The Allure of the Handlebar Bag

[from the May 1973 issue of National Geographic; image via gustav531]

Maybe it was seeing too many images like this one.

[image via Harriet Fell]

Or maybe it was reading (and re-reading) Harriet Fell's account of "Paris-Brest-Paris 1975", in which she described packing her handlebar bag with over a dozen items, ending the list with "and a chicken, whole and roasted".

[image via thelewis]

Whatever the cause, the classic Randonneuring handlebar bag ignites my imagination as few other bicycle accessories do.

[image via MAP Cycles]

Just look at its boxy shape! And at the way it fits perfectly into the space between the handlebars - perched ever so appealingly on that miniature front rack above the front fender.

[image via Archival Clothing]

And who can resist the multitude of little pockets and closures? It is as if the bag invites you to trust it with your most cherished personal belongings: "Don't worry about anything when you are with me, Friend. I will keep these safe on the road."

[image via Rick Smith]

I suppose at the root of what attracts me to the handlebar bag, is the visual suggestion - reinforced by anecdotal accounts that have reached legendary proportions - that it turns the bicycle into a mobile home. You could go anywhere, and still have anything you could ever need, neatly organised and right at your fingertips... Including a whole, roasted chicken, if so desired.


  1. I've had an infatuation with handlebar bags for many years, but have always stopped short of any that were big enough to require a front rack. Perhaps someday I'll break down, but not quite yet...

  2. Loved Harriet's PBP report. Wasn't that a great adventure? Gene in Tacoma

  3. Based on my experience with laden baskets on handlebars, if I had a handlebar bag it would be used simply for lightweight things I needed to keep to hand. I find a laden basket on a road bike like my mixte does affect the handling and balance to a degree; I don't have a handlebar bag for that reason. (The Pashley Princess doesn't care how you load her up... as we both know these bikes are stable to the point of being bombproof.) I'd be interested to find out how your road bikes behave with weight up the front. But that little bag with all the pockets (pic courtesy Archival Clothing) is very alluring...:-)))

  4. Ahhh, my memories of handlebar bags are not so warm and fuzzy, they are more the type of the bag being too heavy (yes overloaded), whipping the bars around, trying to buck me off. I never achieved the balance and the love. Perhaps the wrong bike as well?

  5. I think whether a handlebar bag works really does depend on the bike. Some bikes are specifically designed to handle a front load, and some are not. I wonder what bicycles they are all riding in the first picture.

  6. I remember discussing front bags with Mike when I comissioned the Club Racer and, at the time, I was still of a mind that suspending any weight off the front would carry a handling penalty and I ultimately chose to forego a front bag rack (but he later talked me into having him build a front light rack for the E6s).

    Then there was that resurgence of low-trail bike designs that was ushered in with the (now defunct) Kogswell Porteur that aptly demonstrated that one could indeed build a bike that handled a front load well. If there is one regret I have about my ANT, it was that choice to forego a front rack... though, I've been talking with Mike about rectifying it in the future.

    Unfortunately, the change of mind comes too late to get in line for a custom Zugster waxed cotton rando bag. If ever there was one that got away ...

  7. it mostly comes down to the amount of trail... that's the single biggest determinant of how well a bike can handle a front load. and, since trail is determined by the fork design, converting a road bike with high trail to one with low trail for front load carrying ability can sometimes be as easy as swapping out the fork.

    the problem with low trail design is that there is a penalty when not carrying a load: the steering is very light feeling and doesn't respond well to body input. without direct input from the rider's hands, the bike will randomly "drift" from the intended direction. this is why racing bikes have high trail-- the riders can practically steer the bikes with their bodies, and the steering feels very responsive. high trail makes a bike easy to ride with no hands. but if you place any front load on a racing bike, the steering feels heavy.

    some people with steel road bikes who want to have better front load handling without replacing the fork choose to have a frame builder "roll" the fork blades, giving them slightly more forward curvature, which translates into less trail. it's risky and can only be done minimally without danger of compromising the integrity of the fork.

