Hitch Rack Shootout

For many of us, leaving home without at least one bicycle is inconceivable. As such, a bike rack is an essential accessory, but the debate rages as to which one is best for overland travel. Ask any manufacturer if their racks are suitable for off-road use and you will get an uneasy, “No.” You can couch that response under the auspices of CYA, which is understandable. Designed for off highway use or not, most bike racks will eventually find themselves bouncing down a rough road on route to a hidden trailhead or campsite.

Over the course of the last two years, I have tested several of the market’s leading hitch racks to uncover which hauler reigns supreme. In that time I have ferried all manner of bikes over rough roads and smooth spanning thousands of miles. I pushed all of them to the ragged edge, and beyond. A few struggled and some were flawless. Which rack is my top pick?

Thule T2 Pro $550

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The T2 has been in the Thule lineup for many years and is one of the most popular hitch racks on the road. Favored for its quick clamping mechanism that doesn’t contact the bike frame, it has been imitated many times over. After a lengthy run as the top rack preferred by many, and with the competition closing in, Thule redesigned the T2 with the newly released T2 Pro.

The new model addresses three main issues many of us found lacking with its predecessor. The Pro’s new wheel trays now accommodate plus and fat-size tires out of the box, whereas the T2 (still available) requires optional wheel trays to fit anything larger than a 2.8 tire. The Pro’s most impressive upgrade is the newly positioned lever used to tilt the rack up or down. No longer positioned at the main pivot, a place not easily reached, the new latch is at the outer aspect of the rack where it is not only more accessible and easier to use, but affords a solid grasp and reassuring control of the rack when raising or lowering. The other nice improvement is the locking quill-style hitch insert that eliminates the need for a locking hitch pin. A few twists of a knob securely tightens the rack in place preventing it from any side to side wobble. This tool-less system is a significant improvement for those of us who tend to remove our racks frequently.

I also noticed an update to the retractable cable lock system on each retention arm. Increased spring tension now helps the cable return within the arm with less fiddling. Those arms have been reshaped to fit around wider fork assemblies and the overall design of the rack has been redesigned with cleaner, softer lines.

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Upshots

Like the original, the T2 Pro is easy to load and unload. No rack is more convenient to raise or lower and the new trays work very well for all tire widths. Included in the box are lock cores for the two bike mounts and the locking hitch retention mechanism. The trays can be adjusted side to side to eliminate bike-to-bike interference, although it is still a common problem for this and many other racks.

Missteps

Time will tell how it holds up, but to improve the aesthetics of the T2 Pro, it has an abundance of plastic, much of it cosmetic cladding to cover the main pivot. The hitch tensioning knob, while very handy, is placed at a point where it could get damaged if impacted on a ledge or rock, although it does have a heavy metal guard protecting it. That is not a deal breaker, but a consideration when evaluating your departure angle in rough terrain.

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Conclusion

The new T2 Pro is a quantum leap forward for Thule. The Pro fetches a $150 premium over the T2, now called the Classic, and is in my opinion worth the up-charge. Part of me wishes Thule could have made the rack lighter (54 pounds), but it is a worthy successor to the T2. My final impression left me with the feeling that the T2 Pro is extremely solid, well made, and will last years of hard use. This was one of my favorite racks in the group.

wwww.thule.com


Kuat NV $550

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When it was launched just a few years ago, the Missouri based Kuat brand immediately won loyal fans with their handsome and refined racks. The anodized orange accents and soft edges of their NV rack caught my eye and prompted me to add one to my Jeep. With a design similar to the Thule T2, the rack does not contact the bike frame, accepts a wide range of wheel diameters and widths, and is easy to load and unload. The quill-style hitch retention system keeps the rack tight within the receiver and affords a tool-less installation, although it does require an additional pin with locking end-cap. A large lever allows the NV to be raised or lowered quickly with minimal effort.

The only rack I’ve ever tested to include a built-in repair stand, the NV is a great trailhead transporter. I often pop my bike on the repair stand to complete my pre-ride lube, air, and tweak. A built-in cable lock system keeps would-be thieves honest.

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Upshots

The repair rack is the standout feature but many people are drawn to the NV for its attractive design. These racks look fantastic hanging on a sporty SUV or wagon. Although it isn’t as easy to reach and use as the T2 Pro’s pivot release, the large lever on the NV holds securely and requires minimal force to actuate. The quill-insert in the hitch holds the rack snug, eliminating any unwanted side to side play.  The retention arms hold the bikes firmly in place, and the cable lock is beefy enough, I suspect it will give most passing crooks a reason to move on to easier prey. It is a very nice looking rack, which I think might be why most people, myself included, are drawn to it.

