Yesterday, coach Chris Mayhew stressed the benefits of traveling to a race with someone else. Besides relaxing your nerves and providing a learning opportunity, carpooling with another racer just makes sense from an economic, environmental, social and logistical perspective. Many races don't have enough parking for every single racer to drive solo, but how the heck do you get all the bikes to the race? It got us thinking about racks.
If you're an avid reader of our Training Tuesday pieces, there's a good chance you take racing seriously enough to bring a pit bike or pit wheels. Throw in another like-minded racer, and you've got yourself a bike transportation issue.
There is no shortage of bike transport options, from the once-dominant roof rack options to economical folding trunk racks, but over the last handful of years, hitch-mounted racks have become the more popular bike transport option. Why? Hitch mounted racks typically offer these benefits:
- Better gas mileage, as the bikes draft behind your car
- Easier than a roof rack to remove when not in use, but more secure than trunk racks
- Hitch racks don't care about what kind of fork axle you have, and don't require adaptors for different thru axles or hub widths
- They don't require a frame-grabbing clamp that can ruin your frame's finish
But hitch racks also offer some downsides, including:
- They can scrape the road surface while exiting driveways or on tall speedbumps
- Parallel parking is more challenging due to the extended length
- They make access to your trunk or hatch more inconvenient
- Your bikes are vulnerable if you're rear ended
- Smaller cars limited to 1-1/4" hitches (as opposed to 2") are severely limited in bike-carrying capacity
That last bullet is a big limitation, especially if you want to carry more than two bikes with a tray-style (wheel supported) rack and are limited to a 1-1/4" hitch. The $389 Kuat Transfer 3 is a rare rack that will carry three bikes on the smaller hitch (stay tuned for that review).
However, there are a number of three bike arm-based racks that hang bikes from the top tube, and Allen Sports has a $189 S535 Premier Three Bike Hitch Carrier that aims to carry your family or team's quiver to the next race or trailhead. We've been playing with the S535 for a bit, and come away impressed with its capability and security. Read on for our full impressions.
Hanging racks like the S535 need some space under the top tube to secure your bike, but unlike tray-based hitch racks, they don't care about tire width or diameter, which is good news in case you're riding a fat bike or Brompton.
Five-Minute Installation, with a Ratchet
Allen Sports offers a more affordable snap-together three bike option that it advertises as taking just five minutes to put together, but the Premier S535 takes more time to assemble because of the time required to secure three large plastic-lined thread-locking bolts. If you're using two crescent wrenches, it'll take you a bit longer to assemble, but if you've got the right socket and ratchet, it assembles in five minutes, easy.
The anti-wobble bolt that secures the rack to the hitch keeps things secure, and in our case, did a great job of largely eliminating side-to-side play on the rack (there was still a bit of vertical movement).
One benefit of the Allen Sports S535 hitch rack over tray-based hitch racks is its weight. The rack weighs about 25 pounds, which is half of what some three-bike tray racks weigh. That makes swinging the rack down and up, or carrying it away for storage easier, and saves a few ounces of gasoline as you drive it around with or without bikes.
The carrying arm folds down when not in use, and the entire rack swings down to allow easier access to your trunk or hatch. Surprisingly, on a Mazda 3 hatchback, the hatchback door clears the rack in upright position by just a few millimeters.
Carrying the Quiver
You might have visions of bikes rubbing up against each other, and swinging as you put the pedal to the metal to get to the race in time, but the Allen S535 is surprising in that it kept three 56cm cyclocross bikes far apart enough that the frames didn't contact each other. Sure, axles might hit spokes, and pedals could touch cranks, but surprisingly there's enough room for frames to avoid rubbing each other.
If you're carrying three bikes, fitting wide drop handlebars is a bit of a puzzle, albeit an easy one, as drop bars of the first and third bike do need to overlap. It was easy to move bikes 56cm bikes back and forth along their top tubes to make them all fit, but if you have smaller bikes with drop bars, positioning the third one on the rack could be a challenge.
Speaking of small bikes, it took some creative positioning to carry a kid's bike. If bringing a family and a family of bikes to the races is a goal, you'll have a tough time carrying a bike with wheels smaller than 20".
The most inconvenient aspect of the rack is that it relies on a nylon strap and buckle to secure the bikes to the rack and eliminate swing. The 70″ strap prevents the bikes from swinging away from the rack and keeps everything tight. It does its job, doesn't take more than 30 seconds to thread through the bikes, and is simple in design and operation.
But it's a tedious feature, and the strap is not quite long enough to easily go through three bikes and wheels. It also can be easily lost in a messy car. An internally-stored strap would be a welcomed addition, but a few dollars of bungee cords could make setup a bit easier (although if they're not tight, it will allow the bikes to sway more than a non-stretchable strap).
It's worth noting that while carrying three 700c bikes, tires on the third bike hit the ground when the rack swings down.
But in driving around with one, two or three bikes, the bike remained secure, the rack stayed quiet, and each time we arrived with everything in fine shape.
Overall, the $189 Allen Sports S535 rack is an economical choice for the racer looking to transport three bikes, especially when constrained to a 1-1/4″ hitch, and doesn't mind a few frame contact points when securing the bikes. The rack adapts to a 2″ hitch as well, but 2″ hitch owners have a much broader selection of three or four-bike carrying options, including the more convenient tray-based options.
For anyone using a truck rack, the Allen Sports S535 is a major upgrade. For roof rack bikers tired of lifting bikes up onto the roof, or dealing with thru axle converters, or ruining bikes while driving into a garage, the S535 is a worthwhile investment and insurance policy. See our full photos and more impressions in the gallery below, and stay tuned on some other options from Kuat and Thule.
More info: allensports.com