Don’t Get Your Bike Stolen

Bike theft is real! It’s a big problem in cities all across the world, and Portland, Oregon was once ranked 5th in Kryptonite’s list of top 10 cities for bike theft. Here is a quick primer on how to act accordingly:

Always lock your bike.


…even in your backyard or on your porch. I used to pity friends who lost bikes this way, but after hearing countless stories of unlocked bikes disappearing from porches, back yards, open garages, and apartment building hallways my sympathy has waned somewhat. Once you get used to it, locking your bike up will be a fast and mindless activity.

Location, location, location

When you are scoping out a spot to lock up, consider the following: always lock to the most sturdy object you can find. If you can fit your u-lock around the tree it can be cut down real fast. If it’s a sign post, consider how hard it would be to rip the signs off and lift your bike over the top. These scenarios, while they may seem a little far-fetched, aren’t unheard of. When you are selecting a location, you are buying time. The longer and more awkward it is for a thief to get your bike, the better the location. That’s why you should also lean towards well-lit, heavily trafficked areas. It’s also wise to lock up where there are other bikes. Chances are, if you’re an expert locker, other people’s stuff will be stolen first.

Don’t use cable locks.

Cable lock

Police reports show that almost all of the locked bikes that get stolen in Portland are locked with a cable lock. Using a cable lock is like assuming your bike is safe unlocked on your porch. Get a U-Lock or a hefty bike-specific chain. Little U-locks are great to carry but generally mean that you can’t lock up as much stuff or to as many different things. Your call. Keep reading to better understand how lock size might make a difference.


Other locks you shouldn’t trust:

  • locks with cylindrical keys
  • cheap hardware store chains
  • big thick expensive cable locks that seem like they should be secure but sadly aren’t.

Lock up the expensive stuff.

Wheel u-locked to tree

It’s tough to lock up everything on your bike, but you should at least lock up the bike itself as the photo above illustrates. When locking up, prioritize the items you want to keep. A good rule of thumb is to lock up anything that can be easily removed from your bike. That usually means the frame and at least one wheel. Also, don’t forget about those lights, pumps, and cycle computers, either. You don’t want to leave any of those items unattended on your bicycle. Lights, with their handy AA and AAA batteries, tend to disappear very quickly downtown.

Beware of quick releases.

Quick releaseSeatpost binder bolt

Quick-releases – those little levers that make it easy to remove your wheels and seatpost – are great if you find yourself removing your wheels and seat post frequently. There’s a reason, though, why most European city bikes don’t have them: they make it really easy for thieves to steal your wheels, seatpost, and saddle. Consider replacing your quick release “skewers” with a secure system like the one made by Pitlock. It’s easy and worthwhile to replace the seatpost quick-release with a bolt (see photo above). Otherwise, plan on locking up your wheels to prevent having them stolen.

A note about bolt-on wheels.

Bolted-on wheel (Agh!  No lockring!)

Many bikes, particularly cheaper bikes, cruisers, BMX bikes, european city bikes, and fixed-gear bikes have their wheels secured with 15mm nuts. On cheaper bikes, it’s generally considered safe in Portland to consider these wheels “locked up,” (i.e., not locked through the wheel) but in reality, all a thief needs is a 15mm wrench. I carry one in my bag (and I’m not the only one!) and I’m not a bike thief. So if you’ve got a new track bike with a $2000 wheel set, before imitating a messenger biker and locking up just the frame with your mini u-lock, keep in mind the fact that most messengers don’t leave their bikes locked up for long during the workday. If you want those wheels to stick around, you should lock them up.

Which wheel to lock up?

Failing to learn from history.

Some say you should lock your front wheel because it’s “easier to steal.” Others say you should lock the rear because it’s worth more. I fall decidedly in the latter camp. With quick releases, front wheels take 6 seconds to remove while rear wheels take 7. Your rear wheel is more difficult and expensive to replace. What’s more, it’s easy to lock up a rear wheel and frame with even the smallest u-lock (see next entry). Note in the picture above: the bike on the left’s rear wheel has been stolen and the front wheel has been released, but it’s locked. Interesting to note that the bike on the right only has its frame locked despite the obvious evidence of wheel thieves operating nearby.

Locking up a lot with a little.

The rear wheel trick.

The Trick with both wheels

In the picture above, the u-lock only goes around two things: the bike rack and the bike’s wheel. If you think about it, though, it’s locking up the frame as well. This is because it is impossible to remove the frame when the rear wheel is locked within the rear triangle of the frame. Unless a thief wants to cut the tire, tube, and rim, this is a secure way to lock up your rear wheel and frame with even a very small lock. Note how much room is left. Extra room around your u-lock is actually a bad thing as it gives thieves room to fit tools. But, if you want to lock up both wheels with one lock, this space comes in very handy.

