Bike Basket Options and Alternatives

From bike baskets and panniers to rear racks made of milk crates, learn what type of bike storage works for your needs.
By Elly Blue
June 17, 2013

In “Everday Bicycling,” author Ely Blue walks you through bike basket options and alternatives.
Cover Courtesy Cantankerous Titles
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Everyday Bicycling (Cantankerous Titles, 2012) is a guide to everything you need to know to get started riding a bicycle for transportation. Author Elly Blue introduces you to the basics, including street smarts, bike shopping, dressing professionally, carrying everything from groceries to children to furniture, and riding in all weather. In this excerpt from chapter four, “Carrying Things by Bike,” Blue shows you the possibilities of bike storage, including how to construct a DIY bike basket.

"Experiment, don’t give up, lash it down good, go slow.” — Sara S.

When I first started riding a bike, I slung my purse strap across my chest, hopped on, and rode off. I soon graduated to putting the purse in a rickety metal front basket. This was my first bicycle accessory and the most revelatory by far until my discovery, years later, of the rear rack.

My front basket meant speed and freedom. Suddenly I could return my library books on the way to work and pick up a load of groceries afterwards without worrying about marring my professional outfit with a backpack. I could run spontaneous errands and bring leftovers home from a restaurant. In a city built for cars, I suddenly had a taste of how daily life could be not only functional without one, but easier and more flexible.

In the decade since then I’ve carried a lot of things on my bikes, and done it a lot of different ways. There’s no better feeling than arriving across town with your unlikely load intact, be it cupcakes or lumber. I’ve had my share of misadventures too, and hopefully this chapter will save you from repeating some of them. You learn, over time, to double check that your bungie cords are tight. You also learn that when you apply your brain to the task of carrying something by bicycle, there’s very little you can’t bring with you.

Wearing Your Cargo

The simplest way to carry something on your bike is often the same way you would carry it off the bicycle.

Put your keys in your pocket, sling your shoulder bag across your chest, tie your sweater around your waist. So long as you keep things close to your body and out of the spokes, you’ll often be fine even if you have no other carrying capacity. You’ll find yourself pushing the limits of this method, though, the first time you find yourself trying to ride home with a full grocery bag swinging from your handlebars, banging against the spokes, upsetting your balance, and threatening to send you toppling into the curb.

This scenario tends to lead people quickly to the backpack or messenger bag. Both are easy, noncommittal solutions, requiring no hardware or adjustments to your bike and allowing you to get on and off your bike with minimal hassle. You’ll find the bag just as useful when you don’t have your bike with you. In fact, you probably already own something like this.

Messenger bags sport a single strap that runs across your chest and over one shoulder. They get their name from their origins among bike messengers who require the convenience of being able to swivel their bag around their body for quick access to the packages inside as they run in and out of an office.

If you don’t need easy, constant access to your bag as you ride around, you’ll find a backpack to be just as convenient. A backpack is also far kinder to your back and neck, particularly if you often carry heavy items. Whatever you use, you’ll be most comfortable with the bag strapped tightly to your body, maybe with a waist strap, and with the weight higher rather than lower.

For bicycling, look for a backpack or bag that is waterproof. If the one you use doesn’t keep water out well, stow a plastic trashbag in an easy to access compartment to protect your stuff in case you’re caught in a downpour.

Less is often more; and it’s a universal truth that the more carrying capacity you have, the more you will find to carry. Sometimes it’s nice to travel light, and at these times an excellent way to carry your essentials is a hip pouch. This does not need to resemble the fanny pack of yesteryear if that isn’t your style. Several small companies make attractive, waterproof hip pouches specifically with bicycling in mind. Some are made with a slot to handily carry your u-lock while you ride.

Letting the Bike Do the Work

Carrying your belongings on your back has its advantages, but also its downsides. Backpacks make your back sweaty in the summer, and the weight, besides being ergonomically awkward, can lead to injuries.

The good news is that your bicycle can comfortably carry the same load as your back, and then some. Unfortunately, most bikes in North America are still sold without carrying capacity, and adding it is often up to you. Fortunately, there are many options out there.

