Dear PoPville – How to Make Your Bike Thief-Proof? Plus A Christmas Miracle in July

Photo by PoPville flickr user ekelly80

“Dear PoPville,

I’m looking for some advice on safe bike storage. Yesterday, I discovered that my entire bike had been stolen. I keep it in the alleyway behind my Bloomingdale house, and it is always U-locked. I used my bike everyday, and it is essential to my transportation needs, so I am planning to buy another cheap bike sometime soon.

My question is: What are some best practices on safe/thief-proof bike storage? Should I use a certain type of lock other than a U-lock, and more than one? At my old house, I would store my bike inside. However, my new place in Bloomingdale has less space and very narrow stairwells, so it is really difficult to carry it up and down the several flights of narrow stairs everyday. Should I just (wo)man up and store it inside, despite the aforementioned daily obstacles, or are there better ways to store it outside that your readers can clue me in on?

UPDATE: In a twisted turn of events, my stolen bike was recovered. The man who bought it was literally sitting on my front stoop with said missing item. You can’t write this stuff.

YES! I still cannot believe it myself. I filled out the police report just yesterday, and with a heavy sense of acceptance that my bike was in ether.

I arrived home around 7 pm, lo and behold, I see one older man sitting on my front stairwell and one younger man on a bike right next to it (which in and of itself is weird since it’s not their house). I take a closer look at the bike, and I realize that it’s mine. I somehow stammer out the words, “That’s my bike!! Where did you get it?” The younger guy replies that he bought it for $20 yesterday. The older man is yelling at him to give it back to me, and he finally gives in. My suspicion is that someone in the neighborhood must have stolen it and sold it to this younger guy. But seriously…what is the probability that my stolen bike reappears right in front of my doorstep at the exact time I get home for the day?? Unbelievable.

The truly bizarre thing is that my ulock is still intact on the bike. There’s a little dent on the side, which makes me think that they tried to cut it, but were unsuccessful. However, it was locked to an iron fence, and yet it’s still completely on my bike and usable…So strange!

So, I am still in the same conundrum (but more so now since I have my same bike to lose): Given the circumstances that I described to you earlier, how do I make sure that my bike isn’t stolen…again?”

Any guesses on how the ulock is still intact? Sadly, it seems the best solution is to take the bike inside everyday.

69 Comment

  • Not sure how to secure your bike but I don’t believe that guy had purchased the bike for $20. I think you found the (not very smart) perp.

    • +1

      Maybe you should take a tire off if you continue to lock it up outside. I’m surprised you had that bike this long given you are locking it up in an alleyway.

  • Crazy story, unbelievable in fact but crazy stuff happens. Glad you got your bike back.

    My guess on how the lock is still intact is that they cut the fence.

    • The fence was wrought iron and I saw no signs of damage, so I don’t know if that is what happened.

  • The guy who said he bought it for 20 bucks is the guy who stole it. Duh.

  • It doesn’t matter what kind of lock you have, any bike kept in an alley in Bloomingdale [or really any other neighborhood in DC] will be stolen, have parts stolen off it, or be vandalized. If your bike is of any importance to you, it needs to be kept inside your home. I’m not trying to be mean or snarky, it’s just reality.

    • Bikes should also be locked when stored on the inside

    • +1. Plus, it’s not great for your bike to be stored outside. Chain rusts, tires disintegrate, seat gets gross, etc.

      It’s a pain to take the bike inside every day, but that’s your answer. It’s nothing compared to the inconvenience of finding your bike stolen or vandalized when you rely on it regularly to get to work or run errands.

  • pablo .raw

    I was reading a bike lock catalog while waiting at a bike store once. They measure in seconds the time it takes a thief to break a lock, no more than 30″. The really good ones takes like 45 seconds. No wonder in NY people carry 3 locks.

  • So maybe put 8 different locks on your bike??

  • I use two locks. One U lock and a heavy duty cord lock around the front tire and frame. Having 2 locks seems to be a deterrent ie: twice the trouble for thiefs. I never leave my bike outside overnight but not everyone has that luxury.

    I think if you are leaving it in the same place every night then eventually it will get stolen no matter how cheap a bike or how good a lock.

    • That works if the two locks are not dependent on each other. Meaning if the crooks disable lock #1, they still can’t run off with the bike to later disable lock #2, or lock #1 secures the parking meter or the fence better than the bike.
      I haven’t had a bike of mine stolen (mangled/vandalized yes, stolen no). I would lock the back of the bike and wheel with a long U lock and the front and wheel with another U lock. I’d also only leave my crappy bike outside, with 3 locks that were wholly independent of each other.

  • you are going to hear this a lot: keep it inside. If you can you should take the front wheel off. Also mix up the kinds of locks, U locks and padlocks on the chain. Take the seat off when you lock it outside.

