Pannier racks are a bit like septic tanks. We tend to ignore them unless they mess up, at which point their deficiencies rule our lives. Most of us use our racks without any problem, and we take them for granted. But some cyclotourists have had racks that fail, racks that wobble under normal loads, or racks that weren’t made to hold the stuff we want, where we want it. It’s easy to avoid these problems, so I’ll explain how.
First of all, avoid those rear racks that clamp only to the bike’s seat post. They can only hold a few pounds, and even then, most of them bob up and down unnervingly when you ride. Those racks came to market only because so many bikes have been sold with a grave design defect — no mounting points for conventional racks. There are better ways to deal with that defect, which I’ll describe below.
Second, unless you’re carrying a total load of around 15 pounds or less, you should use a combination of front and rear racks. It is somewhat counterintuitive that putting weight on the bike’s steering would improve the bike’s handling, but it most certainly does. For proving this, we owe thanks to Jim Blackburn, the since-retired founder of Blackburn Designs.
In the early 1980s, Blackburn directed a series of experiments mixing various combinations of front and rear panniers, high and low pannier mounting, and handlebar bags. Blackburn and his test rider, Jim Gentes (who went on to found Giro helmets), found that the best-handling combination was high-mount rear panniers, low-mount front panniers, and a bare minimum of weight in a handlebar bag. Because of this finding, Blackburn went on to design and build his Lowrider front pannier rack. Adding front panniers does make your bike’s steering feel slower, but in a way that feels benign and easy to control. By contrast, adding weight in a handlebar bag makes the bike resist your control, so a handlebar bag should be restricted to holding a few light items.
Blackburn also found that an acceptable alternative way to configure your load was to use high-mount front panniers instead of low-mount. The bike still handles acceptably this way. This is important to know because off-road tourists generally need high-mount panniers for the improved ground clearance. In addition, a conventional high-mount pannier rack has a small top shelf which can hold more of your possessions. This is of particular interest to tandem tourists, who have less pannier and rack space per person than single bike tourists.
How your rack attaches to the bike is usually not an issue if you have a regular touring bike. The conventional attachments are as follows:
For some riders, how a rack attaches to the bike is a big issue. There are no rack eyelets on full-suspension mountain bikes, whose designers think only of racing and can’t imagine wanting to actually go somewhere on such a beautiful machine. Sad, because mountain bikes can make great expedition touring steeds. Millions of “hardtail” (no rear suspension) mountain bikes have the same drawback. These bikes, many of them in the campus commuter price ranges, don’t have any rack eyelets, for thoroughly stupid reasons (it’s that racer wannabe thing). Fortunately, there’s an easy answer for these riders: get a rack that is made to attach to these bikes in a way that doesn’t require conventional rack mounts. For years, Old Man Mountain had this business to itself; lately, other rack companies have begun to enter the fray. Different brands have different ways of attaching the racks. The Old Man Mountain racks attach to the brake bosses and wheel dropouts. As bicycles without rack mounts keep changing in design, the mountless rack companies continue to adapt, and a bike you thought was unrackable may not be, so don’t give up.
Good-quality racks are available in both aluminum and steel. Is one material clearly better than the other? Philosophers and metallurgists could argue the point forever. Both can make a strong, lightweight rack. Steel is field-repairable, meaning the village blacksmith in Nepal can at least try to fix your steel rack. The importance of this is reduced by the fact that good-quality racks rarely fail, and when they do, worldwide express shipping gets a rack sent anywhere in a short time.
Almost all panniers fit almost all racks. Brand after brand uses a set of hooks that hold the top of the pannier to the top of the rack, and a bungee cord to snag a hook on the bottom of the rack. Sometimes there are additional straps to reduce pannier wobble. The parts are simple enough that makeshift field repairs and dollar-store bungee cords can work.
What makes one rack better than another? It depends on your needs. A credit-card tourist may be best served by a lighter weight rack. (In today’s lexicon, the conventional Blackburn rack would be an example of a lighter weight rack.) Such a rack weighs as little as possible and doesn’t cost much. High-quality steel racks may weigh slightly more and some cost a lot more. But any discussion of “steel does this and aluminum does that” is blurred by the excellent reliability history of some brands, notably Old Man Mountain. The material matters less than how well the rack was designed to use that material. Differences in rack weights aren’t terribly interesting. I weighed a motley collection of racks and found the lightest front rack was an old Blackburn, at 0.68 pounds; the heaviest front rack, a Surly steel rack at 2.97 pounds. A lightweight rear Blackburn rack was 0.99 pounds; the heavy Surly rear rack was 2.46 pounds.
How worried should you be about rack failure? Very little, and probably not at all. For most of us, touring a week or two at a time, a pair of Blackburn-class light racks is very unlikely to fail. For expedition tourists or rough-road mountain bike tourists, the extra stress on the rack makes it cheap insurance to buy the “boutique” quality rack. In racks, stiffness is your friend. A stiffer rack helps the bike handle more securely and rattle less. Bruce Gordon racks add a nifty stiffness feature: they have mounting bosses for short-length fender stays, so your fenders will be stiffer too. Unfortunately, there is no standardized way to measure rack stiffness, so I can’t tell you to look for a particular specification.
When I go riding, it’s usually on a bike with a rack. Even when you’re not touring, it’s nice to know that you can bring home a nifty rare book from a garage sale or a surprise dessert item for your family. Far from being just a way to lug camping gear, a rack is a way to make every bike ride a little more fun.