Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bags, Racks and Supports

Any time I buy a new bike for myself or anyone else, one of the first things I pick up to go with it is a little seat bag. A little wedge bag to go under the saddle, that is. Hooks over the seat rails and around the seat post for support, and perfect for carrying keys, a few bucks, a mini tool, a patch kit, maybe a spare tube, and some ID (you can't predict when you're going to get hit, but you can try to avoid being a J. Doe). You know the type, and probably have one -- or maybe a few.

These little saddle bags (even the largest I have, which is also the oldest, at nearly 20 years) have never needed any sort of support from below. But they don't hold a lot, either, and while they're fine for the kind of riding I typically do, they fall short for a day-long or multi-day excursion. Even for quick rides to the racquet club for a dip in the pool, they're too small to add any value.

For longer rides and other situations in which you need to carry stuff around, you need bigger bags. Backpacks are fine, and I've used them often enough. But since their weight is on your back, you have to carry them as well as move them.

Handlebar bags are another option, and I've got a handful of these, of different types and sizes. Some have built-in supports or plastic mounts that quick-release from the bike, and others are free-hanging. I've got both types and they each have advantages and disadvantages. Large saddle bags, trunk bags and panniers are also a good option, if you need still more space. You can even go as far as hanging shopping panniers off the side. I've got a pair of those and have put them to good use when vacationing with a bike.

With handlebar bags, you only really need to support them from underneath if they're big and you're loading them up. But for pretty much anything hanging off the back larger than a seat wedge, you need a rack or some other sort of bag support.

I've had a rack on at least one of my bikes since the mid-'90's, when I rebuilt my Paramount as a commuter bike. I had a cheap black aluminum rack on that bike (which has rack mounts both on the dropouts and brazed onto the seatstays), and hung a pair of Blackburn panniers on it to hold my laptop, clothes and toiletries. That rack also offered plenty of top capacity for a tent, sleeping bags and ground pads when the bags were in place. Good stuff, and I think I paid all of $30 for it from the Performance website back in the day. Eventually I bought a front rack for the Paramount as well, though I don't think I actually ever lashed anything to it. That was a Nashbar cantilever brake-mounted rack -- a cheap version of a Nitto M12. Neither rack is on the bike right now, but I may put them back on at some point. Or more likely, I'll put a Nitto M12 on it, along with a matching Top Rack or Big Rack from Rivendell. If only because they'll look a lot better.

But recently, most of the playing around with racks I've been doing has been on road bikes. With a pair of racks and a couple of bags on a road bike, you can really get out and explore. And if you load enough stuff on those racks, multi-month excursions are in reach.

Today, I took Juli's Fuji out of the barn and installed the Pletscher rack I picked up from Rivendell a few weeks ago. I described in my last post what I suspected would be involved in the install. The Pletscher is a rack every kid should have -- it's cheap, it's strong, it's got a big mousetrap arm on top to hold stuff down, and it looks good enough that it's not embarrassing.

The Fuji has 24" wheels on it, and the Pletscher (which was designed for bikes with 26"-27" wheels) was significantly oversized, as I expected it would be. With the rack positioned properly on the seatstays, the rear struts were probably 2" too long to let the rack sit level. But the length of the rack seemed OK -- at least it didn't look all out of proportion to my eyes -- so I sat down to modify the Pletscher to fit the Fuji.

First, I marked each strut with a piece of electrical tape to note the length it should be for the Fuji's dropouts. Next, I cut each strut at the tape marker with a hacksaw. The struts are aluminum and easy to cut, which is good because I couldn't actually find my hacksaw, and I ended up just holding a hacksaw blade in my bare hand and cutting the struts with it. I managed not to hurt myself, so there's no need to go donate blood on my account. But you should do that anyway -- this post will still be here when you get back.

After the struts had been shortened, I took the rack out into the barn and grabbed the 2-pound sledge hammer I found on the sidewalk in front of my house while mowing one day. With it, I lightly flattened the ends of the struts, using an iron jack as an anvil. I had to be careful to flatten the right sides of the struts, since the flats would be drilled perpendicularly, and a bolt to secure the rack to the dropouts passed through. Then it was back into the house to the bench grinder and a flat file, to round out the flattened ends. Then on to the drill press to make the aforementioned holes.

I managed to get all of that right by eyeball, and took the rack upstairs to the waiting Fuji. The rack mounted right up using the provided hardware, and sits nice and flat on the back of the bike. While I was at it, Juli asked me to install her Brooks B17 S, which I did. Then I played around a bit with the steering, with particular attention to how the cables were wrapping around the steering head as I turned the bars. The culprit in making the steering bind up turned out not to be the shifter cables, but rather the rear brake cable. So I disconnected it from the rear brake, rerouted it on the other side of the handlebar stem in all of two minutes, and now all is well with the bike's steering. The last thing I did was install the taillight I used to have on the Paramount on the Pletscher, so she'd have the opportunity to increase her visibility. The photo was taken after I installed the rack and saddle, but before I fixed the brake cable and installed the light.

