Cafe bike security and the best pocket locks reviewed
You’re riding somewhere new and far from home. You know you’ll be stopping for a coffee, lunch or afternoon beverage, but not sure whether you’ll be able to keep eyes on your bike. What do you do? Traditional bike locks are simply too bulky and awkward to carry, and there’s no space on your frame to mount anything. What’s the alternative?
Pocket locks — or as I like to call them, cafe locks — are one answer. Working on the concept that any lock is better than no lock, these small security devices can fit into a jersey pocket, weigh next to nothing, and offer some protection against opportunistic thieves. Certainly, such a small lock won’t withstand a committed attack, but it might just stop a life-battler from riding off with your happiness machine.
I tested eight popular pocket-sized locks to find which is best. And with that, present alternate methods, tips and tricks which may achieve similar results.
Pocket lock options
The pocket lock options I tested can be split into three categories: cable, strap or linked plates. All except for the linked plate lock (Abus Bordo Lite) feature a combination-style lock.
In addition to how you plan on carrying the lock, you should also consider its length. Cable locks offer the most versatility and are long enough to be woven around multiple bikes or a frame, rear wheel and pole. By contrast, some of the strap or linked plate locks are only just long enough to secure a rear wheel to the frame, or a frame to a pole.
Cable pocket locks
The OnGuard Terrier Roller, OnGuard Terrier Roller Mini, Abus CombiFlex 2501 and Hiplok FLX are all based around a similar spooled cable (with auto-retract) and a three-digit combo lock (codes are always customisable). These locks are not unique to cycling, and can often be found in luggage stores too. However, the small form and low weight make them ideal for carrying when riding.
It’s clear that these four locks come from just one or two manufacturers, and the security can easily be determined by the thickness of the wire. The smallest two (Abus CombiFlex 2501 and OnGuard Terrier Roller Mini) each feature a coated 1.5mm thick steel braided cable (for reference, a typical brake cable is 1.6mm thick). A quick snip from some regular side cutters, cable cutters or bolt cutters will see these locks defeated. Yep, even a Leatherman multitool can break these in less than five seconds. On the bright side, you’ll be hard-pressed to rip these apart without the aid of tools, so they should be enough to prevent against an unplanned attack.
Adding a little more girth, the OnGuard Terrier Roller and Hiplok FLX each feature a coated 1.95mm steel braided cable. That .45mm extra doesn’t do much where decent hand tools are involved, and again, they’re quick to cut.
The Hiplok FLX is the most unique of this lock style, featuring a belt hook on the backside that hides a red LED light, allowing the lock to double as a wearable safety light. It’s a nice touch, but comes with a big jump in price and isn’t very bright. Alternatively, for US$10 less, Hiplok offers the same lock but with a reflective strip in place of the LED.
Strap-style pocket locks
Strap-style locks are effectively large reinforced and lockable zip-ties. You can pull them tight to ensure your bike can’t slide across the pole or fence its attached, and they can each be daisy-chained together if others in your group have the same lock. The non-scratch and snug-holding nature of strap-style locks makes them ideal for bike transporting use too, such as securing a wheel to a bike rack. Both Ottolock and Hiplok offer examples of these – each featuring three digit combo locks.
The Hiplok Z-Lok Combo is almost a zip tie, except for its plastic coated steel band construction and easy locking mechanism. The band is relatively rigid, and there’s no feature for keeping the lock rolled up, instead you’re left with either an awkward large loop or overhang to carry.
The 45cm length is long enough to wrap around a frame and back wheel, or frame and a thin pole. The steel band is surprising hardy against hand tools, but a good quality pair of side cutters made short work of it, as did a pair of tin snips. And assuming there were no witnesses, a hacksaw would cut it too.
The Ottolock is perhaps the most popular option here (and one of the most expensive) – and is the inspiration behind this whole test. The Ottolock Cinch Original features three thin steel bands that alternate with layers of kevlar – all covered in a non-scratch and grippy rubber-like (Santoprene) exterior. The idea is that the kevlar stops hacksaws from beating the steel bands, while the steel bands prevent scissors or other common cutting tools from making headway. The layered bands are also designed to slide and somewhat crush, preventing shearing forces from tools such as bolt cutters from beating the lock.
As tested, side cutters and pliers can gnaw at and damage the lock, but you’ll likely blunt the tool before the lock gives way. Likewise, a hacksaw does indeed get caught up in the kevlar fibres. However, as inspired by the lock picking lawyer, the Ottolock Cinch Original can be snipped by a sharp pair of aviation snips. Thankfully it’s unlikely that most thieves will have such a tool on them as they’re the wrong choice for cable-style locks.
Just prior to finishing this article, Ottolock sent samples of its new Cinch Hexband, a heavier, more reinforced version which features six steel bands wrapped in kevlar. From the outside it looks (and measures) much like the Original, but inside, it’s designed to ward off the ill-fated aviation snip (or similar) attack.
Ottolock claims the reinforced Hexband version adds 75g in the 30-inch size (my Hexband is a pre-production sample and is lighter than production – 227g versus 250g claimed). I can confirm that extra weight indeed results in greater security, with the Hexband destroying my pair of mid-level aviation snips. In fact, it took me over two minutes of cutting and bending the Hexband before I beat it – a seriously impressive item. I suspect a fresh pair of high-end aviation snips will quickly beat this lock, but that’s rather specific.
In addition to the new layered construction, the locking mechanism has been given an update, and where the Original’s mechanism can feel a little vague and needs the occasional wiggle of the numbers to unlock, the new Hexlock is positive and precise to use. The Hexband is distinguishable by its Cerakote ceramic paint finish.