    Did you have the old U lock with the round key? if so get rid of it.

    Never keep a bike in an alley. Front porches are better(marginally) the more visible the better.

    • There was a story on PoP a few weeks back where a guy left his bike on his front porch for less than 5 minutes and it was stolen before he got back. (It wasn’t locked up, though).

      • My kid’s little red wagon– left unattended for an hour or less– was stolen off my front porch, in broad daylight.

    • austindc

      Agreed–if you have a U Lock with a round key, toss it. They can be opened with a plastic pen. It’s a fun party trick.

      • +100. There’s youtube videos on how to do it. U locks are not safe.

        • Only U locks with round/circle keys. Newer U locks have a different key/lock mechanism which cannot be opened with a pen.

  • My bike was stolen off my front porch (locked) earlier this week. I’ve been staring at every person that rides by in hopes I run into them…so you are lucky!

    Is there a number besides 911 I can call to report it stolen?

    • Nope. And it will be at the bottom of the list, so don’t expect to see it anytime soon. Sorry for your loss.

      Captcha: REES

      • call 911 and ask to be transferred to T.R.U. [Telephone Reporting Unit]. Usually have to leave your info with a call-taker, and an officer will call you back to take a report over the phone. Works great if you don’t have any real evidence like tools left at the scene, etc. You’ll still have a report number and be able to file an insurance claim or [possibly] get the bike back if it’s recovered or you see it somewhere.

  • What are some best practices on safe/thief-proof bike storage?

    There is no thief-proof bike storage outdoors other than inside a locking storage unit (which doesn’t really count). If you decide to keep a bike outside then be prepared to lose it.

    If the bike is of any value, you can get a special insurance policy on it which will replace it for full purchase price in the event it is lost or stolen. The cost of the insurance is 8% to 12% of the purchase price, per year.

    • If the bike is stolen from your home or apartment, then your homeowners or renters insurance will cover the loss, respectively.

      Homeowner’s insurance protection applies even if the bike is stolen from a location other than your home.

      Back when I was in college in Indiana my bike was stolen, but my parent’s homeowners insurance here in Maryland covered the loss.

  • Is it possible the old guy knew the kid did it and was forcing him to bring it back?

    • That would be my bet. I’m sure he agreed to let him save face by saying it was stolen, and maybe that’s the story he told the old guy, but I bet the old guy didn’t buy it for a second.

  • I don’t know if registering your bike with the National Bike Registry helps any, but I registered my new one with them. It was free for 6 months, $10 for ten years after then.

  • Sheldon Brown lock method (don’t let his looks scare you) is widely used amongst bicyclists.

    But yeah, if you leave it outside, especially overnight, no matter how well you lock it up, it will get stolen eventually. Some folks around here are even known to back a truck up to a bike rack, and put the whole bike rack in the truck, then drive off with a bounty of a bunch of stolen bikes they can unlock at their leisure out of sight.

  • It sounds like you may have accidentally forgotten to lock the U lock to the fence. Stranger things have happened.

    Also, why does removing a wheel help, if you don’t have quick releases?

    • Because people are less likely to steal a bike they have to carry versus one they can just ride away.

  • The listserves on Cap Hill are atwitter over what a white van driven by an african american woman that is used to whisk the bikes away working in tandom with an african american male that is performing the actual heists.

    Can’t vouch for it, but police have asked anyone seeing suspicious vans in the area to call them in.

  • Thanks for all of the comments and feedback (I am the person who wrote PoP the email)! I don’t have a problem carrying my bike up and down stairs since I did it at my old place – the issue is that the staircases in my new place are so narrow that it’s almost impossible to do (especially everyday). It’s quite the conundrum…

  • Cut piece of cardboard big as your back. Cut hole in top. Get old dog leash. Take off wheels, loop leash through cardboard, through wheels, through frame. Carry upstairs on your back.

  • andy

    is the key on the lock super-generic? if so, would-be robbers could just buy a similar lock and key set and get to robbin’ folks.

  • The bike was clearly stolen by the $20 guy. Anyone who buuys a bike for $20 knows it has been stolen and there is a likelihood of it being recognized, so usually that doesn’t happen. Also, sounds like you locked the bike to nothing but itself… Might want to check that out.

  • Keeping your bike locked and inside is the best way to protect it. What other people said about that being best for the bike’s long life and maintenance is true. If you feel compelled to keep it outside, the best lock you can buy is here:

    They even provide a $3500 anti-theft warranty. But the lock is $100+, so you have to pay a lot more than a u-lock.

  • Yeah.. sounds like you just might not have attached it to the fence.