Missteps

After 10,000 miles of use, none of it on particularly rough terrain, my NV test rack has become prone to minor rattles, squeaks, and has developed some noticeable slop in the main pivot. None of that affects the performance. The ratcheting mechanism in one of the retention arms had to be replaced and there are some cosmetic issues developing, but again, nothing serious. I do want to put this in context. The Yakima also suffered a few minor issues as did the Thule. The last grouse with the NV is the inability to slide the bike trays side to side. Some pairs of bikes will have interference with each other which is hard to remedy with the NV.

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Conclusion

The Kuat NV is an ideal system for those users who want a sharp looking rack to compliment the sleek lines of their vehicle. The repair stand is a winner and helps justify the $550 asking price. Although my NV did suffer one minor warranty issue, the Kuat customer service team was exceptional and the fix was quickly implemented at no cost or inconvenience.

 

UPDATED NV: It is important to note that Kuat has recently updated the NV with the release of the NV 2.0. I am currently testing that rack and must say it is a significant improvement from tip to tail. It also gained an additional $80 and now fetches $630 making it one of the more expensive systems on the market. Read about that rack [HERE].


 Yakima HoldUp 2 $450

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The HoldUp is in many ways a hybrid of the Thule T2 and the Kuat NV. Nice looking and easy to use, it has a similar retention arm system and identical tilting features which place the rack in upright, level, and downward positions. Like the Thule, the HoldUp has retractable cable locks hidden in each support arm. Instead of a quill-style hitch insert, the HoldUp uses a threaded hitch pin to securely tighten the rack within the receiver.

Loading bikes is easy and the large front wheel trays accommodate all wheel sizes with some limitations, which I will address in the pros/cons. The support arms have been designed to clear wider fork blades and like the Thule, the bike trays can be adjusted side to side to eliminate any bike-to-bike interference, but again, the adjustment range seldom eliminates the problem. A feature unique to the HoldUp, the wheel trays can be folded inward when the rack is empty which reduces the size of the rack considerably. It makes for a nice, compact bundle.

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The tilt feature is not as useful as I’ had hoped as it doesn’t tilt far enough to clear most hatches.

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Upshots

One of the challenges with using this style of rack in rough terrain is the tendency for the front wheel to hop out of the wheel cradle. This plagued the T2 and Kuat NV on many of our test runs. The deep wheel supports of the Yakima never failed to hold the front wheel securely in place. The HoldUp is also slightly narrower than the other racks at only 64-inches wide. At $450 including locks, it is a good value and on par with Thule’s non-Pro T2 rack. The rack has a built-in bottle opener, so…yea.

Missteps

While the front wheel supports are deep, they are so wide that road bike wheels tend to feel loose in the cradle while fatbike tires simply will not fit. The rear wheel trays need additional straps to secure even plus-size tires, although that seems to be a common problem with all racks. The cable locks in each support arm are also quite short and rather thin. I don’t know if they would deter a would-be thief. My biggest complaint is with the release pin on the main pivot. It is difficult to reach and requires some fiddling to actuate. It has also pinched many fingers although now I’m getting a bit nit-picky.

My other hesitation with the HoldUp is with the somewhat uncertain build quality. With so many pivots and moving parts, the other HoldUp racks I inspected on friend’s vehicles felt a little knackered and developed a noticeable degree of slop and play at critical points. I don’t know how much rough usage they had endured, but there is a lot of complexity with the HoldUp, and that could be its weakness. The necessity to use a tool to tighten the threaded hitch pin is something I presume Yakima will address with the updated HoldUp, scheduled to arrive early next year.

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Conclusion

As racks get more expensive, the HoldUp’s MSRP makes it a good value, although it is similar in feature to Thule’s T2 Classic at the same price once you factor in the cost of the addition of bike mount locks. I think the Yakima is a nicer looking rack than most and the compact size is attractive. When not hauling bikes, and folded and stowed upright, it looks really slick. Although it isn’t the best solution for fatbike use, it is nonetheless a nice rack and I enjoyed using it. www.yakima.com

 


 1UP USA Single Super Duty Quick Rack $400 (Editor’s Choice)

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Not to say I don’t have friends, but I often ride alone, so a one-bike system is a desirable thing. After hearing many riders rave about 1UP racks I felt I had to try one––and I’m glad I did. In my humble opinion, this is the best rack I have used in years, although it does have a couple potential drawbacks that may give some would-be buyers pause.

