By Martina Brimmer, Swift Industries
Handlebar bags are a great accessory for long distances or commuting.
Perched at the top of an alpine climb, I rifle through my Paloma handlebar bag for a well-earned snack. A spork, multi-tool, camp knife and a little bottle of iodine tablets all stand at the ready in the handy interior pockets of the bag, while the rest of it is chalk-full of the daily essentials of adventuring by bicycle. For this eight-day circumnavigation of the Olympic Mountains, my bike is also outfitted with panniers and a saddle bag, but I have designated the invaluable space in front of my handlebars for my camera, sunscreen and the base layers I peel off as I work my way from ridge to ridge along foothills of the Northwest mountain range.
The most important features of any handlebar bag are:
1. Simple access to its contents
2. Optimized use of handlebar space
3. A secure and reliable mounting system
Easy access is a must. This minimizes stopping to pull out the basics along the way. Choose a bag that opens from the rider’s side and has a visible map case for queue sheets and charts. Another thing to consider: features like a zipper closure might be more challenging to open while riding than a basic flap.
Evaluate and measure your handlebar set up before purchasing a bag.
The mounting design determines how stable the luggage is on the bicycle. Prioritize a bag that does not sway or rattle. There are a few common ways to mount a handlebar bag, the first being with straps: two that wrap around the bars and one that goes around the stem. The second is by using a specially designed metal frame; some can be installed to the bars and at the stem, while other designs mount to the brake bosses, depending on the make of the bag’s mounting system requirements. Finally, there’s the randonneur rack and decaleur (quick-release) set-up.
When researching handlebar bags, weigh the importance of being able to detach the bag quickly for things like bringing it into a store to resupply food and other goodies. In many cases it can remain connected to the bicycle, but if you’re carrying valuables, prioritize a bag that features a quick release mounting system.
For long distance riding and touring, size is a very important consideration. The ideal volume of a handlebar-mounted bag will allow for practical packing, but shouldn’t tempt overloading to the point where it impacts the steering.
The Paloma, referred to above, has a stiff interior so that it bears weight while keeping its shape. Inner pockets add the ability to organize small belongings and leave space for large items to fill the main body. Subtle features protect your necessities from inclement weather and the bag is easy to open from the saddle. It mounts to the handlebars with either the Rixen + Kaul Klickfix System (detachable), or the Nitto F-15 frame (fixed). Both mounting designs place the bag flush with the top of the bars and add rigidity to make riding with forward weight responsive and secure.
The classic randonneur bag is boxy and rests on a traditional small front rack. The bag is held in place by an additional metal bracket that attaches to the headset or the faceplate of the stem, called a decaleur. Randonneuring demands steady cycling and riders look for fluid access to belongings without the need to slow or dismount. The bag should be stiff and stable on gravel terrain and chip seal and weather-tight through downpours and snow.
If you are heading out on a bike packing adventure you should look for specific remote riding features. It is critical to minimize breakable parts by avoiding metal brackets and racks — one doesn’t want to have a mounting system fail in the middle of the wilderness.
Soft handlebar bags that also cradle a bedroll have been developed for mountain bike touring. These models mount to flat bars using straps and bring stability to the front load. Companies like Oveja Negra and Porcelain Rocket offer solid designs for singletrack touring. Bike packing gear tends to be modular, so bags and pouches can be added to the main set-up.
Integration with your bicycle
The bag you choose will be influenced by your handlebar and brake set-up. Basics to consider when researching a front bag include:
• The inside width of the drop bars
• Accounting for brake lever, shifters and cables to calculate if the bag will impede shifting
• Cable routing may interfere with or be inhibited by front luggage
• Consider how a bag will affect your riding position, especially if your hands most often rest on the flats of the bars
• Bar bags may not be compatible with cross-top/inline levers
Riding with a front load will change the way the bicycle steers. To avoid twitchy steering and speed wobbles, try not to overload the bag. If experiencing a dramatic difference in handling, lighten the load. Because randonneur-style bags are supported with a rack, they can accommodate more weight, but steering response to the additional weight may also be influenced by the bicycle’s geometry.
Handlebar bags are a great accessory to distance or commuting cycling of any type, and are amazingly convenient for urban riding. They offer an easily accessible place for your essentials and provide the perfect spot for maps and cue sheets. The best designs make it easy to take the bag on and off and simple to carry over the shoulder when running errands or exploring.
Martina Brimmer is owner and co-founder of Swift Industries. She has been wrenching, pedaling, sewing and adventuring for over a decade. You’ll find her on mountain summits, pushing the limits of the Oregon outback and commuting through the city. All Swift Industries baggage are made in-house, tried and tested in the Pacific Northwest. Visit them in Ballard or at builtbyswift.com.