Earlier last year I found myself pretty listless and frankly down in the dumps. Call it the COVID blues, or quarantine gloom. I just couldn’t get very motivated to do much of anything. I was complaining about this to my buddy, and he said, “You used to be big into mountain bikes, why don’t you get another one? Hit the trails.”
I had, indeed, sold off my bikes several years before, and this sounded like a great idea. So, I tracked down a lightly used full-suspension mountain bike at one of the local bike shops, and got back in the saddle. Frankly, getting back into riding saved my summer, and pulled me out of the funk.
But I did find one problem. When we add to our cache of outdoor gear, whether they’re bikes, kayaks, surfboards, or skis, we need some way to securely and safely transport them to our favorite rivers, trails, and backcountry slopes.
I ended up just stuffing my new bike into the back of my Land Rover, which was ok for a while. But it was awkward, and I often had to remove the front wheel if I was carrying other stuff in there. After a particularly muddy or dusty ride, this strategy would result in a huge mess inside the car. And, without a really good way to lash the bike down, it would rattle around in the cargo area – not great for the bike itself.
A bike rack is the obvious solution, but they can come with their own set of challenges. Grimy outdoor gear can be a threat to your paint and glass, and dull the shine on your new ride. And even the rack attachments themselves can cause long term damage to your car’s exterior if they’re not installed correctly. It’s not only an aesthetic bummer, it also negatively affects the resale value of your vehicle.
How can we get our gear to the trailhead and our wilderness fix without the automotive bumps and bruises that inevitably seem to happen when we’re hauling outdoor equipment?
Hitch Mount Racks
The obvious solution to preventing scratches, dents, and other damage to your car or truck is to carry your gear as far from the bodywork as possible. The hitch mount rack does this best, and it is doubly convenient because it loads bikes at normal human height, so there’s no hoisting them up onto the roof, risking your back or your paint. Most hitch-mount racks also let you leave your wheels on for a quick dismount when you reach your favorite trails.
Of course, the hitch is, well… the hitch. You’ll either need to have a receiver-style hitch already on your vehicle, or install one – this obviously adds extra cost to the equation, especially if you pay a shop to perform the installation. Some modern cars – including a lot of sedans and sports cars – may not even offer the space or mounting points for an aftermarket hitch installation. For this reason, SUV’s, crossovers (including outdoor life-style oriented wagons and sedans like Audis and Subarus), and pickup trucks tend to work best for the hitch mount solution. These vehicles tend to be taller anyway, so roof racks become even more difficult to wrangle.
Remember, too, that the convenience of the low loading height means your bikes will be subject to more road grime and moisture while in transit (not to mention risk from rear-end collisions), and the hitch itself may make trunk or hatch access difficult or impossible.
Roof racks have been the go-to bike hauling solution for a very long time, and venerable brands like Saris, Yakima, and Thule are synonymous with outdoor adventure. There has been a lot of innovation in roof racks in the last decade, from new mounting systems like high-powered suction cups, to tandem-bike attachments. This is the most diverse category of bike racks, and it also presents the most questions about how to protect your car.
Bike attachments that mount to roof racks are a cost-effective and easy solution for vehicles that already have factory roof rails and cross bars. These can accommodate a wide range of different bicycle carriers, from traditional fork-mount trays to impressively convenient and secure fully-upright carriers that allow you to leave your front wheel attached.
If your vehicle doesn’t have built-in roof rails, any roof rack you install will require “towers” – mounting points that support the necessary cross bars where your bike carrier will attach. Especially on newer vehicles with highly integrated and swoopy bodywork, these can be a challenge to install correctly. The towers themselves, even if they have soft-touch materials on their mounting surfaces, can capture grit that may grind into your paint over time. Latching them onto your roof either with too much force, or too little can even bend bodywork.
However, with some good research and correct fitment, roof racks still remain at the top of the options for bicycle transport. There are some old tricks, new trends in automotive accessories, and cool rack technology that can help save your vehicle’s finish.
- If you are installing new towers and crossbars on your vehicle’s roof – go to great pains to clean the paint as thoroughly as you can before the installation A vigorous wash with soap and water, and a rub down with a clay bar, followed by a good application of protective wax, like Zymol’s Carbon Wax, will help protect the paint. Don’t forget to make sure the tower feet and clamping mechanisms are spotless as well.
- An alternative is to have a professional install a clear or paint-matched vinyl wrap to your roof. Vinyl wrap technology has jumped in leaps and bounds recently, and prices and availability have come down as well. The vinyl will last for a few years and create a permanent barrier between your roof rack (and your dirty bike) and your car’s paint. If you plunked down $70,000 for a BMW M3 and you want to carry your bikes on top, a $200 wrap on the roof will go a long way to protecting that investment.
- One other way to go is to check out SeaSucker’s line of suction-cup mounted bike racks. The same paint protection protocol applies, but the advantage of SeaSucker’s method is that it works on all kinds of roofs, no matter the shape of the body work, or the absence or presence of drip rails. They are also easily taken on and off the car as needed and are super secure.
Don’t let the fear of paint damage curtail your need for two-wheeled adventures. A simple bicycle rescued my year in 2020, both physically and mentally, and we can’t stay belted into our cars forever! Plus, a really rad carbon road bike just looks awesome on top of a Nissan GT-R. (A guy can dream, right?)
Questions about the world of bike racks? Leave them in the comments below.