These extra inches are useful when you are locking to something thick or if you have big tires and/or fenders. It is possible, though, to lock up a skinny-tired road bike this way using a mini-u-lock.

U-lock/cable combinations

u-lock and cable combo

If you want to lock up both wheels but don’t want to be taking one off all the time, consider pairing a cable with your u-lock. Most bike shops sell cables with loops on the ends for this purpose. Cables, as we’ve established, are not thief proof, but if they are only locking up a wheel, most thieves will seek lower hanging fruit. Just be sure to lock the frame with the u-lock.

Know the serial number for your bike.

Write it down. Now. Grab a pen and paper, step away from this computer, go to your bike, peruse the frame around your bottom bracket for the serial number, write it down along with the make and model of your bike, and then put it someplace you’ll never forget (like your freezer) and email the info to yourself. You can even write it down on this nice City of Portland form or register your bike with Project 529. Without this information, it is nearly impossible to get a stolen bike back through the police.

These are just a few of our tips for locking up your bike, but refer to the links below to read on!

Tips and resources:

Sheldon Brown on lock strategy

Kryptonite – How to secure your stuff – bike theft resources

BikeSnobNYC (tells you what I just told you, but not as nicely)

Strongbad on avoiding bike theft (more funny than useful)


Comments (25)

  1. Jessica Roberts Permalink  | Aug 22, 2008 04:29pm

    Great write-up, Carl! Love the pics.

    I recommend filling out that bike identification form, taking a digital photo of it, and uploading it to somewhere (in my case Flickr, marked ‘private’) along with photos of your bikes. It’s a big relief to know that I will be able to find my serial number, make, description, and a photo very quickly if I ever need it.

  2. Jym Gibson Permalink  | Aug 25, 2008 12:42pm

    Greetings all,
    I had the initial sting of the loss of Bicycle with the Complementary overwhelming rush of emotions that accompany the loss of something personal like my bike was. I now take the loss as something of a lesson learned about security and somewhat of an affirmation and compliment as to how I customized my Bike.


  3. jamilah bourdon Permalink  | Aug 25, 2008 06:30pm

    i always see commentaries like this, which is helpful i suppose, but what about situations where you are in an area that has no bicycle racks, or nothing whatsoever to park tour bicycle (like many places on 82nd, or at kinko’s or whatever)? also, there are many places where you can’t park because all the spots are taken. what i usually do (if i am running in the store for a minute) is i just lock it unto itself; it may not be the best thing, but some places seriously do not consider cyclists. and sometimes, at events or at the library, the only places to park is by a tree or on a sign, since there is no room. i want to see pieces written on these situations.


  4. jamilah bourdon Permalink  | Aug 25, 2008 06:32pm

    oops, i meant ‘the only place to park is by a tree or on a sign’…

  5. Carl Permalink  | Aug 26, 2008 10:33am

    I hear ya loud and clear, Jamilah. I once wandered around a parking lot on 122nd for about 15 minutes in search of SOMEthing–ANYthing–to lock my bike to. Solution? The “Handicapped Parking Only” sign in the middle of the parking lot. Not ideal, but it worked.

    Here’s some good news about parking in these areas: bike thieves out there don’t seem to be as keen or determined as those who work downtown. That doesn’t mean that using a cable lock or locking your bike to itself cuts it, though, particularly if you’re going to be gone a while. If I found myself in areas with poor locking options more frequently, I’d definitely carry a chain. Chains run about $100, but they’re worth every penny when it comes to locking ease. You can lock to big trees, huge lamp posts, bus shelters, dumpsters (careful! know the pickup times), gas pipes, telephone poles, and even fire hydrants in a pinch (not recommended). Equipped with a chain, you can lock to just about anything.

    A little creativity goes a long way when it comes to exurban locking technique but if you’ve exhausted all those options (and it sounds like you have), take your bike inside! You’d be surprised at how amenable many businesses (even big-box stores) are to taking your bike inside. In fact, I’ve found that they’re friendlier about it out on, say, 82nd, than in downtown Portland. Of course, some folks’ll turn you down but it’s definitely worth a try. Oh, and lock your bike to itself inside, too.

    Sorry to leave out these important real-life scenarios!

    Consider being a part of the solution:

    Chances are, if a store is friendly enough to let you park inside, they might hear you out when you tell them they need better bike parking. You are their customer. If they’re surrounded by free parking for cars, they should definitely give you a place to park your bike. Bike racks are cheap.

    …and if you live in Portland and you’re feeling like a good citizen, call 503-823-CYCL (menu option 3) and request that a bike rack be installed on the sidewalks in front of some of these businesses. It’s not fast, but it IS free. Suggest that the business request a rack, too, and give them that number. Who knows? It might speed up the process.

