The Best Bike Rack
The bicycle may be the most efficient means of transportation ever created; if you are like us, you likely use your bike for recreation as well. Our wanderlust has driven us to load up ours, by any means necessary, and head off in search of the next epic ride. After years of traveling with bikes, we asked ourselves: what is the best way to get them from one place to another? To find out, we took 18 of the best roof, trunk and hitch-mounted bike racks on the market and tested them over a 12-month period. Using multiple vehicles and bikes of every variety, we loaded, unloaded and drove thousands of miles on highways, dirt roads, and everything in between, in a quest to find the perfect one. Keep reading to see how the competitors stacked up and to find out which one is best for your needs.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Types of Bike Racks
The vast majority of models on the market fall into three main categories that differ in the way they attach to your vehicle. We included all three types in our review to learn the plusses and minuses of each system.
In the past, Yakima and Thule both produced roof racks that would only work with their proprietary cross bars. To some extent this is still the case. However, both companies have begun to produce contenders that will work with any type of cross bar such as our Top Pick Award winner, the Yakima ForkLift, and our Best Buy Award winner, the RockyMounts Jetline. The trend toward creating bike racks that will work with a multitude of crossbar configurations has been driven by the increase in vehicles coming equipped with factory crossbars, and the infiltration of the market by smaller companies. RockyMounts and Kuat, for example, do not manufacture crossbar systems, but both produce products that are compatible with either round or square bars.
Roof racks have many advantages over other types of carry systems. In many cases they provide the greatest capacity to handle multiple bikes for a given vehicle. With long crossbars that extend beyond the width of the vehicle it is possible to carry up to six bikes on the roof of some vehicles. Versatility is another plus. The racks can be removed from the crossbars, allowing the crossbars to be used to carry cargo boxes, ski, kayak or surf racks. If your vehicle is equipped with factory cross bars, and you only need to purchase one for your bike and not an entire rail and crossbar system, then roof racks can be quite cost effective.
Roof racks can be further divided into fork mount, and tray style racks that hold the wheel or frame with some sort of clamp. A tray style rack, such as the Yakima High Roller or the Thule Criterium, does not require removal of the front wheel. This can be convenient but also requires the bike to be lifted much higher to get it into the rack. On a car with a low roof height this is not a problem, but it may be difficult to impossible for most people when loading bikes onto SUVs and vans. There are several new racks on the market such as the Kuat Trio, winner of our Top Pick Award, that utilize a fork mount, but are capable of carrying bikes with a variety of axle standards such as 9mm, 15mm and 20mm. These types of bike racks can be a great option for the user that has multiple bikes.
Saris Freedom 2-Bike. Hitch mount competitors hold bicycles in two ways: a tray mount, such as the Kuat NV or the Thule T2 Classic, which use a clamping arm that holds the front tire and a small strap that holds the rear, or a support arm style hitch uses some combination of fixed or non-fixed arms that contact the frame, with straps (either nylon or rubber) that secure the bicycle.
Hitch mount style bike racks have the advantage of being easy to load, as they are closer to the ground. They also keep bikes out of the wind and in the slipstream behind the vehicle, potentially increasing fuel economy. On the other hand, hitch mounted models can be quite expensive. They are also generally fairly heavy, in the 30-50lb range. Overall capacity is also limited to four bikes with even the highest capacity models. Hitch mount models can also limit your access to your trunk or rear hatch. Some higher end models such as the Thule Apex Swing 4-Bike swing away from your vehicle, offering access to rear doors. The Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro takes another approach to access and tilts down to allow access to the rear of the vehicle.
Ask an Expert: Ross MacKenzie
To gather more info on how to select the right model, we went to our longtime friend and rack expert Ross MacKenzie, a professional rack installer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here is what Ross had to say:
What Is the Best Bike Rack for Most People With 2-4 bikes?
The most popular is "hanging style" with a tow hitch. It's the most common because you get the most rack for your money: it's $250-500 for a four-bike model. However, you run into issues with full-suspension bikes because they no longer have standard frame geometry. If it's a road bike on the other hand, there is a big open frame that is easy to adapt to a hanging style.
The best option for a full-suspension mountain bike, and arguably most other bike styles, is a "platform style." This is the kind you see in front of buses where there are usually two trays and a hook that comes over the front wheel and ratchets down. They weigh about 45 pounds but are usually well-balanced so it's not too hard to take them on and off. There are also lighter versions if you are worried about weight.
