Front and Rear racks

Two fully loaded touring bikes.

Two fully loaded touring bikes with front and back saddlebags in addition to handlebar bags.
Click to enlarge.

On the Carrying the load on the bike page I discussed some of the issues around carrying the load on a bike as well as the various types of bags that are available to assist you. In addition to the bags you need to have something to hang them off and that's what this page is about.

A rear rack is a very handy item to have on almost any kind of bicycle that you will use for commuting, touring or even trail maintenance. With a rear rack you can easily move weight off of you and on to the bike instead.

Weight distribution

It used to be common to hear people talk about just using a rear rack on their bike for fully loaded tours. I actually went on my first tour doing exactly that. I rapidly discovered that the front wheel had a disturbing tendancy to lift up whenever any uphill slope was encountered and the bike felt really unsteady with most of the weight riding on the back wheel.

When I returned from that tour I looked into ways that I could better balance the load. It quickly became obvious that with the addition of a front rack and some front saddlebags I could get even out the weight distribution between the front and rear wheels while also removing a lot of stuff from on top of the rear rack. By removing this stuff the overall center of gravity on the bike would be reduced thereby improving the stability of the bike.

It turns out that this was exactly the right thing to do! During my Round Lake Erie tour I used the front saddlebags and as a result only the sleeping pad rode on top of the rear rack. When I changed to Arkel saddlebags for my Round Lake Huron tour the sleeping pad also moved off the rear rack leaving me with a very handy temporary storage location for rain gear etc on those days when sudden storms appeared.

The tendancy of the front wheel to lift when going uphill and the stability of the fully loaded touring bike were greatly improved following the changes.

Apparently using front saddlebags or panniers is quite common in Europe. I typically have about 60% of the gear weight on the front wheel although recommendations as high as 70% are common in Europe.

Tubus Tara front rack on my Trek 520

Tubus Tara front rack on my Trek 520
Click to enlarge.

Steering challenges

A common concern about running front racks is that it will interfere with your ability to steer. While steering does become slightly slower it's something that I've always adjusted to in a very short time (like ten minutes). To limit the potential for problems I try to have equal weight in both front bags and use a good front rack that doesn't shift around or flex.

Keep in mind that if you use a handlebar bag with your front saddlebags the handlebar bags weight can play a huge role in steering ability. If you notice a problem with steering try it without the handlebar bag or with a reduced load in the handlebar bag.

One more suggestion is to make sure that you don't have any straps lying loose near the front wheel. I like to make sure the straps are very securely tucked away from the wheel. Call me cautious but the last thing I want is to experience a spontaneous trip over the handlebars courtesy of sloppiness on my part!

Center of Gravity

The higher a load is on the bike the more the bike will feel shaky or wobbly when you are riding it especially if you are someone who likes to stand on the pedals when going uphill. This can also lead to a crash when going downhill as a wobble starts up when the bike reaches beyond a certain speed. If it isn't detected and controlled right away then it could lead to a scary adventure or a crash.

To prevent this it's important to balance the load, have a sturdy rack, try to keep the heaviest gear as far down in the bag as possible and do a few test runs before allowing your bike to go screaming at high speed down a steep descent.

Rack models

The Norco Axiom Tour du Monde rear rack on my Trek 520

The Norco Axiom Tour du Monde rear rack on my Trek 520
Click to enlarge.

When considering racks you should consider reliability, reputation and physical requirements. The first two are mentioned because the last thing you want is to have a rack break somewhere on tour especially if you have fifty to one hundred pounds of gear onboard.

Physical requirements refers to having a rack that can safely carry more weight then you intend to have with you and the physical requirements of the rack itself. As an example some front racks are designed to work with mid-fork braze-ons. Some rear racks have a similar braze-on requirement.

An additional concern comes into play for bikes with front fork suspension. The problem with front suspension is that most racks will end up being in direct conflict with the front suspension. As the fork hits a bump the suspension will retract causing the front rack to also bend. Something will eventually break. There are special racks available that help with this problem. They have a reputation for being expensive but reliable. One company that makes these is Old Man Mountain. Some mountain bikes also have rear suspension and the same comments apply for these bikes as well.

Carrying a single rear saddlebag

This likely has much more significance to light touring or even commuting rather then fully loaded touring but I want to make sure it gets mentioned. Some people worry about the effect on the bike of only running one saddlebag. The concern is that all the weight on one side of the bike will cause major steering problems.

For me personally I haven't experienced problems and I've had upwards of 30 pounds in one saddlebag without a second saddlebag on the other side.

Manufacturers

The following list are just some of the companies that make racks. If you know of others that should be added to this list please drop me an email.

I currently use a Tubus Tara for my front rack and a Norco Axiom Tour du Monde rear rack. I am very happy with both and intend to keep using them.

 

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