Designed and made in the USA, the quality of the Quick Rack is nothing short of exceptional and superior to any other rack in this group––by far. Without so much as a single plastic component, the entire rack is made of machined aluminum with high-quality steel hardware. Unlike the other racks in this category, the Quick Rack uses dual wheel clamps to securely support both the front and rear wheels. A ratcheting mechanism on each arm assembly allows a bike to be mounted in as little as a few seconds. I wasn’t convinced the rack would hold my bike steady on bumpy roads, but I’ve been very pleased with its overall performance.

Like all of the racks tested, save for the Yakima, the Quick Rack employs a quill-style tension system to hold the rack tight within the hitch receiver. The lack of a hitch pin initially gave me some concerns, but seeing how snug the rack sits in the receiver, I’m convinced it isn’t going anywhere. To prevent theft, the quill mechanism is tightened with a proprietary, keyed allen wrench. The main pivot allows the rack to be locked in upright, level, and lowered positions with a fourth position I don’t often use which places the rack in an upright angle at about 45º.  My favorite attribute of the Quick Rack is the ability to fold it into a small bundle for easy transport inside my vehicle when not in use. For those with a need for a second bike mount, the rack can be expanded with an additional tray, two more if the total of three bikes are kept under 50 pounds. The two-bike version retails for $560 in raw aluminum and $630 in anodized black. When fitted for multiple bikes, the Quick Rack’s unique retention system all but eliminates bike-to-bike interference as each bike can be easily moved side to side without tools. That alone makes this my favorite hauler.

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Upshots

There is so much to love about the 1UP rack. I mostly appreciate how small and compact it is when not in use, and it holds my bike close to the back of my vehicle, not hanging three feet off the back like a trailer without wheels. The optional black finish looks fantastic and the ease of use has made me an instant fan. The more I use it, the more I appreciate the quality of materials and precision of construction. I also like how every part of the rack can be repaired or replaced if necessary.

Missteps

I concede the lack of any locking mechanisms securing the bikes or the rack to the vehicle may be a consideration for some people. My solution is the addition of a cable lock through the hitch assembly. Out of the box, the Quick Rack will only accept tires up to a 2.8 width, and that takes a little work to squeeze into the support arms. For fatbike use an optional spacer kit can be purchased for $34 which fits up to a 4.9 width tire. As an additional service, 1UP can build your rack with that kit pre-installed.

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Conclusion

If you can overlook the lack of any locking features and can pony up the extra funds, the Super Duty Quick Rack is worth owning. I don’t mind the extra cost because the quality of the product, its clever design, and ease of use more than justify the price. I can already tell this will be the last hitch rack I ever own. www.1upusa.com

 

The final verdict

I have no hesitation proclaiming the 1UP Quick Rack as my favorite. It isn’t perfect, no product is, but the quality speaks to me and I love how compact and clean it looks on my vehicle. The new T2 Pro promises to win over the next generation of Thule loyalists with its new tilting mechanism. Kuat will continue to appeal to vehicle owners searching for a system that looks less like an appliance and more like a refined accessory. The repair stand is also a compelling reason to buy the NV. Although aesthetics are subjective, I think the Yakima rack looks every bit as nice as the Kuat, and I like that it is more compact than the T2 Pro.

 

For now, the 1UP USA rack wins my vote for top spot.

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Testing gear is hard work, but someone has to do it.


 

The slow demise of quality control

Over the span of 25 years in the bike world, I have watched as rack prices climbed and quality waned. In fairness to the various manufactures, bringing these complex products to market must be a daunting challenge without driving prices into the stratosphere. Of the racks tested above, one arrived without any assembly hardware in the box, and another had a bolt hole drilled so off center, it had to be fussed with for 30 minutes before I could get it to cooperate.

As I assembled each rack, a couple of them had the build quality of a cheap department store BBQ grill. This is not to say they won’t last for years of use, or don’t warrant the purchase, but don’t expect any of these systems to have the refined quality of the bikes they will likely carry. To its credit, only the 1UP arrived without a manufacturing misstep. It also arrived fully assembled, ready to hit the trailhead. Take that for what it is, I guess.

 

Christophe Noel is Expedition Portal's Editor and the Senior Editor for Overland Journal. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.