Most cyclists will agree with me on this, I think: the best way to start a ride is from your own garage. Click in, roll out. It’s a nice, smug feeling: The world is your oyster. You’re self-sufficient. You’re eco-friendly.
Sadly, a lot of the best rides just don’t work out that way. To get to the ride, you have to become a rolling irony and drive there.
And that means, eventually, getting a bike rack for your car. Which is why I respectfully submit this, “The Fat Cyclist’s Guide to Ultimate Bike Rack Happiness.”
Okay, I admit: today’s headline oversells what I have to say. But I just couldn’t bring myself to call today’s entry “The Fat Cyclist’s list of rack-related misadventures and resulting mildly-useful advice.”
Even though that’s what it is.
Don’t Use a Temporary Fix as Your Permanent Solution
You know those racks that can be mounted on the trunk of your car using nothing but a few plastic clips, some aluminum tubing, and an infinitely long tangle of nylon straps? Those suck. If used for more than a month or so, they will bust. They will trash your car’s paint job. They will self-destruct when your car reaches 72 miles per hour.
Actually, I have no idea if any of those things are true. I’ve never owned one of those temporary trunk-mounted jobbies, for the following reasons:
- The House of Cards Effect: Bikes on temporary racks always look like they’re in a precarious position.
- The Excessive Effort Effect: If you own a temporary rack, any time you want to take your bike somewhere you’ve got to first put the rack on your car, and then put your bike on the rack. For lazy people (ie, me) that crosses the “too much work” threshold and they’re (I’m) likely to find a reason to bail on the whole enterprise.
- The “Steal Me” Effect: Temporary bike racks give you no security. After you’ve been on this epic ride and are on your way home, say you want to get something to eat at Wendy’s. Crazier things have happened, right? So you go to Wendy’s and then realize that your bike is connected to your car using nothing but nylon webbing, aluminum tubing, and plastic clips. All it would take to steal your $6000 Colnago is a good pair of scissors.
- The Real Reason: I know myself well enough to realize that while I would fastidiously follow the directions for hooking up the rack the first time, after a couple times I would get sloppy and do it wrong. The thought of watching my bike in the rear view mirror as it bounces along the road higgledy-piggledy at freeway speeds is terrifying enough to be a deal breaker.
- The Other Real Reason: Not that you need more than one deal breaker, but I’m confident that if I put a hinged contraption with yards and yards of nylon straps and clips in my garage, it would immediately become so tangled that even the original manufacturer would give it up as a lost cause.
Don’t Put Your Bike Up Top
I do not know a single bike owner with a roof-mounted bike rack and a garage who has not plowed their bike (or, often, more than one bike) into the garage at least once. Myself included. In my case, I had four bikes on the roof at the time. Since, however, two of the bikes were rear-facing, my moment of neglect damaged only (!!) two bikes: two new handlebars, one replaced frame, two new suspension forks, two new headsets, and two new stems set me right as rain. That cost about $1800.
Except this event also damaged the car. Insurance covered most of that, after my $500 deductible.
Oh yeah, I also needed to replace parts of the bike rack. That cost about $400.
And, finally, let’s not forget the damage to the brickwork on the house. $600.
The money, though, wasn’t the worst part. The worst part is that when you hear that noise, you suddenly and clearly remember exactly where your bikes are and what your garage clearance is, and what that noise means. There’s no getting around it: you have just made an incredibly boneheaded error, and it is going to cost you dearly.
I remember when I heard that noise I slammed on the brakes, put the car in park, and then had to let the wave of nausea pass before I got out of the car. I almost couldn’t bear to look at what I had done.
After that, I came up with a pretty reliable system: any time I had to put a bike on the roof rack, I first put the garage door opener in the glove compartment. Then, when I got home and went for the opener in its usual place and found it wasn’t there, that reminded me of where my bikes were and what I needed to do before driving into the garage.