The Front Basket

The front basket is iconic, and for a reason.

A basket provides easy access to your things. You won’t need to get off your bike or awkwardly rummage through your shoulder bag when you ride up to the drive-through window at the bank or pause to have a snack. You can quickly grab your camera, and no effort is needed to get out your pen to jot down the phone number of the friend you’ve just run into.

The flimsy woven plastic basket with the plastic flower that graced your bike as a kid might not hold up under the loads you carry today. But a small wicker basket to throw your purse or wallet and keys into is still one of the handiest bike accessories available. Large, sturdy metal baskets are also available, and tend to be quite affordable.

Baskets usually mount to your handlebars. This means that if you ride a road bike with drop bars, the kind that curve forward, a basket might not be your best option, though a handlebar bag might work well. Larger baskets have struts that can be attached to your fork, increasing their load bearing capacity.

A word of caution: if you hit a big enough pothole at a high enough speed, the contents of your front basket will fly up and out, possibly hitting you in the face, possibly breaking all over the road. So if you ride at more than a leisurely pace, some kind of cover is a good idea, or even just a bungie cord or two to keep the contents inside. Also be watchful for any straps dangling through the holes of your basket that might get caught in your front wheel.

More Options for the Front of the Bike

A basket is convenient for small things. But what if you want to carry more weight? While many people prefer to put their weight over their rear wheel, there is a strong faction, including many long distance bike tourers, that prefers to carry their load up front. How you distribute the weight on your bicycle affects how it feels to ride; the choice is a personal one, though some bikes are engineered to be most comfortable carrying the load up front.

The classic way to carry a lot of weight in the front is a front rack that sits low and center over the wheel. The racks consist of bars on which you can hang small panniers. Another option is the porteur rack, a shelf that sits over your front wheel and can serve as the base for a large-ish, boxy bag of the type that is beloved by long-distance cyclists.

Another option is more difficult to find and also more expensive, though quite sturdy. This is the rack or platform that attaches to the bicycle frame itself rather than the handlebars. This type of rack allows you to carry very heavy loads in a way that does not affect your steering. When you turn the handlebars, the rack doesn’t move, making for a smoother, more stable ride.

The Rear Rack

My first rear rack, once I finally got it installed, changed everything for me. I kept a couple of bungie cords strapped to it at all times and used them to hold down whatever I needed to carry: a stack of books, my backpack, a load of groceries, a chair found at the side of the road. This is a strategy that can get you through many years and many quandaries gracefully and happily.

If your bike doesn’t already have a rear rack on it, get one. If you have one, use it! You’ll be amazed at what it can carry. But use a couple of bungie cords and reasonable caution when you turn, and it also isn’t that difficult.

Racks run from very cheap to very spendy. Most bike shops should have at least one basic, $25 model on hand and can attach it to your bike for a small fee. Most racks feature a platform of sorts on top, a bar on each side to hang panniers from, and protrusions near the axle to hook your pannier or bungie cord onto from below. Some racks have holes punched in the back where you can mount a permanent, relatively theft proof, red light.

Installing racks yourself can be a drag. Chances are your bike is not an exact match for the prototype any given rack was designed for. Unless this is the sort of task you love, it can be well worth paying your mechanic to do it for you.

If you carry a lot of weight, you’ll need to think about bike maintenance slightly more often than otherwise. Keep an eye on your brake pads — they’re working harder and will wear out faster. Also be mindful of your wheels, especially your rear one—if you see any bent or broken spokes, replace them right away, or better yet invest in a stronger wheel.

Bungies and Tie-Downs

Bungie cords are inexpensive new, but if you don't like them or are really on a budget there are better options. Once you’ve patched an inner tube more than a few times or suffered a major blowout, it can take on a new, useful life as a tie-down. Some people cut out the valve and tie simple knots or loops. Others leave it intact, wrapping it around their load and rack. Aside from being free — and freely available in bulk at any bike shop — the distinct advantage over a bungee cord is that you don’t have a high-stress elastic cord with metal hooks on the end that can seriously injure you.

