As a mountain biker, we are faced with the issue of transporting our bikes to the trailhead or destination of choice. For some, it's as easy as rolling out the house and within minutes you are at the dirt. For others like myself, we have about a 20-30 minute drive to get to the more fun trails in the area. There is no way around it, a bike is an odd object to transport, and as many of our bikes cost a pretty penny we want to have the best way to carry our bikes. There are five popular ways to get your bike onto the vehicle safely: tailgate pads, hitch racks, roof racks, bed mounts/axle mounts, and trunk mounts. Each has its pros and cons and range widely in price. So let's dive into each option.
Tailgate pads, Tacoma trucks, flannel button-ups, craft coffee, and craft beer. These go together like PB&J. Jokes aside, tailgate pads are by far the easiest way to transport a mountain bike. It takes 10-20 seconds to load with a strap on the downtube to hold the bike in place. It’s quick, it's easy, and it does a great job at keeping the bike safe. This is the choice for many riders who are cranking out shuttle laps all day. Just simply throw it over the tailgate and off you go. Prices range from about $100 - $170. You’ll find most now have some extra padding to either keep the bike from moving side to side as well as a strap. There are also some options for trucks that have backup cameras and a window for accessing the latch to lower the tailgate. But here is the first con: you need to have a truck. If you don't have a truck, this is not an option for you.
Another potential con is you normally keep the pad on once you install it. It takes about 10 minutes to set up the pad perfectly on your truck, so you will always be identified as a mountain biker even when taking the kids to get ice cream. This could be good or bad, depending on your social life. You may see this as a pro, however, since you install the pad once and it’s likely to last the life of the vehicle. There are some pads that are not so kind to the bottom of your downtube, sometimes rubbing off your paint or putting a wear spot on your downtube protector. This is easily fixed by a microfiber rag under the bike.
The next option is the next most popular and one of my personal favorites, the hitch rack. Hitch racks are racks mounted from the trailer hitch receiver on your vehicle and are some of the best ways to carry your bike. The two types of hitch racks are the tray style rack and the two-prong style rack. The tray style rack is typically made up of trays where the wheels sit and the bike is then tightened down via clamps and straps on the wheels. The two-prong style racks have two prongs that the top tube of the bike rests on and is secured with some rubber straps. This is a similar setup to the trunk style racks. For high-end bikes, especially carbon bikes, I highly recommend going with the tray style rack as it works with just about every bike and is much more stable and safer on the bikes.
You do however need a hitch receiver on your vehicle, which many do come with. If you do not have one, it’s easy to have them installed, and if doing so, look to get a 2” receiver. The larger receiver will give you more options for better racks. Hitch racks are a great way to get a few bikes transported safely. The racks are spaced out and hold bikes down securely. The tray style hitch racks typically can carry two bikes or four bikes. Some two-bike racks can actually use an add-on to then get four bikes on. Another great feature is the bikes travel behind the car, out of the way from wind, and don't affect gas mileage much or at all.
One of the major cons to these hitch racks is they are expensive, ranging anywhere from $350- $850. They are certainly an investment. Some of our favorite companies are Kuat, Yakima and Rocky Mounts. This is the way I carry my bikes since it’s safe, easy and you can always see your bike when driving. I have been using the Kuat Sherpa for over a year now and I love this rack for its light-weight, small footprint, and sturdiness.
The next option is the roof rack. I personally think that roof racks fall right in the middle of the spectrum of viable ways to transport bikes. Sometimes they are the only option and can be a great way to transport your bike. Roof racks can be a safe option to move your bike from spot to spot. Depending on your vehicle, getting a roof rack is pretty simple if you have existing bars on your car. You only really need a bike tray. Other times you need the full system which can get expensive after getting the foot pads, bars and trays. Oftentimes the feet and bars are specific to only a few cars. Once you do have the roof rack set up, getting the bikes on is pretty similar to a hitch rack. You get the bike into the tray and tighten down the arm to the tire.
There are a few more cons to roof racks than the other racks. First, it’s not the easiest to get the bike on top of the car, especially if you’re not that tall. Another not so great thing about roof racks is they are always in the wind, and over the course of a road trip could add up to MPG lost while driving. Installation can sometimes be a tricky affair, and if you install them incorrectly, you may cause damage to your car’s paint from unsecured foot pads moving in the wind. Lastly, if you happen to forget that you have a bike on your car...well...there are lots of pictures on the internet of people driving into the garage, carport, and drive-thrus and causing some serious damage to the bike and car.
Bed mounts might be the least popular, but also the least expensive option to transport your bike. A bed mount or axle mount may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a bike rack, but we have found it to be a simple and effective way to get your mountain bike to the trailhead. These can be mounted just about anywhere. Sometimes you can find some holes in your bed that will work, but most of the time you will have to drill holes. That might be an issue for some, but we’ve never really considered having two small extra holes on the side of a bed track a huge issue. As I said, these could be mounted anywhere. I've seen many people bolt these onto a piece of wood and mount the bike on a mobile wood tray. This is a great way to use these mounts as you can take the wood in and out of your truck and also makes for great use in a van. These run very cheaply, and one of our favorite models is the Kuat mount at $29. The low cost makes it easy to buy a few and mount them in different vehicles, or even use them at home for storage.
When installing the bike onto the bed mount, you need to remove your front wheel and axle. The stock fork axle will be what holds the bike to the mount, but then you have a loose front wheel that you have to remember. There has been plenty of stories of riders leaving their front wheel at either the house or trailhead, making it an obvious downside. It may sound dumb, but after a hard ride and a beer at the car, leaving your front wheel behind is easier than you think.
Ah, the trusty trunk rack. They are cheap, fit on a wide range of cars, and can be a great way to transport a bike. However, there is a reason why it is last on our list. As I mentioned, these racks are cheap, from about $100 for a basic one to $350 or so for a nice rack. Not only will the nicer racks have better straps and pads, but they will also fit your car better and have more protection on the rack to avoid damaging the car. They are pretty easy to put on, do not weigh a lot, and are at the back of the car so the bikes stay out of the wind, not totally killing your MPG.
While it may be the only option you have, there are a few reasons it might not be the best choice for you and your bike. These racks almost always have the “two-prong” style bars that you lay your bike on top of. This may not be an issue if your bike is made of metal, however, if you do have a carbon fiber frame, these could cause pressure on a spot in the frame that wasn't designed for that load. Yes, your bike may only weigh 25lbs, but bouncing down the freeway is probably not the greatest for your frame. Another reason it may not be the best is most mid to high-end bikes now have sloped top tubes (which is great for riding) but lowers the front wheels pretty significantly when mounted on the rack. If you have to drive up steep driveways or through deep dips in the road, you might be scraping your wheel on the ground. This is easily solved by a top tube adapter (Kuat makes a great one), but that needs to be mounted under the stem on one side, and pulled across to the seatpost where the other end will grab. If you have a dropper seatpost, this could also cause some additional wear on the post bushings.
Lastly, as the top tube or top tube adapter is the only thing tightened down most of the time, the bike has the ability to swing back and forth, sometimes causing your pedal to hit the rear bumper of the car. I think I speak for most when I say nobody wants to purposely damage their car, no matter what condition it’s in.