Rubber Side Down | Selecting a Car Rack

Lines have been drawn in the dirt, or the pavement, or the gravel—disciplines decided, wheel sizes unwavering. Regardless of how stubborn you are about riding styles, there is one thing we all have in common: bikes. We all like to keep the rubber side down, and spend long days in the saddle. We also all need to transport our steeds from time to time, either to the bike shop or to an exotic new trail or road. With so many options and styles of bicycle car racks, weighing the options and making a decision can be challenging. Lets shed some light on the world of bicycle carriers and help you make the most informed decision on a rack that will suit your lifestyle.

In an attempt to keep this organized, I’m going to break the various car racks options down into categories based on mounting location on the car—roof, hitch, trunk, truck bed—and then look at a few different options within each of these categories.

As you search for the right rack, remember that car racks have many features and options–and depending on your lifestyle–some will be more important to you than others.  For example: Will you need to lock your bikes to your car? Some racks will have built-in locking systems, some are available as accessories and others might require an aftermarket lock. My bikes are locked to my rack and my rack to my car, despite this; I still bring my bikes inside with me at night. A competent thief, left to their devices will accomplish much with determination. I hate to be a pessimist, but when your bike is worth twice as much as your car, one can never be too careful.

Roof-Mounted Car Racks

Most vehicles have the option for a roof-mounted solution. Whether you have a pre-existing factory rack, rails or a naked roof, there is potential for greatness. Thule makes a host of adapters that will mount to almost any roof.

What to do with those wheels? Some racks options require the removal of the front wheel. Personally I prefer rack options that don’t require wheel removal; not only are they easier to work with, most are compatible with just about any bike. The only downside of racks that don’t require wheel removal is that they are a little less aerodynamic, which will hurt your gas mileage a bit.

If you are still considering a rack that requires wheel removal, think about what you are going to do with front wheels after removing them. I have definitely failed to plan ahead before and found myself with a car full of luggage and people with no room for expensive wheels. Wheels aren’t the type of thing you just want to stuff in amongst piles of bags and gear. Maybe a few wheel carriers will be an accessory you need to add to your rack, or you just need to make a mental note to leave room in your car.

With wheel removal comes the question of fork compatibility. Mountain forks with thru-axles will not be directly compatible with the quick release designed roof carries without the addition of thru-axle adapter—available in 15mm and 20mm varieties. Thule even has a solution for you Cannondale Leftie riders!


Thule Roof Rack Bike Mount Sidearm XT

If you decide that wheel removal is not for you, there are other options that leave the front wheel on. The Sidearm racks grab your tire, not your frame, safely securing your bike without damaging your lovely paint.

If you don’t have pre-existing rails or a rack on your car, Thule’s racks will sit on your bare roof and clamp under the edge of the doorframe. It is a very secure mounting solution; I use one daily and am very pleased. As long as it is installed properly on a clean roof (dirt between the rack and car can scratch your car’s paint) it will keep your bikes away from road debris and leave rear visibility and trunk access clear and accessible. Even two-door cars can join in the fun with Thule’s Short Roof Adapter.

Another added benefit to investing in a roof-mounted solution is the ability to expand your rack system in the future. Thule, as well as other manufacturers, make a host of solutions for various sports that can be added later on. This way, your rack can haul bikes, kayaks, skis, snowboards and whatever else floats your adventurous boat.

Trunk-Mounted Car Racks

For those not willing to invest the money in some of the other more expensive solutions, trunk mounted racks can provide an affordable way to transport bicycles. There are a few different options depending on the number of bikes you want to carry and the shape of your trunk. A few are designed with extra clearance for rear spoilers or tall trunks.

These solutions work if they are installed correctly, although it can sometimes be hard to prevent bike-to-car contact from occurring. Just be mindful and consider a different solution if you are concerned about your paint. Most trunk-mounted solutions also grab the bike frame under the top tube and unusual frame geometries or rear suspension on mountain bikes can make placement difficult if not impossible.

Hitch-Mounted Car Racks

Dedicated hitch racks are great because they stay away from your vehicle. There is no interaction between the paint on your car and the rack like in previously discussed options. Various models provide options for carrying up to five bicycles depending on the tongue weight limitations of your receiver hitch. The Thule T2 XTR clamps to the tires of your bike, protecting your frame from any potential damage due to contact. This solution can also be advantageous for those with rear suspension or unique frames where the top tube clamping racks become problematic. The T2 XTR is a favorite amongst Art’s employees.


Thule Hitch Rack T2 XTR

If your vehicle doesn’t already have a trailer hitch, it is possible to add on some models of vehicle, but this is an added expense you will definitely want to consider. Also keep in mind; some racks will interfere with the opening and closing of rear vehicle gates so look into that before buying.

Truck Bed Car Racks

Truck beds offer a host of options for bike storage. If you have a truck, you are probably reading this because you are looking for something better than just throwing your steeds in the bed. The simplest and cheapest option is a tailgate pad. Hanging the fork and wheel over the tailgate, you can fit quite a few bikes across the back. This system is better suited for mountain bikes and can be a little rough on frames if the roads you travel aren’t the smoothest. The truck bed offers several different solutions that you can check out in our Truck Bed Rack category. Low-Riders are a quick and easy was to secure your bike safely if you don’t mind drilling into your bed.

Decisions, Decisions

I’ve left you with a lot to think about, but I think you will find it pretty easy to narrow it down. Think about the bikes you have, how they will interact with the different racks, how big your car is and where you want to take your racks. Roof racks might not be great on a big car if you think you might have trouble lifting your bikes over your head, onto the roof. Trailer hitch racks could potentially drag if you pushing your vehicle through some dirt roads with aggressive departure angles. Also, the lower your bike is to the road, the dirtier it can get. With these pointers I’m sure you will be able to make the best decision for your lifestyle. There are some great products out there to choose from. Feel free to comment below if you have any questions. Now rack up and go riding.

Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor, Brett Murphy is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.