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Baggage for randonneurs

by John Bayley with Pamela Blalock

The logistics of what to carry on a long ride and how to carry it are, for this scribe at least, one of the many attractions of randonneur riding. You have to keep the old boy scout motto, "Be prepared," in mind. You probably need to carry a variety of clothing to cope with the vagaries of weather in varied terrain over the space of several days, route sheets and/or maps to find one's way along the required route, lights for riding at night, tools and spares to cope with possible mechanical problems and some medications to deal with physical problems. At the same time, it is also desireable to carry the least amount possible in an attempt to maximise efficiency.

This article will focus on the `how to' aspect of carrying gear on a bike. It is targeted principally at riders taking part in randonees (a.k.a. brevets) on a self-supported basis and aims to outline some of the options available to them for carrying various necessities on the likes of Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP).

Speaking of an international event like PBP, it's interesting to observe the different approaches to carrying gear that riders from around the globe take. When this article was originally written, if you saw a rider with a large handlebar bag, the chances were that they are French. Similarly, a rider with a large transverse saddlebag was probably British and one with a rack top bag was likely from the U.S. But in recent years those large handlebar bags amd transverse saddlebags made their way across the Atlantic and now have a devoted US following. So one can no longer determine nationality on this basis!

But you can be certain that those riders with just a spare tubular lashed to their saddle probably have support !

A few general remarks

However, before examining any of these approaches in detail, let's first discuss some general points to bear in mind when choosing bike baggage. First and foremost, the bags used shouldn't affect the handling of the bike excessively. To that end, they should carry their load in a stable, non-swaying fashion so that their effect on handling is predictable.

It is also useful if the bags used can be fitted and removed quickly and easily. This allows you to bring everything indoors that you might need at a checkpoint, for example.

At the same time, the bags used should also be completely secure, with no risk of them coming off when riding over rough roads.

Waterproof qualities are also very desirable. If something is worth carrying, it's usually worth having it dry.

Reliability is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of bike baggage, but if you can't open or close your bag or get it on or off your bike, it quickly defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. With that in mind, try to avoid zippers where possible. When used frequently, especially in the presence of dust and dirt, they have a habit of sticking or failing completely. If you can't avoid them, look for double zippers or the `self-repairing' style.

Handlebar Bags

Until recently, when a well-known US-based rider began promoting the use of old-style large French bar bags, handlebar bags were often overlooked for brevet riding. However, they are very convenient for keeping light items, like brevet cards, money, maps and cameras easy to hand. If lightly laden they don't affect the handling too much. And if light and easily removed they provide the best security and convenience for valuables like the aforementioned brevet cards, money and cameras, since one can easily pop off the bag and carry it into a control or cafe'.

However, they can block your sight of the front wheel, which may be a disadvantage when riding in a group. Also, they cause the front wheel to flop around when stopped, which can cause a parked bike to fall. They are also difficult to fit if you use STI levers or very narrow handlebars. Larger bags exacerbate the problem. Millions of French riders can't be too far wrong though !

Also, as anyone who has read Harriet Fell's inspiring account of riding the 1975 PBP will be aware, they are also make a great `nose bag' for eating on the move - in Harriet's case, her 'bar bag contained a roast chicken !

Getting specific, the waterproof Ortlieb 'bar bag is highly recommendable. It has a very sturdy mounting system which allows the bag to detach easily when desired. It also comes with a waterproof map case which is convenient for carrying route sheets in an easily read position. The Compact model is a great size for essentials. In recent years, Orlieb added a lock to the mount, which in our opinion is silly. So one can now lock the bag onto the bike, keeping the bag safe, but what do you do with your camera, passport and wallet? The whole idea is to have valuables in the bag and take it with you. Fortunately, Klickfix mounting systems are compatible and do not have the silly locks.

It should be noted that some riders like to mount a 'bar bag behind their saddle. This can be done using a tandem stoker stem and a length cut from an old handlebar, transforming the 'bar bag into a small transverse-style saddlebag. Klickfix also make a nice mount for this purpose.

Wedge-type saddlebags

These are probably the most common type of bag that you will see on a bike ride. They come in a vast array of designs and sizes and utilise several different ways of attaching to the saddle and seatpost. Choose one that mounts securely to your favourite saddle and that doesn't chafe the insides of your legs.

