Nature is the master of disguise. The tiger swallowtail caterpillar starts out camouflaged as a bird dropping to discourage hungry birds. Take a tip from the crawling turd and keep your bike from getting swiped: dress it down as a pile of rolling junk.
Having an ugly bike doesn’t mean having a junky bike. Looks and performance have no exclusive relationship. A savvy bike thief may see the gem under the Krylon, but he also knows he can’t sell it as quickly as the tricked-out speedster at the other end of the bike rack.
Start with the paint. A can of spray paint is a good start, but choose wisely. Black is out. We’re talking ugly here, not cool. Think orange. Think brown. Think orange and brown. Use whatever you have lying around from your last project. And don’t stop with the frame. The cranks, the handlebars, the tires, anything is fair game. To keep the spray-on hues from seeping into the componentry, use a Q-tip to apply a greasy line of defense.
The trick with paint is to make it sloppy. A coating of car wax prior to your artistic moment will turn even the most careful application into a flaking, blistering, peeling mess.
Bring on the rust. Rust is the enemy of bikes, but you can ally yourself with the persistent creep of oxidation by stealing from the arsenal of the faux finish enthusiast. Modern Options makes a two-bottle Rust Antiquing Set. Two minutes with this stuff is the equivalent of leaving your patio furniture in the surf line for two years. But be careful. Go for the toothbrush splatter technique and don’t overplay your hand. This isn’t a faux finish, it’s a fugly finish. When the rust is set, another pass with the spray can gives it that creeping-up-through-the-paint look.
Accessorize. Look at your seat. Now tear it. Now tape it up. Now tear it again, and pull out a bit of the stuffing. Give the handlebar grips/tape the same treatment. The components are what make the difference between a cranky-shifting clunk bucket and a smooth machine. Just make sure yours don’t look smooth. Grind the logos off your derailleurs and brakes. Head to your local community bicycle co-op and pick up a pair of mismatched pedals.
Think specks. And just because none of these parts can actually rust doesn’t mean they can’t look like they’re rusting. Be subtle here.
Switch out your nuts and bolts. The quick release on your seat post is a “steal me” sign. Replace it with a common bolt. For an extra level of security, switch out all the bolts you can for bolts with Torx heads. Torx is that funny Allen key/screwdriver alternative that you can never find in your toolbox. The thief left his at home. He’s probably not carrying a screwdriver either.
Quick-release clampdown. Some urban bikers will tighten a hose clamp to hold the wheel quick releases tight to the frame. You’re only buying time here, but if you don’t like pulling your front wheel off every time you lock up your bike, it’s an option. If you don’t want to spring for dedicated theft-resistant quick releases, slip a Torx bolt into the clamp.
Stickers, and lots of them. With stickers, the ugly options are endless. They can make the thief think about how much time he wants to spend removing them. If you’re especially sneaky, you can put Huffy stickers on your Serotta (find assorted bike decals at signwavedesigns.com). The same sticky mess factor goes for duct tape, but make it ugly duct tape. Did you know that duct tape comes in monkey-puke green? Or this might be a moment to get in touch with your My Little Pony roots and zip-tie a pink plastic basket to your handlebars.
Just hold back on any artistic effect. Don’t go all Burning Man, or some poser is going to cop it for cool points. And remember, you’re not theft-proofing your bike. You still need a good lock, or maybe two — many people carry a U-lock and a cable lock on the assumption that few bike thieves are carrying tools to defeat both.
But the determined thief can steal any bike, at any time. Search “bike thief” on youtube.com to see the Neistat brothers’ alarming opus on how easy it is to steal your ride in broad daylight. You can’t stop a thief from stealing your bike. You can only stop him from wanting your bike. And making your bike look like a piece of crap may just be the ticket.