Good question. Because in order to beat them, we need to know our enemy! So in this post first we’ll look at the two different types of bike thief. And then we’ll examine the eight most popular tools they’re using to steal our bikes. I’ve also added some videos of real thieves stealing bikes with these tools.
There are broadly two different types of bike thief. The first and most common, is the opportunist thief, who is certainly carrying cable cutters, maybe some medium sized bolt cutters, maybe a crowbar.
The opportunists are looking for any bikes secured with cables, weak U-locks and puny chains and padlocks. No bike is too cheap or tatty to escape their attention. But the good news is: a decent U-lock or chain lock will usually be too much for their limited tool set and they will pass over your bike for easier pickings.
The second type is the “professional” bike thief who will certainly use very powerful bolt cutters and may have access to a variety of power tools such as portable angle grinders and bottle jacks.
The professionals target the more expensive bikes and may even steal to order. They can defeat any lock given enough time. So if you have a bike that a “professional” may covet, you’ll need the best quality lock and you’ll need to be very careful about where you leave your bike and how long you leave it for.
OK, let’s have a look at the eight most popular tools these thieves are using in more detail…
1. Their bare hands!
Yep, believe it or not, many cheap bike locks can be broken with your bare hands. And you don’t have to be built like the Incredible Hulk! We’re generally talking about cable locks and locks with combination mechanisms here.
Don’t believe me? Check out this video…
2. Wire/cable cutters
A pair of hand held cable cutters will cut through most cable locks in a few seconds. Cheap, inconspicuous and easy to carry around in a coat pocket, this is the tool most commonly used by bike thieves. And it’s worth repeating again: they will cut through nearly all cable locks in seconds.
Here’s a video of a thief cutting a cable lock with a tiny pair of wire cutters…
Just like a pair of cable cutters, a hacksaw is cheap and pretty easy to carry around unnoticed. And just like the cable cutters it will slice through a cable lock very easily. With enough time, a hacksaw will also cut through low quality U-locks and chains which tend to be made from thin, soft metal.
This video shows a thief stealing a bike with a hacksaw. It takes him seconds…
Cheap, poor quality mechanisms can be smashed to bits with a hammer. For the thief, it’s much easier if they can hit the mechanism against a hard concrete ground. So using a good locking technique that keeps your lock as far from the ground as possible is important.
However, they don’t always need the ground. So even more important is not buying a cheap lock that can be defeated with a hammer…
5. Crow bars / Scaffold poles
Crowbars, scaffold poles and other long pieces of metal are often used in leverage attacks on U-locks. The longer the better, they’re obviously a bit more conspicuous! But they’re very effective, even on mid range U-locks. A smaller U-lock and good locking technique can make this much more difficult for the thief.
This is a great video of a scaffold pole thief in action…
6. Bolt cutters
Bolt cutters come in a variety of sizes (usually 8″, 12″, 18″, 24″, 36″ and 42″). The smaller bolt cutters (8 and 12″) are easily concealed in a backpack and will make mince meat out of all cable locks.
What do you think this man’s got down his trousers?
Medium sized bolt cutters (18 and 24″) are often carried beneath a long coat, hanging from a piece of rope around the thief’s neck. They’ll defeat weaker chains and U-locks.
The biggest bolt cutters (36 and 42″) are usually only used by serious bike thieves. But they can crop mid range U-locks and chains and sometimes even the higher end locks.
To guarantee that a lock cannot be cropped by any manual bolt croppers you need a lock made from good quality, properly hardened steel with a diameter of 16 mm.
But bear in mind not everyone with 36 or 42″ bolt cutters can crop a high security locks that’s less than 16 mm thick. It takes a thief with considerable skill (and weight!) who is able to maneuver the lock into a favorable position where they can use the ground for leverage. Again, good locking technique can minimize this risk.
7. Hydraulic bottle jacks
Hydraulic bottle jacks are used by some of the more serious bike thieves. Inserted into the space inside a U-lock they can exert enough force to pop open even the most secure locks.
This is why smaller U-locks are generally safer: there is less space available to fit a bottle jack. It’s also why a good locking technique should always try to fill up as much of the space inside your U-lock!
8. Portable angle grinders
Portable, battery powered angle grinders are only for the most audacious thief. They make a lot of noise and produce a lot of sparks. So they should attract a lot of attention.
However, time and time again we see passersby ignoring thieves stealing bikes. So maybe they don’t really need to be that audacious!
Angle grinders will cut through any lock given enough time. However, the thicker the lock, the longer it takes. And the greater the risk the thief will be disturbed. With the very thickest locks like the New York Fahgettaboudit, they may even need to carry a spare battery to get through it.
But at the end of the day, there’s not a great deal you can do to guard against angle grinders, save for leaving your bike in the most public places you can find for the shortest possible time.
Here’s some CCTV footage of a bike being stolen using an angle grinder in an underground car park. The sparks start to fly at 1:20 min…
So there you have the most popular tools for stealing bikes. As used by both opportunist and “professional” bike thieves.
There are of course other ways to defeat bike locks. They can be picked. They can be frozen with aerosols and then smashed with a hammer. They can be blow torched. But these methods aren’t widely used by bike thieves. Probably because they are either more difficult, less effective or more costly.
And what can we learn form this? Well, the most important lesson is this: never, ever use a cable lock.
If you use a decent U-lock, it won’t be beaten by wire or cable cutters. No-ones going to rip it off with their bare hands. It will take an impossibly long time to cut through with a hacksaw. It can’t be smashed open by a hammer. And small or even medium size bolt cutters will not be able to crop it.
And with a good locking technique that keeps your lock as far from the ground as possible and leaves little space to insert bottle jacks or lengths of metal that are used for leverage attacks, you can vastly reduce your exposure to these other methods.
An angle grinder will always be able to defeat your lock. But there’s not much you can do about that. If your bike is desirable enough to attract a thief with an angle grinder, you should take steps to ensure your bike is never left anywhere such a thief might have access to.
If you’re thinking your current bike lock might not be up to the job, please check out my bike lock guide where I will show you the three simple steps to find the best lock for you and your bike.