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Vienna Pedaler: Protecting Your Bike From Getting Stolen

Tips and strategies for keeping your bike safe, and in your hands

In our last column I talked about how to keep your bike in good condition by protecting it from the elements and such. This week I want to focus on another important issue: how to keep your bike from getting stolen.

Many of you may have seen the recent column by the Post’s John Kelly about a woman having her bike stolen outside the Capitol building, so it can happen to anyone, anywhere. It’s astonishing just how many bikes are stolen each year - estimates range from 250,000 to well over a million, depending on whose statistics you believe.

So how can you prevent yours from being one of them?

First and foremost, LOCK your bike! That may sound obvious, but according to many, including some reports from Vienna Police, many stolen bikes were not locked when stolen. Remember, it only takes a few seconds for someone to hop on and ride off, so take the extra few seconds on your part to prevent it.

Now, where should you lock up your bike? Pick an immovable object, something firmly anchored to the ground or heavy enough it isn’t easily moved. A bike rack is usually the best choice, but not all bike racks are well designed or placed, and it’s not always easy to find one. The Vienna Bicycle Advisory Committee is working on getting more racks in town, but for now you might have to settle for signposts, trees, utility poles or other such “found” objects. One thing to avoid using, please, is handrails that were installed for the use of people with disabilities. Also make sure you’re not locking your bike to something a thief can simply lift your bike over and make off with it.

It’s also advisable to lock your bike in a highly visible location, with lots of people going by. Tucked out of sight down an alley, a bike thief is given ample opportunity to attack your lock without being observed. That’s not to say a public place is absolutely secure ... there’s a video on the internet where two guys staged a series of fake bike thefts in NYC, and over the course of several incidents, not one person stops to ask them what they are doing. Still, parking your bike where it can be seen is best.

Finally, use a good quality bike lock, and learn how to use it correctly. In selecting a lock, there’s always a trade off between security and some measure of convenience. Generally speaking, the most secure locks are the heaviest, hardest to carry, and sometimes more challenging to use.

There are cable, chain, bar, and U-lock styles, in general order of increasing security. The common coiled cable lock is very convenient and light, and it’s much easier to find something you can wrap one around to secure your bike, as they are typically 6 feet long or more. Unfortunately, they are also the easiest to break, so I only recommend them for low risk uses, where you’re not leaving the bike for an extended period of time, in a low risk area. This is NOT the lock to use when you leave your bike at a Metro station all day.

Chain locks specifically designed for bike use are very rugged and can wrap around fairly large objects as well. If properly designed and made, the links are a shape that resists cutting, and made of hardened steel. The downside is they are rather heavy, and not as easy to carry as the cables.

A bar lock is a relatively new style of lock, made up of a series of short metal bars that fold into a tidy package, much like the old style folding carpenter’s ruler. Made of hardened steel, they resist breaking well, and fold into a pretty compact package. Again, heavier than the cable lock, and not as flexible in use, but much more secure.

In terms of resisting breakage, the U-lock design is generally regarded as the most secure. Made up of a U-shaped shackle of hardened steel and a hardened steel crossbar, the U-lock is both compact and sturdy. One real strength of a good U-lock is that the internal opening of the lock is a very small area, which makes it harder for a thief to get a prying tool in to break it open. This also makes it harder in terms of finding an object to lock your bike to, as there isn’t a lot of room to work with.

Which leads me to my final lock recommendation - if you want to really increase the security of your bike, use more than one lock. A good example of this would be to use a U-lock to secure your back wheel and frame, while using a chain, bar, or cable lock to secure the front wheel. The use of two locks also deters thieves, in that it increases the time needed to steal your bike, and might also require different tools for the thief to use.

Finally, remember that no lock is unbreakable, and there is no way to absolutely prevent bike theft. The best you can hope for is to deter thieves by making your bike less of an appealing target. The strategies above will go a long way toward that, but if you regularly leave a bike locked up in a risky area, you might also consider other options, such as either using a “beater” bike for those trips, or somehow making your bike less appealing to the thief.

I’ve been known to take a good bike and festoon it with goofy stickers, mismatched handlebar tape and battered accessories simply to lower it’s “curb appeal”. The goal is to discourage any potential thieves, and anything you can do toward that end helps.

You might also consider registering your bike. Some local jurisdictions offer that option, and there’s also the National Bike Registry, which for a fee will keep a record of your bike’s critical information and pass it on to authorities if need be.

You should also keep your own records on your bike(s) - note the make, model, year and serial number, as well as any identifying features that make it unique. You might also consider either engraving your own unique identifying number on the bike frame, or concealing some bit of identification inside some part of the bike where a thief is unlikely to find it. None of these actually prevent theft, but they might help you recover your bike if it’s stolen.

Other helpful links:

The National Bike Registry

Sheldon Brown's Lock Strategy

VDOT On Bike Registration

WABA On Bike Records

How to secure your bike

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