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Can I get by without front panniers?

Old 10-26-21, 07:46 AM
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HendersonD
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Can I get by without front panniers?

I did a 420 mile tour with hotels and just used a pair or Ortlieb Back Roller Classic bags and it worked well
Next year I will be doing the 4,200 mile Transamerica route on a new Trek 520 using a combination of camping and hotels. When camping I will not be preparing hot food so I will not be packing a stove, titanium pot, or fuel
For my coast to coast tour I am thinking about using:
  • Pair of Ortlieb back roller classics which I already own
  • An Ortlieb Ultimate Six handlebar bag
  • Some type of waterproof bag I can put on the top of my rear rack on the Trek 520
I am trying to carry a minimal load to keep things simple and light with the goal of carrying about 30 pounds of gear/clothing/food in the 4 bags.

Any thoughts on this setup and whether I can get by without using front panniers?
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Old 10-26-21, 07:52 AM
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You won't need front ones.
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Old 10-26-21, 08:00 AM
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i have done a similar setup for long distance touring. the handling wasn't the best on my bike but it worked.
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Old 10-26-21, 08:17 AM
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If your setup worked for 420 miles, it should work for 4200 miles.
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Old 10-26-21, 08:21 AM
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Originally Posted by HendersonD View Post
  • Pair of Ortlieb back roller classics which I already own
  • An Ortlieb Ultimate Six handlebar bag
  • Some type of waterproof bag I can put on the top of my rear rack on the Trek 520
That's pretty much how I roll the majority of the time. The photo below from last week when touring down south. There is a lot to be said though for maintaining a better balance with front panniers when carrying more stuff.

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Old 10-26-21, 09:10 AM
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Originally Posted by HendersonD View Post
I did a 420 mile tour with hotels and just used a pair or Ortlieb Back Roller Classic bags and it worked well
Next year I will be doing the 4,200 mile Transamerica route on a new Trek 520 using a combination of camping and hotels. When camping I will not be preparing hot food so I will not be packing a stove, titanium pot, or fuel
For my coast to coast tour I am thinking about using:
  • Pair of Ortlieb back roller classics which I already own
  • An Ortlieb Ultimate Six handlebar bag
  • Some type of waterproof bag I can put on the top of my rear rack on the Trek 520
I am trying to carry a minimal load to keep things simple and light with the goal of carrying about 30 pounds of gear/clothing/food in the 4 bags.

Any thoughts on this setup and whether I can get by without using front panniers?
Do you need them? Probably not. Does the bike handle better with front bags? Definitely yes. Given the choice, I’d use low mounted front pannier over rear panniers. Even with 4 panniers, the fronts are more heavily loaded than the rear.

Look at it this way: the rear wheel is already heavily loaded with the rider. Putting more weight on the rear with all of a touring load puts that weight even further back. This lightens the front wheel and can make steering vague. A heavy rear load will also cause the rear to sway. The tail starts to wag the dog. Putting the majority of the load (or at least the small heavy items) up front and down low tames that wag.

Adding a some kind of bag to the rear rack and filling with stuff makes the problem even worse. If the bag on top of the rack is to carry a tent and/or sleeping bag, don’t bother. Get a dry bag for the sleeping bag and just use the stuff sack for the tent. I’ve pedaled through 70 miles of driving rain with that arrangement and had a dry bag and a dry tent at the end of the day.
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Old 10-26-21, 09:38 AM
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Two questions for you
  1. Will I experience this sway if I keep my total load between about 30 pounds on a touring bike like a Trek 520? I did my 420 mile tour on a cyclecross bike since I had not purchased my 520 until a few weeks back. In only carried about 20 pounds then and will have a heavier load for the cross country trip
  2. I was thinking about a bag on the top of the back rack for space. I am still unsure if I can fit everything in two back panniers and a handlebar bag. Did you have any problems with space?
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Old 10-26-21, 10:18 AM
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The orange bag on top of my rack contains only a 4 lb tent, an extra empty bottle and sometimes a spare tire so there is not a lot of weight on my rack. Those items are too bulky to get into a pannier and I like to keep my potentially wet tent away from any dry goods that I am carrying within the panniers. The entire contents along with the 3 bags and handlebar bag come in at about 26 lbs.
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Old 10-26-21, 10:20 AM
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Originally Posted by cyccommute View Post
Do you need them? Probably not. Does the bike handle better with front bags? Definitely yes. Given the choice, I’d use low mounted front pannier over rear panniers. Even with 4 panniers, the fronts are more heavily loaded than the rear.

