One of the things I miss since moving from Philly is the many riding options I had not far from my front door: road, off-road, mild, or wild. The Greater Philadelphia area and beyond offer some of the best riding in the country. To get jamming on some sweet single-track or partake in some back-road blazing, you will need a way to get out there in a reasonable amount of time.
If you are a vehicle owner and don’t yet use it for bicycle transport, you have three options. One, you call in the help of a buddy or riding partner, with bribes of toll and gas money. Two, you take the personal whip and shove your whimpering bicycle into the back. Or, three, you make the investment to purchase a bike rack. Since I’m fastidious to unhealthy levels with my own car, the thought of grease on my upholstery, chain ring rips in my seats, and scratches on the plastic bits not only sends chills through my spine, but brings a few tears to my eyes.
Now if you own a vehicle you do not care about this may be a moot point for you, however, chances are that even though you don’t love your car, you do love your bicycle … I mean would you be reading this otherwise? So imagine bending the derailleur hanger on your gorgeous vintage Colnago as you cram it into your rusting, high-mileage ’89 Civic. Yikes! Plus, you can take more gear or friends who would like to accompany you, while justifying the use of a vehicle to go ride. So, read ahead to get a little background on the types of racks that are compatible for your vehicle, and then go broaden your bicycling horizons.
In the car rack industry, there are three basic types of rack systems; trunk mounted systems, roof mounted systems, and hitch mounted systems. The most basic and most popular is the trunk mounted system, which, as you would have guessed, mounts to the trunk lid or rear lift-gate of your vehicle.
Trunk racks fit the broadest range of vehicles and can be found from many vendors. Almost all share a common mounting method, in which the rack is affixed via nylon straps, or in some cases, a steel cable attached to a hook that grabs the panel gaps of the trunk. Trunk mounted systems rely on the sheet metal (rear trunk or lift-gate) and the rear bumper shelf to support the weight of the bicycle. Of the three types of racks, these tend to be the least expensive. In a world of the “you get what you pay for” mentality, some of that holds true with trunk mounted systems, which have the widest junk-to-gem ratio. The most basic will usually be a four-strap system, two for the top of the trunk lid or lift-gate, and two for the bottom., nylon straps, a basic rubber cradle, foam pads to protect the car’s finish, and usually vague instructions. However, you are usually given a wide berth on the highway, because most people are terrified to be next to or behind you and your potential two-wheeled projectile.
With a trunk rack, fellow drivers give you a wide berth on the highway, because most people are terrified to be next to or behind you and your potential two-wheeled projectile.
Trunk racks allow significant upgrades in user-friendliness and security for a relatively minor upcharge. While a basic rack may cost you 50 to 70 dollars, a really nice one, with six straps (two top, two bottom, and two side) will run you just over 100 dollars. Brands to consider include Thule, Yakima, and Saris. All three have made vehicular racks for decades, so you can trust you are getting great R&D as well as a lifetime warranty.
A great trunk rack offers you the easiest install, and removal, so you can enjoy rack-free motoring without much effort. The best models even lock to the vehicle to prevent theft, as well as lock your bike to the rack.
The main drawback of a trunk rack is that a three bike maximum is the industry standard which is due in large to the same basic characteristic of trunk racks in that they rely on the vehicle’s sheet metal for support. So if you need to carry more than three bikes, the next option may be the best for you which is the hitch mounted rack.
Hitch mounted racks affix to your vehicle via a tow hitch, which is available as an option on most trucks, vans, and SUVs — if they didn’t already come with a hitch mount. Even if you own a sedan or coupe, many aftermarket hitches can be installed from places such as U-Haul, and will allow for hitch rack compatibility. Regardless of what you drive, make sure you can identify which diameter tow hitch you have, as there are two standards that your local bike shop may ask you to identify. Class II, or one 1/4 inches are smaller and usually reserved for cars or light SUV’s, whereas Class III or two inches are reserved for vehicles with higher tow ratings. Many hitch mounted racks, but not all, are compatible with both via the inclusion of a shim. Be informed.
