How Bike Racks Work

bike rack
Bicycle racks make it possible to move bikes across long distances without all the peddling.
© Locke

Are bicycles and automobiles natural enemies? You might think so if you've ever tried to cram your bike into the backseat of your car. Without breaking down the cycle into pieces, the task often ranks up there with moving a sectional sofa up a flight of stairs or kissing your own elbow. If you and your friends and family want to transport bikes from one point to another and be able to hop right on them when you get there, you need a bike rack.

Bike racks are an excellent towing accessory, allowing riders to easily and safely transport bikes by truck, SUV and car without having to fully dismantle the bicycle or invest in a trailer. After all, you might just want to enjoy an impromptu bike ride in the park, not inflict an afternoon of work on yourself.


­Bicycle racks come in a variety of styles, aimed at fitting various automobile designs. So, regardless of what kind of car you drive or what kind of biking you're into, you're bound to find the design that's right for you.

In this article, we'll take a close look at the different kinds of bike racks and what it takes to install them.


Types of Bike Racks

bike rack
The type of vehicle you drive is a major factor in choosing a bike rack.
Karl Weatherly/Stockbyte/Getty Images

There are several types of bike racks on the market, each aimed at meeting the demands of various vehicle designs and bicyclists of differing levels. First, you need to evaluate what kind of automobile you have at your disposal. Once you know what the options are for your vehicle, it's just a question of how many bicycles you need to transport. Let's take a look at some of the main varieties of bicycle racks.

Roof mount bike racks: One of the most popular ways of transporting bikes by car is vertically mounting them right on top of your vehicle's roof. Most of these racks require an existing base rack system or factory-issued roof rack, which a roof mount bike rack simply latches onto. Some designs require you to remove the front tire from the bicycle to lock it into place, but others lock in as many as six fully assembled bicycles. Before you pile a bunch of cycles on the roof, check your owner's manual to make sure it can support that much weight. Also, keep in mind how much height the bicycles will add to your vehicle and where you'll be driving. If you're planning to mount bikes on top of a giant SUV and drive through an area with a lot of low overhangs, then you might be in for a few unpleasant surprises.


Hitch mount bike racks: No, you don't need a wheeled trailer to take advantage of a trailer hitch. These bike racks lock directly into a drawbar receiving tube or hitch tube and allow you to either strap the bicycle frames into a tube top or rest them, wheels down, in a tray rack. Trailer hitches are designed to take on a fair amount of stress, so your main concern will be making sure the rack fits your trailer hitch size. These racks typically hold the bikes several inches out from the vehicle, cutting down the risk of nicks and scratches. Hitch mount bike racks typically fold down or swing to the side to allow easier access to your trunk or truck bed. These racks usually carry two to six bikes.

Spare tire mount bike racks: If your Jeep or SUV has a spare tire mounted to its rear on a hinged mount, then you have a perfect place to mount a small bicycle rack. These racks attach behind the tire, which means you don't have to sacrifice your spare to lug a few bikes around. Mounting aside, these racks hold bikes in the same way as a hitch mount rack. You simply strap and lock the bike frame into place. These racks typically carry two bikes.

Trunk mount bike racks: But what if your vehicle doesn't have a trailer hitch, rear tire mount or roof rack? Well, don't fear, because all you need is a trunk to take advantage of this popular design. These folding racks fit a wide range of trunk styles, from classic, flat car trunks to nearly vertical SUV rear doors. They simply lock and strap into place around the edges of your trunk lid or door. Trunk mount bike racks are inexpensive and versatile enough to fit nearly any kind of automobile.

Truck bed bike racks: If you own an open-bed truck, you might be tempted to simply throw the bikes in the back and drive off. This method may save you time, but it doesn't help you to secure the bikes in place or protect both truck and cycle from scrapes, chipped paint and possible theft. Some truck bed bike racks resemble smaller versions of traditional, sidewalk bike racks, with a framed groove in which to slide the front bicycle tire. Others require you to remove the bicycle's front wheel to lock it in place. While the exact design varies, the result allows you to stow your bikes vertically without compromising safety or risking damage.

Ready to install that bike rack? Read the next page to find out how.


Installing Bike Racks

bike rack
Most bicycle racks are fairly easy to install, so long as you choose the design that suits your vehicle best.
Phillip Gatward/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Most bike racks attach to your vehicle just as intended. Whether you're strapping them to the roof or in a truck bed, you want a reasonably snug fit with as little clattering as possible. If the rack or bike is too loose, you could risk scratching paint or even losing your cargo. Most installations are straightforward affairs, but here are a few tips to keep in mind during bike rack installation when you're actually turning your vehicle into a long-distance bicycle transport.

If you're using a hitch mount bicycle rack but also carry a spare tire, you might need to use a hitch extender. This accessory allows you to store the bikes even farther from the rear of the vehicle, leaving room for the spare. In addition, extra cradle accessories can increase your capacity by two bicycles. If your hitch mount bike rack rattles too much, you might need to use a hitch stabilizer, which fits over both the rack and receiver.


Bicycle designs can vary greatly, so you might have to seek out a specialized bike rack for tandem bicycles. A conversion bar accessory can help you fit abnormally shaped, nonhorizontal bicycle frames, such as those found in some women's cycles and mountain bikes.

As easy as installing bike racks tends to be, you're going to want to carefully weigh your bicycle and vehicle needs when deciding on a bicycle rack. As is often the case with vehicle accessories, the more you intend to use the rack, the more money you're liable to want to invest in it. The better the quality, the more likely it will stand up to continued exposure to the elements. In addition, if you're planning to use it all the time, you're going to want to make sure it's not interfering with other vehicle uses. For instance, if you tow a trailer fairly often, you might want to use something other than a hitch mount bike rack, so you won't have to keep switching back and forth.

Does all of this bicycle rack installation sound like too much to tackle? Don't worry, because you can always take your vehicle to a professional garage. You should have no problem finding a mechanic willing to install a bike rack to suit your needs. If you plan to purchase a new vehicle, be sure to bring up bike racks with your dealer. You may be able to drive right off the lot with a factory-installed bike rack.

Bicycles and automobiles don't have to be enemies. Bike racks allow you the liberty of transporting your bikes across long distances or unsuitable conditions without compromising safety, comfort or the condition of your vehicle.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about towing.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Bike Rack and Ski Rack - FAQ's." Auto Anything. 2008. (Oct. 8, 2008)
  • "Bike Racks Research Guide." Auto Anything. (Oct. 8, 2008)
  • "How to Choose a Bike Rack." Bike Rack Shops. 2008. (Oct. 8, 2008)
  • Rack Attack. (Oct. 8, 2008)