Look at it this way: the rear wheel is already heavily loaded with the rider. Putting more weight on the rear with all of a touring load puts that weight even further back. This lightens the front wheel and can make steering vague. A heavy rear load will also cause the rear to sway. The tail starts to wag the dog. Putting the majority of the load (or at least the small heavy items) up front and down low tames that wag.

Adding a some kind of bag to the rear rack and filling with stuff makes the problem even worse. If the bag on top of the rack is to carry a tent and/or sleeping bag, don’t bother. Get a dry bag for the sleeping bag and just use the stuff sack for the tent. I’ve pedaled through 70 miles of driving rain with that arrangement and had a dry bag and a dry tent at the end of the day.
I totally agree. I tour with a small/ light load and am working towards a set up with front panniers (clothes on one side/ sleeping bag on the other) and a bag on the rear rack with a sleeping pad and tent etc...
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Old 10-26-21, 10:21 AM
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The volume of your tent and the volume of your sleeping bag will be key factors for the total volume you can carry. If you are traveling in heat in any areas where water will be scarce, you will need volume for water too.

I like a dry bag that loads from the side oriented lengthwise on the rear rack. One in the 15 to 20 liter range can handle a lot of food if you stock up at a grocery store in a area without much population and few places to buy food. And you can pack it down much smaller when you do not have much in it.

With that much weight on the rear rack, handling can be a bit iffy. Set your panniers as far forward on your rear rack as you can and still have adequate room to avoid heel strike. If panniers are further back than necessary, you can have a tail wagging the dog feel to handling.

Two rear panniers and a rack top bag or dry bag on top is certainly lighter weight in luggage and rack weight than four panniers. But, I would rather have four panniers and no rack top bag even though the weight is greater with a second rack and another pair of panniers. In the photo below there is a green tent pole bag on top of my rear rack, that was before I cut new tent poles that fold up short enough to fit into a pannier. If I had that same load on my bike today, there would be nothing on top of the rear rack at all, all in panniers. (My rain gear gets strapped on top of front panniers, not in them.)



In the photo above, we had very little food at the time of the photo. I also had a dry bag of about 15 liters in volume to carry overflow that could be strapped on top in back. But at the time of photo, the dry bag was empty and shoved into a pannier. When we started that trip we had several days of food, I had all of it for two in the dry bag on top.

I met a German gal at a hostel, we were both going the same direction so we traveled together for a few days. She had a heavy load on her rear rack but the bike seemed to handle ok with it. Photo below.


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Old 10-26-21, 10:39 AM
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I have done a good bit of backpacking where weight is even more important. Awhile back I purchased
  • Zpacks duplex tent with poles and stakes - this comes in at 25oz total and packs very small
  • Katbatic down quilt instead of a sleeping bag - 26oz and it stuffs very small
  • Thermarest NeoAir Xlite pad - 16oz and it rolls pretty small
My best bet would be to load my Ortlieb's with everything I will be carrying and see if it all fits. The new Trek 520 comes with rear and front racks. If I can get by without front panniers I can take off the front rack and save even more weight. I do like the idea of some type of drybag in the 15 to 20 liter range for the top of the back rack than can be loaded with food
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Old 10-26-21, 11:14 AM
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Your setup should work. My wife rode across the U.S. using only a pair of Ortlieb Front Packers (used on the rear rack), and her camping gear carried on top of the rack. She has graduated to full sized panniers now, and uses Ortlieb Packer Plus panniers



Her bike handles very well with the load she carries. She has pulled away from me on the downhills when my computer was reading 45 mph with her present setup. She has about 22,000 touring miles with this setup without any significant issues. Try your bike with a rear only setup and see how it handles. Our daughters use Ortlieb Back Rollers, and do not have any problems with wobble, etc. All of use an Ortlieb Rackpack to carry our camping gear. The girls are not light packers!

I prefer to divide my gear weight between the front and rear of the bike. I carry the tent, and cooking gear so I need a little more room.

The one problem I have seen with the weight in the rear is the bike is harder to lift over curbs or a during a similar action. Once the front wheel is lifted, maneuvering it by hand can get squirrelly. The daughters ride Long Haul Truckers, and my wife rides a Co-Motion touring bike. I think the 520 would be as stable.

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Old 10-26-21, 11:16 AM
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Personally, I like to divide my load between rear and low-rider front panniers. All four panniers can be small if not much gear is being carried.

For a multi-day tour, I'd recommend a small stove and fuel cannister. I got one from Canadian Tire here in Ontario Canada and the stove can almost fit into a jersey pocket. It's fantastic and welcome addition for those times when I want a hot drink to ward of a chilly morning or evening. Even a small fuel canister doesn't take up much room.

Cheers
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Old 10-26-21, 11:19 AM
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Originally Posted by HendersonD View Post
Can I get by without using front panniers?
Fred Birchmore, around the world, 1935:




Kazimierz Nowak, Mediterranean-Cape Town-Mediterranean, 1931-36:




Norma Jean Belloff, diagonal USA, 1948:


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Old 10-26-21, 11:28 AM
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Bob Smith, 1953, 5000 miles in Europe:




Heinz Stucke, near the beginning of his 58 year-long world tour:




Siple-Burden Hemistour, Alaska to Argentina, 1972:





Ian Hibel Sahara Desert crossing, 1976:


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Old 10-26-21, 11:43 AM
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Your plan is very doable. I did two 800 mile solo tours with just one night each in a motel with just a large English saddlebag, handlebar bag and a rear rack. Handling was poor but I didn't know any different.

But - I now load heavy stuff in the small Ortleibs on LowRiders before everything else. What an improvement in the ride! I haven't toured for many years but I have two bikes I use as workhorses and am very familiar with loaded bikes. When it comes to bike handling, weight, even large amounts, in LowRider panniers is "free". Oh yea, you still gotta lug it uphill but you can get out of the saddle, rock the bike just like it was unloaded. (The weight also steadies the steering and makes things like angled railroad tracks far safer - as long as your front wheel is sufficiently strong; that weight is far harder on rims than any place else on the bike. Use a big enough tire! In my Ann Arbor school days I used to bring hardcover texts I didn't need into campus for bike control climbing the snowy/icy ascent out of my complex and safety for the hill into campus. Big help on the RR tracks in winter.) The further back you get the weight and the higher it is, the more it affects the feel of the bike (and you ability to stand for hills or just to get out of the seat easily).
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Old 10-26-21, 01:12 PM
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I could not find a copy of the weight distribution trials that Jim Blackburn conducted when he was promoting his low rider racks, but an author and tech editor of a prominent bike magazine sent me photos of the publication that he referrer to in an article he wrote. Blackburn did not test the front heavy weight distribution.






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Old 10-26-21, 02:00 PM
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Originally Posted by HendersonD View Post
Two questions for you
  1. Will I experience this sway if I keep my total load between about 30 pounds on a touring bike like a Trek 520? I did my 420 mile tour on a cyclecross bike since I had not purchased my 520 until a few weeks back. In only carried about 20 pounds then and will have a heavier load for the cross country trip
First, it’s helpful to quote the post you are referring to. It helps.

30 lbs is enough to cause sway. That’s a significant percentage of modern touring loads. I used to carry much more…closer to 60 or more pounds…but equipment in general weighs less now. My first tent (nearly 50 years ago) was “light” at 7 lbs with a 2 lb vestibule. I carried pots and pans that were, well, pots and pans from which the handles had been removed. Now my tent is a much more svelte at a bit less than 2 lb. Generally, I’ve lost 20+ lb and any would say that around 40 lbs is too heavy.

That said, an extra load on the rear can be felt. I don’t tour with only a rear load but I have done so with grocery loads with a similar 25 to 30 lb load. The bike feels squirrelly when compared to touring loads with heavy front panniers and light rear panniers. And this is on a bike that is actually longer than my touring bike, which is also a long bike compared to other road bikes.

Sway can also be caused by the type of rack you use. I use Tubus which are steel racks that are very stiff compared to aluminum racks. I did a tour with my daughter many years ago where she rode a bike with an OEM aluminum rack. I could see it sway back and forth as she pedaled. She didn’t see the same sway on my Tubus racks.


  1. I was thinking about a bag on the top of the back rack for space. I am still unsure if I can fit everything in two back panniers and a handlebar bag. Did you have any problems with space?
My front bags tend to be full. My rear bags aren’t. The fronts are about 25L per pair and the rear are 40L per pair. I could probably get by with two sets of front but there are times when having a bit of extra volume is nice. My wife has toured with only front bags (I have 4) and I carry the excess and heavy stuff.
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Old 10-26-21, 03:41 PM
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There's a French tradition of heavy weight in front.




and in fact carrying all the weight up front


.

As a French thing this is promoted by Mr. Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly (see his The All-Road Bicycle Revolution). The stiff front rack recommended for this will negate springiness (if any) in the front fork.

I tried 'everything up front' on one short tour. The handling was fine but my bike rode like a jackhammer. YMMV.

