A version of this article first appeared in ‘Cycle’ (Feb-Mar 2008) , the CTC magazine. Subscribe to the weekly newsletter from the CTC via here. CTC offers Cyclecover Insurance. Tel: 0870 873 0067.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
I now have a box full of cut and bent locks, a lesson in what can be done to even quite expensive bits of security equipment. Having seen lock smashers at work am I worried to leave my bike anywhere? Not terribly. Pro thieves are rare, it’s the opportunist thief we have to be most wary of.
However, even the pro thief can be shunted to somebody else’s bike if you use some of the tactics outlined above. What locks do I recommend? Anything is better than nothing but the locks I use are a Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit chain (this locks three kids’ bikes at their school each day) and, for me, two Kryptonite Evolution Minis. These are small enough to lock a frame to a stand (near the BB, remember), with the second one filling in any gaps so there’s no room for a stubbie bottle jack.
I also have a heavy Almax chain.