Both models of Ottolock can be rolled up and wrapped around things like saddle rails, and silicone straps are available separately for easy carrying of the lock on a frame or seatpost. The Original and Hexband are available in three lengths – 18-inch (45cm), 30-inch (76cm) and 60-inch (152cm). As tested, the 18-inch is enough to secure a rear wheel to the frame, a frame to a poll or two bikes together. While the 30-inch gives a little more freedom to involve a pole or fence while securing the rear wheel.
Link plate pocket locks
The Bordo range of locks from Abus all feature a similar rivet-linked steel plate construction and are notoriously tough to break.
Although the lightest in Abus’ Bordo range, the Bordo Lite 6055 is the heaviest and bulkiest lock on test here. It’s also far and away the most secure lock tested, and arguably the most secure lock available that still fits within a jersey pocket.
The keyed lock of the 6055 may not be for everyone, and Abus offers the subtly different Bordo Lite 6150 with a combination lock as an alternative.
Where nearly all the other locks here can be cut with cheap hand tools, this one requires some serious firepower. A hacksaw would do it but take a long time, and an electric grinder will do it, but isn’t exactly what someone would use outside a cafe or pub. As revealed by the lock picking lawyer, a nut splitter is one way to get through this lock, as is picking the keyed locking mechanism, but even still, it’ll take the thief far longer to get through this than the quick snips or side cutters that beat the others.
What to get
In the end, the brand new Ottolock Cinch Hexband is the clear winner for me. The 18-inch version is light and small enough to be easily carried and is long enough to chain two bikes to each other (or a single bike frame to a pole), while the 30-inch version is nearly as compact and gives enough length to involve a pole or fence, and even a rear wheel too. If grams matter (at the expense of absolute security), the Ottolock Cinch Original is worth considering too. Just be warned, neither are particularly cheap.
The ease of beating the cable-style pocket locks with a basic set of pliers means they shouldn’t be trusted for long periods of time. However, the compact size, generous cable length and ease of use remain appealing in the sense that something is better than nothing. The slightly larger versions don’t offer much more in terms of security, so if this style of lock appeals, then perhaps go with the smallest option. And if you want a lock that doubles as a light for quick urban trips, the Hiplok FLX is your only option here – but I’d rather use a dedicated light.
Perhaps you’re looking for a lock that’s light for commuting or short trips and you don’t really care all that much about weight? The Abus Bordo Lite is the obvious choice. It offers almost U-lock level of security in a pocket-size form factor. This combined with an Ottolock would be a great lightweight commuter setup.
If the Bordo Lite appeals, then also check out premium options from Tigr and Altor. I haven’t tried either of these as they don’t truly meet the pocket-size criteria of this test, but they’re certainly worth a look if you’re after a more serious, yet relatively light lock.
Alternative security methods
It’s quite shocking how easy it is to cut a steel braided cable, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s replaced the cables on a bike. Given this, perhaps the simplest of methods can be enough to stop your bike from being nicked in a pinch. Here are a few methods to try.
The helmet lock
Using the straps of a helmet has long been my go-to. Weaving those straps through a wheel and the frame will create a small obstacle for a thief. The tighter and fiddlier it is for you to do, the more time consuming it’ll be for a stranger to undo. Sure, someone set on taking your bike will touch your manky helmet strap and take your bike, or if they were prepared to cut a lock, it may just be quicker for them to cut the straps. But on the assumption that something is better than nothing, this is worth doing.
On this note, Lazer offers a commuter helmet (it was previously available for more models, but no longer) with a combination lock built into the buckle. Though a pair of scissors can defeat such a device.
Velcro or toe straps
The humble toe strap may prove an effective cafe lock. It weighs next to nothing, can be shoved into a saddle bag, and is long enough to tie a rear wheel to the frame. Better yet, a quick trip to your local spin class will prove that very few people actually know how to undo the things.
Alternatively, a velcro or rubber strap like those used for carrying stuff when bikepacking will also provide another barrier to thieves. I’ve used such things on trains before, and it provides enough assurance that someone won’t run off with your bike as the train doors open (yes, I’ve had someone try this on me. Thankfully that jerk’s matching Adidas tracksuit, bum bag and eyebrow stripes had me at the ready).
And if you want something metal, then you can fashion your own lock with a brake cable, some brass crimps (used to create loops at either end) and any small suitcase lock of your choosing. The cable can be wrapped up pretty small when not in use and weighs very little. Or you could just use a cable lock as tested above.
A loosened wheel
Other theft-prevention methods include loosening your wheel’s quick release levers, brakes or similar acts of self-sabotage. The idea, of course, is that a thief trying to ride away will come unstuck. Instant justice.
Personally, I believe slowing someone down when trying to take your bike in the first place is the better method, and won’t end with you being sued in the event it does work.
Still, if you’re set on this method, then the easiest answer is to undo your rear wheel’s quick release (won’t work with thru-axles). If someone tries to ride away the wheel will quickly pop out of the frame and make a tangled mess. The damaged bike and broken spokes that result are on you though.
Safety in numbers. If parking up with a group, the stacks-on method of piling bikes up is fairly sufficient. Up against a wall is ideal; literally stacking them is for those without derailleurs. The more handlebars, saddles and pedals hooked with each other the better. And put the shittiest bike on the pile last. And if someone in the group does have a lock, then use it on the most outward-facing bikes.
Staying cafe savvy
In the end, the best prevention against theft is simply staying near your ride. Take valuable accessories such as your GPS computer with you, and always keep the bike where you can see it.
If that’s not possible, then seriously consider a pocket-sized lock. With exception of the Bordo Lite or more serious locks again, the somewhat expensive Ottolock Hexband is in a league of its own. However do beware, there are thieves that specialise in two-wheeled machines, and there are very few locks on the market that will do anything more than slow them.
What cafe security tips do you have? Any hard lessons learned?
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