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Old 10-26-21, 03:46 PM
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Then there's the new bike packing style where the load is carried in a handlebar roll, a frame bag and a small bag behind the saddle, as typified here by these 1897 Buffalo Soldiers:


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Old 10-26-21, 04:22 PM
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Originally Posted by Miele Man View Post
I'd recommend a small stove and fuel cannister.
+1. At a minimum. Nothing like a hot beverage on a cold morning. You’re likely always not going to be camping across the street from a coffee joint.
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Old 10-26-21, 04:27 PM
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It all sounds like two different systems would work with some tradeoffs for each. Either method I would carry max of 30 pounds even if there is space for more items
  1. Two back panniers, two back panniers, handlebar bag - I would to distribute weight between the front and back panniers. From everyone's post it appears that bike handling would be improved with this method. The one downside would be adding a bit of extra weight compared to the 2nd method. The front rack would have to stay (2lbs) and two front panniers are about 2lbs total
  2. Two back panniers, some type of bag that could be mounted on the top of the back rack, and a handlebar bag. This would be about 3 pounds less weight than method 1 but at the cost of worse bike handling
I think the best thing to do is load my 520 with my two back panniers with 25-30 pounds and go out and do some riding. If the handling is poor it might be time to purchase two front panniers
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Old 10-26-21, 05:59 PM
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I have been going through this very thing for the past year. Been a commuter for the past 40+ years typically carrying a load of 20-30 pounds. Very little sway with this level of load using a Blackburn rack from the 80's. The Jandd panniers I have are about 28 liters, and the Jandd h-bar bag is their Touring Bag and holds about 13 liters, and I find that I need about 10 more liters of capacity for a cross country tour that I plan to do in a few years.
Since I already have reliable and super tested from hours and hours of commuting panniers and h-bar bag, I don't see the need to purchase new panniers. This is what I have come up with. Fork mounted cargo bags. I have made my own cargo cages that mount to the fork and will be getting the bags from a supplier. Unfortunately Jandd has no plans to make fork bags in the 5 liter size any time soon, thus I will find a cheap alternative.
One thing to note. On the Jandd website they have listed a Pannier Pocket, which straps to the pannier. It will also work as a fork bag from what I see. One unique and in my eyes, excellent feature is the bag uses a zipper. Brilliant from where I sit as it will allow me to stack items in a specific order and access them by moving the zipper (two way zipper) to where items are located in the bag. Instead of emptying the contents of the bag to access what is towards the bottom, I will be able to move the zipper directly to the location and open it up to get to the item.
Anyway, this week I will likely order some cheapo fork bags for testing the DIY cargo cages.
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Old 10-26-21, 06:07 PM
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My Ortliebs are 20L so I think I can get by with two on the rear and a handlebar bag in terms of just capacity. Might consider adding front panniers just to balance out the load between front and back. Once I get my Trek 520 in a few weeks I will do some testing and decide
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Old 10-26-21, 06:49 PM
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Ive toured with rear load only (prob about 30lbs), four panniers with really small front panniers and more weight at back (essentially 1980s racks and bike, so kinda loosey goosey), and four panniers with more weight up front in front panniers (with a good solid front rack and fork)

I've really come to find that I prefer how the bike rides and handles with four panniers and more weight up front (I really like a good handling bike going around corners or hoofing it down a downhill)
The main upside is that its just plain easier to pack stuff in four panniers, and so much easier at the end of day to throw groceries for the night and morning (and some lunch) into panniers and arent stuffed to the gills--a real possibility with rear panniers only, as mentioned, especially with extra food and water.

also, some panniers weigh a lot more than others, so look into pannier weights also, just as you would with tents, sleeping mats, sleeping bags etc

in the end, try it out and see how things feel--just remember that extra space is just plain darn handy for throwing in food bought in stores.

heres a photo of a recent overnighter I did, I could have just used rear panniers, but like I said, its just easier using my tried and true methods of putting X stuff in X pannier, and Y stuff in Y pannier like I've done on numerous longer trips over the last 5 years or so.
My bike looks heavily loaded, but it isnt, total gear weight was about right at 30lbs, and the bike handles really well like this, which I appreciate especially when riding fast over loose surfaces, which I did at times on this trip.

ps, the rear pannier you see has my tent poles thrown in diagonally in it, easier to strap down my tent on rear rack tightly due to rough roads (didnt want to risk bending poles) so it makes the pannier look heavy and full of junk, it wasnt heavy at all.


Last edited by djb; 10-26-21 at 06:54 PM.
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