I put up with the hassle of owning a car in traffic-jammed Washington, D.C., for a few years. But when I lost my free parking space, I sold the car and made a bike my primary means of transportation. Now that I cycle most every day, I rely on a lock to keep my bike mine. Given the genuine threat of bike theft in the city, I always feel a twinge of fear when I leave my bike on the street, worried that upon my return, I'll find nothing more than a busted U-lock.
I don't have anything against the U-lock. If Kryptonite hadn't introduced it in the early '70s, the pinnacle of bicycle security might still be a cheap length of chain and a padlock. And it's evolved some since then—in the fall of 2004, bicyclists discovered that many round-key U-locks could be picked with the plastic barrel of a Bic pen. Kryptonite, which caught the most flak from the scandal, exchanged more than 380,000 locks for pen-proof, flat-key models free of charge, and lock competitor OnGuard, which had already phased out round keys, got a big sales boost. Today, flat keys are the norm.
Key style aside, most bikes are stolen because they're not locked at all ("I'll just be in Starbucks for a minute …"), or because the locks are used incorrectly. But plenty of properly locked bikes still get nabbed. To find out which locks work best, I pitted nine locks against each other from Kryptonite, OnGuard, and Master Lock: five U-locks, two woven steel cable locks, and two heavy-duty chain locks.
Next, I assembled my bike-jacking arsenal: an 18-inch crowbar, 30-inch bolt cutters, a hacksaw, three special blades, and my trusty claw hammer. I used only hand tools because 1) if a criminal crew with the proper power tools and a van wants a bike, it's as good as gone, and 2) I probably would have hurt myself. I was very eager to find out how the various locks compared. And to break stuff.
1) Security (20 possible points): To see how the locks would hold up in street conditions, I locked them around the frame of a very obsolete bike and around a steel handrail outside my apartment. I attempted to break through each lock with each of the tools, and did my best not to damage the bike. Busted locks received a maximum security score of 10.
2) Portability/Ease of Use (10 possible points): Even if a lock is unbreakable, is it practical? Cyclists usually transport U-locks with mounting brackets attached to the bike frame, in bags, or, if the locks are small enough, in their pockets. Locking chains are carried in bags or worn around the waist or over the shoulder. I took each lock for a ride and evaluated how difficult it was to carry and lock up.
3) Value (based on this formula): If a less-expensive lock can do the job, it deserves some recognition. To calculate value, I used the following formula: Add up the previous two scores, multiply by 10, and then divide by cost. I added one extra-credit point for every thousand dollars of free anti-theft coverage the company provides for a year after purchase. (Be sure to read the fine print and register with the proper documents; if you don't, you aren't covered.)
RANKINGS (worst to first)