How To Protect Bikes On Car Bike Racks From Damage

When traveling with bikes on a car rack, they are exposed to road debris, strong winds, vibrations, and the elements. With those expensive items stored in vulnerable positions, it’s fair to think about how to protect your bike when driving.

Certain bike rack types like trunk and hitch bike racks offer inherently more protection, because of the way they are installed behind the vehicle acting as a windshield. For this reason, roof bike racks are most exposed from outside influences as they hold the bikes right into the airflow which subjects them to anything coming from above and even faster from the front.

So in this article, I’m going into how you can protect any bike on any bike rack from nature and elements on the road. For theft protection and prevention I got another article on how to secure bikes on a car rack.

Prevent any additional contact with the bike

This is the most universal and important aspect of bike rack protection. Make sure there is nothing in contact with the bike except the rack’s straps and grips actually holding it in place. No matter how tightly and securely you attach the bike to a bike rack when driving it will move even a little bit from the usual g-forces and vibrations. There is no way around that.

By preventing any way the bike can touch other objects when moving, you eliminate the vast number of ways a bike can get damaged on a bike rack. Limiting the amount the bike can actually sway and move while loaded onto a rack is another great tactic, although it’s not always possible to do depending on the specific rack and what its attachment points are. More on that in the next subheading.

So, how can you prevent the bike roughing up against the car, rack, – or even worse – against other bikes. There are a couple of simple, yet useful tricks. What you want to achieve is that frame can’t touch another object with the range of motion it has. Mostly the movement is side to side, less so forward and back (from the view of the bike). What sticks out from the sides are obviously the handlebar and pedals. Less so the fork.

trunk rack clearance
Plenty of clearance here on a van.

So first, make sure there is enough clearance for the handlebar. In some cases loosening the stem and rotating the handlebar 90 degrees is an option, if there is not enough room. Rotate the cranks in a position that neither pedal is out of reach with other objects. I found that a level position works in most cases. In my experience, the pedals will not move due to winds. So no worries there.

For any additional bikes, put them in a way that they stack easily by switching orientation so that the handlebars can’t entangle or rub against any other bike’s frame. Now you got a front wheel next to a rear wheel (see picture below). Again, make sure pedals are not touching anything. This is an easy one to forget. If in doubt, you can always remove the pedals on the cranks facing another bike.

As I said, you probably won’t be able to change the actual amount of play here. It’s simple leverage with the fixed points at the very bottom of the weels and often one more slightly loose contact point higher up on the bike somewhere on the frame. For most bike racks the contact point on the frame is on the down tube, which is lower to the bottom allowing for more sway. Others allow attaching the bike near the seat post, which is as far up as you can go vertically making it the most stable option.

bike rack ratchet
Minimizing play by mounting high on the frame.

Protect the necessary contact points for mounting

There are bike racks that hold the bikes in place by only attaching to the wheels. This is done by entirely securing one or two wheels or each bike. In this case, the only contact points between the bike and the rack are the wheels, mostly the rubber of the tires. In this case, there is no additional contact point protection needed at all. Many bike rack brands like 1UP USA or Thule have their own version of this concept parallel to frame mounting options.

HDDouble Main edited
Bike rack with tires mounts by 1UP

In the case that the bike rack attaches to the actual frame of a bike, however, this is a potential area where movement translates to abrasion and wear. With my roof racks there are the options to secure the bike rack arm to either the top tube, the down tube, or the seat post. Let’s discuss each one specifically.

A down tube mount is most common for roof racks and some hitch racks, where the arms can only come from below the bikes. Because it attaches so low, it’s also the most unstable allowing the most movement from side to side, meaning bikes into each other.

Securing the top tube is better only because of the increased stability due to the higher position. It still grips the actual frame, which I am not entirely a fan of. Most likely, any top tube mount can be moved and twisted enough to go straight to the seat post, which is my favorite option.

The seat post is the one I try and use anytime I can. The part is usually just painted alloy (or carbon in some cases) and sturdy. I personally don’t worry about any potential scratches there, as they are bound to happen when sliding the saddle in and out anyway. Additionally, it’s probably the most stable mount because it’s so high up on the bike while wheels are also secured at the very bottom.

image 2 edited

For down tube and top tube mounts (frame mounts) there are a couple of things to consider for protection. Some bike racks come with rubber inserts in their clamps or ratchets that grab the frame. For me, rubber padding has always been sufficient protection without any problems. Which I can’t say about hard plastic ones. They definitely rough up any paint job on the frame. What I do when I have to use hard ones is I simply wrap some soft microfibre cloth around the part of the frame where the rack arm is mounted to.

In any case, always make sure the frame is clean. Even after a ride in sloppy conditions, clean up at least that one part of the frame. Any dirt and muck between the rack arm and frame will lead to scratches in the paint. And that is not a happy ending after a nice day of riding.

Another option is rather than (or in addition to) making the rack arm more protective, wrap the frame itself more in some frame protection wrap. That’s exactly what I did for one of my more expensive bikes, the YT Tues (Carbon Frame) downhill bike. It’s covered in custom frame-specific wrap from Easy Frame that protects from any scratches and small dents, but peels off any time. There are less complex wrap kits too that you can apply for just some selected areas on the frame. For quick reference here’s one on amazon I have seen in bike parks often. I can’t speak for or against that kit though, since I have no experience with it myself.

