Fully loaded

This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 151.

Alan Ackroyd explores some of the options for carrying things by cycle and Caz Conneller of Cyclechic picks out a couple of stylish examples for summer.

Small wicker basket at the front of a bike
Wicker baskets conjure up summer: this ‘flower basket’ is a small version for everyday essentials (such as a handbag and water bottle) with a support from the handlebar stem. For heavier loads and larger baskets, you should fit a support going down to the front wheel nuts.

Cycling is the ultimate personal transport, it’s green, cheap, quick, direct, and all the other things that we love it for – I could go on! Bikes can also do most of the load carrying that will enable us to be released finally from car ownership. Shopping and most personal luggage movement is possible by bike and with delivery and collection services almost universally available for bulky items, car ownership is now far from essential to everyday life. Most bicycles can be easily equipped to carry up to 15-20kg safely and efficiently – and much more is possible with the right equipment!

This is a brief guide to some of the options that are available to start you thinking about how you can get more value from your cycle, but I want to start with one thing to avoid: please do not ride your bicycle with shopping bags hanging on the handlebars! If the bags chafe on your front wheel you may lose your shopping. If something gets caught in your front wheel you may go over the handlebars. I have seen both of those happen recently in Cambridge and in neither case was the result at all pretty!

For short journeys with only a little to carry, many people find a back-pack works for them. It’s cheap and easy and works on and off the bike. However, for anything but the shortest trips many people don’t like getting a sweaty back! Wearing a heavy backpack raises the centre of gravity of the cycle/rider combo and can make riding difficult.

My ‘entry-level’ suggestion is the traditional front basket. Firmly fixed, with the load securely inside it and within view, it’s great for lighter loads from handbags to running gear. Some people suggest that if you are carrying your handbag, looping the strap round the handlebars may stop someone reaching over and grabbing it when you stop at the lights. A small light wire basket for mounting on the handlebars could cost as little as £12 whilst a bigger wicker basket may be £25. Anything but the smallest basket should have a support going down to the front wheel nuts – about another £10.

Alan’s Elephant Bike with front rack and box.

Front platform racks, with or without a box (see below) have become quite fashionable lately. Prices start at around £15 but you can pay over £70! There are several different patterns of rack for different sorts of cycles and it’s very important that anything around the front wheel should be secure to avoid accidents, so if you are in any doubt, discuss it with your friendly local cycle dealer. The rack should normally be securely connected to the bike at three different points.

As well as platform racks which carry the load over the front wheel, ‘low-rider’ racks are available which make it possible to hang small panniers on each side of the front wheel. The lower position of the front load enables more weight to be carried whilst minimizing the effect on steering. This may be a good option if you have a child-seat at the back of the bike.

Heavier loads are normally carried on a rack at the back of a bicycle. Prices for a sturdy rear rack start at about £15 and can go up to several hundred. A rack on the back of your bike can be fitted with a box or a crate but load it carefully – it gets expensive if the shopping jumps out as you hit a pot-hole! For normal, everyday use a good rack may be around £25. For carrying heavy weights or mounting a child-seat you may be advised to pay around £50. For non-standard cycle frames (for example, with suspension) you will need a non-standard rack and should be looking for something which connects to the frame in more than one place for anything more than the lightest loads.

Low-loader pannier rack (front) and rear wheel rack

Many pannier bags don’t look and feel like traditional panniers: this Botanical Bike pannier bag has a classy floral print and is made from recycled materials but also clips easily on a rear rack.

Pannier bags can be either a single unit with a bag hanging at each side of the rear wheel or two separate bags. Avoid bags with long straps which may get caught in the wheel, be sure the bags connect securely to the rack (the rear rack being out of sight as you ride, you can’t see something going wrong before it happens) and make sure your heels don’t chafe the panniers as you turn the pedals. Pannier bag prices start at around £20 but if you want the best, absolutely waterproof, heavy-duty expedition standard, they’ll be north of £200 a pair. There are also special bags for the rear rack from shopping bags to picnic bags and bags that double as a briefcase off the bike.

Child carrying needs a separate article but it really is worth investing in a proper child carrier, appropriate to the size and weight of your child. Look for the British Kite safety marks or EU approval certification and make sure it is properly fitted. But if you have a child trailer or a cargo-bike for the school run, you’ll have realised that you are equipped for some serious load carrying!

Can you help us write an article on child carrying for the next issue of our magazine? Send us your tips and experiences.