  8. if your hefty front load throws you awry, fit a wheel stabiliser:

  9. I enjoyed re-reading Ms. Fell's account of her PBP adventure; I felt a little sad that she never got to do the ride with Sheldon. I mean, is there anyone else (besides, perhaps, yourself) you would have liked more to have a chance at that ride?

    As for handlebar bags: When I took my first tours in the late '70's, low-riding front bags and suitable front racks (let alone decaleurs) were all but impossible to find. As a result, handlebar bags sat higher on the handlebars, which made them less stable. For many in my generation, that was our first--and only--experience with handlebar bags.

    Also, the majority of Americans (again, I include myself) who have toured have done so on racing or "sport" bikes, which are twitchier in the front than traditional touring bikes. Not many people have the money or the desire to buy a bike best suited to that ride they might take, at most, once every year or two. So, they (we) rode on bikes unsuited to carrying front loads and had yet another reason to disdain handlebar bags.

    I must say, though, that those old canvas bags certainly had style.

    On my first European tour, which I began at age 21 (and as a very different person from who I am now!), this is what I carried in my handlebar bag:

    --camera, lenses and film
    --pocket-sized notebook and pen
    --lightweight rain/wind shell
    --chocolate (We didn't have "energy bars" in those days.)

    We didn't have cell phones in those days.

    Now I wonder: How would I be a different person today if I'd carried a whole roast chicken in my HB bag? And what if that bag had been one of those old canvas ones TA/LaFuma-- and I'd used a rack and decaleur with it?

    1. I am an American and most of my touring miles were on a 1984 Trek 520, a randonneuring bicycle back then. It was great even racing down steep mountain descents at 50mph. After frame design, packing is the biggest determinant of stability with a front load. I never used a front handlebar bag but now I am looking for a small one for my fast road bike. I can put a rear rack on it, and have done so, but I don't want to carry all that much weight. Those big randonneuring handlebar bags are much too big. Any advice on the small ones?

  10. Justine Valinotti said...
    "Now I wonder: How would I be a different person today if ...that bag had been one of those old canvas ones TA/LaFuma-- and I'd used a rack and decaleur with it?"

    Well, for one thing you could have carried like way more condoms and chocolate!

  11. which type are you wanting to get? there seem to be so many great options...

  12. I was choosing for the longest time, then had it narrowed down between Ostrich (Japanese) and Berthoud (French). But you are right, there are so many options!

  13. The Berthouds are utterly gorgeous.

    But so are Rivendell's Nigel Smythes.

    I spent a little too much time many today, poring over front racks and baskets/bags. Then I checked your blog and voila! A front bag discussion! I have my eye on Rivendell's Nigel Smythe Li'l mounts off the handlebar, which will help the handling too, I think.

    Yes, so many wonderful options. Enjoy it, whatever you is a wonderfully tangible symbol of the romance of the road.

  14. The handlebar bag is just so smart and I love all the pockets and separate storage areas. I like my ride to be whimsical but my bag to be organized.

  15. Does that mean randonneuring is in your future?

  16. Handlebar bag…I have the abovementioned Kogswell P/R with an Ostrich bag on it…just the other day, it was carrying an unroasted at the time 5 lb duck and 4 lbs of potatoes (to be roasted in the duck’s fat), and my yoga shorts, a camera, my wallet and cellphone, a lock, a park 4/5/6 wrench, and a few pieces of outerwear as when I left the house it was 45 degrees (got up to 75 when I was enroute back home midday). But most of the time, I prefer a basket.

    In the end though, it’s just style. The basket ziptied to the rack is a much more versatile device – hard to strap a lot of stuff on the top of the ostrich bag. If you have some decent carrying bags (ie man purse, or as we call my wife’s bag, a manbag for a woman; really, purses are so much more footbinding unmobility making devices), you can have access to your camera, or whatever you need in a hurry while on the bike. Though I have done it, and have seen it done a fair amount, the “must have access to stuff while riding a la brevet / Jan Heine / etc etc is just a bit too precious...ok, so you can fish out a banana, so to speak, or have some food in your jersey pocket, but the whole “we must have complete access to all our gear and be able to “stow” our jackets while riding…I find that a bit ridiculous to sacrifice the utility of a basket in favor of the fancy bag. It’s a lovely aesthetic choice though, but that’s primarily what it is.

