Here in Bellingham, WA, covered in trails, almost every car at the trailhead will have a familiar doohickey on the back. Well, anyone who doesn’t have tailgate pads. The doohickey is a flat, shiny set of platforms with a particularly “engineered” appearance. These are bike racks from 1UP USA, designed and manufactured in Wisconsin since 2001.
Unlike their competitors at Yakima, Thule, Rocky Mounts and Saris, 1UP has spent very little energy on marketing since its inception. We rarely see their logo on team or event sponsorship listings, and you won’t find many advertisements for their mounts at REI or in the pages of your favorite outdoor rag. So how did the direct-to-consumer rack brand build such a massive cult following? We chatted with 1UP owner Robbie Lange to find out the secret behind the brand’s sauce.
The company was started by an engineer named Cal who has since evolved. In the early 2000s, 1UP also made a stationary bike that sold about as well as its racks, but once exercise bikes shifted to an all-digital interface in 2019, the company opted to focus on the rack side of things and let those stationary trainers go. Lange says “we’re not a software company, so we sort of eliminated it.”
The design patent that pushed 1Up to the fore was about those two arms that hold the tires and don’t touch the frame. Until recently, the patent on these parts was strong, and if you saw another rack using this system, it was because 1UP had been paid through a license agreement. The patent expired in 2016, and we’re seeing more and more brands adopting the 1UP style, perhaps in hopes of bringing some of that cult following to their side of the trail.
Bike racks must withstand a handful of abuse from the bikes weight and turning force or potholes as well as road grime and salt. 1UP was one of the first brands to offer a rack that was compatible with fat bikes, and these had to be very sturdy to withstand the harsh Wisconsin winters. Of the rack’s known sturdiness, Lange said, “It’s kind of laughable. it’s always over-engineered. Overbuild everything. And it’s kind of in our DNA here; to make it sturdier than anyone else.
The Wisconsin brand was also one of the first to offer a rack strong enough to hold early 70-80lb e-bikes, and that need persists among people wanting to carry more than one battery on the trail.
While not unique to 1UP, another cool feature of most bike racks is that owners can order and replace broken parts from home. Companies usually make the bits that wear out or are frequently damaged for their older models. If you end up rear end with a 1UP rack on your car, you may be able to just replace the broken parts in your garage and keep the rest of the rack in use. In this way, the rack is truly an extension of the automobile, designed to be maintained over generations of riding.
Given the advantage of domestic sourcing, 1UP has not suffered from the massive delivery delays caused by the shipping freeze and the recent cycling boom. They’ve had a hard time keeping up with the new demand, but they’re currently shipping orders within a week or less of purchase, which is much better than some companies have been doing.
The company is not only doing well, but recently purchased Bellingham-based Recon racks last fall, adding a hanging-style vertical rack to its growing lineup. Lange says that “it’s going well, since we’re a bit bigger, we could use our infrastructure a bit more and offer the Recon Rack. So we made a really good deal to acquire Recon and it worked really well.
These newly added racks hold between five and six bikes by the front tire in an upright orientation, with a strap around the back to prevent swinging. With this addition, 1UP USA now has nearly every hitch-mounted rack option a mountain biker could want.
Now, welcome to this buried lede! Lange shared her perspective on how the brand managed to achieve such success with almost no story or marketing campaign.
“I think there are a few things leading up to this. You’re right, our marketing budget has been pretty lean this whole time. Ultimately, the bike rack is a unique product, because it lives in the back of the vehicle. And with the cycling industry, a lot of people like to look at other people’s gear. So at the start of a popular trail you notice things that stand out, and our design is so different from the import stuff. There are no plastic molded parts. It comes out like ‘Did someone do this in a garage?’ Then you get up and you’re like ‘ahh it’s a little more extravagant than that.’ I think that’s probably the main story. You don’t have to be so commercialized because the people using them are looking at everyone else’s stuff.
“And then we maintained a level of credibility. If anything happens, we have a phone number with credible people on the lines here. Everyone works in-house and they always have, so they have a full understanding of the processes here. We do not rent call centers or walk you through an FAQ. You can actually talk to someone. I still answer the phone here from time to time. Almost every day when someone goes to lunch.
The fact that so many people have owned 1UP racks for ten years or more and want to share this story with their friends to ensure they are making the right purchase; it’s also part of 1UP’s success story. Word of mouth is certainly not dead. 1UP USA has big plans to start supporting runners and events, doing some of that marketing they’ve overlooked in the past. We asked Lange what new gear we could expect from 1UP and, but he’s not so into the mess of previews. He said any new products they release will be available when they launch and will maintain the brand’s focus on long-lasting functionality.