The 9 Best U-Locks
9. Via Velo heavy duty
8. Kryptonite New-U Kryptolok
7. Bell Catalyst 200
6. Blackburn San Quentin
5. Lumintrail 18mm
4. OnGuard Bulldog DT
3. Abus U-Mini 40
2. Sigtuna Heavy Duty 16mm
1. Kryptonite New York
Gone In 60 Seconds
In 2006, in a sleepy college town in western Pennsylvania, the trustees of Allegheny College donated a slew of bicycles to the school and its students. One of the student organizations promptly painted the bikes green (after the school mascot) and declared a bike share program open for use. The bikes were free for students to use. All you had to do was pick one up at a designated bike rack and deposit it at another rack wherever you ended up.
The thing about Allegheny College, however, is that it's situated at the top of a long, steep hill, with the vast majority of the town's businesses–and all of its bars–at the bottom of that hill. Within about two weeks, students had coasted downhill to the bars on all 75 bikes, gotten roaring drunk, and left them there. Every single one of them was stolen, presumably by the townsfolk who were impoverished by the disappearance of American manufacturing some 30 years prior.
All it would have taken to secure these bikes, to guard them against theft, was a U-lock. Sure, the students wouldn't have been able to access all those keys, but the school groundskeepers would have. Any student intending on coasting downhill without the gumption or physical stamina to make it back up the hill could at least lock the bike to a rail for the school to pick up later.
That's because a U-lock is one of the most impenetrable anti-theft devices on the market. Their cores and locking mechanism are made of composite materials that resist blades, saws, axes, and most temperature variances.
With a set of unique keys–and sometimes a combination–a U-lock opens and wraps around your bike and whatever immovable rack or street sign to which you adhere it. Ideally, you can fit the arm of the U-lock through the spokes of your back or front wheel, as well, to further inhibit any attempt at thievery.
Protection With Flair
There's a good chance that you spent a lot of time selecting your bike. The bike you ride, in many ways, is a reflection of your personality, so you probably held out long enough to get that feeling of kinship with a bike before taking the plunge. Or, you're like me, and you found your uncle's old bike in you dad's basement and then took it without telling either of them. Looking back, I guess that makes it part and parcel with my personality, and it's a fine machine.
Still, when it came time to protect it in West Philadelphia (a town not exactly revered for bicycle safety, or any safety for that matter), I wanted to choose a lock that suited the bike's look and feel as much as it would protect it.
If protection is your bottom line, a thicker lock usually corresponds to a better guard against theft. What matters in evaluating the quality of a U-lock is its resistance to bolt cutters more than any other implement. Any locking device can fall victim to bolt cutters in a matter of seconds if the cutters are strong enough. A thick enough U-lock will keep even the biggest bolt cutters from approaching them in the first place, so if somebody wants to jack your bike, they have to spend a lot more time trying to break through your defenses.
The other major variable in your decision is whether or not you think the U-lock by itself is sturdy enough to hold up against a protracted theft attempt. If you ride your bike to work and leave it parked for up to eight hours each day, you might prefer to increase your protection. Some of these U-locks come with thick steel cables you can use to reinforce your locking points, giving you valuable peace of mind.
In The Heart Of The Big Apple
While bicycle theft has been a problem since bikes were first invented in the 1800s, few places on earth manufactured higher theft and violent crime statistics as New York City in the 1970s. It was in this incredibly dangerous environment that the first U-lock was born.
At that point, cyclists were still using chains as their primary method of bike security, but if the chains used were too inexpensive–or not of a particular, hexagonal type–they were profoundly easy to bypass. In response to this danger, a company called Kryptonite developed prototypes for the modern U-lock.
Kryptonite went as far in the early 70s as to lock a bike to a signpost in the middle of Greenwich Village in New York, one of the artsier and more dangerous neighborhoods south of Times Square. They left it there for 30 days, and although thieves manages to strip and steal absolutely everything that could be stripped and stolen off of the bike, the U-lock and the part of the bicycle to which it was secured remained.
In recent years, Kryptonite and its competition have developed metal composites that resist common methods of theft with much greater efficacy than the simple steel of the original designs. The prices of the locks have gone up accordingly, but they work, and you can't restrict yourself when paying for that kind of protection.