Maybe you’ve had a look at my other articles and noticed that I’m pretty big on the utility side of things when it comes to bicycles. Maybe you’ve even thought that you should look into a bike that will open up the same sort of possibilities for you and your daily needs (by that I mean a bike that’s not marketed to magically transform you into a racing champion). Maybe you’ve even purchased one of these bikes and now you’re sort of overwhelmed by all the possibilities of using it. Well, the first step is usually to get a rack for the back, probably aluminum but hopefully steel, and a set of panniers, which are probably Ortlieb or Arkel since that’s what I see most of the time. If you’ve made it that far, congratulations! You’re way ahead of the game already and your basic commuting/grocery/errand running needs can all be done on a fun form of transportation. The world of loading up your bike is bigger still though, and the next step is front loading.
I may as well address the issue of “low-trail” frame geometry (briefly) because it somehow comes up every time anyone puts even a handlebar bag on a bike. To give you the most basic knowledge of what “trail” is, it’s the measurement between the steering angle of the bike and the place where the front tire contacts the road surface. Randonneuring guys swear by the low-trail thing, or at least some of them do. It makes sense that they put so much thought into it, being that you see so many of them sporting those fancy and ultra-expensive Gilles Berthoud bags and decaleurs and stuff on the front of their bikes. Just so that no one misunderstands, I think randonneuring is awesome, and it’s definitely my far-and-away favorite of all athletic cycling pursuits. I just don’t do it. Anyway, back to low-trail; Jan Heine writes quite a lot, and quite well, on the subject so I’ll just defer to him for any actual questions you might be able to come up with. Maybe now he’ll give me a free subscription to Bicycle Quarterly for the shout out.
OK, so now that you’re worried about whether you have low enough trail to put stuff on the front your bike, I can tell you not to worry. I don’t know if either one of my bikes has low-trail front end geometry, but they probably don’t since they’re not purpose-built rando machines. I put all sorts of stuff on the front of my bike anyway; groceries for a week, camp cooking supplies, boxes to be shipped, work supplies, whatever.
I’ve been doing all that with a rack that has a basket on top. I’d say the basket thing is a good step 2 after the rear rack and pannier thing (I actually prefer saddlebags, but…you know). You can do a lot with a basket, plus it weighs almost nothing, doesn’t get in the way, and is really cheap. Depending on your needs, a rear panniers/basket combo or a big saddlebag/basket combo might be the farthest you ever have to go. If you do any kind of camping or touring, and want to have a little bit of extra space you might find yourself moving toward step 3.
I actually just got to step 3, which is additional low storage up front. For me that meant a Salsa Down Under Rack and front panniers. I’m still saving up for my Swift Industries panniers, so I borrowed my brother’s Ironweed ones for the photo. I think a separate top rack and low rider rack set-up is perfect because of the added versatility it gives. If I were embarking on a world journey and needed the absolute best-of-the-best, I’d just get a Nitto Big Front Rack and leave it alone. My budget and needs don’t quite reach that far, though.
For a lot of people, the first five minutes on a front-loaded bike are the most important because that’s your adjustment period. Some people take to the feeling of weight right away, but others need that time to get their brains rewired the deal with it. Personally, I think it feels great and gives the steering a nice predictable quality. Super low speed handling is kinda weird, but riding a bike at 1mph is weird anyway. Just make sure to give yourself time to take a couple of turns and your body will figure it all out for you.