Ask RideApart: How Do I Load and Tie Down a Bike?
No matter what you ride, occasionally you'll have to transport the bike in the back of a truck or van, or load it on a trailer. I know some of you want to ride all the time, but you simply can't ride a dirt bike to the OHV area (unless it's a dual-sport), you shouldn't ride your sport bike to a track day, and sometimes they do break down. That's why knowing how to load and tie your bike in place securely, is such a valuable skill. The first few times you try, it can be a bit stressful but once you have done it a few times, it's a piece of cake.
First let's take a look at the equipment necessary to get the job done right. After that we'll cover the process of getting the bike into the back of your truck or onto the trailer, then we'll address the act of securing the bike in place.
What You Will Need
The most important piece of the puzzle here are a good set of tie down straps.
Most likely you will need a set of ramps. The more simple the set-up is, the better it will be.
If you have a bike with bodywork and clip-ons you may need a special tie down, like a Canyon Dancer.
Lastly, even if you are dealing with sport bikes or Harley-Davidsons, a metal dirt bike stool can be a life saver.
OK, obviously you are going to need a ramp in order to get a bike into a truck, van or trailer. Most dirt bikes can be loaded without a ramp if you have a second person to help lift it (one wheel at a time). For street bikes, in a pinch you can often back the wheels into the gutter, and use the added height of a curb to get a bike into the back without a ramp. One of the reasons I love lowered sport trucks is because of this; I managed to load a Kawasaki Nomad without a ramp once.
As far as ramps go, there is no need to break the bank; I used the same old plank for something like 15 years. Local lumber yards sell these for about $20, and cutting a bevel at both ends makes it a ramp. Put a shallow groove in in the underside, too, to help keep it on the edge of the bed. These days I use an extruded aluminum dirt bike ramp, 6 inches wide, with walls on the edge to keep the tire from rolling off. It is only rated for 400 lbs, but won't start to buckle till you put over 600 lbs on it. These sell for $50, but I bought my first one for $30, and after it buckled (Suzuki GS-X1100G) found a used one for $15.
If you are loading street bikes, sport bikes or cruisers, you probably want a hump back ramp, so this doesn't happen. Joe Cool there found out the hard way that the bottom of the bike high-centers itself very easily on the edge of the tailgate. Even on the dirt bike I was using for the pictures, you can see it comes within 2 inches. This issue gets worse the higher the truck, the shorter the ramp, and the lower the bike.
You are also going to need at least two tie downs (more on those later) and something sturdy to stop the front wheel. The front wall of a pickup truck bed and friction works fine, but if your trailer is flat without a wheel chock you are going to have to add one. For vans, especially rentals, you will need a nice, thick piece of wood across the back of the seats. If you do this frequently, and want your truck to last, you'll add a piece of wood to reinforce that front wall.
Hook the tie downs to the truck and get them up and out of the way BEFORE you start to push the bike up the ramp. In a pinch, I have started the motor and used the clutch to power the bike up the ramp, but it is risky. Even riskier is trying to ride the bike up the ramp, as countless YouTube videos show. Some people like to wedge the bike into the back of a truck diagonally, so they can close the tailgate, but I have never liked that because it requires you to trust the tie downs more than if it was straight in. If the bike is straight, and you need to slam on the brakes, all the force pushes the bike into the front of the cab, but if it is diagonal, it is going to want to rotate.
You don't need anything fancy, but it is much better to have proper tie down straps than to trust an old clothes line. If all you have is a rope, you are going to have to look elsewhere for info on how to tie proper knots, but otherwise the same placement will work you use with the straps. A set of four barely adequate straps from Harbor Freight, in the much easier to use cam lock type, goes for just $10.
A fancy set made specifically for bikes, like the ones from Pro-Taper will cost you much more, but the added soft loop on the end is much kinder on grips and switchgear.
You can improvise attachment points with a third strap, to keep the tie downs on a set of clip-ons, and off of the body work. Or you can invest in something like the Canyon Dancer shown below, which is well worth the $32 if you take a sport bike to track days occasionally. The center strap of the Canyon Dancer is specially covered to prevent scratches on your tank.
How to Tie it Down
Find two solid places at the front to attach your straps to. Ideally they will be wide apart and lower than the handlebar/clip-ons of the bike. This is easy in modern trucks, but on older models you typically have to use the stake pockets. For vans, if there is no obvious tie down hook, you can use where the seat or seat belt bolts to the floor/wall. For trailers, you'll just have to find a place. On an El Camino I once borrowed, my only option was to put a strap through the cab, leaving two hooks hanging out when the doors were closed.
You typically only need two tie downs per bike, and most people in the know prefer the simpler cam lock type over the ratcheting ones. Properly hooked up, the tie downs only have to keep the bike balanced, which is much easier than trying to lift it or hold it at an angle. That's why I much prefer to put the bike straight in.
Find where the hooks want to slide on the handlebar now before the straps are tight, or you will quickly find out when you take a corner. You want to avoid the wires, cables and switch gear with the hard metal hooks, which is why the Canyon Dancer or soft hooks are so popular. I used this dirt bike because it was easy to move around for the pictures, but a 400lb street bike, or a 600lb cruiser is the same. Just be certain that whatever you hook the tie down to in the truck/van/trailer isn't going to bend or break.
If you are going to be driving over winding mountain roads, or have a significant amount of travel off-road, you may want to put a tie down across the bed to hold the rear. Hit a bump while on the brakes or cornering and the back end can flop otherwise.
Even a small truck like this first generation Colorado can hold two street bikes, or three dirt bikes, as long as you don't go over the weight limit. If you don't have center hooks for the tie down straps, you need to carefully cross over the other bike's front tire. The tricky part is that after the first one is loaded, each additional one is that much harder to slip in. I have had a Suzuki SV650 and a Honda Hawk GT back here, with room for gear.
Once everything is in place and hooked up, pull the straps tight enough to compress the forks a bit, and both sides evenly. Stop on the street after driving a few miles, and just before you get on the freeway, to make sure nothing has shifted. Then you should be good to go cross country. It doesn't hurt to check your load at gas station/coffee stops.
What is there to know about unloading? Gravity does most of the work. The hardest part is getting the first wheel up onto the ramp, because sometimes the ramp will try to slip out from under the bike. Grab the nearest person and have them stand at the bottom of the ramp, while you start the bike down.
The dirt bike stool can also be used in a pinch, by putting it under the tailgate, and propping the ramp up on it. Now you can roll the wheel off the tailgate, and onto the ramp. This only works if the ramp is nearly the height of the truck bed, otherwise you'll have that issue with high-centering the bike again. The stool is useful for loading, too, if you position it as a step to help you get into the bed.
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