Thirteen-year-old me would be ashamed if he saw today's me. He's got plenty of reasons, but one is that every time I want to ride my bike, I have to get in a car first. Most of us do. And that's why racks that go for $600 to $700 and carry just two bikes are all over the road. Maybe you're lucky enough that you don't use one every ride. Or maybe you realize that you really only use a rack for about 90 seconds each way, and the rest of the time it's just sitting there holding your bike. Maybe you could spend half as much for something that does the same thing. We compared three basic racks—the Hollywood Racks TRS, the Kuat Transfer and the Saris Freedom 2—to see which one best secures precious cargo without flattening your wallet.
Hollywood Racks TRS | $380
Despite its name, Hollywood Racks might be the least glamorous brand in bike portage. Classic, utilitarian and barbecue-black, Hollywood found a niche among families and fair-weather cyclists. The TRS marks a departure from that, but it carries on the tradition of building affordable, rock-solid racks. Emphasis on the rock. At XX pounds, the TRS is heavier than the Kuat. And though it doesn't tout the highest weight capacity in the test, it's clearly the most durable. The hollow aluminum trays are as burly as ones you'd see at twice the price. The TRS folding mechanism is more robust than that of the Saris or Kuat, but it's not as convenient. Instead of centering the release mechanism under the trays where it would be accessible when standing just behind the rack, Hollywood tucks the two spring-loaded pins back near the rack's base. Not a big issue when the rack is empty, but to tilt a fully loaded TRS down to access the hatch, you may need two people.
The rest of the experience is a little more luxurious. The front-wheel cradle is a wide, easy mark to hit, and the ratchet arm is light action and comfortable to cinch and loosen. It has a look, feel and function closer to that of modern benchmark high-end Kuat racks—even more than the Kuat we're comparing it to in this test. Unlike the Kuat, the TRS features tool-free mounting, or for $50 less, the $330 version requires a wrench and doesn't include locking hardware. If you don't mind the cumbersome tilt-away process or the heavy weight, you might have the TRS until Hollywood's next golden age.
Kuat Transfer | $290
Kuat has been ahead of the game since they started playing it in 2007. Their flagship NV rack set the standard for high-function, high-fashion racks. A lot of that function, though none of the fashion, has been trickled down to the Transfer rack. It features more steel, more plastic and less aluminum than what we're used to seeing from Kuat, but damned if it doesn't do the job nearly just as well. Instead of a full-length tray, the Transfer uses two wheel baskets placed at a fixed distance apart. It accommodates for different wheelbases by allowing the rear wheel basket to rotate. If you'll be mounting various length bikes on your rack, this eliminates the need to adjust a wheel strap back and forth. The front wheel hooks aren't quite as sleek as those on Kuat's NV or Sherpa racks, but they do the job just fine.
Unlike the Saris and Hollywood racks we tested, the Transfer comes out of the box with no locking mechanisms. For XX, Kuat offers a set of cables that stash inside the front wheel arms to lasso at least your wheel and frame. It's clean and clever, but an Allen wrench could remove the whole system, so you'll deter only the most unprepared of thieves.
The Transfer borrows the same foot-activated folding as its higher-end kin. It's easy to support the weight while you reach your leg through to tilt it down for hitch access, and even easier to stow it away once it's unloaded.
Saris Freedom EX 2 | $350
Most of the racks in this price range work something like the Saris Freedom 2. Two frame clamps slide into place on a single mast, meaning one is high and one is low. Choosing which one works best on which bike can involve some trial and error. But Saris puts those clamps each on its own mast. And it further improves it by trading those clamps for cradles. With the TRS and the Transfer, you're balancing the bike with one hand while manipulating the front wheel arm with the other. Once the wheel trays and cradles are set on the Freedom 2, you can simply lift the bike into the trays, and the cradle will always be there immediately to support it.
The trouble comes when you've got suspension or frame hardware in the way of that cradle strap. You may be able to rig it, but it'll involve more trial and error. Compounding the tedium of that trial and error is adjusting each wheel tray for each new bike you mount. So, if you see yourself occasionally throwing different bikes on your rack, I'd recommend the Transfer or the TRS.
But the reason the Freedom made our list wasn't its methods, but rather its mass. The Freedom weighs XX pounds, and folds up much smaller than any similar rack I've seen. And though we tested the plus-size compatible, lock-equipped, tilt-away Freedom 2, there's a version that won't tilt away, isn't plus-compatible and doesn't include locks for $2XX. Very impressive for a rack made in Wisconsin. How often can you get the lightest, the cheapest and the U.S.-made option all rolled into one?