Just Ask Jack — Skewers or Bolts?

Brian from Calgary sent in the following question:

“My current commuter bike has bolt-on wheels, and I’ve never had a wheel stolen, but I’ll need to replace it soon and new bikes all seem to have quick-release hubs, so I’m curious what your take is on this – is it worth getting quick-release locks, or just deal with the hassle of carrying a long cable and U-lock?”

This question brings up two very good points — keeping your wheels and keeping the bike itself. As many people have discovered, the loss of a wheel by theft can be an expensive replacement proposition (and can leave you stranded), so it is crucial to have a locking strategy that defeats all but the most dedicated thief.

While no bike can be rendered entirely theft-proof in most situations, the more you do to protect it by using a variety of locking methods and hardware, the more likely it is that a thief will move on to an easier target.

The first step is to decide on a wheel-retention strategy. Quick-release skewers are common on most bikes these days, and they sure are convenient for tube changes. The trouble with them is that they are also very convenient for even the most casual thief. Just a few seconds is all it takes for someone to flip a lever and walk off with an expensive wheel.

There are a number of “locking” wheel skewers on the market. One of the most popular is the Pitlock system, which uses a unique socket to loosen or tighten the skewers for hubs and seat collars:

Pitlock

Another popular variety is the Hublox system from Delta Cycle, which uses a special wrench to engage the skewer’s locknut:

hublox

The drawback to either of the above systems is that if you lose or forget the special tool needed to open them and you get a flat…you’re dead in the water. I know this from bitter experience, as I left my special Hublox key at home and got a flat about 4 miles away. That was a long walk!

My preferred method is a skewer system that takes a standard 5mm hex wrench to loosen or tighten…everyone carries a multitool of some sort, right? This type of skewer can really slow down a casual thief — after all, do thieves come prepared with a pocket full of hex wrenches and other tools? A myriad of companies make such skewers, and they range from totally affordable to frighteningly expensive. Here’s what they look like:

hex skewer

Traditional bolt-on hubs slow down casual thieves for the same reasons as the hex-based skewers…unless said thief has a 15mm socket wrench or an adjustable wrench in his or her possession.

The second part of this equation is “total locking strategy”…and the trick seems to be using two different types of locks to secure your bike. For example, you lock the frame to a bike rack or post with a U-lock and then lock the wheels to the frame and rack with a stout cable and padlock. The theory is that a thief will have tools to defeat a cable, such as a pair of bolt cutters, but not a bottle jack or other device needed to leverage a U-lock (or vice versa, as the case may be). Again, I speak from personal experience: my first week at the library, before I found secure indoor parking for my bike, someone tried to steal my rig. They successfully cut through a heavy 15mm cable, but were unable to cut through my vintage Kryptonite lock…all they did was chew up the vinyl covering with their bolt cutters (thank the stars they didn’t know the Bic Pen trick).

Here’s a photo gleaned from the Web that shows the double-locking method:

double locked

An alternative, especially if you have time and money on your hands, is to absolutely overwhelm even the most hardcore thief:

ulock frenzy

That bike isn’t going anywhere!

Keep your bike safe — because riding a bicycle is much more fun than walking home without it. Brian, thanks for the question!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.


12 Comments

  1. Mike Myers April 22, 2008 2:56 am 

    Double-locking is the way to go, IMHO. It’s relatively easy to carry both a cable and a U-lock.

  2. Tony April 22, 2008 7:09 am 

    What’s worked for me is to buy a small hose clamp and use it to clamp the front wheel quick release handle to the fork.

    If push really comes to shove, a flat-blade screwdriver will get the clamp off. But, it will take a bit of time … so it’s really more of a deterent to someone walking off with your front wheel.

  3. Ghost Rider April 22, 2008 7:18 am 

    Tony, that’s a very cheap and effective deterrent — good tip!

  4. nailheadtom April 23, 2008 10:34 am 

    A good U-lock used in combination with a short piece of chain and a second lock is where it’s at except for one thing . . . . weight!!! I have a three foot section of 3/8 chain with split connector links welded on each end and then snaked through an old tube. This is heavy but the piece of mind makes up for it.

  5. Ghost Rider April 23, 2008 12:19 pm 

    I have one of those heavy OnGuard chains…12 lbs. of hardened steel. I leave that one at work where I lock up every day…the “around-town” setup is a smaller cable and a regular U-lock. Toting around a few pounds of security is definitely worth it, and you’re right — it gives good peace of mind.

  6. Smudgemo April 23, 2008 3:03 pm 

    I’ve got the pitlocks on a couple of bikes. I can’t figure out why, but it doesn’t hold the rear wheel securely on the Xtracycle. I plan to swing by their shop one day to look at it. Since it works for another bike, I can only guess the dropout on the X is somehow the issue.
    Aside from that, I love them. For short trips like the grocery store, I just U-lock the frame and call it good. The seatpost lock is too big to use for most bikes, but you can get around this with a Surly Constrictor and a file to flatten the sides and narrow it down to where the lock is long enough.

  7. David Snow December 14, 2008 1:58 pm 

    I have pitlocks and like them a lot. Basically, they have to almost destroy the axle to get the wheel off, and if they have the tools to do that, they’re probably stealing that bike on the other rack with only a cable lock.

    I just installed the pitlock for the stem cap and seatpost collar too. Not nearly as aesthetic as the old parts, but I’ll feel better about locking it up for a while.

  8. plutosdad December 14, 2009 2:58 pm 

    It depends on where you live. My coworker used to rely on the thief having tools, and his rear wheel was stolen while we were at work one day. Apparently bike messengers in Chicago don’t have the time to fix flats and would rather swipe a wheel, and they carry tools. (He saw the guy later, and recovered his wheel).

    So if you have a 700c fixed gear bike and live in a city with lots of bike messengers, you may want to take more precautions with your wheels.

    I am about to get spiked tires for the winter, and need to think of a solution, I’m thinking 2 u-bolts. The cables are next to useless.

  9. gail skinner June 25, 2010 12:42 pm 

    Where could I find skeewrs 3.5 inches in lenght. ?

  10. Ghost Rider June 25, 2010 5:30 pm 

    @Gail — not in a bike shop, that’s for sure. That’s way shorter than even a front wheel skewer. If you had access to threading tools, you could cut down and re-thread a standard skewer in whatever length you like.

  11. Francis de la Pena November 28, 2012 8:23 am 

    Go to a hardware store, and get a steel chain, then wrap the bike frame, wheels, seats, and handlebar with it and lock it down heavy duty padlock. By the way if you are worried about scratching the bike, they do have chains that are rubber coated. It will be about the same weight as a U-Lock, but with the flexibility of a cable lock.

    Make sure the chain is not stainless steel or alloy. Either galvanized steel or iron (iron maybe too heavy)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *