Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Roof Rack Fracas


A friend of mine up in Bend told me about this trust fund guy he sees around who not only has the ultimate bike rack for his (cool 4WD) car, with attachments for every kind of recreational toy (bike, kayak, skis), but carries all the equipment around full time, like a rolling trophy case for his outdoorsy lifestyle.  The dude is clearly not alone in seeing his rack as an outward manifestation of social worth; rack manufacturer Yakima has printed the slogan “Overcome rack envy” on their catalogs and other promotional items.

At the other extreme you have:  me.  I never even wanted a car, much less a rack to put on it.  I don’t like cars.  I don’t like stuff.  While most people enjoy the retail experience, to me most purchases feel like a defeat of some kind.  And yet, I get by.  My lifelong refusal to buy a TV has resulted in four used-TV donations from concerned friends and family.  In college, my bike traveled to races on a badly oxidized piece of crap rear-mount Hollywood rack that my friend found at the beach.  On our way home from our final race of the collegiate season in 1990 we didn’t even bother with the rack—we just threw our bikes, and the rack, into the back of the car.

And yet, retail activity cannot be held off forever, and recently I decided to bite the bullet and buy a roof rack, so I could bring everybody’s bikes on a family vacation.  (Until now, I’ve used the two-bike Rhode Gear Super Shuttle rear rack I bought back in ’91 when I worked at a bike shop.)  This post chronicles my recent bike rack purchase and how it threw me into conflict with friends, family, and a salesman.  I also offer a few handy tips about saving money and frustration when you do buy a rack.

Build or buy?

Cheapness was a core value in my family.  When my dad decided we could bring our bikes on a family vacation, he built a rack for our weird two-door Saab station wagon.  (This was a family of six.)  The bikes went on the rack with both wheels attached and were held in place by custom-lathed wood pieces, a lot of rope, and the sheer force of my dad’s intellect.  Putting the bikes on the car took something like forty-five minutes and only my dad knew how to do it.  Removing the front wheel to improve aerodynamics was probably never considered:  gas was well under a dollar a gallon and the Kyoto Protocol was two decades away.  I don’t have a photo of that racks, but here’s a photo of a similar one my dad built five years later (and which he mounted to the original Saab roof rack he’d moved over to his Subaru).

In high school, when my brothers and friends and I were going to bike races every weekend, we made a giant roof rack for my friend’s late-‘70s Volvo wagon.  My brother Geoff had learned how to weld in shop class; he scrounged up a loaner welding rig somewhere and made wheel trays out of these giant pieces of iron fence material.  He welded struts to these, apparently made of scrap pig-iron, to cradle the wheels.  There were swinging aluminum struts that terminated in these crazy clamps that looked like the beak of a bird of prey.  I think we used sections of old inner tube to keep from scratching the bikes.  (I say “we” but upon reflection I doubt I actually helped, other than maybe to  sing and clap.)  Here’s a photo of that rack.  (Also shown is the Yakima rack we bought to supplement it, so we could carry eight or nine bikes at once.  To pay for that Yakima, we all worked for a week scrubbing a drained swimming pool with hydrochloric acid.)

So did I consider building my own rack this time around?  Not seriously.  I did take a quick look at ehow.com to see how they recommended building a rack.  What a joke.  Check it out here.  They have very cryptic instructions involving PVC and suction cups (!).  There are no diagrams or photos of any kind, other than a stock Getty Images photo of a sporty-looking dude standing in front of a car which has what appears to be a commercial bike rack on its roof.  The instructions say, “If you are a visual person, consider buying a bike rack and using it as model to make your own.  Then return it within the allowed time frame and with proper documentation for little to no charge.”  As you can see, whoever wrote those ehow instructions is going to burn in Hell.

Seeking advice

Some people love the process of selecting consumer goods:  the reviews, the consumer testimonials, the price comparisons, etc.  Not me.  I’m a pretty good price shopper once I know what I want, but I don’t kid myself that I can sort out what’s really the best product.  Fortunately, I’m on a bike club, EBVC, that’s chock full of bona-fide bike gear mavens.  I sent out a note asking for recommendations, little realizing—though I should have—how much dissent there would be.

One guy, a club veteran who raced the Red Zinger back in the ‘70s, wrote, “I know someone who took some thrashed old high-flange front hubs, cut the flanges to roughly match the contour of his cross bar, and clamped it down to the cross bar with a couple hose clamps.  We went to many races with that setup which cost about $1.25/bike.” 

Seems like a perfect idea, except that a) I don’t have crossbars to begin with ( the “towers” that fix them to the car’s room are the expensive part of the rack), and b) others on the club are convinced that any rack that holds the bike by the tips of the fork is dangerous to the health of the bike.  One guy wrote, “Fork bends side to side, and is not designed to do that...  I think this could be a real problem when it comes to carbon forks, where the weave is laid in accordance to the expected forces/stresses.”  Another agreed:  “I used a Yakima fork mount … and at the end of the season I found multiple stress fractures behind the head tube.”  This elicited a pointed response from yet another guy:  “I think the damage to the bike may well be attributed to the stresses incurred by ‘bubble butt.’”

Soon we had a full-on e-mail debate.  One friend cited a report from Lennard Zinn, who checked with several bike companies, all of whom said the fork-mount racks were fine.  Not that the industry shouldn’t capitalize on any fear the consumer base might have, my friend went on to say:  “Yakima does make a sorbothane-backed flannel bike wrap filled with goose down for its carbon outfitted clients.”   He concluded by pointing out, “EBVC should have a discussion group page on its website called ‘Sorry I Asked...’”

Others piled on with their points of view.  A couple guys recommended a rear-mount trailer-hitch rack that will hold four bikes.  Somebody else countered that  there are two types of people who use trailer-hitch racks:  those who have been rear-ended (and thus had their bikes wrecked), and those who are going to.  Needless to say somebody immediately pointed out that there are also two kinds of people who use roof racks:  those who have driven into the garage with the bike on top and those who are going to.  Oddly, nobody outwardly recommended the kind of roof rack where you leave both wheels on the bike.

I did consider that kind of rack, because it’s what the Cutters had on Mike’s car in “Breaking Away.”  That (apparently home-made) rack looked really cool, especially when Mike was “hot-rodding around campus.”  It didn’t seem to take Dave that long to put the bike on the car, though long enough that when Moocher smashed the time-clock’s face at the car wash (“Don’t forget to punch the clock, Shorty!”), thus quitting his job on his first day, the car was still there to take him away.  What if Mike’s car had a Yakima or Thule rack, and Mike had driven off before the offensive “Shorty” comment?  Maybe Moocher would have acted differently, and continued working at the car wash, and maybe Nancy would never have agreed to marry him.

With this cinematic moment swirling in my head along with all the conflicting bits of advice, suddenly the decision seemed bigger than just choosing a bike rack.  The problem with asking advice is that you may find yourself in the position of ignoring it, which means incurring a certain degree of social peril.  When my advisors disagree with one another, I can’t please all of them. 

It’s one thing when you’re ignoring the advice of friends—who can blow off the slight by saying, “Your bike sucks anyway, who cares if you wreck it”—but of course it’s worse with family, which is why I regret what I did next, which was to ask my dad what he thought.  I thought he might approve of the fork-mount rack on the basis of fuel efficiency, but he wrote back, “As to the stress of holding a bike by the dropouts:  I would not do it.  The riding stresses on a bike are never that kind of stress.  The center of gravity is always on the plane of symmetry of the bike, even when you are leaning way over in a hard turn, so the stresses are always symmetrical.  But when a car is going around a corner, the bike is not leaning, and one dropout gets hundreds of pounds of tension, which it was not designed for.   Also, I would worry about the fork top, which will have the same tension.” 

He also addressed my concern about fuel efficiency:  “Needless to say, I don't much care about extra gas costs ... what matters is extra CO2 and its effect on the future.”  His recommendation was to build a special both-wheels-on type of rack:  “drill holes in the roof and bolt the for-and-aft wheel troughs and other fittings directly to the roof, avoiding cross-wise bars which have lots of drag.”  Drill holes in my car?  I’d rather just leave my bike—or better yet, my car—at home.

The final bit of advice came from the REI salesman.  By the time I went there I was pretty sure I didn’t want the both-wheels-on type of rack (too expensive, not aerodynamic, and not recommended for carbon frames, which I may own one day), but still I asked him about rack types and wind drag.  He promptly replied, “If you care about wind drag” (Berkeley subtext:  “if you care about the planet”), “then you have to get the Thule.  It has been proven that the square crossbars of the Thule are more aerodynamic than the round crossbars of the Yakima.”  He delivered this statement almost triumphantly, seeming to expect that this rationale would carry the day.  Thus, he was visibly disappointed and seemed almost offended when I proceeded to buy the Yakima.  Frankly, I’d done more research on the Yakima’s compatibility with my car (not that I really doubted a Thule would fit fine) and was running out of time.  Plus, the Yakima bike mounts were cheaper. 

I suppose many a consumer would walk triumphantly out to his car, shouldering his cool new toy, whistling, pleased to have bought his way that much closer to a perfected life.  Not me.  I felt exhausted at the ordeal of ignoring good, solid advice, while possibly affronting friends, family, and the REI guy.  Plus I was out like $600 for a product whose very use would get me a hefty dose of liberal guilt, not to mention possibly damage my bike.  (During my road trip I put the cheaper, heavier bikes on the roof, while continuing to carry “my precious” on the rear-mount rack.)

Advice – Part 1

Okay, I promised in my introduction to give you some advice about bike racks.  The good thing about a blog is you can ignore my advice, or even privately ridicule it, without offending me.  (Or, if you’re a confrontational sort, you can comment below or e-mail me.)  

My first suggestion is this:  if you’re shopping for a rack and have factory-mounted rails on your car (i.e., that the bike rack mounts to), then skip buying the optional lock cores for your rack.  But wait, you protest.  Locks make so much sense!  After all, with one Allen wrench and about five minutes a thief could make off with the $600 rack.  And if the thief had an accomplice he could take the rack and all the bikes with it—a several thousand dollar haul.  Why wouldn’t you want to lock it up?

Well, I didn’t say not to lock it.  I said to skip the lock cores you can buy from the manufacturer.  First of all, they’re expensive:  $55 for a set of four Yakima cores, $60 for Thule.  I must admit, they’re pretty cool; though the Yakima website doesn’t explain this very well, these cores can be installed in the fork-holding mechanism so the bike is locked to the rack, and the same kind of core goes in the rack tower to lock the rack to the car.  One key does all the locks.  This amounts to what one person (trying to convince me to buy them) called the “clean, yuppie feeling” of buying something really slick, whatever the cost.  Well, I can do without that clean, yuppie feeling, especially if it costs me $55 (and was made in China for $0.45).

Second, these locks don’t secure the wheels of the bike.  The front wheels, if you choose to mount them to the rack (using the optional wheel holders), can be swiped in about thirty seconds.  If a thief didn’t mind climbing up on the car, he could steal the rear wheels too, in about a minute.  Sure, you could thread a cable and padlock through the wheels, but then you’ve just undone the essential slickness of the lock core system.

Meanwhile, at least in the case of Yakima racks, this system doesn’t look all that theft-proof.  All the lock core does to secure the rack to the car is to lock down the plastic housing over the inner workings of the rack tower.  You’ve got metal going into plastic.  Probably a good blow with the hammer would knock the cover clean off, and then you’ve got the rack off in minutes.