A less permanent protection for only the bike rack contact points would be something like dirtlej offers: bike carrier bikeprotection. I got another product from them, that’s why I stumbled upon this kit. Again, no experience with this specifically.

How to protect a bike on a rack in the rain

First things first.

You can in fact have a bike rack on a car in the rain and snow. They are specifically designed to mount to the outside of cars, with all the forces and elements they have to withstand. Rain does not impair the functionality or safety of a car bike car.

On that point: It is okay to leave some like roof and trunk bike racks mounted all year round. You have to expect additional wear and tear, namely from rain, but there is nothing preventing you from doing that or harming the function of the rack.

With that being said, anything mounted to the rack is also subject to those elements while not actually being used – just transported. So for these inevitable occasions, it makes sense to protect your expensive equipment from unnecessary strain from water getting into bearings and leading to corrosion.

All in all, except for actual hail, rain is the most powerful influence your rack cargo can experience. Small single raindrops can develop considerable kinetic energy when being hit with high speeds like you are going on a highway. The amount of noise coming from your windshield driving in rain gives you a good indication. For a little self-experiment just hold your hand out the window next time you are going above 50 mph (80 km/h) in rain. That actually hurts, they unload so much energy on your skin. Any motorcycle rider who had their neck, wrists, or (worst of all) face exposed riding in rain will know exactly what I mean.

So, how can you securely transport your bike in the rain? In addition to guarding against what is coming straight down, you also need to protect it from the front. When you are moving in a car, you are literally driving into raindrops or snowflakes. This is why the front windshield hit way heavier by rain than the rear window – hence 2 windshield wipers versus one respectively.

pretty much Regardless of the orientation, you mount it.

Can you cover bikes on a bike rack?

Rain covers are actually an easy solution to hit all problems at once. By using something like a tarp to cover the bikes, we need to quickly reference the point made at the very top. Loose fabric will create a lot of movement by its surface subject to frontal airflow. Again, this is not avoidable completely but can be mitigated by wrapping the cover tight enough, but not too tight that bikes are starting to contact each other. You will do more harm than good when bikes are rubbing on each other during the entire time traveling because of a too tightly wrapped protective cover. I have had it happen multiple times (which was my fault) and it’s just unnecessary damage and a horrible feeling.

If you use any bungee cords to keep the cover tight, do so by only wrapping the cord around the tires or close to the bottom of the rack. This is where the bikes are mounted and cannot move closer to each other.

There are waterproof bike covers ranging from $ 15 to over $ 70, for what is basically a balloon-shaped tarp. This particular one from amazon is only around 20 bucks and fits 3 bikes. Anything similar is all you basically need, as long as it’s waterproof.

An alternative to rain covers over all bikes on a bike rack, there are options to protect individual parts on single bikes. As the suspension fork is arguably the most expensive single part on a mountain bike, there are covers available that wrap around the forks.

If your cover isn’t formed like a balloon to put over the bikes, but rather a tarp to wrap around, make sure the fold is in the rear. The goal is to have a seamless protective surface facing towards the front to not allow water to make its way through any folds. This way you achieve the most protection for the most vulnerable directions: front and above.

I should note, that I personally don’t use a rain cover currently for a couple of reasons. With my trunk rack, the bikes are somewhat protected behind the car, which is sufficient for me. As I rarely travel to go on a ride on rainy days and weekends, there is hardly any rain while driving. Biking is often the main reason for a journey, it’s not an additional mode of transportation at my destination. So the bikes never stay on the rack apart from travel. And last but not least, I can easily put the bike inside my van without disassembly.

Bike transport protection

If none of the options until now are your cup of tea, there is a very individual way to go about bike rack protection. And that is by wrapping the bike in bike-shaped fabric wrapper instead of a tarp. This is again something I originally saw from dirtlej, but have never used myself.

There are lighter version of this too, only including fork covers, that go up to the handlebars. Even on my roof rack I never used one of these, although I sometimes wish I did. You know how in summer your windshield is pebbled with squashed insects that are a nightmare to get off again? Yeah, you’ll catch those with your bike on a roof rack. Especially at higher speeds.

Are bike racks safe on the highway?

In general, bike racks, that are designed and manufactured by reputable brands, meet high quality standards to ensure safety under all driving conditions. For maximal safety, it is necessary to first install and secondly use the bike rack as intended. This includes the correct fitment to the individual vehicle, proper mounting of the bicycles, and loading within the weight capacity.

When going at higher speeds, you need to be especially aware of how a bike rack affects the car’s performance and handling. Speeds that are usual for traveling on highways amplify those effects, while they are negligible at slower speeds within city traffic. The biggest difference you will easily notice is the wind drag a bike rack generates at high speeds. This results in higher fuel consumption for a certain speed or conversely going slower with your usual gas pedal input.

Under heavy additional load, there is an aspect critical to road safety. And that is that the heavier the vehicle gets, the longer its stopping distance becomes. So even if the same speeds as without a rack is possible, you need to account for worse handling while driving around with a fully-loaded car. A loaded bike rack (even with e-bikes) does not make a drastic difference in weight, as bikes are relatively light in comparison to total vehicle mass. If anything, a loaded roof rack will make you come to a halt quicker to higher air drag slowing you down.

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