The advantage of hitch racks include the ability to carry up to five bikes, a higher level of stability, as well as a higher level of security for the rack and the bike. There are two basic types of racks which hold the bikes in two different ways. The most common holds the bike via the top tube. A newer style of rack now seen is the platform style rack, which usually holds the bike via the wheels or in some instances, the top-tube of the bicycle. Top tube affixing hitch racks are generally more affordable, available in five-bike models, and almost all the but the most basic will fold out of the way to allow access to the rear trunk or lift-gate. The biggest drawback to this type of rack is that bikes without a standard diamond frame, like dual suspension mountain bikes or step-though bikes will not fit without the inclusion of a top tube adapter which mimics a standard top tube by bridging the gap between the top tube and the seat tube.
Hitch racks that hold a bike via the wheels offer almost unlimited compatibility with non traditional frames, as well as delicate carbon tubes that cannot be squeezed. These racks can also fold up or down to allow access to the rear hatch and allow for easier parking options when bicycles are not being transported.
The drawbacks to hitch racks are minimal, and they do include price, with most quality hitch racks starting at a price where most trunk racks top off. They also tend to be the heaviest racks, and while most do fold down for trunk access, loading and unloading with a rack attached can be awkward and cumbersome depending on the size and weight of the load. These drawbacks are worth the payoff of easy installation, excellent highway stability, and ease of use.
Roof racks are the last type of rack system, and they are a good option for people for whom trunk or hitch racks won’t work. They are very secure, as well as versatile, with most modular systems offering ski, kayak, and roof-top box options. They also allow the easiest access to the trunk, as there is nothing to swing out of the way. Within the roof rack category, there are two basic types of aftermarket systems: modular rack systems for vehicles with no existing roof rack, and systems designed to work in conjunction with OEM roof rails and crossbars.
Modular systems are generally comprised of a roof rail anchoring device, sometimes called a foot pack or load tower, cross bars, and any necessary shims and gaskets that allows the system to work with your vehicle. From there, different roof trays can be chosen; the tray is the device that attaches your bike to your rack. As this is a modular system, items are purchased separately giving you many options.
If your vehicle has factory-installed roof rails and crossbars, your system is a lot simpler. Many rack manufacturers make bicycle trays that will bolt right onto your stock crossbars.
In regards to roof trays, the two general types are categorized as either fork mounted or upright. Fork mounted use the dropouts of the front fork for attachment to the rack, in addition to a rear wheel strap. As you may have guessed, you need to remove your front wheel to get your bike attached to this type of tray. The front wheel can either be carried inside the vehicle or on top with a front wheel rack purchased as an accessory.
Upright mounted trays use either the frame or the front and rear wheel to keep the bike attached to the tray. Both feature locking capabilities.
Roof racks are awesome for cars where no other options exist, and I’d argue that certain vehicles look damn good with a roof rack on them. There are, however some big drawbacks. The biggest is cost. Modular systems for vehicles without any factory roof rack can run in excess of a thousand dollars if you tick off every available option. Another drawback is loading and unloading the bicycle, which requires hoisting the machine over your head. This is particularly challenging if you are of short stature, own a tall vehicle, or both. Another drawback is wind resistance, and how it destroys your fuel mileage at highway speeds. I use a roof mounted system and I typically see a five to seven mile-per-gallon hit at freeway speeds. I don’t have to transport bikes very often so I can justify it. You may not. In addition, wind resistance makes a whole lot of noise, so at anything over 50 miles per hour, kiss opening the sunroof goodbye. Lastly, when you have a bike on your roof, you have effectively added 3-5 feet to your vehicle height. Many a bike has been terminated by forgetful drivers pulling into garages with a bike on the roof. The bike is usually totaled in this case. Hang a sign on the garage door, in the rear-view mirror-whatever it takes not to make that error.
So, you are now armed with some knowledge that will undoubtedly add to your bicycling bliss, and allow you to expand your bicycling horizons beyond the front door. As always, do not hesitate to ask your local bike shop for advice. They would love to help you out.