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 (23 kg, 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.
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.
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.
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.).
I have various bikes (recumbents and foldable bikes).
One of my 'bents uses 4 panniers (2 under seat and 2 on rear rack) 25-30 kg total, another 'bent uses a set of twin under seat banana style bags rated at 75 liter plus a rear rack bag, it too averages around 25-30 kg when touring.
The foldables I ride with can use 4 panniers or I can use a BOB trailer. The weight distribution for 4 panniers is usually 30% front 70% rear, the trailer makes the weight much easier to haul but proves a major inconvenience when doing city travel or doing train travel.
If I was doing flat open country then a trailer is ideal, in a city the trailer is a hassle. The use of handle bar bags is still open to me to decide as they do offer some obstruction of seeing the road surface clearly VS the handyness of getting at cameras, money, maps etc.
I ride with 4 panniers and try to put slightly more weight forward than aft, to ease the load on the rear wheel. You need to get comfortable with the extra weight on the front wheel, but I did not find this difficult. Prior to putting more weight front than aft, I was blowing spokes & wearing my rear tire excessively. As stated elsewhere, you need to balance left & right, both fwd and aft, and keep heavier objects low in the bags.
Take less stuff. Less is more. What do you really need? Think like a Nomad What do they really need? Only take items that have two or more uses. If you have a front rack take your handle bar pack and move it to the top of the front rack. That solves two problems; Lower center of gravity and takes less energy to turn the bike.
As a qualitative number, I'd aim for between a 40:60 and 50:50 weight distribution when the bike is loaded AND you're on it.
You can measure this with two bathroom scales. Put one under each wheel then sit astride the bike with both feet off the ground. A feather-light touch on a wall to help keep your balance and lock the brakes to stop you rolling. Then get an assistant to read both displays.
Each scale is only holding ~half your weight and half your bike, so it should be less than your full weight alone. It can cope.
You can verify by rotating the bike 180 degrees and repeat measurement.
If you only have one set of scales, then use a block to lift the other wheel to about the same height, and measure each wheel separately.
There is no way to easily measure left-right balance, so assume you and your bike are balanced, and weigh each pair of bags. Within 20% is good enough.
You can assume anything mounted on centerline is balanced left/right too.