Modified VO Handlebar/ Camera Bag Setup, Sans Decaleur
My reason for wanting a handlebar bag on a roadbike has to do with photography. I would like to carry DSLR and film equipment on scenic rides in a way that allows me to pause briefly, extract and use the camera quickly, then just as quickly put it away and continue cycling. Having carried cameras in both saddle bags and handlebar bags in the past, I prefer the latter for this task - provided, of course, that the bag is stable and not detrimental to the bicycle's handling. With a handlebar bag, the contents are convenient to access on the bike without dismounting or stopping for too long. I was eager to set up this system on my Rawland Nordavinden, enabling it to function as a go-fast dirt roadbike and camera bike simultaneously.
Having already owned a bike with a functional handlebar bag setup, the concept is familiar to me. On my former Rivendell, I had an Ostrich bag, attached with its native straps to the front rack, and supported at the top with a spacer-mounted decaleur. What I liked about that system was its stability, and the aforementioned ease of camera access. What I disliked about it was the bulk. The bag was larger than necessary. The myriad of leather straps, metal buckles and other appendages added weight. The buckles clanked against other metal hardware on rough roads, no matter how out of the way I tried to position them. And having a decaleur permanently attached to the bike seemed superfluous. But all this aside, using the same setup on my current bike was not an option. My handlebars are too low for the Ostrich and many other production bags. And for reasons too complicated to go into here, using a decaleur, even if I wanted to, would be problematic. So I took this as an opportunity to experiment with a decaleur-free setup. Velo Orange sent me their Campagne handlebar bag to try out for this purpose. This bag is considerably smaller than the Ostrich and just a tad larger than the small Gilles Berthoud. The design is otherwise very similar to the Berthoud. The VO bag's fabric, stitching and leather are noticeably rougher, which is reflected in its price ($110, compared to $225 for the Berthoud).
I made a number of modifications to the VO bag. First, I removed all of its native leather attachment straps with metal buckles, of which there were 4: two for the handlebars (you can see them in use here), one on the underside of the bag for attaching it to the center of the rack's platform, and one at the rear for hooking over the rack's "tombstone." Unlike on some other bags, the straps on the Campagne are not permanently attached, but threaded through, so removing them is easy. But I did cut off the D-ring attachments on the sides of the bag: They were stiff and sticking up in a way that interfered with the top flap sitting flush (can be seen here as well). I will extract the remaining bits of leather eventually, but for now it's just a rough cut. Removing the leather straps and buckles made the bag quite lightweight - though there are still metal buckles on the front and rear pockets that I would love to replace with elastic cords, for the sake of convenience.
Going for a decaleur-free setup, my main goal was to attach the bag to the front rack as firmly as possible. With the native attachment system, the single strap on the underside of the bag hooks around a central point on the rack. Attached in that manner, the bag will pivot and sway without a decaleur. So what I wanted to do instead was attach the bag to the outside edges of the rack at 4 widely spaced points. There are several ways to approach this, and others have done it successfully using a variety of methods including velcro straps and metal rivets. Here I tried strong nylon cords. My husband used his leather punch to make 4 holes in the bottom of the bag, through the fabric as well as the stiffener. The cords are routed through the rack's light mount/strut eyelets (see below) and tied together tightly inside the bag, as shown.
The design of the Nitto Mark's Rack and similar makes this style of attachment possible. Routed through the eyelets in the rear (and around them in the front), the cord cannot slide along the rack. Mark's rack is a popular front rack, and using nylon cords makes this a lightweight, inexpensive and very easy to DIY method with any small h-bar bag. I should point out that the cords must be of the non-stretchy variety and rated for outdoor use. And if your bag does not come with a floor stiffener, I recommend making one; it will be a much more solid system.
To attach the bag to the rack at the rear, I used a thick zip-tie. With a small handlebar bag, many find that this type 5-point attachment system is sufficient to keep the bag steady without the additional support of a decaleur, particularly when the bag comes with side stiffeners. I too found it acceptably stable.
But once I added zip ties to secure the top to the handlebars, the bag felt as if it were nailed in place. This can only be done on bags that sit level with the handlebars, as shown here. In the future I might substitute these zip ties with cords, or thin strips of velcro - the kind used to wrap around bundles.
While I seldom use the tops of the drop bars, it's nice to know that I can. The handlebar attachment doesn't interfere, because the edges of the bag flare out and leave room for my hands. And the bag is narrow enough, so that with my 42mm wide handlebars it does not get in the way of using the Campagnolo shifters. The only downside to this attachment, is that it leaves little space through which to fish the cord when closing the bag, but with my long skinny fingers it is doable. Also, with a threadless stem, this works really well when opening and closing the bag on the go.
While some might scoff at the use of zipties and cords in leu of buckles or velcro, this is the most stable, least wobbly handlebar bag system I have tried thus far. The bag does not budge. And another thing: everything is silent. No rubbing, clanking or jingling noises.
I have a very handy camera insert from Zimbale from 3 years ago, which fits into most of the bike bags I own - including the VO Campagne. I think this insert might now be discontinued, but you can still buy it from a couple of sources (try here). Alternatively, you could look for an appropriately shaped insert at a camera store. There is also Emily of Dill Pickle Gear, who makes custom inserts. Lots of options.
Since the VO handlebar bag closes toward me, I usually position the insert to close away from me, for an extra bit of overlap protection in case of rain or dropping the bike.
Inside the insert are two removable dividers, which makes for up to 3 compartments.
My DSLR with a zoom lens takes up most of the insert.
But with a fixed 35mm or 50mm lens, it only takes up one compartment. I can then store other items in the spare compartments, or remove the second divider to place a medium format camera next to DSLR.
I am very pleased with this system so far. The bag is easy to use, the camera is easy to extract without making a production out of it, and the bag is completely stable despite the lack of decaleur. Cornering, climbing, descending, rough roads, trails - great. I have only ridden with this setup locally so far, but I look forward to taking it on daylong rides out of state.
As far as the Velo Orange Campagne bag: It's hard to make judgments about construction quality until you've used a bag for some time, and I have not done that yet. Early on (and before I made any of my modifications), I noticed that one of the side pockets tore - or perhaps was not fully sewn in to begin with - where the fabric meets the leather trim. This prompted me to check all the other seams on the bag. Pulling on them, I have not noticed any defects, looseness, weak threads or fraying. I will follow up if anything else comes undone in use. The bag comes in one colour only, black fabric with honey-brown leather trim. The black fabric has faded a bit in the sun after a few rides, which actually looks nice. Slate blue-greenish. Almost every time I have ridden with this bag, it has rained - but not heavy rain, so I cannot comment on the extent of its waterproofness. Regardless, when using canvas bags I always wrap equipment in a plastic bag when it rains, just in case.
Basically, the VO Campagne bag is a budget-friendly version of the classic French Sologne design. It is a functional bag with a roomy interior, a large front pocket, two small rear pockets and two flat side pockets. Stiffeners (which I like and kept inside the bag), straps, and D-rings are included. The bag is also modification-friendly. And if I were going to modify a production bag, it makes more sense to use something like this than a high-end bag twice the price. In my opinion, the VO Campagne is small enough to set up without a decaleur using a system similar to what I described here. But for the record, VO recommends a decaleur, so experiment at your own risk. You might also be interested to know that Velo Orange will soon be releasing a new, US-made handlebar bag, manufactured by a Maryland sewing shop. Although too tall for my bike, it looks like a great design and I look forward to seeing it in use by others.