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Everything you need to know about bike security

Dominic Sanders
25 Feb 2020

Streetwise tips to help protect your ride from light-fingered opportunists

Top twelve bike security facts and tips

1. Around 376,000 bicycles are stolen every year in the UK, or one every 90 seconds

2. London has the most thefts, followed by Edinburgh, Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Cambridge, Cardiff, Bournemouth, and Reading

3. The most stolen bike brand is Specialized, with seven of its models featuring in the top 10 most commonly nicked bikes alongside brands like Brompton, Ridgeback and Carrera

4. The cheapest locks can sometimes be broken using a screwdriver, hammer or brick. Semi-decent locks will require bolt croppers, while the best most often need an angle grinder to cut through. All locks can be cut with the right tools

6. Most thefts are committed by opportunists

7. Secure or remove components to avoid your bike being 'piranhad'. This is where a bike has components like wheels, lights and saddles stripped - leaving nothing except the frame

8. CCTV does little to deter thieves. Also don’t rely on passers-by to intervene. Most people are unlikely to want to tackle someone using tools to steal your bike

9. Disguising your bike or making it look tatty will make it less attractive to thieves. The same goes for your shed, posh-looking ones are specifically targeted by bike thieves

10. Thieves often scout in pairs, one riding a previously stolen bike or scooter before the other jumps off and steals the bike

11. Home contents insurance rarely covers bikes outside the home, so it’s often better to get stand-alone insurance

12. Register your bike’s frame number with BikeRegister.com as the police often check this when recovering stolen bikes

How likely is it that my bike will get stolen?

Crime statistics show that 376,000 bicycles are stolen every year in the UK, or one every 90 seconds. According to BikeRegister.com, the National Cycle Database which marks and registers bikes to protect them against theft, urban areas see the highest incidents of bike theft.

The top 10 metropolitan areas are  – in order of recorded cases – London, Edinburgh, Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Cambridge, Cardiff, Bournemouth and Reading. The reasons for this are obviously population density and the intensity of the bike culture in those places.

But there would seem to be another factor at play, too. One former London bike thief interviewed by stolenride.co.uk – which uses social media to share news of bike thefts among the cycling community – revealed, ‘There is a thing what we would call London rings or hotspots, where bike security seemed to be less of a problem.

'The more central you got, the worse the locks, people let their guard down more. Going out of London, locks would get better and locations fewer, so the time and effort put in wouldn’t be worth it. The boroughs of Islington and Hackney, as well as the West End and the Square Mile were our hunting grounds.’

Is most bike theft organised or opportunistic?

While it’s true to say that there is a substantial trade in stolen bikes by professional bike thieves, the vast majority of people who purloin bikes are chancers.

Grabbers of easily exploited opportunities who’ll see any piece of unattended property, bike shaped or otherwise, and nab it with the idea of making a few quid. Sometimes to feed a family, more often to feed a drug habit.

It’s a truth backed up by official crime stats, figures which are studied – for professional reasons – by those in the business of theft prevention.

According to Axel Roesler, the Sales and Marketing Director of ABUS locks, ‘In most [European] countries you can say that more than 70% of all bike thieves are opportunist thieves.

'Almost 90% of these thieves exist and work with small tools which they can hide inside their jacket and have no professional technical knowledge.’

SEE RELATED: Best bike locks

What tools do they use?

At this more rudimentary end of the scale, thieves will use anything from their bare hands to yank a bike loose from a cheap cable lock, to tools more typically used for DIY.

When asked what his lock-busting weapon of choice was during a recent online interview, one low-level bike thief revealed, ‘The most-used tool is actually just a simple screwdriver. You put the blade in the lock where the key normally goes, and you smash on the back.

'If you’ve got a hammer, use that. I usually don’t, however, so I use bricks nine times out of 10. Cheap D-locks can usually be opened by smashing them to the ground a couple of times. For higher-quality ones, you need bolt cutters.’

So how do these opportunistic thieves operate?

As opportunists, they need to work quickly. That means that they’re looking for any bikes secured with cables, weak D-locks or feeble chains and padlocks.

So any sturdier security measures that require significant effort on the part of the opportunistic pilferer is likely to put them off. Or to quote one anonymous bike thief writing on an online forum: ‘More locks = more effort = going for the next bike. We’re superduper lazy.’

The opportunistic thief is also more likely to ‘piranha’ a bike, that is to say, strip it of accessories such as wheels, lights and saddles. In some cases going so far that the original owner comes back to find nothing left except the frame and a bike lock.

We’ve even heard of one scam where a thief struck up a conversation in the street with a bike owner telling him how much he admired his bike. He then asked if he could sit on it, and when the overly trusting owner agreed, rode off at high speed!

How long does it typically take them to steal a bike?

According to ABUS’ Axel Roesler, ‘The important rule to remember is, “Time resistance equals security.” In other words, the better the lock the more unlikely it is that the thief will even try.’

It’s a sentiment that’s certainly echoed by bike thieves themselves. As one online recently admitted, ‘My golden rule was, “Do it under a minute or don’t do it at all.”’

