It all started with a guy building a dual-suspension mountain bike, his focus on the rear suspension linkage, and a realisation: single pivot suspension designs led the rear wheel in an arc, while a four-bar linkage allowed a different pivot point and rear wheel path. Now, what if there was a way to apply a linkage like this to a bike rack? And what if that was able to solve one of the biggest drawbacks of hitch racks?
As a mechanical engineer at Saris, BJ Bass was admittedly a touch more informed than the typical back-shed tinkerer, and he was in a position to pitch the concept to his colleagues as they worked on a broader plan to improve access to the rear of the vehicle when using a bike rack. Together, they would puzzle out whether there was merit to the idea.
That unexpected lightbulb moment would prove the first step on a years-long journey for the engineering team at Saris – one that would take them from a simple hypothesis, through multiple phases of advanced product development and testing, and finally, into the production of the easiest-to-use hitch rack on the market.
A hitch rack – mounted on the rear of a car, into a square receiver – has a lot to commend it, including its lower drag compared to a roof-rack and the significantly reduced likelihood that you’ll write your bike off driving into a garage roof. But it has one major drawback – rear access. Many hitch racks on the market require some combination of the removal of bikes, multiple actions and heavy lifting. Saris recognised that there was a need to provide hatch access in a better, easier way.
To tilt most racks for hatch access, you’ll generally need to make around six movements to release the rack — not an easy task if you’re juggling a bag of kit, or a child, or a load of shopping. The weight of the bikes and the rack will then drop down and away from the car to allow the hatch to open, which in most cases requires you to muscle around the weight of the bikes and the rack when it’s time to resume your journey. That’s if you can tilt the rack with the bikes on it at all – if not, you get to unload all the bikes on the rack, find somewhere to leave them whilst you’re getting what you need from the hatch of the car, and then refit them.
Little wonder that you may sooner just leave the rack on, and drape yourself over the rear seats to try and access whatever lies agonisingly just beyond your fingertips.
It is, put mildly, not ideal.
Which brings us back to that suspension linkage, and its implications for the design of Saris’ new hitch rack, the Glide. That design, turned on its side, would allow the centre of mass of the bikes and rack to stay at the same height as it moved away from the back of the vehicle. In effect, the mass of the rack and the bikes move out, rather than down, in a smooth gliding motion – no weight dropping down, no removal of bikes, and a single-handed, single-step operation.
Development from a concept to a finished product is a long and exhaustive process, as Saris’ Chief Mechanical Engineer Kevin Askling explains: “a project of this scope is a multiyear effort… we wanted to do something special.” Exhaustive testing of concept and benchmarking against competing products on the market followed from the original idea, and “once the design direction was set, it took about two years to detail design, test, and tool to get the rack ready for mass production,” Askling says. At the end of all that, the Glide was ready to meet the world.
The resulting rack is a sleek, stylish bit of aluminium that is a significant evolution from the swinging style typically seen with hanging bike racks, allowing seamless integration into an active life.
And whilst it successfully meets its brief of providing easy access to a vehicle’s hatch, it’s also been developed to make life easier for a family of riders, by a family-owned company of riders. As such, it has a few other tricks up its sleeve in accommodating bikes of all shapes and sizes. Holding a fleet of bicycles on hand for testing, Saris factors in everything from small children’s bikes to large mountain and road bikes.
To ensure that the Glide’s ability when carrying bikes met the high standard of its clever tilt process, Saris’ engineers dedicated significant time to refining the rack’s bike cradle. “To fit more bikes, especially small or oddly shaped frames, the hold-down cradles needed to adapt to the shape of the bike,” Askling says.
“We made them low profile, to better fit into the nooks and crannies of bike frames. We also designed them to rotate and attach at different angles. In parallel, we [developed] a new hold-down strap… (it’s) the best and easiest strap that we have ever developed and makes securing bikes easy.”
There are numerous challenges to overcome when designing a rack to haul a large cargo of bikes – including distance of bikes from the bumper, distance of their wheels from the ground and clearance for the whole spectrum of trunk or tailgate sizes and shapes. The only solution is a hard-earned combination of experience and physical testing on a variety of vehicles including sedans, hatchbacks, flat-back SUVs, pickup trucks and more. And experience is something that Saris has plenty of, with an extensive range of hitch bike racks on the market and almost three decades in bike rack manufacturing.
When Sara and Chris Fortune purchased a small bike rack company in Wisconsin almost 30 years ago, they probably couldn’t have anticipated the path that things would take — the evolution of their local niche of the cycling industry into one that would market products to the world, and the evolution of the internet into a service that would allow the launch of a new product on a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter. But it has, and they did.
With the arrival of the Glide, Saris joins a small but growing list of forward-looking cycling brands that have successfully used Kickstarter to launch their new arrivals. “We knew that we needed to find a unique and different way to educate customers about new products, and Kickstarter provided that opportunity to us,” explains Sarah Reiter, Saris’ Customer Centric Strategist. The appeal of the Glide was swiftly apparent — the product was fully funded in three days and eventually raised 218% of the funding goal. As Reiter puts it, “[our Kickstarter backers] provided the final validation of the features of the product.”
Of course, the story of Saris is a bigger one than just that of their latest release — the latest in a string of products that have spurred the brand’s evolution from a small bike rack manufacturer to an international company producing market-leading items across multiple categories. From a converted Civil War-era farmhouse on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, Saris has blossomed into something of a bastion of US production, employing close to 200 people and stubbornly resisting the pull to shift manufacturing overseas.
Over the years, Saris has expanded beyond bike racks to now include production of power meters (under the brand PowerTap), one of the world’s leading trainer brands, CycleOps, and the Bike Fixation brand of bike parking and infrastructure products. And with over 90% of the parts used in their products sourced within 120 miles of its factory, Saris has the agility to respond to stock demand and shortages with far greater speed and reduced environmental footprint than if they were working with a manufacturer in Asia.
The brand’s story is a company culture and an identity intrinsically linked to two things: innovation and domestic manufacturing. With the launch of the Glide, Saris have proven that the two can go hand-in-hand.