I once bought a compact SUV (a Honda CRV) because I had a vision of how many bikes I could carry with it. I outfitted it with a roof rack, which easily accommodated four bikes. I also set it up with a spare-tire-mounted rack: that was another two bikes. Yes, I could transport six bikes, along with five passengers and their stuff. I had built the ultimate bike road trip vehicle.
There was just one problem: the car didn’t have the power for that kind of cargo. With four or five people and a bunch of bikes up top, the poor little CRV strained to keep highway speeds, even on the flats. If we went into the mountains (a distinct possibility, considering we were usually going mountain biking), my car could barely stay above 40. 41 if you turned off the A/C and stereo.
When I sold the CRV, I was left with lots of extra rack. Dug came over to see if the Cadillac he had just stolen from his mother (Dug, alas, has no scruples whatsoever) would work with the CRV’s roof rack. I had my doubts, but thought we could check.
One of the most amazing things I have ever seen was when we lifted the rack from my CRV, still locked down for that car’s dimensions, onto the 80’s vintage Cadillac and snapped it into place — with no adjustments whatsoever.
Dug and I looked at each other, jaws agape. There were no words to describe what we had witnessed.
I gave the rack to Dug, no charge. Clearly, the bike rack gods wanted Dug to have that rack; who was I to interfere?
Put the Rack in the Back
If you’re going to be putting bikes on your car on a frequent basis, you need a rack that mounts to a 2” hitch receiver. It’s that simple. The receiver will have a loop that lets you lock your bike — including the wheels — to your car, making it at least inconvenient for thieves to take your bike. Your bike won’t be any higher than your car, so you can still get in the garage. And your bike won’t be way up there in the air, so it’s easy to put them up on the rack and take them down.
“But,” I hear you say, “my car doesn’t have a 2” receiver hitch.”
Well, neither did my old Honda Civic hatchback (a wonderful, practical car which I should never have sold). A quick trip to a welder solved that problem.
Also, I should mention that I believe I may currently be the world’s only owner of an Acura RSX Type S with a 2” receiver. In the interest of embarrassing overdisclosure, I should mention that I customized the rack for this car by shortening it from a 4-bike rack to a 2-bike rack. You know, because it looked cooler.
As if once you mount a bike rack to a mid-life-crisis-mobile you have any chance of salvaging any coolness whatsoever.
Miscellaneous Wisdom, Acquired the Hard Way
- Secure the Bikes: Once you have the bike on the rack, make sure it can’t sway, especially if you’re going to be taking the bike a long distance. I made the mistake of not doing this once, and the bike rocked back and forth for the entirety of the seven-hour drive. Sadly, the downtube grazed a bolt on the rack with each sway. By the time I took the bike off the rack, the downtube — which was not mine — had a nice little groove carved into it. I have since purchased that frame.
- Simple is Good: I’ve had a number of different kinds of racks. The most secure are the fork-mounted kind. My favorite, though, are the kind that clamp onto the top tube.
- Goodbye, Elegant Paint Job: The problem with the clamp kind, though, is that each time you clamp the top tube, you scratch the bike’s paint job a little bit. For a long time, I never noticed this effect, because my own bikes were both titanium, and hence had no paint job to scratch. When I got the Fisher Paragon (RIP), though, it wasn’t long before I had completely removed the paint in the clamping area.
- Trust Nobody: It is a widely accepted tenet of rack-based bike transportation that you are responsible for making sure your own bike is secure to the rack. If your bike flies off the rack while in flight, it’s nobody’s fault but your own. Unless the entire rack flies off the car, in which case a reasonable argument can still be made that you should have driven your own stupid car if you’re going to be a crybaby second-guesser. Not that I have ever had a rack suddenly fly off the roof of my car while at freeway speeds.
BONUS: Free Stuff Wednesday, Part II
To win a bike bag from the fabulous Banjo Brothers today, all you have to do is comment with your own bike rack story. I’ll pick the best one. And “best,” in this instance, can mean best advice, best horror story, best whatever. Don’t worry, I can tell what’s best.