Various YouTube videos of CCTV footage certainly bear this out, with thieves removing bikes from racks, railings and lamp posts using a variety of basic tools and brute force, often in a matter of seconds.

SEE RELATED: Best small and lightweight bike locks

It doesn't sound like CCTV serves as much of a deterrent, then?

It wouldn’t seem so. In 2012, New York author Patrick Symmes revealed that he’d been shown footage by police showing the theft of his beloved bike that was an incredible 17-minutes long.

‘By my count,’ he wrote in a blog afterwards, ‘142 people walked past as my bike was stolen, Only one, the very last one, tried to do anything.

'As the lock yielded and the thief jumped onto my bike, an elderly black man in a Kangol cap lunged for them both. But it was too late. The blue Novara vanished into traffic and was gone…’

Sadly, it’s not just in the US that thieves are so brazen. As a British bike thief told stolenride.co.uk, ‘The more CCTV and people, the better. People are like sheep, they feel safe and pay less attention when they’re together.’

You mentioned professional bike thieves earlier. Tell me about them...

Ah, yes. The professional bike thief is a far more organised and tooled-up creature who can, quite frankly, defeat any lock given enough time.

They’ll also know what they’re looking for and will understand the true value of a bike. To quote one seasoned pro thief we found online, ‘The only foolproof way to ensure your ride is safe from me is to buy a f***ing ugly bike and fit a sticker that identifies your bike as being an inexpensive brand.’

What tools do they tend to use?

A pro thief’s toolkit can be a large and varied one and their approach to their work far more sophisticated than the opportunistic thief.

One reformed pro thief Shenol Shaddouh, 24, who managed to turn his life around and now works as a bike mechanic in East London revealed, ‘I would carry a hand-held cable, metal and bolt cutters, and pick keys. Sometimes we’d even bring a scaffolding pole round to a job to twist and snap a lock.

'Then, when we had a bit of extra money, we would buy a really expensive lock just to take it apart and research how we could break it for future jobs.’

What marques do they tend to go after? 

According to bikeregister.com the most frequently pinched brand in Britain is Specialized, with seven of its models having the dubious honour of featuring in the top 10 of most frequently nicked bikes alongside brands like Brompton, Ridgeback and Carrera.

In the parlance of professional bike thieves, such popular brands are known as ‘golds’ because the return on the time and risk involved in stealing them is so rewarding.

Do they also target bikes in your home?

Unfortunately, yes. In an interview released by the Metropolitan Police late last year a prolific bike thief revealed his modus operandi in detail.

‘I’d often get the orders over the weekend and then go out during the week. I’d know where I wanted to hit and I’d do an area for a few days, but then you know the police will get themselves organised so I’d move on before that happened and go somewhere else.

'I did mainly sheds, and I’d look for a quality padlock – it meant something interesting inside. If it proved too thick to cut and all else failed, I’d lie on my back and force the roof off with my feet. They’re only nailed on.

'Then I’d put it back on afterwards. I’d also have a bike out of the garden, too, if people were stupid enough to leave it there, and I’d garden-hop from one to the other.

'If there was a rear alleyway, that was also useful because it kept me out of sight and was good to move the bikes about.'

And how do they tend to operate?

Some professional thieves go hunting for bikes in vans, while others will roam the streets on a motorbike. One former bike thief revealed to stolenride.co.uk, ‘We’d go out on high-performance motorbikes, two men on a bike. The pillion would carry the cutters.

'When we found a bike the pillion would jump off, snip the chain in seconds. “Boltys” back in the bag, the driver would take the bag and drive off while the pillion, who is now on the pushbike, would cycle off.

'We‘d do this up to five times a night. We’d literally go out on the motorbike and just pick bikes up anywhere. The front of tube stations, bike racks, metal fences, underground car parks, bike parks.

'From the moment you pull up, to the moment the bike is cut and bolt cutters are back on the motorbike would be 10 seconds at the most, so no one really knew what was going on. No one ever confronted us or asked, “What are you doing?”’

Do pro thieves steal to order, then?

Not really – for the most part, targeting specific bikes would be too time-consuming. While many thieves admitted to using auction websites to offload stolen goods, the more successful do, however, build up client lists just like a legitimate business.

As the man in the Met’s interview revealed: ’The main place at first was Gumtree. But the longer you sell, the more people and contacts you would make. At the peak of it we had links all over London – north, south, west and east, Southend-on-Sea, Colchester, Hull and Leicester.

'The further a bike had to go, the more we’d sell in packages. A contact in Southend would pay a lesser price for 10 in one go and would pick them up in a van once a month.

'Bikes were never sold for parts, though. It’s not worth it. Too much time and effort. A bike could be sold in a matter of minutes at the peak of it, to one of many known regular contacts. The longest was around a day.

'Bikes were never kept at home, they were always locked back up on the street somewhere, even outside police stations! If the police ever raided your house then no goods would ever be found.’

So how can I protect my bike, then?

As any police officer will tell you, if a thief is determined enough no bike is truly safe. That doesn’t mean to say there aren’t many measures you can take to deter a potential thief, though.