If you have a two-inch hitch (most trucks and SUVs have them), you can add an extension to a two-bike platform and carry four bikes. That's the most deluxe way to carry bikes because they don't touch each other and nothing on the rack touches the frame. For people with very expensive road bikes and full-suspension mountain bikes, this is the way to go. The platform style is also the easiest rack to load and unload.
The downsides to both the platform and hanging style racks are that you have to install a trailer hitch for most cars. This costs about $150 in labor plus the cost of the hitch which will range from $150-300.
How many people install their own trailer hitches to their cars?
Very few, maybe 1 in 100 of the customers I see. You need a pretty decent selection of tools, including a torque wrench that goes to at least 100 foot pounds and maybe even 200. You need a set of ramps to get access under the car. Most of the time there will be some drilling into the frame. Most people can't or don't want to deal with all that.
When is it better to have a roof rack?
If a car is too low, a trailer hitch might scratch the ground. Otherwise hitch mount is generally the way to go. Roof racks might start out less expensive, but you generally have to buy more racks/trays to add more than one bike and the costs start to add up. Also, you take up your roof space so you can't put a roof box or paddleboard on top. Lastly, I see people every week that forget their bikes are on their roof, drive into their garage and damage their bikes, their rack, and their house.
How about getting access to the trunk with a hitch mount?
If you have a 2" hitch, you can get a swing-away hitch. If your hitch is smaller (most cars can only have 1 1/4" Class 1 hitch), then you can get a rack that lowers and raises.
When do you recommend a trunk mount style?
If you don't transport your bike all that much and just want to get your bike from here to there, then the trunk mount works. Keep in mind you can't cable lock your bike to your rack. Hitch mount and platform style lock to the car and you can then lock you bikes to the rack. You also have to be more careful about the bike scratching your car with a trunk mount. Not all trunk mount racks are the same. Some require six points of tension. Other just have two cables that attach to four points on the car. These allow you, once you take the bikes off the rack, to operate the trunk.
Any last words of wisdom?
I recommend investing in a good hitch mount rack (either hanging or tray). You may have to spend a little more money than a trunk mount but your bikes will be more secure, it's easier to load and unload, and over time it will be well worth the extra cost.
Ross MacKenzie works at Rack n' Road in San Rafael, CA. He has installed more than 3,000 trailer hitches and racks.
Criteria for Evaluation
Capacity is an important consideration for any prospective buyer. If you need to transport multiple bikes at once, then overall capacity should play a large part in your decision process. Versatility is a measure of the ability to carry multiple different types of bikes and bicycle frame shape and size can present issues for some. Any rack that uses the bicycle frame as the primary point of attachment will suffer in overall versatility since there are a multitude of frames on the market. Our Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro scored highest due to its ability to hold virtually any type or size of frame securely. The similarly designed Kuat NV 2.0 comes in at a close second to the Pro model in terms of versatility, also accommodating any style of bike. The Thule T2 Pro and the Kuat NV 2.0 both use a ratcheting arm that holds the front wheel of the bicycle, regardless of wheel size, and are amongst the few options available for those wishing to transport fat bikes. A small strap secures the rear wheel. With this design, the shape or size of the frame is inconsequential. The Thule T2 Pro as tested is only able to carry two bikes.
Other models that we reviewed such as the Thule Apex Swing claim they carry four, but the design limits its ability to actually carry four. It is the rare combination of four bikes that will actually fit, and even when we were able to get that many on, the increased contact would result in damage that is impossible to avoid. As noted in our category breakdown, most vehicles' peak capacity is achieved by using a roof mount set up with multiple individual roof racks. It is of note that a roof unit such as our Top Pick Kuat Trio can only hold one bike, but the ability to put multiple units on the roof makes for a high capacity option. The Yakima High Roller was another standout for versatility with its ability to carry bikes differing axle standards.
Ease of Assembly and Attachment
It is rare to find any product these days that does not bear the label "some assembly required" and bike racks are no exception. Packaging, directions, and overall design all play a role in a given unit's ease of assembly. Once properly assembled, it must be attached to your vehicle. If you plan to take it on and off of your vehicle, or swap it between vehicles frequently, then this section is for you.