Juli hopped on and pedaled backwards while I held the bike up, and she's definitely going to fit the bike just fine in the Spring. The reach to the bars is still a little long, but her leg extension is looking good, and it shouldn't feel large for long. It should serve her for 3 seasons or so before she'll need something bigger.

Juli's Pletscher will be perfect for carrying her gear to soccer practice this spring, at least once it warms up enough to ride over comfortably. The mousetrap top clamp will make quick work of her duffel bag, and her cleats are a perfect complement to her MKS track pedals. Or were -- she's going to need new cleats this season, and I'll have to bring a pedal with me to Sports Authority test with candidate replacements. In combination with the bag loops on her Brooks, it's also ready to support a fair-sized saddle bag, or a little soft cooler. Which it may, soon enough. I'm starting to look into details of a bike camping weekend with the girls, and am looking forward to that.

My Schwinn Sports Tourer currently wears two racks. I have a cute little square rack up front that bolts to the Mafac centerpull brake, and it supports the handlebar bag I have on the bike quite nicely. This is the second front bag I've had on the bike. The first used a simple wire frame that hooked over the handlebars at the stem, and supported the bag from the sides. It was blue, and it matched the handlebar tape nicely, but it wasn't very sturdy or secure. I tried to use that bag with a decaleur, and it worked OK, but still needed the wire support, which sort of defeated the purpose. I also tore the fabric when I tried to drill the bag with my drill press to accept the decaleur bolts. No, I don't know what I was thinking using a drill press on a bag, but in the process, the fabric got snatched around the bit, and twisted into a torn, frayed mess at one corner.

My current bag came with a plastic mount, but I don't have space on the bars for it. So I tied the side loops (for a shoulder strap) to the brake lever bodies with some jute twine, and used a velcro strap to hold the bottom of the bag down on the little Mafac rack. That setup works fine, and it alone makes the bike far more versatile than trying to get by with a seat wedge.

Out back I have a pretty little stainless steel randonneuring rack from Velo-Orange, which I've mentioned before. The rack has crossmembers on the platform that are spaced 6" apart, and unfortunately they interfere with the rigid plastic hooks on my panniers, as I've also mentioned before. I'm still looking for a solution to that. I could carve out part of the hooks with a Dremel, but instead I'm going to buy a second set of panniers. The trick is finding a pair I know will fit before I shell out the money. I can sell my Blackburn panniers on eBay, or more likely keep them for the girls to use on a camping trip.

I've already described the setup that I put on my wife's Bianchi last year, as well as the quandry I faced as to where to mount it. A bit more detail -- when I hung it off the seat loops, I sliced holes in the waxed canvas under the leather strap hangers, fed the straps through from the inside to hide the buckles inside the bag, and ran the straps around a half-inch dowel cut to length to support the top of the bag. Then I had to add a Viva bag support to keep the bag off the rear tire and away from the brakes (it's a small frame).

The Viva looks a little funny, and its seatpost clamp is a little clumsy-looking. But it works as advertised and has a nice chrome finish. It's way larger than the little Velo-Orange Baguette tube needed, but with the little rectangular strap rings welded onto its frame, that just gives my wife some extra space behind the saddlebag to lash on sandals, a towel, a jacket or what-have-you. And if she ever gets the urge, she can spring for a larger saddlebag and the Viva will support it nicely.

I've also mentioned that I'm helping a friend of mine rebuild an old Bertoni racing bike. It's a neat bike, and once the rebuild is done (we're halfway there), I'll post a description of the work we did. As a gift, I picked up a Rivendell Hupe bag support for it. The frame has absolutely no provisions for a rack (no eyelets anywhere), and the Hupe is something I'd wanted to play with, so it seemed an opportune time. We threaded it onto the bike's seatstays the other day, and it fit (barely -- this is also a small frame), but it's otherwise untested. The saddle on the Bertoni is an old Avocet Touring model that really needs to be replaced. But it does have bag loops, and in combination with the Hupe, I'm sure the bike will carry a saddlebag nicely if called for.

So those are my recent rack adventures. There's a certain type of riding for which bags are not necessary, stylish or cool. But outside of competitive or club riding, having some carrying capacity makes taking a bike a reasonable and fun alternative to taking the car. And there's something about loading up a bike and setting off for work or an overnight camping trip that makes it so much more of an adventure than just throwing stuff into the car. Looking back on the ride to Tulley Lake last fall, I wonder why I stayed away from little cycling excursions like that so long. I won't make that mistake this year, and I can't wait to share it with my girls.

All for now,


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