If you intend to use a bag of this type as your sole means of carrying gear on a ride as long as PBP, you will almost certainly need the larger ones of the genre, such as those made by Kirtland, Jandd, Blackburn and Ortlieb, amongst others. The Ortlieb is, again, fully waterproof and doesn't use zippers but check to see that the mounting clip will fit on your saddle before buying.

Wedge type saddlebags can usually be fitted to most bikes without too much hassle, so are convenient in that respect, and they are usually also quite secure. However, they tend to have just the one main compartment, which can mean that you need to remove everything in order to get to that critical item that has burrowed its way to the bottom. They also tend to make widespread use of zippers, which, in the long term, have a tendency to fail.

Rack top bags

For the rider who likes to carry more than can fit in most wedge-type bags, this is probably the most common choice in the U.S. Rack top or trunk bags come in a reasonable variety of sizes, from those which just have the one rectangular compartment, to those with additional pockets on the top, back and sides, and expandable sections.

In general, they usually mount securely, while also being easy to take on and off, and the rectagular shape makes maximum use of the space available. Avoid those with padded sides, however, if volume is a concern, as they waste valuable space in an effort to add stiffness to the bag.

On the downside, they have to be used in combination with some kind of rear rack. This can take the form or a traditional rear rack which, depending on your frame, may or may not be easy to fit. Reputable and reliable models include those made by Tubus, Bruce Gordon or Blackburn.

Another alternative are the newer `beam racks' which mount on the seatpost and provide a platform on which to mount a rack top bag. These, however, tend to have a low weight capacity and to be relatively heavy. If you're interested in this style, Topeak have a neat integrated rack and truck bag.

Rack top bags can, when heavily loaded, affect the handling in a detrimental fashion because the stability of the load carried depends, to some extent, on the stiffness of the bag itself. They also tend to make heavy use of zippers.

Rack top bags worthy of mention include those made by Jandd, as well as the Topeak mentioned above.

Transverse-style saddlebags

These are the large Carradice saddlebags that you will typically see British riders using during PBP. They attach to the saddle and seatpost and sit crossways behind the rider.

At first sight, you may think that they would have a bad effect on handling. However, they attach to the point on the bike that is designed to carry the majority of the bike's load - the saddle - and all the weight is within the wheelbase, so their effect on handling is less than if the same amount of weight were carried in any other way. They are quite voluminous and can also carry more weight in relation to the weight of the bag itself than other baggage, but you probably won't want to test this theory on PBP !

On the downside, they don't attach easily to many modern saddles, having been designed in the days when leather saddles with saddlebag loops were standard equipment. Fitting one to a small framed bike can also be difficult, as the distance between the saddle and the top of the rear wheel must be large enough to accomodate the bag. Carradice now make a quick release support for their bags. The design is such that it might not work well on smaller frames, or those where there isn't much distance between the tire and the saddle. Bagman produced a lightweight support to aid in keeping the bag off the rear wheel and back of the riders legs. The Bagman design is very stable, but not quick release. It does work well on small frames.

Emily O'Brien has had lots of time to think about the perfect saddlebag while doing many 1200km brevets on her fixed gear bike. She came up with lots of clever improvements and she designed and mede her own saddlebags. As other riders saw her beautiful handmade bags they asked her to make more and she did ... Dill Pickle Bag.


Panniers are the solution for those who like to carry plenty of gear. They make it easier to organise your belongings, which, after two or three nights with minimal sleep, might do no harm !

There are a plethora of different styles available, some with one big compartment and others with numerous pockets and dividers. Pick one to suit your need to organise and compartmentalise !

Panniers can be fitted to the front or rear of the bike, when used with a suitable rack. For the purposes of randonneuring, front panniers might be best avoided as they increase the frontal area of the bike, and hence, the wind resistance. On the other hand, in that position, they do a nice job of dampening road shock.

Pay particular attention to the pannier mounting system, which should be secure. Avoid those panniers which use springs as part of the mounting hardware - these have a tendency to stretch or break. Check the combination of rack and pannier carefully, making sure that the pannier cannot swing into the spokes. Also check that you have sufficient heel clearance.

At the risk of sounding like an Ortlieb snob, I would again recommend their panniers. The mounting system is excellent, secure but easy to fit and remove, and the bags themselves are waterproof, albeit expensive.

For PBP in 1999, Pamela and I rode tandem with an Ortlieb handlebar bag and panniers on a Tubus Cargo rack.



If you can't get some of these items at your local bike shop, in addition to the links mentioned above, you might want to contact the following distributors.

Harris Cyclery
Wallingford Bicycle Parts