SPORTWORKS INSTA-GATOR 'Wheels-on' rack for truck beds

Pickup trucks owners love the no mess, no fuss convenience of transporting all sorts of gear, including bicycles, directly in the bed.

Unfortunately, not many of us want to have our precious multi-thousand dollar bikes sliding around the back of a pickup.

One solution is to score a bed- or hitch-mounted bike rack which, in addition to stability and security, frees up additional space. A big drawback to many racks, however, is the time and hassle required to load and unload, particularly for shorter trips.

Sportworks, a Seattle-based manufacturer of quick-loading bicycle racks for public buses, claims it can reduce loading and unloading time to 10 seconds or less, by eliminating the need to remove the front wheel.

Sportworks' flagship product, aptly named the Bike Rack for Buses, is installed on more than 21,000 public transit vehicles across the United States, and is used by thousands of riders each day.

With their "Quick-Load" line, Sportworks has adapted their successful and easy-to-use bus-mounted racks for personal use.

While Sportworks is not the only company to offer racks that transport "ready-to-ride" bicycles by securing the front wheel, the Insta-Gator is the only "wheel-on" rack designed for truck beds.

Other manufacturers' wheel-on models are limited to roof-mount systems using towers and crossbars, which would be somewhat impractical for an open bed pickup truck. And that's where the Insta-Gator shines: ease of installation and use.

The basics

The Sportworks Insta-Gator rack employs a base which is secured onto the bed of the truck by the closed tailgate with ratcheting anchors. An adjustable-length arm with a J-style hook swings up behind the back of the front wheel and ratchets down snugly around the tire just behind the fork crown.

The front wheel rests on a cradle on the rack base, while the arm compresses the wheel against the tailgate to hold the entire bike securely.

When loaded, the bike faces the tailgate (which causes an interesting reflection in your rearview mirror at night if your truck has a brake light at the top of your rear window and your bicycle is equipped with a rear reflector or taillight).

The Insta-Gator rack can accommodate wheels from 20 to 29 inches in diameter, and tires up to three inches wide, although it's not recommended for use with bicycles that have head tube angles less than 68 degrees. Maximum bicycle weight for the rack is 50 pounds, meaning it will accommodate an upright tandem in an average long bed (7 to 8 feet).

For tailgate openings of 51 inches or more, up to three Insta-Gator racks can be used side by side, while trucks with narrower tailgates can only support up to two racks.

Installation and use

Installation of the Sportworks Insta-Gator was straightforward, exactly as advertised. The rack comes pre-assembled in the box, so it can be installed within one minute by inserting its two anchor straps into the gap between the truck bed and open tailgate, then closing the tailgate. The ratchets must then be tightened for a snug fit.

Once familiar with this process, subsequent installations can be accomplished within 10 seconds. Speed of installation is one of the big benefits of this style of rack.

The rack itself is light and compact enough that it isn't in the way, either in the truck bed, garage corner or storage area.

The instructions emphasize that tires must be properly inflated, and recommend a bicycle shake test before driving and after stops during long trips. Presumably, a slow leak in the front tire could loosen pressure with the arm and cause the bike to become unstable while driving in heavy crosswinds.

Sportworks recommends against using the Insta-Gator to transport bikes with baby seats, panniers, fenders, or disk wheels (a possible hassle for triathletes and time-trialists who will need to use a spoked wheel for rack transport ). The rack is also not recommended for use with aftermarket tailgates, or off-road travel.

Unlike lockable fork-mount systems, the Insta-Gator has no built-in security mechanism to lock the bike to the rack, or lock the rack to your truck bed. The arm can easily be unhooked and anchor straps unbuckled, enabling someone to steal the bike or the rack at any time. You'll want to use a separate lock if you plan to leave your bicycle unattended.

Any pickup bed that does not fit a bicycle with both wheels attached and the tailgate closed -- such as some of the compact crew-cab trucks, Explorer SportTrac and Subaru Baja -- will probably not work with this rack.

For trucks with camper shells, vertical clearance might be a problem with the Insta-Gator, as many bikes will be too tall when mounted. Shells taller than "cab-high" may offer enough clearance, as will deeper truck beds, depending on bike size. Keep in mind that loading a bike into the Insta-Gator with a camper shell would mean climbing in and out over a closed tailgate.

Fit & finish

Construction and finish quality of the Insta-Gator rack is top notch. The instructions are simple, concise and include excellent photos of the installation and loading process. They also describe the steps required to move the arm to the other side of the rack for driver-side access in detail and include spare parts necessary to facilitate that transfer.

For a road test, I installed the Insta-Gator in my Toyota Tundra longbed and used it to transport a mountain bike as well as a road bike. I found that wide, low-pressure MTB tires fit more snugly in the cradle than skinny, high-pressure road tires. I also found loading and unloading a mountain bike to be less frustrating with the additional clearance between the front wheel and downtube.

Because of the compliance of the tire, any bike will sway sideways over bumps more than it would with a fork mount rack. However, I was never concerned about the bike working free from the rack despite the noticeable swaying. If you tighten the arm enough when you load the bike, the wheel will not be able to escape even though it can flex sideways.

The Insta-Gator retails for $90 to $110. For more information on the Insta-Gator and the rest of their bike-rack models, check out www.sportworks.com


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