Ease of Daily Use
When you use a product every day, the little details add up and things that you may not notice on the showroom floor become readily apparent. We used all of these racks on a range of vehicles, from passenger cars to camper vans and took meticulous notes on fitment issues. We put every bike we could find on all of the racks, in search of compatibility issues. Key features were identified such as the tilt release mechanism for hitch mount racks, and all of the models were compared side by side. We also sought out feedback from friends and observed as those uninitiated with a given rack struggled or in some cases instantly knew how to use the model without instruction. In the end, we sought out a consensus among our testers, and common frustrations and accolades led us to our final scores.
Ease of Removal and Storage
Testing the racks on a broad range of vehicles gave us plenty of opportunities to remove and install all of the models in the test multiple times. When you have 27 competitors stored in the garage, size quickly becomes an issue and finding a place to stash a rack becomes part of the testing process. When swapping out, we immediately noticed which ones we dreaded having to remove and carry. Hint: it's the ones that weigh over 50 pounds. Most of the racks in the test were likely removed and installed more times in three months than they would be in a lifetime by most users. If it was a pain, we noticed.
We focused on three areas with this test: ability to hold a range of bike types, functionality on different vehicles, and bike-to-bike contact for hitch and trunk racks. Testing versatility required that we not only test each rack with everything from a road bike to a downhill sled but also that we put a variety of different combinations of bikes on our hitch and trunk racks. We were searching for the bike-to-bike contact that could not be mitigated by tray adjustment or bike positioning.
In the process, we discovered the shortcomings of some racks in terms of versatility and compatibility. This led us to the extensive measuring of the hitch racks in the test to assess tray spacing and the clearance off the back of the vehicle. We also looked at lateral tray adjustment range to see just how much clearance we could create to mitigate bike-to-bike contact. In the end, the highest scoring products offered adjustability that made them capable of working with the widest range of vehicles and handling the most diverse combinations of bike styles.
Ease of Assembly
We don't have any bike rack elves here at the office, so each competitor was assembled by the test team before use. To make this as comparable to the consumer's experience as possible, each rack was assembled by a lone tester with no assistance, using only the tools provided by the manufacturer (unless tools were not supplied). We took photos and notes along the way. The ones that left us angry and frustrated scored low while the ones that were easy and intuitive scored high. We also paid close attention to the included directions and evaluated them for accurate content and ease of following. Our testers have built more racks than the average joe, and if we were baffled you probably will be, too.
Well, we should start by saying that none of our bikes were stolen off the racks during testing. This is likely more a testament to luck than a measure of security. None of our testers have experience stealing bikes, but we knew the tools of the trade and did our best to put ourselves in the mind of a thief to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each rack and its security features.
The reality is that a determined thief could defeat any of the lock systems that come with the racks in our test. There are not many locks or cables that can't be breached with bolt cutters and a battery powered angle grinder. Beyond assessing the security of locks, we looked at the ability or lack thereof to secure not only the bike frame but also the wheels and other components that can be easily removed even if the frame is locked. Quality and length of cables and locks were assessed and led us to our final scores, with the caveat being that even the best security systems are likely only a deterrent to the opportunistic thief looking for an easy score.
Over several months we used and abused all of the racks in this test. Frequent use is the best test of long-term durability, and our goal was to load up a year's worth of use for the average person during our testing period. These racks were tested in conjunction with ongoing OutdoorGearLab mountain bike trials, so they saw lots of use, sometimes in the form of 10 shuttle runs in a day on rough roads. When it snowed, we left them on the vehicle, and when they got covered in mud, we just kept on using them. We did the exact opposite of how we would treat a $600 rack if it were our own and we wanted it to last. We piled on the abuse and made a note of the results, and ranked the products according to their ability to shrug it off. You can rest assured that we are probably harder on our test gear than you will be on your own.