    The best way to lock a bike with a U-Lock is to put it thru the frame and front wheel attaching it to a solid object. That way the lock has to be cut for someone to ride the bike.

    • Trust me, it was attached to the fence! I always double check to make sure that it is. There was also a significant dent on the ulock, which makes me think that they tried to cut it off with heavy-duty equipment first.

  • Are you sure the lock is still completely intact? They can use freon to freeze and smash the operating bits of the lock, and then put it back together to make it look like it still works, when it doesn’t really.

    Has anyone registered with National Bike Registry, and do you think it’s worth it?

  • i managed to make it through 4 years in DC without my $1000 road bike being molested even once (as far as I know):

    Smallest U-lock I could fit (kept it snug around the stem and in between the top tube and down tube. this forces them to cut in two places)
    Locking skewers on both wheels
    Cable lock on the seat post
    Never locked up outside overnight. NEVER.

    Are any of these things capable of making your bike theft-proof? No. But in combination, they all add up to discourage thieves just enough. I’ve seen a ton of would-be thieves stop and take a look at my bike. Within 5 seconds, they all determine that’s possible to take it, it’s just not worth it. There’s plenty of easier targets.

    BUT. Once you start leaving it outside overnight, all that goes out the window. Especially in an alley. They can take their time.

  • It’s true; inside at night is best, as people are so sneaky! My husband bikes to the Columbia Heights metro in the mornings and leaves his with three heavy chain locks and a U-Lock. There’s virtually no way to get the bike, but he’s had several seats stolen–people will take what they can get!

    • I’ve chained my seat down as a result of the same thing.

      You can take an old chain, slide some rubber shrink tube around it, slide that through the seat and onto the frame bar, complete the chain link, put duct tape over the exposed link, use a hair dryer to shrink the tubing and then use industrial zipties to remove any slack in the chain. It can still be stolen, but it takes a decent pair of bolt cutters.

      It’s all from largely old parts, though, which is nice.

  • As noted already, the bike is at its near maximum vulnerability when locked outside in an alley in Bloomingdale.

    That said, you will thank yourself if you invest in the strongest lock possible. I bought a fahgettaboudit lock for $100 and never regretted it. Make sure as much of the lock’s “U” space is occupied as theives can break a lock by getting leverage on the lock itself.

    I also got wheel locks and a seat lock. They can only be unlocked with a key that is unique to each lock. That means there’s virtually no way a theif can unlock them and, as an added deterrent, if they steal the bike they’ll never be able to take the wheels off or adjust the seat.

  • I know people in DC steal, just a fact, and everyone here will say the same thing. I come from a part of the world where this does not happen. People you don’t know do not walk onto your property. People do not take things left outside others property. It is safe to assume what is yours will stay yours. Mutual human respect. This is what I call America, not the mentality you see in DC from those that steal and those that accept it. Funny how people in a southern redneck town act more like humans that those who live in the nation’s capital. I for one will strive to be better and expect better of others. That is the world in which I want to live.

    • Then you will continue to have your property taken from you if you choose to stay in DC. I would love this to change, but there is a culture of poverty, crime and drug abuse here that drives criminal activity.

    • This comment isn’t particularly helpful.

      Sure, we would all like to live in a world where people don’t steal things, but given that this is the reality in D.C., we take measures to secure our property.

      How is your “expect[ing] better of others” going to stop the original poster’s bike from being stolen?

    • there is usually less crime in the sticks… just saying. this is a METROPOLITAN city.. you’ll find the same shenanigans in NYC, Philly, Houston, Chicago, etc… no one said this was Mayberry..

    • I’ve had stuff stolen from me in small towns, too. The only difference is there are fewer people in small towns, so fewer thieves and less stuff to steal.

  • I think we have established that the OP cannot store it inside, no? She clearly understands that is the safest place.

  • Is there a way to make it easier to get the bike up the narrow stairs? Having to disassemble it every night just to get it up the stairs sounds like a real hassle.

    I remember noticing in Stockholm that stairs on pedestrian walkways, etc. had narrow metal strips attached to them to form a (very narrow) ramp for people to wheel their bikes. It’s probably not practical to install something like this in a rented place or on shared stairs in a condo building… but I just wanted to throw that idea out there.

  • I’ve been toying with the idea of purchasing a bike locker for my house, like the ones that Metro uses. I’ve never seen them for residential use, but it seems like a fairly secure way to avoid having to bring the bikes into the house and up/down the stairs. I suspect that storgae for two bikes would run around $2000 installed.

    Anyone already done this?

  • I use this lock around the back tire in the triangle so you can’t separate it from the frame unless you cut through it, which takes a long time and requires some serious tools.

    Then I secure the front tire and the helmet with this cable lock. It’s thick enough that you would need a new set of boltcutters to cut through it.

