Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Urban Bike Commuter Tools - Racks

While riding to the Red Hook swimming pool a few weeks ago I managed to catch the attention of a woman driving by, who stretched her head out of her car window and gazed in my direction.

"Where'd you get that bag?!" she yelled out the window, pointing, unexpectedly, at the black nylon pannier draped over my bike rack.

I answered that I'd gotten it from BikeNashbar, for about 25 bucks on sale.

Her awe of my equipment made me realize that many folks who are new to bike commuting may not be aware of some of the tools that can, in fact, turn a bicycle into a practical tool of transportation.  So, in today's post I'm going to focus on the most essential of those tools: the bike rack (I'll get around to mountable bags, aka panniers, in my next post).

A bike without a rack is like a semi truck without a trailer or the Space Shuttle without its cargo bay, i.e. pretty much worthless. Seriously, while a bike will get you around, a bike with a rack lets you get around with your stuff, be it heavy books and laptop, groceries or whatever.

Rear bike rack

A decent rack costs around $40, with some popular manufacturers including Blackburn, Topeak and Trek.  A good aluminum rack is strong, capable of carrying 40+ pounds and surprisingly light itself so it won't weigh down a bike when unloaded.  Also, a solidly attached rear rack won't noticeably affect bike handling, which can be a problem when wearing a heavy backpack that raises a rider's center of gravity and causes backaches.  Racks save your back.

Racks are pretty straightforward, but there are a few mega important considerations to take into account when choosing one:

Size: racks are often sized to fit bikes based upon wheel size, i.e. a rack that works on a 26" wheeled mountain bike won't necessarily work on a hybrid or road bike with 700c wheels.  I've seen lots of incorrectly sized bike racks, the result being that the top of the rack isn't horizontal, which looks pretty goofy.  Stuff hauled on a sloping rack wants to slide off, defeating the purpose.

Some manufacturers offer adjustable-height racks (the "legs" of the rack are threaded allowing height to be adjusted up and down).  My personal prejudice based on absolutely no scientific data is that these racks add unnecessary complexity and moving parts to something that's supposed to be simple and reliable.  And, adjustable racks definitely weigh more.  So, shop around and find a solid rack that works for a particular bike.

Disc Brakes: Disc brakes have become popular on mountain bikes and, increasingly, on hybrid-style bikes that many urban commuters/Gothamites ride.  But disc brakes presented a problem for riders who wanted racks, since the bulky disc caliper tended to get in the way of the rack mounting point next to the wheel axle.  Rack manufacturers have figured out how to get around this problem (see the picture of a disc-specific rack below - see how the rack supports bend outward around the disc caliper) so take this into consideration when buying.

Disc brake-specific rack with child seat mounting hole to boot
Hauling kids: Rear-mounted child seats require a bike rack, and most child seats are specifically designed to work with a certain rack, i.e. seat and rack are sold together.  Check to see that the child seat can be easily unmounted leaving just the rack, which can be used for general hauling.

If you already have a rack on your bike and you decide you want to bring a little kid along beware that the rack you have probably won't work with a child seat.  Take a look at the picture above - this Topeak rack has a hole in the top platform. The hole is needed to mount the Topeak child seat. Other Topeak racks, with essentially similar designs, lack the hole...

Fame mounting: This important point relates to the bike itself, not the rack.  Most modern bikes come with rack mounting holes drilled directly into the seat stays (the tubes that run from just below the saddle to the rear wheel) but a few manufacturers still neglect to add them.  For example, a friend of mine recently bought an ultra hip Surly single speed.  After forking out $700 for what was to become his main urban ride my friend discovered that the bike lacked mounting holes in the seat stays. 

The bike shop rigged up a mount using steel and rubber straps wrapped around the frame, but the rack is kind of wobbly, is likely to scratch the bejeezus out of my friend's precious paint job and simply looks lame.  What's worse, due to the overall shakiness of the setup he can't haul much.

If you're on the market for a new bike, make sure the rack mounts are built in.

Removable racks: These racks, which mount directly to the seat post via a hefty clamp, are fairly popular among mountain bikers or anyone who might want to completely remove their rack when it's not needed.  They're generally a good option if you don't plan on carrying heavy loads.  Also try to find a removable rack that has railings that drop from both sides - this will allow you to hang a bag over the rack without having the bag sway back and forth, banging into the wheel.

Seat post mounted removable rack

And beware in the city - anything that's easily removed is easily stolen.


maneesh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Brown said...

My most recent two bicycles have had racks bought by me. On my current commuter I have a rack with an ortleib pannier on one side and basket on the other. The pannier handles 99% of My stuff. The basket carry locks sometimes and at other times, groceries.