Bike Rack Battle: Roof vs. Hitch

If you’re relatively new to cycling, you’ll eventually come to the realization that a bike rack is a great investment.  It expands the places where you can ride – as you find that you want to take your bike with you on vacation or even to a local parking area.

The next question you face is:  just what type of cycling rack is best –  a roof rack OR a hitch-mount rack?  Well, I’ve had both – and this is one guy’s opinion on the best choice.

My first rack was a roof rack – a THULE Big Mouth Roof Rack to be precise.  Now, to be honest, when looking for a rack, I decided to go with something similar to what my best friend had.  It looked pretty darn cool to be riding down the street with bikes strapped to the roof.  All the neighbors and other drivers could clearly see just how cool I was (at least, in my mind, that’s what I believed everyone thought).

The Big Mouth was (and still is) a good system.  It firmly secured the bike to the rack by two means:

  1. Each tire had a small ratchet-type strap that made me confident the bike was not going to take flight while driving.
  2. The Big Mouth clamp adjusted to fit the frame a bit higher – and that helped stabilize the bike so that it was not hanging down on the side of the SUV while going down the highway (something tells me that neither the State Police nor other drivers would like this very much).

I liked best that I didn’t have to take my front tire off to secure it to the roof.  My best friend’s roof rack required him to take off the front tire – equally (maybe even more) cool looking.  Of course, it wasn’t too cool when he showed up for a ride without that front tire (still sitting at home in his garage).

My best friends' roof rack

My best friend’s roof rack.  Note no tires on the front of bikes.

I also liked the fact that the Big Mouth clamp had locks included – so the bike could be locked into place with little worry of it being stolen.  Most roof racks have the ability to lock the bike into place – but not all of them.

The roof rack did work fine for me, though over time, I decided that I didn’t like struggling overhead with my bike.  It did take some maneuvering to get the bike in the rack just so – all while standing on the floor of the vehicle with the door open.  More than once, I lost my balance only to restart.

A roof rack is a bit limiting, too.  Essentially:  1 roof rack = 1 bike.  I bought two – just so I could haul a buddy along with his bike for a new expedition.  Superfluous buddies/bikes had to be stuffed in the back.  Not too comfortable – but that’s the price they pay for being superfluous.

The other main downside to a roof rack is the fact that it’s easy to forget your bikes are on the roof of your vehicle.  One of my cycling buddies got to remodel part of his garage when he forgot his bike was on top of his truck.  That’s bad enough.  My experience happened at a bank drive-through – where I wasn’t the only one who got to witness the incident (how embarrassing!).

After a few years, I replaced my vehicle and had to decide what to do with my cycling rack.  Maybe it was just time for a change.  Maybe I was too lazy to get the miscellaneous parts and pieces to attach the same roof rack to a different style of vehicle.  Or, maybe I was a little bit older and wiser and decided I’d reached that age where I didn’t need everyone to ooh and aah over the bikes on top of my vehicle (after all – they all knew I was cool anyway).  So, I opted for a hitch mount carrier.

I stuck with THULE.  They’re well-known for their different racks, and my local bike shop carried them.  That made it easier if/when I needed to get parts and pieces in the future.  My first one was the swing-away version for “convenient rear of vehicle access” – as advertised by THULE.  It carried 4 bikes and had an integral locking wire assembly that pulled out and secured all racked bikes at once.

It worked pretty darn good.  No need to struggle to lift things over my head and get things secured.  It was all done at chest level now.

The swing-away feature was nice in theory.  In reality, when bikes were secured, the entire assembly was both heavy and cumbersome to swing the rack away from the vehicle.  The tires wouldn’t allow the rack to swing completely open.  Now, perhaps it was meant to swing away with no bikes on it (I honestly didn’t read the directions and/or disclaimers); however, it seems to me the intent was to be able to access the rear of the vehicle while traveling (e.g. with bikes secured in tow….).  So, the swing-away feature wasn’t nearly as impressive as I’d hoped.

My first Hitch Mount Rack.  Note the swing arm (also good to hold Gatorade).

My first Hitch Mount Rack. Note the swing arm (also good to hold Gatorade).

Over time, I ended up buying a different rear hitch – another THULE – and the one I have on my SUV at this time.  This one does not swing away.  Rather, it has a release to allow the rack to pivot downward away from the vehicle for rear access.  I don’t think I’m supposed to have bikes secured on the back of the rack when I do that (hmmm…..maybe I remember that in the instructions this time) – but I’ve done it.  It actually kind-of works.  Again, it’s heavy but it’s more manageable and the bikes land on their tires far enough away to let me open up the back.

The locking mechanism on both of my hitch mount racks was ok and worked for some time.  Over time, however, they did rust up.  My current system is so rusted, it doesn’t allow me to pull out the wire – so it’s really no use to me.  I have to bring a separate locking wire with me if I’m going anywhere the bikes need secured.  I think my old one was the same way – will have to ask my best friend, Jason, as I sold him that hitch-mounted rack when he also realized struggling overhead wasn’t worth it anymore.

The rubber straps that hold the bikes into place also break easily.  I stretch mine pretty tightly – because, if I don’t, the bikes will bounce out of their nesting places and scratch the bike paint up as I’m going down the highway.  By stretching them tighter, though, the straps eventually break.  I have some replacement straps that I purchased.  Quite honestly, it’s a pain to change them out.  I’m just waiting for some down time (but I’ve been saying that for about two years now).  So, I carry some extra bungee cords with me and use them for extra holding power.

So, there you have it.  A review on two of the rack styles I’ve used.  I prefer the hitch mount rack.

For your convenience, I have links to all three types below – in the event that you’re ready to make a purchase.  If you’ve already made a purchase and have a preference on either one (or a different one entirely), let me know.

Ride on!



Here are the three racks I discussed above.

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