I’ve been looking for the best bike rack solution for a long time and have tried most of the options on the market. What I have finally come to, like so many things, is that you get what you pay for. My perfect bike rack setup is not inexpensive, but it is so easy to use it’s worth it. My criteria for a bike rack system was three fold:
- Must be able to securely carry a minimum of 5 bikes. Biking with friends is always more fun.
- Must maintain access to the back (trunk) of the vehicle. Crawling over the back seat is not always more fun.
- Must hold the bikes by the wheels only. I am tired of racks that rub the paint off the frame.
When I had a pickup truck, this was easy. Just get a tailgate pad and you’re good to go. But once the pickup truck was replaced by a van, things got a little trickier. And even with the pickup truck, with five bikes in the back there was little room for much else (maybe it would have been better if I had a full size pickup). I puzzled on this for several years, trying various things that I wasn’t super happy with, but ultimately came to a setup that is awesome!
This is my perfect bike rack setup:
- Large hitch swingarm from RakAttach *** Update 6/2021 – RakAttach failed us. See this post ***
- 5-bike rack from Recon Racks
Swingarm: The RakAttach allows easy access to the back of my van by allowing the rack to swing out of the way. At first I was concerned this was going to be hard to do, given the quick pin and the latch you have to undo, but you get used to it really quickly and now it only takes a second to swing out. the swingarm that RakAttach makes is extremely strong, I’ve looked at a couple other suppliers of these and really no one else is making something this robust. I have zero concern about the rack performing with five all mountain bikes hanging from it.
The RakAttach swingarm is really smartly put together including the extremely stout pivot, latching system and quick pin. The pin is great for dropping in and aligning the swingarm before latching. It allows you to get the swingarm in the ideal position to make this process easy. The pin also locks the swingarm in the swung outward position, to keep it from attacking you, should you be parked at a funny angle. The RakAttach also has this great elastomer type wear material fastened to the bottom (fixed) portion of the swingarm. This makes it so that when the pivot is latched there is a a flat surface along nearly the entire length of the pivoting arm for it to rest on. I’m sure without this there would be a lot more play in the system. As it is, there is virtually none. Using a wearing surface for this is brilliant, so you don’t have metal to metal contact. Like I said, the swingarm is very well put together.
Bike rack: After debating for a long time about building my own hitch rack, I am so glad I finally decided to purchase the Recon Rack. Its really just so much better than anything I could have put together on my own. There are a bunch of competing bike racks in this style, such as the North Shore rack and Lolo Racks – and these are great options. But I think the Recon Rack is better. For one thing, it’s the only rack of its kind that meets criteria #3, only holding the bike by its wheels. This may not be a big deal to some, but it annoyed me to have the paint rubbed off on my bikes top or bottom tube without a good riding/crash story to justify it. Also, the Recon Rack is super stout, definitely overbuilt, but also confidence inspiring. Finally, the Recon Rack is extremely easy to use, once you get the hang of lifting the bike and tilting the handlebar to fit the wheel basket (which I admit does take some getting used to) it’s a breeze to load and unload bikes.
The Recon Rack shipped to me (from Bellingham, Washington, so not far) in just a few days in a big heavy box, but assembly was very straightforward. Everything on the Recon Rack is top notch. The welds are perfect, the rack powder coating is excellent, and the whole rack put together looks really cool.
Nothing is completely perfect I suppose, so I do have a short list of “cons” to my setup:
- The rack setup with the rack attach sticks out farther from my vehicle than I would like. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get the holes to line up in the position that would be closest to the vehicle. The van is big enough as it is, so having things stick out farther than needed on the back is a bit of a drag.
- The Recon’s wheel baskets wont hold anything larger than a 3.0 tire. This works for all my current bikes, but might be problematic in the future.
- Because of how the bike sits in the rack, the front wheels tend to get rubbed wrong in the trays – especially over long distances. This can lead to damage to front tires.
- Its really expensive, but like I said when I introduced this topic; you get what you pay for.
Overall I am extremely satisfied with my ultimate bike rack setup. When I am using it, I don’t think about the expense or the alternatives, I just think about the trails ahead.
Full disclosure: I have received no money, credits, discounts or anything else from the makers of these rack systems. I am just a fan that wanted to share my experience.
Update 4/2/2017: I was told I needed to add more pictures of the pivot and how everything works. Recently, I converted my custom ski rack add-on to ‘hybrid mode’ to carry both bikes and skis. Given it was a good time to take more pictures, below are a few of the rack in various positions. Note, the rack doesn’t usually come with ski carriers – that was an aftermarket customization we made and also note one of the middle wheel trays has been removed to accommodate the skis. We should be able to carry three pairs of skis and three bikes on the back with this setup, which will be handy when we head to Alaska later this spring.
Update 8/7/2017: Some folks have told me that the Recon Rack can damage the front bike tires hanging in the tray on long road trips. Several trips all over the western US and Canada (probably 10,000 miles with bikes loaded in the rack) did not really reveal this problem. However, during a recent mountain bike adventure in Eastern Oregon I learned two very important lessons. 1) Tire damage can and does occur on very (read: 4×4, low range) bumpy roads. 2) Apparently, with just the right circumstances (very bumpy roads), bikes can come out of the rack, be drug behind the vehicle, and essentially be destroyed in just a few hundred yards. Consider yourself warned and take the appropriate precautions if shuttling this type of terrain.
I have seen a few methods for decreasing the friction in the wheel trays (PVC pipe, rubber tubing, etc.) to prevent tire damage – which I will check out and report back on. For keeping bikes from falling out, consider using auxiliary straps to hold the bikes in the trays. Based on our experience this doesn’t appear to be necessary for “normal” driving (even miles and miles of washboard gravel roads traveled at high speed didn’t seem to cause issue), but is now recommended for “more extreme” road conditions.
Lastly, though the issues noted above seem like a really big deal (and are a really big deal), I continue to stand by this rack recommendation. In light of the above update, I considered the following points:
- If the bike tire is getting damaged like this on rough terrain, consider what a rack like North Shore would do to the frame (especially a carbon frame) if subjected to the same stresses. I’d much rather damage a tire (replacement cost $50) than a carbon frame (replacement cost: $$$$$).
- The Recon Rack holds bikes in better than any other vertical rack I have seen (this is the first time I have ever heard of a bike falling out of the Recon – I have heard several reports of bikes falling out of other vertical racks). Be it user error, road conditions, or otherwise – this is a risk you take hanging your bike off the back of a vehicle.
- Horizontal wheel tray style bike racks (like the Yakima or Thule offerings) that support the bikes horizontally stick out much further and have much lower departure angle ground clearance than vertical racks. Though I believe these hold bikes better, they limit your driving access to terrain (and also make parking harder). If you are only carrying two bikes, this might be a good option – but I maintain my recommendation for the Recon for 4+ bike capacity.