Direct Line magazine

Choosing a bike rack for your car

Updated on: 17 December 2020

a cyclist secures bikes to the roof of a car

Whether it’s for a leisurely family ride by the seaside, or a sweaty Sunday sprint, getting bicycles from A to B often calls for more than just pedal power. That’s where your car comes in. And the safest way to carry bikes is with a bike rack.

Choosing the correct bike rack depends on many factors. We asked Pete Campbell of Pearson Cycles in Sutton – officially recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest bike shop – to offer advice on the three main types available.

Fitting tips for bike carriers

The first thing any driver should consider is whether or not a bike carrier fits their vehicle, says Pete Campbell: “It’s tempting to save a few quid by buying online, but for peace of mind, safety and avoiding the hassle of returning a bulky box, people should head to a knowledgeable local bike shop and seek advice from someone with a good level of experience of bike carriers.”

Campbell has seen racks come away from vehicles, either because they didn’t fit correctly in the first place, or because cheap components failed. “You get what you pay for, especially with strap-mounted bike carriers, which are very popular.” Campbell adds that he’s seen straps fray and fail.

Look for locking carriers, as theft from vehicles - especially when cars are left parked up during a long journey to a holiday destination - is a hazard.

Other considerations for strap-mounted and tow bar-mounted carriers include obstruction of the number plate and rear lights, which will require a light board with a number plate.

Campbell says it’s also all too easy for drivers to forget that their car is several feet longer with bikes on the back. And they frequently prevent electronic parking aids from working, sometimes causing a costly crunch.

Strap-mounted bike carriers

“These are usually best suited to carrying up to three bikes,” says Campbell. Carry more, and the bikes will probably apply too much load to the body of the car and cause damage. With a strap-mounted bike carrier, there’s no need to buy extra fixtures and fittings to attach the rack to your car, as everything you’ll need will be included with the product.

Choosing one that correctly fits the body shape of a car is very important, says Campbell. “It’s also vital with these and tow bar racks that there is clear separation so the bikes don’t damage each other. If there’s movement at speed, at best paintwork will be damaged, at worst carbon-fibre frames can be broken.”

Pros

  • Versatile

  • Low impact on fuel economy

  • Easy to fit and load

Cons

  • Requires a light board

  • Obstructs access to the boot

  • Likely to mark the paintwork

  • Tension of straps will need checking during the journey

Roof-mounted bike carriers

When the bike count rises to four, or if drivers don’t have a tow bar, or if they don’t want to use strap-mounted bike carriers because they want access to the boot at all times, they should pick a roof-mounted rack.

“Some car makers offer bespoke carriers if the car doesn’t have roof rails,” says Campbell. With contoured roof rails, there will be less choice of compatible carriers, but with the traditional raised roof bars, there’s plenty of choice.

You’ll need to buy a pair of bars that run across the car’s roof rails, which the bike carrier then attaches to. So this adds to the cost. And talking of cost, the car’s fuel consumption will be increased by a roof rack.

“Stability of the bikes on the rack is important, as the bikes are very exposed in the air at high speed,” stresses Campbell. “And drivers will have to accept that on a long trip in the summer, the bike will end up covered in dead bugs!”

Some simple roof racks lock the bikes’ front forks to the rack, which means the front wheel must be removed and stored in the boot, robbing luggage space. Others have bracing bars for the bikes’ frames.

Pros

  • Unhindered access to the car’s boot

  • No load on vulnerable body panels

Cons

  • Hard work to load

  • Bikes get dirty

  • Can be unsuitable for areas with height restrictions

Tow bar-mounted bike carrier

Any car fitted with a tow bar can use a tow bar-mounted bike carrier. These can hold as many as four bikes, which makes them popular with families. Good versions now come with integrated brake and indicator lights and an area to attach a spare number plate. They’re also easy to fit and load, and fuel consumption doesn’t suffer greatly.

But there’s a price to pay for this convenience, and that’s the price itself. Also remember that even the best racks – which hinge the bikes towards the ground so the tailgate can be opened - impede access to the boot.

“Fitting should be universal with these,” says Pete Campbell. “But as with strap-mounted carriers, you need to be sure that the bikes don’t rub against each other when in transit.” You should also remember that the reversing aids won’t work, and it is advisable to check that the rack is tight and secure during a journey.

Pros

  • The easiest bike rack to fit and load

  • There’s little risk of damage to the bodywork

  • Doesn’t significantly impact fuel economy

Cons

  • Expensive

  • Obstructs access to the boot 

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