    This article by Jessica Roberts (former BTA policy advocate and the first commenter on this post), and the comments that follow it, has some interesting information about one of Portland’s bike parking funding mechanisms.

  6. Scott Permalink  | Aug 26, 2008 12:42pm

    After receiving a new frame from Jordan Hufnagel, I found that it had no serial number or other identification (other than a pain job). When I asked him about it, he said that he’d be able to identify the bike if it were stolen, so it’s no problem. I attempted to convince him that his memory wasn’t a reasonable means of obtaining a stolen bike from the police, but he remained certain. So if you have a custom bike (at least a Hufnagel), lock it really really well. Cause you might not get it back even if they do find it.

  7. Peggy Permalink  | Aug 26, 2008 04:35pm

    Scott — could you engrave your driver’s license on the bottom of the frame?

    Overall this is a great post, full of good information.

  8. Karl D Permalink  | Aug 27, 2008 08:44am

    What a crappy locking job.
    Just cut through the back rim of the tire take the frame.

    Put the Lock through the frame and wheel!!!

  9. Jessica Roberts Permalink  | Aug 27, 2008 10:22am

    Carl, I tried your cool-guy rear wheel only locking method, but my pocket lock didn’t fit around my rear wheel with fender. Does it only work with fender-free bikes (in Portland?!) or with road bikes?

  10. Jessica Roberts Permalink  | Aug 27, 2008 06:12pm

    p.s. Scott, my Vanilla is S/N free too, which I find rather a bummer. I’ve been intending to engrave something into the seat tube or other interior part for years, but haven’t ever gotten around to it….oh, and also I don’t have an engraver. And what should I engrave on it? My own SSN, while unique, would be idiotic, but my driver’s license number (which is suggested on some sites) seems philosophically wrong, and can change over the years. What would you do?

  11. Travis Wittwer Permalink  | Aug 27, 2008 11:39pm

    Great info. I, like a few of your commentors, have taken photos of my bike as a whole, the serial number, and any fancy-pants items on the bike. I have a copy of this on my computer, in an email, and on Flickr. It is so easy to do why would you not do it?

    Question, the rear-wheel lock within the triangle seems pretty cool. But really, better than locking to the frame? I ask this because the shape or size of my bike, something, makes it difficult to lock the frame and the front wheel to the rack so the thought of popping the front wheel off, and doing the back wheel triangle thing peeked my interest.


  12. John Thatcher Permalink  | Aug 28, 2008 08:18am

    I am still running a cylinder key U-lock. Am I too late to get in on the exchange program? Or should I just spring for a new lock?

    Good advice about taking a photo of your bike(s). I will do that ASAP.

  13. Scott Permalink  | Aug 28, 2008 11:06am

    Back when I was working for the City of Scottsdale (AZ) running the Earn-A-Bike program, the police wanted us to tap serial numbers into all frames that didn’t have them. And it could be anything you want, but then we would register the new owner with the PD. Once that is done, you’re set. But it often surprised me how descriptions and pictures didn’t get your bike back, while a silly little non-unique number was solid proof it is yours. Of course, screwing up the pain job on a nice custom bike is the unfortunate part. We need to get these builders to put on the number before the paint.

  14. Carl Permalink  | Aug 28, 2008 04:30pm

    Mileage may vary on locking technique to be sure. Mountainbikes with fenders are definitely the most challenging (unless we want to talk about skirt-guards…) for this technique. If you’ve got a regular-sized krypto u-lock, Jessica, you should be able to fit it on your Bridgestone in the fashion described.

    Of course, if you CAN hook your frame and everything else you want to hook with the u-lock, go for it! There’s absolutely no reason not to. The only-hooking-the-real-wheel thing is just a trick to buy some room. Claims that it is less secure are largely theoretical. Having cut through wheels before, I can honestly say that it is quite a spectacle/fiasco. Hacksaws and bolt cutters don’t really work, so the best/only option is really a grinder. At that point, thieves would be wise to just cut the bike rack, take everything locked to it, and save a wheel!

    As for cylindrical-keyed u-locks (those that can easily be opened with a Bic pen), I don’t believe Kryptonite is trading them in anymore. Sounds like you’ve got the beginnings of a u-lock horseshoe set for the backyard! Sorry.

  15. jamilah bourdon Permalink  | Aug 28, 2008 07:42pm

    thanks carl, for the response… you’re right, i have tried a lot of options (even taking my bicycle in shops at times) but the comment especially about asking the shops about locking systems i haven’t tried… thanks for the suggestion!!!

