Bike travelers shall not live by racks alone
It has already been an hot topic on LifeinTravel, but it is good thing to repeat that during bike trips, luggage transport methods are basically three
The use of a backpack: mostly for MTB voyages, in which you plan to walk through uneven roads and paths, even narrow or pendants. In this case a backpack is the best solution but keep in mind that the luggage must be actually small: I recommend to not overcome 5-6 kg, or after some hours with the backpack, maybe bouncing on stones and roots, your back will curse you in any language!
- The use of panniers: this is the method we have always adopted. This does not mean it is the best one or the one we recommend you, but we think is the best choice for our kind of trips. Panniers, both front and rear if necessary, have the advantage of a separate provision of different stuffs and can grant you a better handling if you are going to do a lot of off-road.
- The use of a trailer (or trolley): here the advantage is mainly represented by having a lower barycenter – that will tire you less in long distances. However for journeys in Europe, in my opinion, given the expensiveness of trailers and their bulkiness on narrow roads, I recommend the second option proposed in this article.
If you want a more detailed comparison, go read this article: Bike luggage: trailer or pannier bags, what's better?
How to choose bicycle racks
As I already mentioned, you should choose a different bicycle rack depending on your needs. For example, if you use the bike for the way to and from work and then you don't carry an heavy luggage, a light rack will be enough: you can even think of a beam rack, much simpler to assemble (by hooking it to the saddle sleeve). But in this article I would like to talk about racks for those who actually travel by bike and then assuming a much more heavy luggage that can't be managed by one of the racks previously mentioned. Now, anyway, the scope is not the only element you should evaluate while buying the right bicycle rack. Depending on the bike you own, you have to choose a different rack: for example, if you travel on a mountain bike, check if you have disk brakes or V brakes. Another important feature is the size of your bike wheel: there are tens of different sizes depending on the kind of bicycle but the most used are 24'' on children bicycles, 26'' - 27,5" on MTB, 28'' on touring bicycles and 29'' on racing bikes or MTB.
Once you have checked these elements of your vehicle, you can start deciding which is the right carrier for your needs: if your idea is a “relaxed” cycle-touring, maybe on a cycleway, for a few-days-trip, there are no reasons to spend 70, 80€ for a product that could carry an entire bull (if only there were it...); but if you are going to face adventurous trips, or travel for several days, camping and going through isolated paths in which you will also have to carry some food, the carriage capacity is the first discriminant in the choice of a carrier.
Different types of luggage racks
Basically, if you travel with a quite load luggage, you should distribute the weight on both wheels and then use both front and rear panniers. In our case, we have always traveled with the only rear panniers and, although in the long climbs of Indonesia and Alps we have struggled quite much, we have never capsized for reasons of weight balancing. However, up to now our choice has been more an “economic” choice, than a practical one.
In general, there are bicycle racks made of aluminum, titanium, steel and other metal alloys. The most popular are those made of aluminum, light and resistant at the same time. For those who are more interested in capacity, titanium is the best solution, but is more expensive. Lastly, by considering the solidity, steel is the most reliable material and that which is easier to be welt by a general blacksmith in case of need in a poorly supplied site. There are carriers suitable to be fixed on the rear fork, and others fitted for the front one, and together with the large diffusion of suspension forks, companies have also produced specific racks for them. The average weight of a carrier that can carry 25-30kg (I assure it's very much) is about 600- 700gr (aluminum or steel), whereas carriers with a higher capacity have a slightly higher weight. For titanium racks, the weight drops up to 250gr.
The leading companies – best bicycle racks for touring
After having told you which are the elements to check at the time of purchase, now let's have an overview on the assortments of bike carriers and see which are the best producers on the market. I would like to point out that those who are expressed below are obviously personal opinions, so they are totally subjective. Someone may agree with my analysis, someone else not... I invite everyone to express their opinion by commenting at the end of this article.
- between all the leading companies in the field, we must begin from this. The German company produces steel carriers for more than twenty years and their models Cargo (rear) and Tara above all (front, with the typical arch above the wheel) are a distinctive sign that makes you recognize German bike travelers from far away. Over the years, Tubus has introduced many new products including a titanium carrier and a new line of aluminum articles, Racktime, including a pair of models suitable for bike travelers. Between their proposals, is missed some innovative stuff such as a carrier suitable for bikes with disc brakes; anyway there are many accessories to adapt carriers to MTB with disc brakes.
- the Taiwanese company is one of the most well-known for its wide range of bike touring products. Personally, for the bike trip in New Zealand I have bought two rear panniers, an handlebar bag and the Super Tourist Tubular rack in Auckland and I must say I got on very well: two months of travel, sometimes on uneven roads too, with a challenging luggage (in addiction to the panniers, a tent and a sleeping bag) and the only problem I have had was about some slacken (and then bent) screws. They also produce many kinds of luggage racks for bikes, also suitable for 29" wheels and disc brakes. Maybe a little less solid (maximum load 25kg) than Tubus products, but still valid.
- this Swiss company produces easels and bike racks since 1919. Also in this case aluminum is the main material. An important feature of Pletscher racks is the integrated Easy-fix system for a quick coupling and uncoupling of intra-brand panniers (or child seats). I don't own any product of them but I have heard they have a good reputation, although as the Topeak's their racks have a maximum load slightly lower than Tubus racks (25kg). In the catalog there are a couple of front carriers that, unlike the Tubus Tara, have the advantage of a plan in which leaning stuffs.
- if you are looking for an high capacity rack and you are disposed to spend a little more, this is the brand you were looking for. Axiom bicycle racks, top-of-the-range above all, are solid and reliable (declared capacity up to 80kg!). A look to their design is enough to understand that the steel of which they are made will grant you to resist to the harshest conditions (no guarantees to avoid unpleasant surprises: one thing are laboratory tests, real road is another). The Canadian company also produces other products for bike travelers such as panniers, pumps, repair kits.
- Old Man Mountain
- the US rival of Axiom. The company is American indeed and produces a few models of bicycle racks, but really high-quality and high-capacity. As the Axiom, the rack weight (around 1kg) is higher, to grant an higher capacity too. In this case the most used material is steel and the Pioneer model is suitable for those who are going to leave for some months, and want to have all their stuffs on. The catalog also includes front racks (both Lowrider, without a bearing plane over the wheel like Tara, and normal, on which you can lean your things).
- another Stars-and-Stripes company that produces bike touring and bike traveling stuff. In this case, bicycle racks are mostly made of aluminum. The touring model design grants to couple rear panniers in two different levels, since it has two horizontal pipes (this characteristic is in common with other products in the catalogs of the previous brands). The advantage in “lowering” the panniers is the possibility to fix on the horizontal plane (and on the bags) tent, sleeping bag, air bed and anything else necessary.
- at the end, I can't miss to mention the Polish company that sent us its panniers to replace our battered ones, during our trip in Asia. We didn't have the good fortune to try its racks (neither frontal nor rear) but the quality of its panniers, simple and resistant, make us think that its bike racks are at of the same quality. Crosso has only one rear and one frontal rack in the catalog but the granted capacity of the rear one, made of aluminum, is 35kg.
I want to conclude this brief overview about bicycle racks by giving you a suggestion that most people will maybe read as a denial of everything written up to here. Anyway: always bring with you some plastic ties and some screws: they could be useful on many occasions – and not just in case of a breakage of the rack!