Bike thefts are increasing faster than car thefts. So here are my top ten tips to keep your bike from being stolen.
Before we get to the tips, here’s a great video in which a Portland cyclist and his friends get his stolen bike back, and deliver the thief to the police. As the cyclist says, “This is why you don’t steal from bicyclists. Because we care about our rides. Because I will go 160 miles to get my twenty-five-hundred dollar bike back!” It’s a great story and the video is well done too – but don’t try this on your own. Bike thieves are criminals by definition, and you don’t want to get hurt.
Tip #1: Try to always keep your bike within sight.
I have often wheeled my bike into hospitals, doctor’s offices, dentists, banks … you name it. If you just do it, most times no one questions you. In 20 years of doing this I have only once been harassed by a security guard. (And it helps if you wear a high vis vest – people think you ARE security!) No one can steal your bike if you’re holding it. Of course, it is just not always possible … such as when your wife is giving birth (or YOU are giving birth), or you’re pushing a heavy shopping cart, or when you’re at work (most employers won’t let you bring your bike all the way into your office or cubicle, or let you park it in a tiny kitchen if you’re a short-order cook), when you’re in a crowded barber shop or having your nails manicured … and so on. So for all those times when it’s just not possible to keep your bike within sight, read on!
Tip #2: FIND your bike’s serial number and KEEP it in a safe place
This is the single most important thing you can do to keep your bike from being stolen, yet most people don’t do it. Admittedly, it can be hard to do – it took me 15 minutes with a powerful flashlight to find the serial number on my BH bike. And even then, I needed a magnifying glass to read it.
Although it can be surprisingly hard to find a bike’s serial number, it’s well worth the effort. If your bike is stolen, there may be no other way you can prove it is yours, even if you see it the very next day on Craigslist. Also, the police keep a database of stolen bikes, with their serial numbers recorded. If the horrible day ever comes that someone steals your bike, you will have more chance of getting it back if you can give a serial number to the police. What happens all too often is that sometime, somewhere, the police recover your stolen bike, but they have no idea how to find you, so you never see your bike again. Here’s a photo of a huge amount of bikes recovered by the police – all unreturned, because the police could not figure out how to return them.
How to locate your bike’s serial number
Most serial numbers are located under the bottom bracket where the two pedal cranks meet. Just turn your bike upside down and look around. If you draw a blank, then check the headset at the front of the bike or the rear stays. The diagram indicates the most common serial number locations (University of Texas).
If all else fails and you just cannot find your bike’s serial number, engrave your own number (such as your driver’s license number) onto the bike frame and take a photo of yourself standing proudly next to your engraved bike. If the bike is ever stolen, post the photo and the serial number on Craigslist. Most people do NOT want to buy a stolen bike. This is a great way to at least prevent anyone from profiting from stealing your bike.
Tip #3: Don’t go anywhere without a really good bike lock
You never know when you’re going to want to stop for a coffee, and your bike can be gone in seconds. And do NOT skimp on the lock – buy the best U-lock you can afford. Skilled thieves can cut through a cable lock in seconds with bolt cutters. They can cut U-locks too, but that requires power tools, as well as more time and skill. Also, use more than one lock if you regularly park your bike in public places. Here’s one of the justifiably famous Kryptonite bike locks – a great bike lock at a great price. This one has a light on one of the keys – what a great idea!
Basically, what you want is for your bike to be the LEAST attractive bike to steal, so as to keep your bike from being stolen.
For example, have a cable lock, a U-lock AND a chain. This will take a lot of time, and three different tools, to steal. If your average bike thief has to choose between stealing your bike with three different thieving tools, or the bike next to it with just one snip, chances are he’s going to go for the other bike.
Bike theft is a quick, furtive crime of opportunity, so make sure your bike looks like a CHALLENGE, not an opportunity.
And ensure that your system of locks includes a cable going through the front wheel. Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, make sure your strongest lock is secured to the bike’s frame. You don’t want to come back to nothing but a stout U-lock and a front wheel!
It is not enough to just have a good bike lock – it is also important to lock your bike to something appropriate. Here is a video with some great tips on that:
Tip #4: Think carefully about where you park your bike
If you have a fairly expensive bike, preferably don’t park it outdoors at all to keep your bike from being stolen. Some cities now offer secure bike parking. If you can afford it, this is definitely your best option and will be well worth the money for the peace of mind. And more and more employers are starting to offer secure bike parking.
If you have no choice but to park your bike in public, do not park your bike in the same spot every day.
People actually scout out expensive bikes and either steal them themselves or send addicts to steal them. If your bike is always in the same place, you are just making life easy for those kinds of organized thieves.
And however you park it, check that you are locking the bike to something secure.
I was once about to lock my bike to a solid-looking pole in a major city, when a helpful local showed me that the pole could be lifted right out of the ground. Bike racks are of course the most secure things to lock your bike to. On the downside, bike thieves are known to target the areas that have the MOST bikes, so a bike rack with a hundred bikes may look like a (free) candy store to a bike thief.
TIP 5: If your bike is stolen, REPORT the theft to the police
This is of course where knowing your serial number is going to come in handy! Some people do actually get their bikes back this way. It also helps to build up the databases of knowledge that show which areas are high bike theft areas, which is useful for cyclists.
Tip #6: Check out Craigslist
If your bike is stolen, monitor Craigslist – thieves sell a lot of bikes on Craigslist. Of course, you should not show up alone to try to get it back, but you can alert the police if you are pretty sure you have found your bike. They do sometimes send plainclothes officers to make arrests. (Or go with six friends who are all over six feet tall, or the local karate team.)
Tip #7: Make sure you don’t support bike thieves yourself
Be wary of sellers who want to meet you in public places, or who are asking what seems like an extremely low price (and will go even lower if you can show up at a transit station within half an hour). Before buying, check the serial number against the stolen bike databases. In Canada, you can search for stolen bikes by serial number for free here.
In the USA, there is The National Bike Registry, but inexplicably, it is very hard for regular people to access it (it is freely available only to law enforcement officers). As an alternative, you can look for your stolen-in-the-USA bike at this stolen bike registry set up by an energetic cyclist who hates bike thieves. This registry now includes Canadian bikes too.
There’s also an interesting vigilante blog, called To Catch a Bike Thief.
Tip #8: Make your bike unique so it’s easy to spot and less attractive to steal
You might not want to go quite so this far as the bikes in these three pictures, but you could try something not quite so radical to keep your bike from being stolen. For example, if you were replacing your front forks, you could buy forks that are a completely different color from the frame, instantly making your bike recognizable and different. It might even look really good!
Tip #9: Beware of quick release wheels and saddles
These were invented to make life simple for bike owners, but sadly, they also make it really easy for bike thieves to steal bits of your bike. I was once offered a #100 saddle for $10 by a guy who looked like he needed to raise money before the liquor store closed (I was outside a liquor store at the time). This solved what had previously been a mystery for me: What good is a saddle with no bike?
You can use a skewer set or binder bolts to secure your saddle or wheels. If you cannot do it yourself, it costs very little to get your local bike store to do it for you. Or you can carry the bits with you, or make sure that anything quick-release on your bike has its very own lock to protect it.
Tip #10: If you return to your locked bike and find you suddenly have a flat tire, beware!
True confessions from former bike thieves reveal that this is a technique used to delay you from riding off on your bike, while they go off to steal the right tool to steal your bike. This will probably only happen if you have an especially beautiful bike. So if you find you have an unexpected flat tire when you return to your locked bike, do NOT go off to fetch your car or your bike repair kit. Instead, unlock your bike immediately and push it away, to keep your bike from being stolen.
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