Iain Treloar takes a look at the different styles of racks available to transport your precious cargo.
In the summer holiday migration, the sight of a family of bikes hanging on racks on the back of cars or adorning car roofs is common. What isn’t immediately apparent is how much variety there can be between different types of rack on the market, what will suit your vehicle and the best mounting method.
The wide spectrum of different types of bike racks can be split into three basic types – roof mounted, towball mounted and strap-on racks. As with most things, all of these options have their pros and cons.
Towball mounted racks
These are the most economical and most common style, and come in a wide variety of different permutations. Broadly speaking, they are either an A-frame shape or a single pole.
In some cases, the A-frame will allow you to tow a trailer as well, while other options have removable bases or the ability to tilt down to allow the boots of station wagons and 4WDs to open. The tilting version, at first glance, seems greatly beneficial, but in most cases does not justify the added expense. Unless you’re a weightlifter, you’ll be unable to tilt the rack with a full load of bikes, so the tilting function in reality is only of use when the rack is not loaded. Therefore, in most cases it will be far more cost-effective to just buy a standard removable base rack instead as they are easier to remove entirely. Cheaper racks remove any of this functionality, and are as simple as a metal pole that is attached to the tow-bar with a big spanner. As this is usually a fairly tedious and involved process, it’s worth considering spending a little extra to get one of the removable base types, as they are much less hassle.
Another consideration for the towball mounted racks is that they are not suitable for use with carbon-fibre frames. Carbon frames are very tough in certain directions, but are not designed to be clamped onto in the centre of the tube; this is an easy way to write off an expensive frame. For this type of precious cargo, it’s best to use a roof-mounted rack.
It’s also worth noting that the cheapest and most common basic racks are not appropriate for most bikes currently on the market, regardless of frame material. This style, with a metal plate lying across the top of the rack screwed down onto the top tubes of the bikes, tends to be constructed with a very narrow top tube in mind. With narrower gauge steel frames (as was common on the market in the 1980s and 1990s when these racks had their heyday) this is not a problem – most bikes on the market now, however, are aluminium-framed and use much thicker or non-round tubing in the frame, which sits awkwardly in the older racks. Adaptor bars can be a good work around for these issues, and also mean that small or unconventionally-shaped bikes will be able to fit onto your rack.
In addition to the towball mounted variety, there is a further sub-category which also falls into the same broader designation – the square hitch style, popularly (although incorrectly) known as Hayman Reese. There are two common sizes for this, with 2” the most popular size as it allows a greater towing capacity, and 1 1/4” appearing less frequently. There are models available on the market that can be adapted to suit both, but it’s worth confirming before making a purchase nonetheless.Perhaps the most convenient option consists of a platform that the bikes sit on at the back of the car, such as the GripSport Hi-Ride, Kuat NV or Thule Euroclassic G6.
These are most popular for high-end and lighter weight bikes, as they are easier to lift above the head to place on the roof of the car. These are also of benefit for carbon frames, as they do not clamp aggressively onto the fragile centre of the frame’s tubes.
There are a couple of different varieties of these commonly on the market; generally they either allow the entire bike to stand upright on the roof with an arm clamping around the downtube (such as the Thule Proride 591), or require you to remove the front wheel and attach by clamping the fork in a quick-release axle-substitute (such as the Rola BCF2 pictured here). In both cases, wheels are also attached by straps onto the roof-rack. The quick-release axle substitute can also be found separately and adapted for use in the back of utes or vans.
Although roof-mounted racks are the lowest impact for the bike and a great solution, there are nonetheless a couple of drawbacks. On long journeys, you can expect the front of your bike to get spattered with dead insects (bees are particularly grisly). More alarming is that drivers occasionally forget they have bikes on the roof, thus causing costly damage when they drive into their garage. And finally, they’re one of the more complex items to purchase, with a wealth of different mounting kits and roof-bars available if your car doesn’t already have them; in many cases these are specific all the way down to model year of your particular vehicle.
Strap-on rear racks
These attach using straps and are frequently marketed as fitting on a majority of cars. In many cases (especially newer vehicles) this is not the case; they require a reinforced, flat bumper rather than the sloping plastic ones on lots of newer cars (especially hatchbacks).
Beware that many of these racks rely on the tension on the straps in opposing directions to maintain a secure mount for the bikes. If you hoon over speedbumps or drive over bumpy terrain, straps can come loose or completely disengage. It’s a good idea to stop regularly and check the straps are still tensioned and balancing each other.
There are certain options with solid metal ‘straps’ but these can be quite specific to particular car models and are more likely to scratch at the mounting point to the car than their nylon-strapped cousins.
There are also options available that fit onto rear tyres which are an option that may suit those with SUVs. Keep in mind that many rear-mounted tyres on SUVs sit off-centre, and this will mean that you will have bikes hanging out significantly wider than the car.
There are a number of different brands competing in this market, ranging from very cheap strap-on racks that can cost as little as $70 (only for infrequent use) up to quite high-end models by premium brands such as Saris. There are also a growing number of racks that strap on but rest on the boot and bumper of a sedan instead of hanging supported by the straps alone, providing a much more secure mount, accommodating most rear spoilers and avoiding the load-bearing issues previously discussed.
Note that both tow bar and strap-on racks might obscure your licence plate, requiring you to have one displayed at the back of the rack. Handmade plates are not allowed. You must purchase a substitute plate from your road authority. You must detach the rack when not in use.
Out of the norm?
With the mind-boggling range of car/bike configurations available, it may be that none of the options outlined suit your precise needs. Electric bikes or downhill bikes, for instance, are often too heavy to lift onto the roof or mount on some strap-on racks. Similarly, you may struggle to find an off-the-shelf product that suits your requirements if you need to tow a caravan or trailer at the same time as carrying bikes. Or perhaps you need to be able to transport a trike or a tandem. In such cases, it may be worth investigating getting something custom fabricated. GripSport are one such Melbourne-based business who manufacture bike carriers outside the remit of the larger companies, which go through more conventional distribution channels instead of directly engaging with the customer on a case-by-case basis.
If you’re uncertain of what will work best for your needs and your vehicle, ask at your local bike shop or a dedicated roof-rack dealer. In most cases, with a little research and a process of narrowing down the options, you’ll be able to find a suitable solution. With the variety of models from a number of quality brands available on the market, the process of purchasing a rack is one that may appear daunting at first. Rest assured, however, that regardless of whether you’ve got a road bike, dualie or a family’s worth of kids bikes to transport, there’s an option on the market for you.
Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.