    And for carrying heavy stuff, like that duck (did I need ready access to it? Only if I were unspeakable)…having the load lower, ie low riders or panniers on the back, is much better. And, yes, for having weight on the front, once you go low trail, there’s no going back; but bikes with greater trail, like your Hilborne, and my former Saluki, are OK with weight on the front, not as nice as a low trail bike; but just ok, not as nice. So put the panniers on the Hilborne, and get a tiny bag for the handlebars, not that sits on the rack, but which you can have a camera and some food in (I use a Riv Keven’s bag, it’ll hold about a quart’s worth of stuff…so a camera, apples, some chocolate and my phone; the rest in a seatbag on the back, when I’m not using the Kog. Style points for the bar bags though…that’s what got me interested in it; and super important to have the front of the bag firmly attached to the front of the rack, which is another reason why a basket functions so much better than a bag – absolutely no sway when loaded (if you’ve cargo netted everything down that is.

  17. basket ziptied to a rack - try getting all this in your handlebar bag (I did, and that's why there's a basket)

    but again...more than 10 lbs of weight on a long distance ride...go low in the rear, or if you must, low riders on your low trail bike.

  18. She Rides a Bike - With a bag that holds pretty much everything one could possibly need, a whimsical ride is truly possible!

    Prentiss - My goal while on the Cape this time is to ride my first century. I think my ability to accomplish that will determine what's next...

  19. rural - I got a laugh from the imagery of your Ostrich carrying a duck : )

    If I get a basket in the future, it will be for my new mixte, and it will be a small, squarish one, shaped like a chest or a trunk - as opposed to a huge traditional basket-shaped one like I had on my Pashley. And it will be secured to a front rack. I found the set-up I had on the Pashley to be too high maintenance and unmanageable - although I do know many women who love it, so it is one of those things that is a matter of taste.

    The reason I wanted a handlebar bag on the Hillborne rather than getting panniers, is mainly because I want a distributed system: something on the rear and something on the front. If I have a saddlebag and panniers, I feel that the bike will be too back-heavy for me. And I can't see a front basket on a bike with drop bars, though on my mixte it would look great.

  20. another advantage of a bag as opposed to a basket is weather resistance-- i suppose the better bags are waterproof, or at least water resistant?

    and +1 to the versatility of a basket. for anyone who wants a method of attaching a basket to a front rack that is rock solid, skip the zip ties (which fatigue and fail after a short time) and buy some stainless steel picture hanging wire:

    the basket itself probably weighs no more than a small to medium sized bag, so there's no weight penalty to the bike. but if i were on a multi-day tour, i wouldn't want my wallet, camera and other stuff potentially exposed to the elements... i'd want them in a bag. i suppose the idea of a waterproof duffle bag strapped inside a basket makes sense...

  21. that top image is a real inspiration. I found it on flckr a few weeks ago and it's been my desktop since. Lovin yer blog!

  22. MMMMmmmmm, chicken.

    The idea of leaving home with a whole roasted chicken right there at my greasy fingertips and just riding along leaving a trail of bones and frantic barking dogs... NIRVANA.

    To return home in the soft evening light, fatter than when I left, and spend the last quiet moments before bed changing handlebar tape and picking the last savory crumbs out of my shift pocket...luscious chicken...soo good.


  23. Spindizzy - I don't even know what to say. You should be a writer. At least these comments are being preserved here!

    Hallows - Thanks! I have been staring at that image for months!

  24. I dislike low trail and I dislike handlebar bags, but a small bag (or furoshiki, no I haven't forgotten the pics request. I'm just slow) on a mini rando rack is good for stuffing gloves, vest, rain jacket, etc. in.

    "I wonder what bicycles they are all riding in the first picture."

    I ought to be able to answer that question from memory (I used to ride with that guy's brother a lot), but I seem to have packed the memory away in a box somewhere; maybe with the Rabbi Lev rubbing the TLR.


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