An illustrated guide to bicycle security and theft prevention

Both UW–Madison and the City of Madison are designated bike-friendly at the platinum level by the League of American Bicyclists. That means there are a lot of bikes. And where there are bikes, there will be bike theft. Sadly, Madison Police recently identified a spike in bike thefts last year, with 459 bikes reported stolen by fall 2023.

Let’s keep that number from climbing higher in 2024.

It is important to know that there is no 100% guaranteed way to prevent bike theft. But there are several things you can do to reduce the chances of theft and assist in recovery if a bike does succumb to thievery. In this illustrated article, Chuck Strawser, Transportation Services’ Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, explains how bike theft prevention methods can make your bike more difficult and less appealing to steal compared to other bikes.

Infographic showing a ranking of more secure, moderately secure, and less secure bike locking methods.
Click to enlarge.

There are three main types of bike locks.

  • Chains. Thick, heavy-duty chains — particularly square-link chains — are the most difficult to cut through. Lower-quality chains are easier to cut through.
  • U-locks come in multiple sizes and usually lock with a key. Some have a built-in combination lock. Depending on the quality, u-locks can be cut or pried open.
  • Cables. Some cables have an integral combination or keyed lock, while others use a separate padlock. Most cables are relatively easy to cut through.

Double up on locks.

Because each type of lock has its vulnerabilities, Chuck recommends these double-locking methods to create an extra layer of security, especially if you need to park a bicycle in the same spot for extended periods of time.

  • Small u-lock + square-link chain. Chain the front wheel and frame together and pass the chain through the bike rack. When securing the u-lock, leave as little room as possible within the chain by securing the lock to a front wheel, frame, or pedal (refer to graphic). Because it is difficult to cut through a square-link chain and a u-lock, this method is more secure and one of the better theft deterrents. One drawback of this method is that it doesn’t secure the rear wheel.
Infographic showing a more secure method of locking a bicycle to a bike rack using a small u-lock and square chain.
Click to enlarge
  • U-lock + cable. This method works best using a cable just long enough to get through the rear wheel cable with a loop at each end and high-quality u-lock. Pass the cable through the frame and rear wheel, and pass the u-lock through the cable loops. Use the u-lock to secure the frame and front wheel together to the bike rack (refer to graphic.) This method is moderately secure: the cable is less of a deterrent than a u-lock but it can help secure your rear wheel.
Infographic showing a moderately secure method of locking a bicycle to a bicycle rack using a u-lock, cable, and padlock.
Click to enlarge

Single bike locks: more vs. less effective locking methods

If multiple high-quality locks are not available, the next best option is to use a single lock properly. Here’s how:

  • High-quality u-lock only. Pass the u-lock through the bike rack and front wheel, and lock the front wheel to the bike frame (refer to graphic). This method is moderately secure because a high-quality u-lock is harder to cut through than a low-quality u-lock or cable.
Infographic showing a moderately secure method of locking a bicycle to a bicycle rack using a high-quality u-lock. The photo shows the front wheel of a bicycle locked to a bike rack with a u-lock.
Click to enlarge
  • Cable only. While using a cable by itself is less secure than the methods described above, it is better than nothing. Use the cable to lock the frame and front wheel to the bike rack. If the cable is long enough, it’s even better to lock the frame, front wheel, and rear wheel together (refer to graphic). Whatever you do, try to make sure the cable is taut enough so that it doesn’t drag on the ground.
Infographic of a less secure method of locking a bicycle to a bicycle rack using a cable. Photo shows the front wheel of a bicycle locked to a bicycle rack with a cable.
Click to enlarge

Less secure locking methods

When Chuck inspects bike parking areas on the UW campus, he often observes single bike locks being used in less-than-ideal ways. For example, some bikes may have their front wheel locked to the frame but are simply propped up on the bike rack without being locked to it. Other bikes may have only a front wheel locked to the rack with the frame left completely unsecured (refer to graphic). Remember: the goal of theft deterrence is to make your bike harder to steal compared to other bikes. If the other bikes parked around yours are locked in more secure ways, your bike becomes one of the easiest to steal.

Infographic of a method of locking a bicycle to a rack that is not secure. Photo shows the front wheel of a bicycle locked to a bicycle rack with a cable.
Click to enlarge

Other ways to protect your bicycle 

  • Lock up in a highly-visible, well-lit location whenever possible.
  • Remove expensive accessories, like bags and lights. Take them with you.
  • If you have a quick-release seat, consider using a cable to secure it, or replacing the quick-release mechanism with a bolt.
  • Use a less-valuable bike for riding to class or commuting to campus.
  • If possible, avoid parking your bike outside overnight on campus or in the downtown area.
  • Personalize your bike to make it seem less valuable. For example, decorate with stickers or decals or, as Chuck says, “just make it ugly.”  Added bonus: personal touches make your bike easier to recognize in case it does go missing.
  • Know your bike. What is the brand? What is the model? What color is it? Do you know its serial number? Knowing these details can help if it’s ever necessary to recover a missing bike.

Register your bike

Voluntarily registering your bike with a national registration database such Project 529 or the Bike Index is recommended.

Registered bikes have a greater chance to be recovered if they are stolen. When a bike is registered, the serial number can be cross-referenced with the bike owner’s name and acts as an independent proof of ownership. Recovered bicycles that are not registered have less chance of being returned to their owners, since it’s much harder to identify owners of unregistered bikes.

Thieves may be less likely to steal a bike with a registration sticker since its owner can easily be identified.

For information on how to voluntarily register your bicycle with a national bicycle registration database, visit the City of Madison bicycle registration page.

For questions about bike registration, email the City of Madison’s Pedestrian Bicycle Outreach Specialist at or Chuck Strawser, UW-Madison’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, at

— by Lauren Hawley

For more information on bicycling, bikesharing, bike routes, and free classes, go to our bicycling webpage.