  16. Lowell Permalink  | Sep 02, 2008 01:20pm

    I carry 2 locks on my bike. This essentially doubles the weight of my bike due to the combination of a U-Lock and a NY-Chain with a secure Masterlock (heavy security double ball).
    The one thing my last few bike thieves have taught me is that they are willing to cut through or destroy anything. I will make sure and use both locks wherever I go. My renter’s insurance was canceled after my 2nd bike got stolen in 1 year. I’d be up for removal of the offender’s hand like in Saudi Arabia to eliminate this problem.

  17. Jane Permalink  | Sep 02, 2008 03:22pm

    I also carry a cable and a krypto on my bike. It’s heavy and sometimes it seems like overkill in the area of Portland that I work in but it also saves me a lot of hassle up on Sylvan or in the parks where there isn’t anything but trees to chain to. It is also helpful to be able to thread my cable under other bikes to hook to an over crowded rack without risking blocking other people in.

  18. Stuck with Kryptonite Permalink  | Sep 02, 2008 04:48pm

    Can anyone advise how to exchange a cylindrical key Kryptonite lock for a more secure Kryptonite version? I heard rumor that they were exchanging for free…?


  19. John T. Permalink  | Oct 02, 2008 01:27pm

    Note about “correct” picture showing a U-lock securing the rim to the bike rack; In my opinion, cutting the tire & rim on a street bike would only take one “bite” with a large pair of bolt cutters. It might take a couple more “bites” on a mountain bike, but could probably be done in under 10 seconds as well. Sure the rear rim is ruined, but if it’s an expensive bike that would be of little consideration. Sure, the thief can’t ride the bike away, but the thief didn’t ride away in the picture of the front wheel which was secured (and left behind). It’s the same as using steering wheel locks on cars; a pair of bolt cutters to the steering wheel, and the lock is useless no matter how strong. The steering wheel locks which go between the wheel and the brake peddle are even more useless; a strong adult can bend down the steering wheel and release the device, and again a steering wheel is of little consequence compared to the value of the car.

  20. mush Permalink  | Oct 12, 2009 05:34pm

    When will the City of Portland actually let us register our bikes? I know other cities do (for free).

  21. Chris Permalink  | Mar 23, 2010 08:22pm

    Just a note – I used to always lock my bike to signs and parking meters in Chicago and in Baltimore, since back then bike locks were very few and far between. I came back for my bike in Baltimore once and the parking meter had been removed by the city (they had changed that spot to a truck loading zone) along with my bike, and I never got my bike back from the city. I called several people in the department that was responsible for removing the meter, and they all said it was tough luck about my bike because it is illegal to tie anything to city property. I doubt this will happen very often, it may never happen to anyone else, but just be careful when locking up to city property.

  22. oskr Permalink  | Jan 09, 2013 04:10pm

    the only place i can leave my bike is the front porch. but there’s no posts out there or fences. anyone have any ideas? i already had one stolen from out there. i need somehow to install a heavy something or other that can’t be moved.

  23. Daniel Marzani Permalink  | Nov 08, 2014 04:59pm

    I will add my two cents. I was born and raised in NYC-one of the bike theft capitals in the US. I have had bikes for the last 35 years-and never had one stolen (except the ones I would lend to idiot friends). I have owed $200-300 beater bikes (a least they look that way) and really expensive $2k-3k+ bikes. Here are my thoughts: For commuting to work etc, use the beater bike-spray paint it black or wrap it up in electrical tape-and do a proper lock up. DO NOT EVER LOCK UP A HIGH END BIKE OUTSIDE (you are just asking for it)! Use quick releases and TAKE THE FRONT WHEEL AND SEAT WITH YOU! You can also get a quick link for your chain and take that as well (most people will consider this overkill). Use a U-lock through the frame and rear wheel. Lock it to a proper bike rack in a high traffic/lit area. My reasoning for going this extra mile is twofold (and really requires very little extra effort): 1. A thief is not going to be able to ride off on your bike (unless they are a wheelie master) and will look very suspicious walking off with it with no front wheel and seat. So unless the dude has a van or something, he will probably pass on it. 2. The bike is going to be a hassle to go and sell to someone on the street, as the guy has to put a wheel and seat on the thing-of course it can be done, he will probably pass on it. The more of a pain in the ass you make it for the guy steal your bike, the less likely he is to do it. Write down the serial number/make/model/upgrades/take a photo and register it with your town and the national bike registry. You can also install a tracker in the steerer tube with makes it hard to remove/destroy.

  24. Pam Permalink  | May 12, 2016 06:43am

    Nowhere have I found a video on how to properly lock up a bike with front and rear fenders. (I’ve searched youtube.) I have a brand new beach cruiser that I ride in the city. It’s a head turner and (therefore) a magnet for thieves! Please tell me how to properly secure it.

    Or, should I treat it much as one would a small child and never let it out of my sight?