Stick with U-Bolts
Jun 12, 2001
Popular Products in Sport and OutdoorThe Bottom Line Buy a good, solid, highly-rated U-bolt lock and learn to use it properly.
There are a number of different types of locks to choose from, but the only type worth considering for your primary bicycle security is a well-made U-bolt lock. The other types are significantly more vulnerable to attack by thieves:
- The cheap, four-ring combination chain locks with the brightly-colored, plastic sheaths, which you may have used when you were a kid, are little better than no lock at all. Nearly anybody can open these without any tools.
- Padlocks may be fine for locker rooms, but not for using in conjunction with chains or cables to secure bicycles. This kind of use gives thieves plenty of room to cut through their thin shackles, or the locks may be smashed open with hammers. The keyed versions are also relatively easy to pick. (The Kryptonite New York chain lock is a notable exception. Its links are made of thick, hard-to-cut metal, and it is secured with a miniature version of the Kryptonite New York U-bolt lock. But it is heavy, comparatively short and still not as secure as its brand-mate, the full-size Kryponite New York U-bolt lock.)
- Heavier-duty, one-piece chain and cable locks are convenient, but they, too, are easily cut, and many of the locking mechanisms are poorly made and easy to pick.
A U-bolt lock, by design, offers better security than cables and chains, because it stays very close to the bike and rack, which leaves less room for thieves to get at it with cutters and picks. Locking both wheels and the frame with a U-bolt lock usually forces you to position the lock well away from the ground, which all but eliminates the possibility of a successful hammer attack. A thief is unlikely to attempt to pry a properly applied U-bolt lock apart, because by doing so he would risk damaging the bike and making it worthless to him. But not all U-bolt locks are created equal.
The best U-bolt locks have solid shackles made of metal alloys that are highly resistant to cutting, either with saws or bolt snippers. Their locking bars are shielded with similar metal, and they have high-quality locking mechanisms that are extremely difficult to pick or break. The keys are non-duplicatable, and the key receptacles are on the bottom of the locking bar, rather than on the end (where they are more easily broken off). These locks are not inexpensive; they start at around $30, and can cost over $100.
Another important factor to consider is the size of the U-bolt. Ideally, the shackle should be just large enough to go around your bike's frame, both wheels (assuming you take one off so that you can secure both wheel and the frame) and the bike rack. The less room you leave for a thief to work with his tools, the less likely it is that your lock will be defeated. Kryptonite brand locks, in particular, are available in standard, ATB (wide) and long-shackle versions.
Some U-bolt locks come with warranties that offer to reimburse you for the cost of your bike or your insurance deductible, up to a certain ceiling amount (e.g., $750, $1,000 or $1,500). On the one hand, the presence of such a warranty demonstrates a high level of confidence by the manufacturer in its product(s). On the other hand, the warranties are usually useless. Most warranties state that in order to collect, you must provide, among other things, the broken pieces of the lock. The thief might not leave those behind, or city sidewalk cleaners may remove them before you discover that your bike has been stolen. So, while the warranties may offer you "warm fuzzies", I don't recommend using them as criteria when comparing locks.
As of this writing, it is my understanding that Kryptonite makes the best U-bolt locks. I, personally, use Kryptonite Evolution 2000 series locks on my bicycles, mostly due to recommendations from the salespeople in my favorite bike shop. A Kryptonite New York lock was the only lock that emerged unscathed when Bicycling Magazine tested locks, as published in an article in July, 2000, but they did not test any of the lesser Kryponite locks. Kryptonite has since come out with an Evolution 3000 series of locks, which have thicker, heavier shackles than the Evolution 2000 and New York series, and also claim to have pick-proof mechanisms. But I am *not* making a blanket recommendation of Kryptonite products, especially since Kryptonite makes locks other than U-bolts, and many of them are considerably less secure. (See my review of the Kryptonite KryptKeeper II for details.) In the end, comparative reviews, such as the aforementioned Bicycling Magazine article, are your best bets as far as keeping up with the latest and most effective locks.
No matter what the manufacturer claims or guarantees, no bike lock is indestructible. However, it's not usually necessary for a lock to be indestructible in order for it to prevent your bike from being stolen. It's very unusual to see people attacking the toughest-looking bike locks they can find, just for the challenge. Bike thieves steal bikes for personal gain, and, like most criminals, they are opportunistic. Even if you have a "nice" bike, unless there's something unusually attractive about it, or it's very expensive and the thief is unusually knowledgeable about bikes, your well-secured bicycle will be passed up in favor of someone else's, not-so-well secured (or unsecured!) bicycle. With that in mind, any high-quality U-bolt lock should prevent your bike from being pilfered, as long as you observe proper locking procedures, which include:
- Lock in high-traffic, well-lit places. (Thieves hate to be seen.)
- Make sure the object to which you are locking your bike is, itself, secure. (For example, beware of locking up to sign posts, which can often be lifted right out of their anchors.)
- Never leave a bike locked only to itself, e.g., one or both wheels locked to the frame.
- Remove a wheel (front is usually easiest), bring it to the other wheel, and lock both wheels and the frame to an immovable object.
- If your bicycle has a quick-release seat binder bolt, take the seat with you. Not only does this prevent a thief from taking your seat, but a bike that is missing its seat, and therefore is less comfortable to ride away and harder to sell, will be less attractive to a thief in the first place.
- Fill the space inside the shackle. Remember, you don't want to leave room for a thief to fit his tools.
- Keep the locking mechanism as far as possible from the ground or any object against which it might be smashed with a hammer. I like to position my lock so the mechanism is facing into the spokes; that makes it harder for a thief to reach in with a pick.
Remember that while a good lock may set you back $30 or more, the expense and inconvenience of a bike theft might be even more costly. Even if you're only riding an old bike, purchased at a yard sale for $20, there'll always be someone out there who wants it, and replacing that bicycle plus a poorly-made $15 lock over and over again adds up. (And don't forget to include cab or bus fare home if the theft leaves you stranded.) Thus, it pays to invest in a good lock in the first place.