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What's the best way to load a touring bike, to increase stability and balance? Assuming a standard two-rack-and-panniers setup, where should I put most of my weight? I have a camping load, about 50 pounds (including 4 water bottles, laptop, tent, food, and clothing). My bike is a steel touring bike, a Novara Randonee. I also have a large handlebar bag.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

We can generalize the main areas where one can load weight as such:

  • Front rack vs. Rear Rack
  • High (on top of rack) vs. Low (in panniers)

The most commonly accepted points for load distribution are as follows:

  • Keep dense, heavy items low to the ground. The lower you & your bike's center of gravity is, the more easily you can keep yourself upright. This means loading heavy things into panniers (bottom up, like a grocery bag) and leaving less dense items for the tops of the racks (sleeping bags/pads, etc)
  • Be careful about putting too much weight on the front wheel. One advantage to having weight on the front wheel is that as you turn, it will turn with you--unlike weight over the back wheel. However, too much weight on the front, especially if the center of gravity is too high, will cause you to over steer, or have to steer very rigidly.
  • Make sure your load is balanced. You didn't mention anything about this, and although it seems like common sense, I want to make sure it's included. An unbalanced load will cause you to have to compensate by continually steering in the opposite direction. You should be able to roughly balance your pairs of panniers by holding one in each hand.

I haven't used a handlebar bag myself, but the same logic applies. Weight in such a bag will have a very high center of gravity, as well as the ability to turn with you. Therefore, it might be a good place for maps, snacks, phone/keys/wallet, patch kit, etc.

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Watch out for having too much weight on the back - the front wheel may lift off the ground if you are not careful, and steering can be a little 'light'. –  Anthony K Aug 27 '10 at 1:26
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Agreed, there's as much to be said for balancing front-back as there is side-to-side. However, it's going to take a lot of weight behind the rear axle to get the front wheel of the ground when riding! –  Dustin Aug 27 '10 at 1:48

I have the same bike, and have done a little loaded touring (though not recently, as my health no longer permits it). I find that keeping the load low and balanced is the key.

On the front it's important that the load be tightly attached, since if it is loose at all it will tend to wobble and resonate and can make the bike unmanageable on a rough surface. And if the front rack isn't exceptionally stiff you may need to limit the front load accordingly. The rear load is less critical, though obviously everything should be well-secured.

With all bags be aware of shoe clearance -- the front will tend to snag your toes in the turns, and the rear will catch your heels if too far forward. Re the front, partly you just need to train yourself to position your feet correctly on sharp turns (outside foot down), but you do want to be sure that nothing is projecting back towards your toes unnecessarily.

Use the handlebar bag only for lightweight stuff that you will want easy access to -- if heavily loaded it can make the bike hard to handle, both because of the high center of gravity and because it will amplify vibrations.

I like to carry tools in a tool bag lashed under my seat. This is a bit high, weight-wise, but a good tool bag (one that lashes to the seat rails rather than simply strapping on) will hold the tools vibration-free in most circumstances, and you don't have to dig to the bottom of your pannier if you have a flat.

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Thanks; this is pretty similar to my experience. I also keep tools in a roll under the saddle. On a tour, my camping roll blocks access, although that's not often a problem because I need to remove the luggage to do anything with tools in any case. –  Neil Fein Jun 1 '11 at 2:25

Have you considered a trailer? This also allows local unloaded trips from a base without all the gear loaded. Keeps weight down low too.

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On tours where I need to carry more than normal, yes. But it's not my preference, since it makes it hard to get a bike on the train. –  Neil Fein Jun 1 '11 at 2:25

I used to have front and rear racks with bar bag and stuff on the top rack. But, some Americans I was riding with continually took the Michael out of my front rack and the 'footballs' on each side. Those panniers were bad in headwinds and I had too much faff trying to get stuff from them - terrible.

Nowadays I recommend everything on the back except for the stuff in the handlebar bag. Big panniers without a multitude of pockets are more practical and you should be able to get all non-food items (including the handlebar bag) in them (for getting on planes etc.).

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