Bicycle, Gear

Review: Thule Apex 5

Bike racks.  Sure, you can get by without one.  If you don’t have a car that makes it easy.  But if you travel and want to bring a bike (or  bikes) with you, then you have to figure something out.  About two years ago I picked up what I felt was the best option through a team deal.  The Thule Apex 5 (retail $429.95) is a hitch mounted rack that, as the name suggests, carries 5 bikes.  The Apex is apparently a step above the Vertex, which retails for $309.95. Why 5 bikes?  My truck seats 5 people (plus a driver) and when it comes to group rides, bike races or road trips- it seemed like a good idea to have the option to carry as many bikes as possible- especially if putting them in the back of the truck isn’t an option.

When choosing a rack- there are a lot of options out there.  A whole slough of brands, mounting capabilities and price points.  If your vehicle doesn’t have a hitch mount- then you’re going to have to go with a roof mount or a rear door mount.  The roof mount is very stable- and provided you are tall enough to load them, you can  fit a number of bikes up there.  The least expensive (and least safe,) is the rear door mount.  They work- but if carrying your bikes is a regular thing- look at something with some theft deterrents and can carry your bike(s) more securely.  If you go with a hitch mount- you’ll have to figure out if you have a 1-1/2″ or 2″ receiver.  Many cars and smaller SUV’s use the 1-1/2″ size, while trucks often go with the 2″.  Some racks allow for both, but the Apex 5 only works with a 2″ receiver.  I went with the hitch receiver because I felt it was a good balance of stability, safety and I could easily take it off if I wanted to. That, and I have a hitch receiver mounted on the front of my truck, which allows for the use of the cab over camper while carrying the bikes. Here we have 5 bikes of various types loaded up.  It’s pretty crowded.

truckWhen I first loaded up 5 bikes of different types on the rack- I realized that the support bars aren’t quite long enough to accommodate the bikes with much room between them.  It didn’t help that my Port Townsend had it’s portuer rack on  it. There were flat bars, riser bars, drop bars swept back bars… A wide variety to be sure, but either way, the limited room on the rack makes for a really tight fit- and possibly some bumpin’ and grindin’ between the bikes- not something that I really want happening, especially if my carbon SSCX bike is on board.

A cool feature of the Apex is the security in it’s two locks.  One locks the expander knob into your receiver hitch (so people can’t steal the whole works)- the other locks a light cable across the top tubes.  They both handily accept the same key. The cable lock is quite light, but it is of course better than nothing.  The rack arms fold down nicely and securely, and the rack itself folds at the receiver to allow acces into the tailgate or rear door.  It can be a little heavy if fully loaded, but the rack feels solid.

The rubber straps that are used to secure the bikes have not failed, even in freezing weather.  They are handy in that the three securing points are all covered in silicone, so you can get the straps pretty tight and you don’t have any vibration.  So far so good, right?  Sounds like a pretty great way to carry 5 bikes from point A to B?  It’s OK.  In the past 6 months, the rack has essentially lived on my truck and I’ve been using it a fair bit more since we got our fatbikes. It’s been in these more recent months of multiple uses per week that my thoughts have gone from it being a pretty ok product to it being a poor product with poor customer service from Thule.

There are a number of moving parts used to secure the bicycle.  They can vibrate off easily and should likely be removed if not in use (which is a bummer.)  The parts that I’m referring to is the anti sway section that attaches to the seat tube.  Both the “Anti-sway with overmold” and the “Anti-sway angled extension” vibrate off of the “Cradle over-mold with insert.” I have lost three since spring.  That means the bikes can sway while moving, or more likely, when the hitch is lowered to get into the bed of the pickup. Secondly, multiple of the  “Cradle over-molds with inserts” have broken because of the pressure the bikes induce as the hitch is lowered.  This also prevents the anti-sway feature. So no anti-sway, which was a pretty handy feature.

When I emailed Thule about the issue, thinking that it could be something that could be improved by better design, and possibly a warranty issue, they suggested I take back my rack to where I purchased it.  Not gonna happen.  I’m not going to spend a couple hundred in shipping for the round trip to Seattle.  No way.

At this point I have a theory that Thule is Swedish for “Mediocre”.

It’s not a horrible rack, but it isn’t one that I’m very happy about either.  I’ll likely be getting rid of it this spring and I’m looking into getting something better suited for my needs.  It’s just ok.

I did learn a few things with this experience.

  • Figure out what your needs are:  Do you have bikes with a stepthrough frame or frame bags (in the case of my fatbike?) Really small frames also might be difficult to fit.  Full suspension bikes may prove difficult as well.  Though I haven’t felt that my carbon frame is at risk in breaking while being attached by the top tube on bumpy roads- I think a better way to secure a carbon frame would be by the wheels.
  • Don’t assume all racks are equal:  There are a lot of options out there, and you want to make sure that you are buying the right rack.
  • Pay the piper:  Expect to spend some money.   They aren’t cheap.  But they do carry your bikes around.  I’ve found a carbon fiber road bike on the side of the highway that some poor bastard lost off the back of his crappy garage sale trunk mount rack.  It might have cost him the bike.  Look into other brands besides Yakima and Thule.  I’m really liking the design of the racks from 1UP USA and Kuat Racks.

So that’s that.  I’ll be looking for a rack that can hold my fatbike and my cross bike now.  It’ll likely be maxed at 4 bikes, but I’d rather carry four bikes well, than five bikes poorly.  Now I just have to find out if a platform hitch mounted rack will allow for 4.8″ tires!




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