The first time I can remember being on a bike is when my father put one of those molded-plastic carrier seats on the back of his bike to lug my little toddler butt around Seattle. I’m sure it would be considered six kinds of child endangerment these days, but I can’t remember it being anything but a blast as a kid — just today I listened to a runt about such age giggling furiously from the comfort of a trailer as his dad veered off-road onto the grassy hillocks of Dolores Park.
By age 14, I went on a bike tour for summer camp and even commuted from one end of the city to the other for school a couple of times, lugging everything from clothes to books to food in backpacks and panniers. Later, in the suburban wastes of Temescal without a car and tired of waiting hours for a taxi, I would ride down side streets from the old Long’s Drugs on Pleasant Valley with bags sometimes literally dripping off my handle bars, loaded down with anything from potting soil to cold milk.
While that last arrangement certainly wasn’t optimal, it was effective. So when a good friend asked about how to haul shit on a bike, I was happy to oblige. If you’re looking to replace trips in a car or on Muni with a bicycle, there are a number of ways to safely get sweet loot to and from home.
If you have a shoulder bag or a backpack, there’s nothing stopping you from lugging a laptop, bag of groceries, change of clothes or assorted six-packs around town. I have the Hee-goer shoulder bag from Crumpler, a company which is known for their generously padded laptop sleeves. Considering my laptop is generally worth more than my bike (or, additionally considering my net worth, me) and is both the tools of my trade and the repository of my life’s current work, I figured the expense as a form of insurance. A further neoprene laptop sleeve couldn’t hurt. And it also works as a great overnight bag for flights, as it fits under the seat in front of me so I can also carry another bag for the overhead bin.
Of course there are any number of great companies making messenger bags, like local favorite Timbuk2. Why shoulder bags instead of backpacks? Because, oddly enough, they tend to shift less during riding if properly adjusted. You want the strap short enough so that the bag falls in the small of your back, and when rotated to the front the flap opens at chest-level. My Crumpler bag has an additional “Third Leg” stability strap to keep it in place even through fast turns.
If you do decide to go with a traditional backpack, look for one with a waist-cinch, which will significantly reduce any lateral sway. And when touring, or just schlepping a mess of stuff, the full-frame backpacks traditionally used by hikers is another good option, even if they make getting on and off the bike a little clumsy.
“Pannier” is just a fancy french term for rack-mounted bags. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, fabrics, pocket-count and expense. My favorites are made of rip-stop, water-resistant, heavy-gauge nylon with a combination of zipper, velcro and snap enclosures, and which have a handle or strap for going from bike to hand or shoulder after you’ve locked up and are headed for the stairs or elevator.
There are also lots of smaller purses in which to carry essentials, like tire-change kits, tools, rain gear and the like. Style-wise, better on the bike than around your waist in a fanny- or hip-pack!
Nothing says “post-adolescent refusal of adult maturity” like a front-mounted bike basket to go with your ironic rainbow streamers and twee bell. Kidding! A basket is actually a great way to haul the occasional boxy load, with even the cheap steel-mesh cage types weighing only a few ounces and therefore no drag on everyday riding, though they can make maneuvering up tight stairwells a little more awkward. They do take a modicum of tools and know-how to install, both of which any good bike shop will be happy to help you with.
Better yet are folding baskets. The first thing I want to add to my 18-speed cruiser is a rear rack with a pair of folding, side-mounted baskets for trips to the farmer’s market. They weigh the same, folded or not, but when empty make the bike no less manageable when walked or carried.
Whether to hang baskets or bags, racks are the essential element to turning a bike into a proper mule. Rear racks are typical, and come in two styles: the traditional three-point attachment, which connects to the rear forks and frame; or the single-point rack which attaches only to the frame or seat stem. The former is the strongest, cheapest, and heaviest (by a small margin), with the latter a little lighter, more expensive and less robust. The nice thing about rear racks is that they also serve double as splash- and mud-guards.
You can also get three-point racks for the front of the bike. The happy place in the price-to-weight-to-strength ratio are aluminum racks. While most racks are standardized for basket and pannier hooks, do make sure everything fits before dropping a debit card and signing on the dotted line. Manufacturers have every interest in making you by into their “system” of machined parts (see: Presta versus Schrader valves).
If you want to do serious hauling, trailers are the way to go. From kids to mattresses, water to lumber, people around the world have modified bikes and bike trailers to carry considerable weight and function. Streetsblog is currently running an awesome series on bike-centric solutions to carrying heavy loads in multiple parts, with the first featuring everything from an apartment move in San Francisco on bikes to the beloved Magic Curry Kart’s new ride, with stops in Brazil and Africa in between.
While there are a number of companies that make standardized trailers to fit most American-market bikes, when it comes to trailers, a welder is your best friend, so start sucking up to the kids at the Crucible. Also, don’t let your fixie lust get in the way of practicality — there’s no place a low-slung, 21-speed derailleur shines more than in applications that involve getting a quarter ton of meatbag, bike, and material goods past their inherent inertia.
If you find yourself at the grocery store with no options besides paper or plastic, load the double-bagged goods as lightly and evenly as possible and balance them off the far ends of the (preferably straight) handle bars, being careful to ride slowly and turn gently — or just walk the bike like a mule. Again, not optimal, but, oh, 90 percent effective in my experience.
And the same rule applies to more advanced transport. Do not over pack panniers or baskets, and always balance loads to the best of your ability between both sides of the bike. When in doubt, put weight to the rear — while I can’t exactly explain the physics behind such reasoning, it probably involves leverage or conservation of momentum or something. Regardless, it works. And try to leave enough room in each slot to pack in the contents of another — just in case something fails and you have to re-pack the lot.
As for security, only leave on your bike what you can afford to lose. That said, a little mini-padlock can secure some double-zippered enclosures, if temporarily. But your stash and your cash? That goes in the messenger bag or backpack that travels with you at all times, and never on a bike locked but left in public.
Also remember to carry some zip-ties, twine, or bungee cords to tie down shifting loads or balky bag closures. Or to tie on a load to a rack or trailer in the absence of baskets or bags. I know you might end up looking like some sort of pedal-powered Okie with your worldly possessions strapped and slung willy-nilly to whatever bike gear you’ve ginned up, but I’m pretty sure my grandfather was just such an Okie when his family arrived in Washington State, Steinbeck-style, and there is absolutely no shame in that.
Instead, there is only pride in such resourcefulness and ingenuity. Relish it.
Photo of the old but functional (if inefficient) Magic Curry Kart by Flickr user ecov ottos.
Jackson West has ridden a bike around the San Juan Islands, up and down the Cascades, in Vancouver, Seattle, Brooklyn, Austin and all over the Bay Area. He likes to keep things light. Have any bike-related questions? Send an email!