How to prevent bike theft: Top tips to keep the thieves at bay

How to prevent bike theft
(Image credit: Abus)

When a bike gets stolen, it can feel like a real kick in the guts, regardless of whether it’s your brand new carbon-fibre race machine or the clunker you liberated from a dumpster and have been riding around town ever since. The following article will give you helpful advice on how to prevent bike theft, so there's less chance of you having to go through the stress, inconvenience and financial difficulty that comes as a result of bike theft. 

Unfortunately, whether it lives locked to a rack outdoors, in a secure lockup, or your garage, there are no completely fool-proof ways to prevent bike theft; however, there are plenty of steps you can take to make stealing your bike more effort than it's worth to the would-be thief.

Of course, using one of the best bike GPS trackers will give you half a chance of finding your stolen steed, and ensuring you're covered by the best bike insurance will help you recoup the costs should the worst happen, but below, we'll run through all the things you can do whilst the bike is still in your possession, in order to help prevent your bike from being stolen in the first place.

 Make sure your lock is up to the task 

Image of a bike lock

(Image credit: Courtesy)

Though it may seem a bit 'on the nose', the first step to preventing bike theft is to have a good lock. The best bike locks come in all shapes, sizes, and price points, and as a general rule of thumb, you get what you pay for: more durable materials and designs simply cost more than cheap options.

A key thing to highlight here is our use of the term 'up to the task', because 'the task' very much depends on where you're locking it and for how long. If you're locking it outside a city-centre train station overnight, the lock's requirements will probably be different to someone who's locking their bike against a table while they drink their coffee ten feet away. 

What is the best type of bike lock?

There are a few different types of bike locks, and they all have their merits and their pitfalls. 

U-locks (also known as D-locks) are largely considered to be the most secure as they are made of hardened steel that will even give handheld angle grinders a run for their money. However, these are also the heaviest locks and may limit what you can lock your bike to based on their fixed size and shape. 

Cable locks offer the flexibility to thread through complex frames and around larger anchor points, but be careful what you buy as thinner cables can be cut in a matter of seconds with bolt cutters. Chains are also a good option, but again you get what you pay for; a hardware store chain and the lock will not last long against a hacksaw or bolt cutters. 

Look for bike-specific locks from reputable brands such as Abus, Hiplok or Kryptonite; they not only use hardened steel for the chain links and shackle, but they also have a sleeve designed to get tangled in the teeth of a saw, making it more challenging to cut. They are pretty heavy, but offer tons of security and add flexibility as to what the lock will fit around.

Foldylock Compact bike lock

(Image credit: Foldylock)

Folding locks have become a popular option for commuters because they are lightweight, compact, made from materials that are hard to cut, and allow you to lock your bike to something oddly shaped or with a large circumference, like a tree or signpost. Unfortunately, the folding lock's downfall is the mechanisms that enable this functionality, the pins, which can be bested with a small power drill, rendering your folding lock useless.

Our guide on how to lock a bike suggests using multiple different types of lock, as this will double or triple the amount of time a thief needs to take to steal your bike, which will prove a major deterrent. 

For those making quick stops or locking their bike out of reach but within eyesight, heavy-duty locks will always provide the most security, but the best lightweight bike locks can offer reasonably good performance whilst also being portable and easy to carry. Super-lightweight options like the Otto Lock and Hiplok Z Lok should be reserved for areas where your bike remains in eyesight, such as quick cafe stops or a trip into a gas station for snacks. These offer minimal security and will only slow an experienced bike thief down for a minute or two.

It's not just about locking your bike to a fixed object though, you may want to secure the components on your bike too. Given that most bikes can be almost entirely disassembled with a 4 and 5mm hex wrench, and a thief can steal your handlebars and seat with just about any multi-tool. Security bolts like Hexlox work similarly to the locking wheel nuts used on cars, requiring a specialist tool to turn the bolt, rather than one readily available at every hardware store around the world.

 Use your lock correctly 

A correctly locked road bike, with D-Lock through around the rack, frame and rear wheel, with accompanying cable around the front wheel

(Image credit: Kryptonite)

Even the most secure D-Lock will be of no use if it's not used correctly. As no two bike racks, signs, or trees are alike, lock your bike according to value. The top priority is passing the lock through the frame, then the rear wheel and front wheel last. If your bike will be locked in an area known for bike theft, consider a second lock to secure the wheels to the frame and the primary lock to secure the frame (and possibly the rear wheel) to the rack. 

With any lock, you want to limit the amount of leverage a would-be thief can generate, so try and purchase one that only just clears the tubing on your bike and whatever you're locking it to and try to pass it through as many components on your bike as possible. We like to keep the lock as close to the bottom bracket as possible to make the lock awkward to get to. 

Also, think about the object onto which your bike will be secured. Could a thief lift your bike with the lock attached over the top of that street sign or pole? Or break off that skinny tree? Always take into account how difficult it would be for someone to remove your bike with the lock still attached.

 Plan for the worst, hope for the best 

Bike Vault

(Image credit: Courtesy)

Despite your best efforts, bikes do get stolen, both the variety that lives outside and your more prized rides that live indoors. 

One of the most important steps you should take is to set up a privacy buffer on all of your fitness tracking apps, and remove location tags from your social media posts that pinpoint where you live. We see too many people without a privacy zone on Strava, or people taking photos of their new bike next to their house or car, while geo-tagging their home town. With this information, it wouldn't take a professional thief long to drive around and find your home. Given cyclists like to post every single ride online with GPS data included, you are essentially advertising to the world, 'I live or work at this address and have expensive bikes.' Strava and other apps have privacy zones that will place your start- and end-points somewhere inside a radius around your address to anonymise your location without changing your total ride distance. 

