Bike racks - a buyer's guide

How to choose the best car rack for transporting your bike

Sometimes, its necessary to drive in order to ride your bike. And unless you're lucky enough to own a van to pile bikes into, you need to transport them by car, which makes a bike rack essential.

There are multiple bike rack styles available though - how do you decide which is best for you? Here are some things to consider:

How to choose a bike rack

The first question is how many bikes you need to carry. Then what type of bikes, how far and how frequently. Which car – or cars –  do you have, and will you be taking a mixture of bikes? Are they heavy and will they be getting dirty? 

Bikes vary widely in cost, style, size and weight too, all of which should be factors when looking for a means of transporting them. You probably won’t want to carry your expensive super bike on a rack that costs less than one of its ultra-light tyres… 

Also consider practicality: whether the rack will suit your needs now and in the future; ease of use – how easy it is to fit to the vehicle and load; security – whether it holds the bikes safely; and how much storage space it will take up when not in use.

Types of bike rack

The main types of bike rack are strap-mounted (to your boot/hatchback/tailgate), roof-mounted or towbar-mounted options.

Towbar-mounted

Tow-bar mounted bike racks either connect to a standard towball, or bolt to the towball-mounting plate. They're usually more expensive than other bike rack styles, but the quality and load-carrying abilities are considerably better. Most feature places that you can lock the bike to with a standard U-lock or chain. Clever designs enable almost one-handed fitting, while hinged load sections provide access to the boot/tailgate of the car without having to remove the bikes. As a basic rule, the more features it has, the more it costs. You also need a tow bar on your car; extra expense if you don't already have one.

  • Pros: Good ones are strong, and, as they're behind the car and out of the way of the main airflow, fuel consumption doesn't suffer too much. Security can be very good.
  • Cons: You need a tow bar. With the bikes off, reversing can yield some rather horrifying results if you forget about the rack.

Roof-mounted

If you can fit a roof rack to your car, then you can fit a roof-mounted cycle rack. These usually take a maximum of up to four bikes. The simplest of the roof-mount systems is a mount for your front fork, and a cup for the rear wheel to strap into. More complex systems sport a full-length channel for both wheels to sit on, with straps for both, and upright adjustable arms to accommodate the frame. Integrated locks that reduce the chance of the bikes being stolen are also common.

  • Pros: One of the most secure racks available. Doesn't hinder access to any doors/ boot/hatch/tailgate.
  • Cons: Drive under something low if you've forgotten about your bikes and you could wreck all your bikes and the roof of your car (and because it's structural, that would write it off). You're also adding a load of aero-drag to your car, so watch that fuel consumption shoot upwards.

Strap-mounted

These racks aren't actually mounted on straps, of course, but the main thing holding them to your car is a bunch of straps that hook around the lip of your car's boot/hatchback/tailgate. Such racks are usually highly adjustable, so you can fit them to the rear of almost all car types. Rubber or foam 'feet' grip the vehicle, with the whole unit pulled to the sides and secured by the straps. This is the most common style of rack, but relies heavily on it being fitted properly and the hooks that press the straps to the car can sometimes damage paintwork. They're also relatively easy to steal.

  • Pros: Easy to fit and usually the cheapest option. The bikes are also visible, so it's hard to forget them when driving, especially when reversing.
  • Cons: If you don't fit it right, you can lose the lot when driving and the bikes are easy to steal.

Legal considerations

Bear in mind the following when buying a rack. The vehicle's number plate and rear lighting system must be visible from all angles (yes, the lights even in the daytime). If you are obscuring them in any way, then you have to put that right before you drive. The easiest way is to use a light board. This involves having a plug installed at the rear of your car that has connections for all of the outputs that feed your rear lights. Once hooked up to the plug, the lights on the light board then become your main rear lights. Make sure that you fit the light board to the rack (not the bikes - that's illegal) to prevent the bikes or rack obscuring it in any way. Almost all light boards feature a mounting in the middle for displaying a number plate.

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