    I did a lot of research before buying these and settling on this locking method. Remember, the most expensive part of the bike is the frame, then the back tire, then the front tire. Only locking the front tire is stupid. Having quick release tires or seat is asking for problems. Just using a cable lock — any cable lock, is a bad idea. If you only have one lock then lock the back tire in the triangle so you can secure the back tire and the frame.

  • My basic attitude is that if you leave your bike in one place long enough it will eventually get stolen.

    The combination of a good U lock, locking skewers, and making sure you lock the frame securely will prevent some bum walking by from grabbing it (or a part of it). Beyond that it’s just a matter of making it less appealing to thieves. So, use a good lock (plan to spend $70-$100), lock it in a visible, heavily trafficked area, and don’t leave it anywhere over night other than your locked house.

    If you have to leave it in the same place for hours at a time (like if you lock it at the metro or you can’t bring it into your office building), use multiple locks.

    A determined thief will get any bike. All you can do is make it difficult enough so they will turn to an easier mark.

  • My bike was stolen from my garage. It was locked to a 2×2 wooden support post. The doors were never unlocked or left open.

    The thieves broke into the garage and cut the post. We know this, because the bike was gone.. but so was the post. They must have had a truck because they cut a huge section of post – and it was no where in our alley or the surreounding streets.

    I hope they reused that post. The landlord was sooo not happy when he had to replace it.

  • Many U-locks (especially the older ones) can be literally picked open with a bic pen; I’ve done it – not too difficult.

    So, upgrade your lock.

    I use a Ulock for the front tire to the frame. A cable runs between it and Kryptonite Fahgettaboutit chain, which is locked to the bike rack (or whatever), back tire and the other cable. I also removed the quick releases and replaced them with bolts. The seat is also cabled to the frame (I have had this stolen twice).

    My bike, though nice, is covered in thin tennis-grip tape to make it look more like a beater.

    No matter what you do, though, people will try to steal it, so as other said, try to make it a less-appealing target.

  • Have you considered a folding bike? Might be easier to get up/down the stairs. Also,how are you carrying it? Trying to wheel it up/down the stairs can actually be quite difficult. The easiest way is to carry it cyclocross style by putting it up on your shoulder so the corner of where the toptube and seattube meet rests by your neck. On your right side obviously,so the drivetrain doesn’t get you greasy. If the landings are really narrow pull the front wheel off and carry it in your other hand.

    As for the type of lock,any quality U lock will work(Krypyonite,OnGuard,Abus) when combined with a cable for your wheels and seat,or with locking skewers. Never use a cable for the primary lock,and never use the U lock as a padlock for the cable.

  • U-locks don’t work. They are very easy to break open. Bikes do not and should not have to be carried upstairs if you buy a proper lock and lock both the front wheel and the back wheel. Abus has proper chainlocks which cannot be broken without special machinery. I have a USD 1000 bike which is outdoors 24/7 for the past 5 years, without any problem, and I leave it everywhere I go.

    The chain lock should not be of basic iron or steel as it can then be easily be cut with a relatively inexpensive pair of bolt cutters. Chains specifically designed for locking bicycles have hardened security chains which have links shaped in a manner that deters bolt cutters.

    In addition, try to buy a small lock, O-lock or ring-lock, this is a low security mechanism mounted on the frame that immobilizes the rear wheel by moving a steel bolt through the spokes to prevent motion. Though this lock is not so easy to get in this country.

    see for basic info

    • Quality U locks are made out of the same materials as quality chains. When used properly,ie,locked in such a manner as to “fill” the lock with the bike so there’s no room to move the lock around,they are more secure than chains because it’s harder to cut them without damaging the bike.

  • Sarah, I don’t think this has been mentioned yet, but buying a folding bike would solve all your problems. You could store it inside in a small apartment, easily get it up your stairs and would never have to lock it up outside.

    Here are a couple affordable options:

    The cheaper of those two will cost you just a bit more than a really quality lock.

  • The most successful thing I did was to obviously put my email address on my bike: (obviously in conjunction with a good lock)

    1) Buy little plastic letters from CVS
    2) Put them on your bike to obviously put your info
    3) tape the area around it off
    4) Put SEVERAL layers of paint over it!
    5) remove the tape off items when dry.

    When it’s sat for a few days, you can remove the letters if you want. The result will be that there is a raised section with your name/email on it, which cannot easily be removed. To remove this, sanding will be required.
    (Of course, it’s not an expensive bike…)

    However, I have had a few people offer to trade me bikes obviously better than mine – and rescind the offer when they saw the paint…

  • Unless you keep it inside it’s going to get stolen. Having a bike inside is city living.

    Sooooooo as you said, “Man up”.

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