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Clippings: Cable lock no match for boltcutters

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Posted on May 1, 2014 |
By Evan Johnson



It was the kind of situation no one imagines themselves in, conjuring feelings of betrayal and outrage that the very thing designed to protect my valuables was now keeping me from them.

My bike lock wouldn’t open.

This story begins at Christmas, when my brother, a master bike mechanic at the tender age of 21, presented me with a road bike constructed entirely of spare parts he “liberated” from a bike shop he worked at over the summer. Taking an old frame of our father’s, he replaced the wheels, pedals, brakes, gear components, headstock and handlebars with the parts he had picked up; a truly thoughtful and one-of-a-kind gift. It rode like a dream and was well suited for quick sprints to the corner store or longer rides on the bike paths.

In other words: it was perfect.

But Burlington, where I live, like any city, is no stranger to bikes not staying where their owners placed them. Many of my friends have stories of running out of a convenience store or emerging from their apartment on the way to class or work to find their ride gone without a trace. So last Monday, I stopped by a bike shop, where I procured a sturdy cable lock. The packaging displayed a lifetime warranty and an added online feature where I could register my secret combination for later retrieval. The lock also had a number of technical features that would make my bike a daunting target for anybody with a pair of boltcutters or a hacksaw, including braided steel cable “for increased cut resistance” and a resettable four-digit combination. It also displayed a security rating of 3/10, which for the city I live in seemed a safe bet. I paid for the lock and left feeling confident that nobody would be riding my bike without my knowledge.

That afternoon, I rode down the lakeside bike path to the local climbing gym. It’s a leisurely 1.5-mile ride, cruising past the Echo Lake Center, Oakledge Park and the Switchback Brewery alongside Lake Champlain with a view of the Adirondacks. At the gym, I locked up the bike, climbed for two hours and then rode home, lighting my path with a headlamp the whole way.

Thursday afternoon of that week, I repeated the same ride to the gym and arrived breathless and eager to get climbing.

But when I clicked the lock, something felt wrong. The pin only inserted three quarters of the way into the chamber and appeared to be stuck. I checked the dial and gave the lock a jiggle and tug. Then I tried again.

Nothing.

Standing in the parking lot, I let the situation unfold in its entirety. I felt livid, helpless and as much as I hated to admit it, mystified that something I had used repeatedly with ease and confidence in the past 24 hours was suddenly kaput and as a result, my bike was definitely not going anywhere or at least not with me on it.

What followed next was a 1.5-mile walk back home where I spent the remainder of the evening on bike maintenance forums and YouTube looking for advice. My search history included “Bike lock not opening,” “jammed bike lock” and “combination lock broken.” I wasn’t interested in picking the thing; I just wanted my bike back. Later that night I found myself watching instructional videos of guys breaking all manner of locks with crowbars, liquid nitrogen and even a ballpoint pen.

The next day, I returned to my bike still locked up outside the gym with a plastic bag containing a flexible hacksaw with replacement blades, a boxcutter and a stout pair of boltcutters. After stripping away the rubber sheathing on the cable with the razor, I made two hefty snips with the cutters and after a final twist my bike was free in less than four minutes.

As much as I’d like to say my victory over the apparently flimsy piece of hardware was a testament to my physical strength, I’m afraid it came down to a matter of physics. The length of woven steel fibers was no match for the 450 pounds per square inch exerted by the cutters. But in the end here’s the point: a $30 bike lock was easily defeated by a $20 tool.

The point is not that I, through no fault of my own, found myself in a frustrating position and neatly recovered after a trip to the hardware store. What I learned is this: with the proper tools and determination any lock is beatable. In another situation, it might not have been me holding the bolt cutters. If you want to keep your bike truly safe, you’ll have to go one, two, or three steps further. Here are some suggestions:

•  Park your ride in high traffic areas with video surveillance.

•  Keep a record of your bike’s serial number (the number is usually located under the bottom bracket where the pedal cranks meet) and register it online or with the police.

•  Be aware of what you’re locking your bike to (stay away from flimsy trees and chain-link fences).

•  Two locks are better than one. Your lock will deter thieves, if not prevent them.

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