As with bicycle frames, the best material for racks is chromium-molybdenum steel tubing (aka "Cro-Mo"). Unfortunately, as with bicycle frames, the trend is to use much less expensive aluminum. There are still some high end racks made out of 4130 Cro-Mo, including ones from Tubus and Robert Beckman, but you'll pay a high price for these racks. For the ultimate in long term durability without paint damage, a couple of manufacturers offer stainless steel racks. For heavily loaded touring the Cro-Mo racks represent a worthwhile expenditure.
Mounting System to Seat Stays
The better racks have a seat stay mounting system that doesn't require bending of flat brackets to match the seat stays. The brackets should be adjustable in width (to match different widths of seat stays) as well as pivoting up and down (to match different heights of seat stays) and rotating (to match different angles of seat stays).
Seat Stay Bracket Length
The brackets that come with many (or most) racks are too short for a lot of hybrid bicycles. See Extended Seat Stay Brackets for information on how to solve this problem.
The longer the platform length, the further back panniers can be positioned, increasing heel clearance. However some racks with 33 cm platforms, such as the REI rack, are positioned further back from the seat stays, so the shorter platform is sufficient.
Most racks have a mount for a reflector or tail light, though a few lack this feature.
Long struts on a rack increase the side-to-side sway when fully loaded. On a rack with triangulation, one or more of the pairs of struts angle inward. This makes the rack more stable in terms of side to side sway. Struts that cross each other and are welded together also provide triangulation of sorts to reduce sway.
For use with panniers, the "dog leg" rear strut is essential as it prevents the pannier from knocking into the rear wheel when the pannier is mounted toward the rear of the rack. I have not included any racks that do not have the dogleg strut.
Side Rail Design
The side rails should never be stacked where the support struts are welded (or bolted) to the top platform. Double rails make it difficult or impossible to mount certain types of panniers. It's especially important that there be no double rails near the rear of the rack.
The amount of weight that the rack is designed to carry. A fully loaded tourist could easily be carrying 50 pounds (22kg) of gear. Some of these racks can carry considerably more than this.
The sturdier racks have extra struts which can increase the weight by a couple of hundred grams. The racks that use Cro-Mo are lighter because they are able to use smaller diameter tubing which more than makes up for the difference between the weight of steel and aluminum.
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