The most obvious one is to buy yourself the best lock you can afford and get into the habit of using it whenever you leave your bike unattended – even if it’s just for a few moments while you nip into a shop or a public toilet.

Again, to quote the man in the Met’s interview, ‘Why do people spend hundreds, even thousands on a bike and then buy a lock from Poundland? There are some locks that are so poor you can open them with your bare hands.

'I took one that was padlocked to a lamppost just by wrenching the bike away. The lock just fell off.’

Clearly then, a cheap-looking lock not only offers little by way of security, but may actually attract a thief who understands what it is he’s looking at and how easy the lock is to overcome.

What type of lock should I be looking at?

There are basically three types of lock: a D-lock, a chain and padlock, and a cable lock.

Most manufacturers use a security rating to indicate a particular lock’s strength, but the majority of bike locks are independently rated on a ‘Sold Secure’ scale and are given a podium style rating of Bronze, Silver or Gold with Bronze being the weakest and Gold the strongest.

These ratings reflect how long the lock is likely to fend off a thief, representing one minute (with basic tools), three minutes (with better tools) and five minutes (with a sophisticated set of tools).

One thief told stolenride.co.uk, ‘Never use a chain, they’re too easy to snip. Use a small D-lock on front and back wheels.

'If your lock can be moved about that means the thief’s bolt cutters can get around them; at the right angle they won’t. Stiff D-locks are hard to snip because you need the right angle on the cutters to get the force to close them.’

If you’ve got quick-release (QR) wheels, of course, you can simply take the front off and attach it to the back one with a D-Lock. The best D-Lock we’ve tested in recent times is the ABUS Granit X-Plus 540, currently on sale at wiggle.co.uk for £66.48 (RRP £99.99).

What if I'm out for a Sunday morning ride, don't fancy lugging a 1.5kg lock around but want to stop for a coffee?

Then use a cafe lock such as Hiplok’s FLX Wearable Combination Lock (£29.99, zyrofisher.co.uk) and ensure the bike stays in full view of you or your mates the whole time.

It won’t do much more than hold a thief up for a few moments but it might make them think twice about stealing your bike in the first place.

You could also try threading your helmet straps through the spokes, or leaving the bike in its lowest gear so if you do have to leg it after a thieving toerag you’ve got a half-decent chance of nabbing him.

Alternatively, try loosening the wheel skewers so anyone trying to make off with it will fall flat on their face. Literally. 

What are the other dos and don'ts of locking it up?

Definitely don’t put the lock through just the front wheel, not unless you want to come back to find just the front wheel waiting for you. And don’t lock your bike off below the handlebars as a thief with an Allen key will get the handlebar stem off in moments.

And if you come back to find your bike has a mystery flat tyre, don’t be tempted to leave it there overnight, as one little scam we came across while researching this was that it’s not unknown for thieves to let the air out of marked bikes tyres so that they could get at them later when things were less busy.

According to one thief we encountered on an online forum, you should also think strategically about where you lock your bike, ‘Never lock your bike to the end of a bike rack,’ he revealed.

‘The end of the rack is more visible to thieves, so lock it in the middle. I can still get it if I want, but it’s riskier. To be honest, it really isn’t safe anywhere, but if you have to lock it up outside, look for something metal and large.

'Avoid signposts and parking meters because I can tie a rope to a bike and hoist it up. Also be aware that some bike racks can be unbolted or if they’re crap, I’ll just cut the rack. Also, leave it in a well-lit place.’

And when you’re locking your bike up at home in, say, your garden shed don’t just think about the lock on the bike and the padlock on the door, think about the door itself. Can it be removed easily at its hinges?

If so one to attach the door hinges with one-way screws. Also known as security screws, a pack of 25 can be picked up for a fiver at any DIY store. You could also consider fitting your shed with a (visible) alarm.

The harder you make it for a thief to steal from you, the more likely they’ll go elsewhere in search of a softer target.

Anything else I should know?

Make sure your bike is insured. Most household contents insurance does not cover the theft of bicycles, particularly if it is stolen while the bike is off the premises, so double check your policy.

If it’s not, search online for bespoke bicycle insurance. Many companies such as bikemo.com, pedalsure.com, and yellowjersey.co.uk offer a wide range of policies to suit all kinds of riders. 

It’s also a good idea to sign up with BikeRegister.com. This organisation which works closely with Britain’s police forces allows you to register your bike for free on their database, so that in the event of a theft you can flag it up as stolen, making it easier for police to reunite you with it should it be recovered.

The organisation also sells three kits (costing £12.99, £19.99 and £29.99) which offer increasing means of marking your bike in a way that’s intended to let bike thieves know it’s going to be tricky to sell your bike on.

There are also various GPS bike-tracking devices on the market now such as Sherlock (£132, sherlock.bike/en), and Boomerang CycloTrac (£112, boomerangbike.com) which work in conjunction with a smartphone app to keep tabs on your bike’s whereabouts.

Finally, should you be unlucky enough to have your bike pinched, check in with stolenride.co.uk as social media is increasingly playing a role in helping to reunite heartbroken riders with their stolen bikes.

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