Instead, I suggest you do as I did and drill a hole through one of the bike trays.  (I’m sure I just nullified the warranty on my rack, but life will go on.)  Now, thread one end of a nice fat cable through one bike (getting the rear wheel and frame), then through itself (i.e., one cable end loop passes through the other), then through both the front wheels, through the other bike, and around the car’s factory rail.  Then use a padlock to lock the cable to the rack.  Look:

The lock’s shackle goes through a) the hole you drilled and b) the end loop on the cable.  Here are a couple of close-ups:

It’s not perfect—the padlock can be broken—but it’s a deterrent, and costs you very little (after all, what cyclist doesn’t own the cable already?).  For extra security, thread a U-lock (e.g., Kryptonite) through the cable and around the factory rail.

Note:  please don’t sue me because you followed this advice and had something stolen.  Any reasonably educated reader would immediately realize that, whatever utility he may happen to gain from the preceding advice, it was all meant to be completely facetious, even the photo.  (Nelson—do you think, with this paragraph, I’m covered?)

Advice – Part 2

The following pertains to the Yakima rack with its environment-destroying, life-ruining round crossbars.  If you have a Thule rack, you can read this bit anyway, just for that delicious smug feeling.

The round Yakima crossbars enable you to easily rotate the front wheel fork mount so it lies flat when not in use, improving aerodynamics.  The problem is, it rotates too easily.  No matter how hard I tighten the wing nuts, the fork won’t stay put.  As has been noted by three of the five customer reviews on the Yakima website, this results in the wheel rocking back until it hits the roof of the car.  Yakima suggests putting the wheel at a 60-degree angle to “prevent the build up of inertia.”  Well, this is a start, but I doubt it’s enough.

What worked really well for me was to install one wheel fork to each crossbar, one right behind the other (which is the most aerodynamic arrangement anyway, as one wheel drafts the other).  The fork that’s mounted to the front crossbar should be rotated toward the back.  The fork that’s mounted to the rear crossbar should be rotated forward.  Do this with each wheel installed in its fork, and rotate them until they meet in the middle.  Now secure them (i.e., fasten them to each other) with a zip-tie or a kid’s hair band or a toe strap.  This will make it physically impossible for the forks to rotate on the crossbar.  (Look at that last photo … you can see the zip-tie there.)

Advice – Part 3

I don’t need to advise you not to drive into the garage with your bike on the roof—I mean, that’s obvious—but since this has happened to so many of my friends, I’m going to give you two foolproof ways to avoid doing it.  But first, just in case you’ve never seen the results of this mistake, look at this (a recent photo from a friend).  Talk about a rack being hard on your bike’s fork!

One way to avoid this fate is to buy a house built in 1929 with a garage sized to  a Model T Ford.  That way, it’s physically impossible to drive your modern car into the garage, with your bike on the rack or not.  If, however, you’re one of those lucky people with a large garage you can actually use, then I suggest you remove the rack from your car when you’re not using it.  The added advantage is that you’ll get better gas mileage without that rack on your car.  (Plus, you’ve lowered the theft risk to near-zero.) 

I’m not suggesting you constantly install and deinstall your rack.  I’m suggesting that unless you’re a die-hard racer with a real flair for carpooling, you probably don’t need the rack on your car most of the time.  If you’re only toting one bike around, just throw it in the back of the car.  If you’re toting two bikes, use a rear-mount bike rack.  If you’re driving to a stage race and really need the convenience of a roof rack, then throw the rack back on the car for your trip.  Once the rack has been set up, it’s quick and easy to take it on and off the car.


Chances are you already have a rack, already have the lock cores, will never buy a rear-mount rack, and don’t agonize so much over such simple things.  If so, I guess I envy you that.  But at least now I can look at my kickass Yakima rack, leaning against the wall of the garage waiting to be remounted someday, and think “Ohhhh yeahhhh.”

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