Once again, our Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro was a standout. Assembly was easy, using the included hex wrenches. Attaching the T2 Pro to your vehicle is as simple as inserting it into your hitch receiver, engaging the stinger pin in the hitch receiver hole, and tightening the anti-sway knob by hand. At over 50lbs, the Thule T2 Pro is on the heavy side, but you only have to lift it as high as your receiver is off of the ground. Our Top Pick Thule Raceway Pro 9001 was also easy to assemble, requiring no tools. Attachment to the vehicle is quick and easy utilizing the Fit Dial feature, which gives you a number that corresponds to the ideal arm angle setting for your vehicle.
Ergonomics and Ease of Use
Getting the bikes on and off of the vehicle with minimal effort and headache was paramount to our testers. The less hassle it is to load, the more likely you will be to go for a ride.
Roof Racks: In general, our testers felt that while many of the roof models we tested are well designed, the overall ease of use suffered from the simple fact that they mount to the roof. Even a small passenger vehicle with roof racks will require that bicycles be lifted higher than you would need to for the trunk and hitch mount style racks we tested. For our testers who are shorter in stature, the need to lift up to the level of the roof was a deal breaker. It goes without saying that the taller your vehicle, the more pronounced this problem becomes. Of the roof models we tested, we found the Top Pick Kuat Trio and the Best Buy RockyMounts JetLine to be the easiest to load, primarily because both models clamp the front fork with wheel removed, so the bike does not have to be lifted as high, as compared to loading the Thule Criterium or the Yakima High Roller.
Hitch Racks: These have the advantage of being lower to the ground. The tray style Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro, the Thule T2 Classic, Yakima Hold Up, Kuat NV, and Kuat NV 2.0 require the least amount of lifting and offer the most user-friendly means of attachment. The Saris Freedom 2-Bike came in a close second, with an equally low loading height, but requires much more adjustment due to its frame clamp retention system.
Trunk Racks: All of the trunk racks have a relatively low loading height but can be difficult to load due to the two arm frame clamp design used by all of them. If you have a relatively horizontal top tube and it is not too small, loading can be fairly easy. If however, your bicycle frame is of the full suspension variety, or has an exotic or unique shape, positioning can be difficult. All of the trunk models we tested also require the use of stabilizing straps that must be threaded through the frame and back around the rack itself to prevent them from swaying. This added step increases the loading and unloading time.
We did our best to put all of the tested products through their paces. Luckily for our bikes, we did not have any catastrophic failures. Every product we tested came with the fine print "not for off-road use." While we understand that the manufacturers have to protect themselves legally, we had no intention of keeping these on the pavement. That said, some of our tested products really should not be used off road and we have detailed that in our test results in the individual product review sections.
The Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro stood out with a robust, if not overbuilt, design. With a weight capacity at 120 lbs, you would be hard pressed to overload it. The cable lock and ratcheting arms worked flawlessly throughout the test period despite lots of rain, mud, and dust. The Kuat NV 2.0 is also a standout, with a powder coat finish that is difficult to scratch, and it holds up exceptionally well when exposed to the elements. Other durable-enough-to-last-a-lifetime standouts include the Best Buy RockyMounts JetLine and the Top Pick Yakima ForkLift. With very few moving parts and a simple design, they should get you through many seasons.
Given the right tools and enough time, a determined thief can compromise even the most secure bike rack. We feel that the most secure ones utilize cable locks like the Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro and the Kuat Trio, or locks integrated into a fork clamp such as the Yakima ForkLift. The Thule T2 Pro, Kuat NV 2.0, Yakima Hold Up, and the Thule T2 Classic lock to the car via a burly locking hitch pin, and have cable locks that pull out of the trays or ratcheting arms. For these features they receive our highest marks. However, even our highest rated contenders have vulnerabilities. None of the racks we tested have long enough cables to thread through every wheel and the frame. A thief could remove expensive wheels and leave the frame. While a secure rack is no guarantee of safety from theft, it can give a bit of peace of mind when you stop for a bite to eat after a long ride.
A good bicycle rack should be versatile and easy to use, in combination with being incredibly bombproof. We set out to discover which model performs the best and which ones don't quite make the cut. We hope we've been able to help you decide which bicycle rack is best for your needs. However, if you're still unsure, consider reading over our buying advice for additional guidelines in making your decision. Happy riding!
— Curtis Smith
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