Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Product Review: Thule Raceway 9003 Platform Bike Rack

As a cyclist, one of my biggest conundrums has always been figuring out the right way to carry my bikes when I want to travel with them. Last year, when we traveled to Vermont and Cape Cod, there were so many amazing places that my wife and I could have gone riding, but we did not because we did not have a suitable rack and renting bikes when we got there would have been challenging since we were always staying in somewhat out of the way places. When it came time to make our cross-country trip, I resolved to make sure that we could bring along our two blue vintage bikes so that we could use them as a means of exploring the cities along our route. Given the distance to be traveled, I wanted to pick something that was going to be able to hold two bikes we great stability while still being portable enough to remove quickly if needed so that the trunk could be accessed. A means of locking was also important because both bikes carry a great deal of sentimental value.

After extensive research, I decided to go with the Thule Raceway 9003 Platform. This trunk mounted rack had the added benefit of platforms for the bikes' wheels to rest on and the general consensus seemed to indicate that platforms were desirable if one was going to be traveling long distances. The Thule seemed to meet all of the requirements I had set and, aside from being a bit hefty, would likely work well during our long journey.

A matter of days later, a massive box arrived on my doorstep and I unpacked it to discover just how enormous this rack actually is. Lifting it out of the box, it was clear that the contraption was going to weigh something close to 15 pounds on its own and with a couple of bikes, would put quite a bit of weight on the trunk of the car. A few people had indicated that an improperly strapped down rack would likely cause damage, but if set up correctly the risk should be minimal. Before strapping the rack to the car, I tested the fit of the bikes on the rack itself, figuring out how to get both bikes to fit correctly without any parts coming into contact with each other. Setting the platforms to match the wheelbases of each bike was a piece of cake as the tracks slid smoothly and the tabs closed securely.

Holding the bikes in place are two arms with a clamp at the end that is held in place with a threaded locking assembly. The clamp would go around a seat tube or top tube of the bike and hold it in place while the locking assembly secured the clamp and could be disengaged from the threading with a key, preventing theft. It is a rather ingenious design and offers excellent stability and bump absorption as the rack and arms moved together as a whole once the bikes are mounted. Each arm also has a fair range of motion, allowing for two equally sized bikes to be fitted without the need to be a contortionist.

Fitting the rack to the car was surprisingly easy, despite the weight. Following the recommendations provided by Thule, I set the rack to the correct setting for the car and pulled the cables out a bit from their reels. Wiping the trunk and bumper down with a bit of quick detailer to make sure that no unseen dirt would be ground into the paint, I set the rack down and quickly secured the upper cables, which have coated hooks to make sure they stay securely in place and will not mar the paint. The ratcheting system Thule integrated into this rack makes it easy to quickly dial in exactly the right amount of tension to the cables. Setting the lower cables was a little more challenging since the panel gaps on my TSX were quite tight, not allowing me to easily slip the hooks in. I had to pop the trunk slightly in order to get the lower hooks in place, but then just like the upper hooks, the ratcheting system does the rest and allowed me to quickly get the cables nice and taut. A lock on the right side ratcheting mechanism helps to prevent tampering by preventing the ratchet releases from being pulled or the knobs from being turned.

On day we were supposed to start our trip, I took the whole car to be washed and waxed before setting the rack in place and securing it. We loaded everything in the car, the bikes being the last items to go on. Everything secured, we hit the open road. Cruising on highway, I could see the bikes in the rear view mirror, somewhat obstructing the view slightly. The bikes would appear to bounce a bit over bumps and road imperfections, but it was clear that the entire platform was moving with the bikes and they were being held securely by the arms. Lateral motion was minimal and the longer we were on the road, the less concerned both of us grew with the bikes hanging out back there.

Arriving at our first overnight stop, we were able to quickly unload the bikes and stow the various extensions of the rack. The platform folds up while the the arms could be used to hold the platform in place. With the rack still in place, I was able to lift the trunk up and get it to stay open if the slope where the car was parked happened to face the right direction. If it was tilted the wrong way, I just needed to get a little help holding the trunk open while I removed what we needed. I make sure to double check the tension of the cables and there seemed to be little stretch in them so far. The next morning, we reloaded the bikes and were on our way. We would repeat this time and time again over the course of the next 17 days of our trip.

In NYC, to add a bit of security while we parked there for an afternoon, we used our thick cable lock to add a little more deterrent and parked the car with the rack almost touching a concrete pillar. Although that was probably a touch overkill, we figured better safe that sorry this early in the trip. By Kansas City, the cables had stretched a bit and needed to be tightened another notch on the ratcheting mechanism. In Moab, we put the rack to the test by loading it up with a pair of rented mountain bikes that had a combined weight of 63 pounds, coming in just under the racks weight limit. The Thule seemed to handle it without issue.

It wasn't until we were nearly in our home stretch, headed to just outside Las Vegas for our final overnight stay, that trouble arose. Somewhere in the Utah desert, I noticed that the bikes seemed to be bouncing more than I had observed at any other point on the trip. When we stopped for a break, I inspected the rack and discovered that one of the clamp assemblies had completely separated from the arm. We were fortunate that the bike was still secured in place with the wheel straps and had somehow managed to lean the right way to not get knocked off by a bit bump in the road. With the help of some duct tape and zip ties, we were able to nurse the rack to our destination that evening and eventually all the way back into LA.

So while the Thule rack proved to be the right choice as far as a solid rack for a cross country trip, the fact that it failed after only 17 days of use is rather alarming. Even worse, when I reached out to Thule to try to get the rack replaced or repaired under the warranty, there has been absolutely no response. The lack of customer service along with the fact that this rather expensive product failed with potentially catastrophic results would make me think twice about ever purchasing a product from this company again. Despite the generally good impressions of the rack, I have a hard time recommending it or any Thule product to my fellow cyclists because of how poorly my warranty request has been handled.

Over three months after I filed my claim, I have yet to receive so much as a response from the company. Several calls have gone unresponded and despite my having made several efforts to reach out to them via other channels, I still have yet to see anything come of my claim. Take that as a warning to purchase at your own risk should you ever need to get a warranty claim from Thule. In the meantime, I would stay away from their products and look at the many competitors that offer similar products at comparable prices.

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