The next thing you should go and do right now (literally right now) is take photos of your bike - side-on, plus any unique components and the serial number which are usually located on the underside of the bottom bracket. 

Where is the serial number on a bike?

The serial number will almost always be printed (or embossed) on the underside of your frame's bottom bracket (the part of your frame through which your cranks are fitted). Once you have your serial number, write it down somewhere safe and memorable. Some local police stations will even allow you to register your bike for free; that way, if it's stolen and located, it can be returned. Having this information also enables you to take advantage of programs like BikeIndex (USA), Bike Vault (Australia) or BikeRegister (UK) that offer a database against which items can be checked if they are eventually recovered by police or listed on online marketplaces like Facebook, eBay, Craigslist or Gumtree. Most countries have a similar program in place, simply Google 'bike serial number register [your country]' and something will likely come up. 

Know where to lock your bike

Commuter

(Image credit: Cannondale)

A bike locked up in a secure lockup will be much safer than one left in a dark alley, simply by virtue of the location. However, if your bike must spend the night or workday outside, taking a moment to evaluate your surroundings could be just the deterrent needed to keep a scoundrel at bay. 

Does this area get much foot traffic? Is it well lit? Is there CCTV around? A bike parked in a poorly lit alleyway is much more likely to be taken than one attached to a rack in a busy town centre. Could you imagine a thief angle grinding a lock in full view of hundreds of passers-by? Probably not. 

It also never hurts to ask around, whether it be someone else at your office who commutes by bike or popping your head into the local bike shop to ask if there are any hot spots where bikes are regularly swiped. 

Alternatively, if you're not happy leaving your pride and joy out on the street locked up in the open, speak with local businesses and try to strike a deal. With a polite request, your local bike shop, garage or cafe might be more than happy to let you pop your bike in their storage room out back in return for a bit of cash or a packet of biscuits. You wouldn't bat an eyelid at paying a few pounds / dollars to park your car for the day, so why not apply the same logic to parking your bike? 

What bike thieves look for

As the old cliché goes, you'll get more speeding tickets if you drive a red car; if your bike doesn't catch the eye of a thief, they will probably be less inclined to pinch it. The easiest way to do that is to remove all lights, computers, cameras, and anything else that can be easily taken, and take steps to make it as inconspicuous as possible. 

Then there is the bike itself, and there's a balance to be had here. On the one hand, a bright and colourful bike is likely to attract the attention of thieves more easily, but it may just as easily work as a deterrent, since it will be more difficult for the thief to sell on, by virtue of its noticeable design. 

Ultimately, there are two types of thief: those that will break your bike to components and sell them on, and then those that just want a bike for themselves. Either way, the same rules apply. The aim is to make your bike seem undesirable, so if you're in an area where bikes are disappearing left and right, you may consider more extreme tactics like covering logos tape or spray paint. 

What is the best alarm bike lock?

In addition to traditional bike locks, brands have recently started launching 'smart' locks with inbuilt technology such as alarms. One such brand is Abus, whose 770A SmartX lock will sound a 100-decibel alarm when it detects tampering. In addition, it offers Sold Secure Gold protection (15/15 on Abus' in-house scale) and it also comes with Bluetooth, which replaces the key with your smartphone. 

Best bike anti-theft system

The best bike anti-theft system is more than just a single product. It's a collection of different products combined with a safety-conscious mindset. Heed all of the advice in our guide above and you'll equip yourself with a good arsenal of techniques to prevent bike theft. Pair that with a good quality bike lock or two, a GPS bike tracker, and theft-proof bolts for your components. Then, when locking your bike at home, use a secure wall- or ground anchor as well as good quality CCTV and a reliable home alarm system and you should deter any potential pilferers in no time. 

What to do if your bike is stolen?

The first thing to do is contact the police to report the theft. Hopefully, you have previously made a note of the frame's serial number, and if so, you should give it to the police so that if they find your bike, they have concrete evidence that it belongs to you. 

Next up, if the bike is insured, contact your insurer to begin the claim process, the less time you are without a bike, the better. 

Third, share images and details about your stolen bike far and wide by any means possible. Make your bike the hottest stolen property in cycling so that if a thief tries to sell it (or ride it), there's a chance that someone will spot it and alert you, so that you can subsequently alert the police. 

Beyond this, keep an eye out. Search online marketplaces for your bike's frame / components and keep your eyes open whilst out and about. You never know, you might just get lucky.  

If you ride a lesser-known brand or model, set up Google alerts for those terms so that if it appears online somewhere, Google will notify you. Of course, if you ride a Specialized Allez, you'll be deleting Google alerts almost hourly, so this tactic may not work for everyone. 

What do people do with stolen bikes?

Typically, thieves will do one of two things with stolen bikes. Some will disassemble your bike, move the parts to a different part of the country - or even overseas - and sell the components to unsuspecting buyers, usually throwing the frame away to avoid being caught out by the serial number. This is the most organised aspect of bike theft, and unfortunately, in this instance, the chances of getting your bike back is very limited. 

Alternatively, less-organised criminals will simply use it as their own. They might spray it a different colour to try and disguise it, or they might sell it on via a 'friend of a friend' to a different part of the country to avoid the risk of being caught with the bike in the area it was taken. 

How to retrieve a stolen bike

Ultimately, this is a job for the police. If you do find your stolen bike for sale online, or you spot someone riding it in the street, don't approach them. Your bike might mean a lot to you, but your life is certainly worth more, and there's no predicting how the other person might react if confronted. 

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