John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Bike mechanics reveal the best tricks to frustrate would-be saddle thieves.
I was once leaning against a street pole with a bike locked on it when a man walked up and offered to kick my ass. It turned out he’d had four seats stolen and, with my hand touching his frame, he assumed I was about to claim the fifth.
Years and a pile of missing parts later, I understand this guy’s paranoia. Jacking a seat is incredibly easy: Usually all you need is a few seconds and a folding pocket tool. It’s also incredibly exasperating for a rider, as you’re now forced to pony up $60 or much more or else pedal standing like a goofy, wannabe giraffe.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s common to pass bikes missing seats, as if they were pruned by a maniacal gardener. Maybe the owners removed them for safekeeping. But it’s just as likely some were ripped off by crooks.
“I get the impression the people mostly selling them are doing it in an ‘I can get $5 for this and get a beer’ kind of way,’” says Jim, an employee at Alameda Bicycle. “There’s no way they’re actually getting a tenth of the money the person who owns the seat will have to pay to get it replaced. It’s sort of frustrating.”
You have stolen my bike seat but you can never steal my dignity! Until I started riding and then I looked pretty dumb pic.twitter.com/DEAtkG1ILa— Will Sonheim (@WilsonHeim) August 12, 2014
Stopping determined thieves from lifting your seat is impossible, short of standing guard and zapping them with a weed whacker. But similar to the message of our guide to protecting the whole bicycle, there are steps you can take to make a heist more difficult. Here are some suggested by Bay Area bike pros:
Overhaul your quick-release mechanisms
These things might as well have been designed by thieves. If you use any kind of quick release for seat or wheel protection, go to the store now and switch them out with literally anything else. Says Greg Archer of Oakland’s Archer Bicycle: “Quick release is the worst thing ever invented for urban bikes.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place. “They offer some functionality depending on the rider,” says Danita McGinnis at Berkeley’s Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative. “I'm fairly sensitive to having the seat at the correct height, and with my city bike I’m wearing special shoes and want to be able to make quick adjustments.” But McGinnis also secures her seat with a cable, as discussed below.
I'm pretty sure my least favorite way to travel is walking my bike home because somebody stole my seat post. pic.twitter.com/FmTyBQ4730— Tim M (@AleThngsConsdrd) April 10, 2015
Go big with nuts, bolts, and ball bearings
Hex nuts and the like offer a little more protection, but still can be removed with common tools. I recently thought I’d be clever and fastened a seat with a plastic-ringed locknut, which in theory would require two pliers to unscrew. The very next trip somebody stole it by wrenching the post out of the bike. A mechanic guessed road vibrations loosened the connection.
For extra security, some folks insert an obstruction in Allen-head bolts. “You can take silicone adhesive and actually fill in the bolt head,” says Archer. “That means somebody has to spend time picking it out before taking a tool to it.” Fans of this method also suggest using a ball bearing smeared in melted candle wax or bike grease. Archer has heard of going hardcore with epoxy, but “at that point you can’t adjust the seat without cutting the bolt off.”
I’m testing a BB dripped with wax and can verify it’s hard to extract with a fingernail:
Load up on chains and cables
The waxy BB somewhat protects the post but leaves the saddle vulnerable. You can fix this shortcoming by wrapping a cable lock or chain (even a dog collar with a padlock) around the frame and through the seat’s undercarriage. It might be enough to make a sticky-fingered dingus sidle on down the road. “They can certainly be cut if somebody has bolt cutters,” says McGinnis. “But in my experience, the vast majority of seats that get stolen are not locked by any method.”
Kick the cordage up a notch with a bike chain covered in an inner tube (to protect the frame’s paint). The thief would have to resort to fiddling with a chain breaker. As a visual deterrent, it might not even be necessary to include the chain. “One guy that comes into the shop put a security bolt on the seat and tied on a piece of tube that looks like it has a chain but is really just a piece of rubber,” says Niko, co-owner of San Francisco’s Citizen Chain Cyclery. “And his seat is still there.”
Invest in security bolts
These odd-headed bolts are pricey but powerful weapons against cycle bandits. They require keys that aren’t on pocket tools, and come in a variety of brands like Pinhead ($29.99) and Pitlock (€30.90). San Francisco’s Bicycle Bolts sells a more basic version for $5 a pop.
Note that many security bolts are meant for the post, and you might have to buy another for the saddle. Also be warned these items can reportedly be bested by a hand tool and some muscle. “I’ve opened Pinheads with a pair of Vice-Grips,” says Archer. “Unfortunately, all you’re doing is slowing down the thief.”
Bust out the big guns with a double U-lock
There might be only one person in the world using this technique, but it looks bomb-proof. Bike Snob NYC tracked down this ride in 2009:
That’s a heaping bowl of security—and also a lot of money and weight. Still, it’s not as drastic as the other guy Bike Snob found imprisoning his seat with a Kryptonite motorcycle chain. Writes the site: “I’m all for comfort, but not at the expense of efficiency and practicality, and between the heavy saddle and the Kryptonite chain this person is carrying around like 20 pounds just to rest his own ass.”
Remove the seat
Taking the seat with you is a great way to guard it. Just be sure to mark your preferred height on the post. “The best lock is your hands,” says Niko. “If you’ve got the seat in your hands, nobody else does.”
The drawbacks include lugging around a long metal object, psychologically surrendering to the criminal class, and looking like you’ve been working under a Jeep all day. “Most seat posts have grease,” says Archer, “so you’re getting grease over everything you own.”
Removing the seat opens a hole in your frame, which people sometimes plug in interesting ways. One person jams in a wine cork to stop rain from seeping in.
All these tactics, as well as more esoteric ones like the seat that transforms into a lock, serve the same purpose: Annoying a thief into looking elsewhere. But none are a guarantee—even those U-locks could be taken out with a grinder. So if you live in a high-crime area, it’s best to layer a couple methods and then cross your fingers.
“The bulletproof solution is to encase the whole bike in concrete and drop it in the ocean,” says Archer, the killjoy. “Nobody can steal it, but it’s hard to ride.”