Whatever you use, strap your cargo down very tightly, with the elastic stretched to its fullest. Believe that whatever you are carrying will use all its wiles to escape, and stay a step ahead of it.

You can use just about anything in a pinch, from your scarf to your sweater to a piece of butcher’s twine or ribbon scrounged up by a supermarket employee. Use your shoelaces if you need to. Whatever you use, pull it taut and triple check the stability of your load before you set off.

If you use bungies with metal hooks, don’t let them snap back and take out your eyeball. Also, make sure you keep everything out of your spokes, from tie-downs that aren’t in use to your long skirt or scarf to your pants leg. Extracting a bungie from your hub is not fun. Being stopped short while in traffic by a hooked spoke can be disastrous, particularly if it is your front wheel that is hooked. Be especially careful to keep all tie downs and straps from dangling anywhere near your wheels.

Rear Baskets

My next revelatory upgrade was the $20 folding basket that mounted to one side of the rear rack. The purchase was inspired by an artist friend who had two of these and could regularly be seen trucking around town with her silkscreened tote bag containing wallet and keys in one basket and a grocery bag or stack of letterpress greeting cards in the other. In the rain, she put everything in plastic bags. As with a front basket, a rear basket is wonderfully convenient. You can just put your backpack, a stack of books, a diaper bag, or a recent purchase in these and ride off. The baskets fold up, which is good if you keep your bike in a narrow hallway. These rear baskets are not extremely durable and are often difficult to mount to your bike. But overall they work great, are a good value, and are about as basic as it gets.

The Milk Crate

A time-honored carrying technique is a milk crate on your rear rack. These come in various shapes, sizes and colors and can be readily found by the side of the road, behind convenience stores, or holding records in your friend’s garage. Attach them to your rack with hose clamps from the hardware store or for a more removable option, strap your crate on tight with bungie cords.

DIY Bike Baskets

You Need:

• Drill & Drill Bits
• 4 Rope Hooks or Pannier Clips
• 2 Plastic Four Gallon Buckets
• 1 Skinny Used Bike Tube
• Scissors
• 8 Nuts, Bolts, and Washers
• Screwdriver

1. Position your bucket so the top sits level with your bike rack without the bottom disturbing your derailleur.
2. Measure, mark, and drill holes (six black holes) so the inner tube will stretch taut when on your bike.
3. Pull the tube through the holes on the bottom and tie knots on each end inside the bucket.
4. Bolt your clips or rope hooks in.
5. Attach to your bike rack and test it by riding around the block.

(See image gallery.)

See printable instructions.

Panniers

Panniers are saddlebags; they’re like backpacks for your bicycle, usually detachable, that hang from the side of a front or rear rack.

The iconic city cycling panniers are made by the German company Ortlieb. Their distinctive design is based on rafting bags meant to withstand prolonged submersion. The basic model is just a heavy-duty waterproof bag that rolls down and clips on the top. Plastic clips on the side hook over the top of your rear rack, and a bracket at the bottom keeps the bag from rattling or falling outwards as you turn. They come in bold, bright colors with reflectors on the sides. They’re spendy but they last.

Multiple companies now make similar bags, and many have expanded on this basic design with welcome features like external and internal pockets (essential if you ever want to find your house keys or wallet when you need them), and a waterproof hood that stretches over the top of the bag.

The downside of panniers is that when you get off the bike you must lug them around by their finger-wrenching handle or spine-twisting shoulder strap. This is not a big deal unless you are carrying a lot of weight — a laptop computer, some books, a double load of groceries. If you spend a lot of time walking with all your things in between getting on and off the bike, you may be happier with a backpack and basket combination.

You might also run across touring panniers. These are not always waterproof, and have a great number of internal and external pockets. They feature rugged hardware and — of course — nowhere to clip a shoulder strap.

Sometimes people will use a cable lock to keep their panniers attached to their bike; they just have their stuff in another, more walking-friendly bag inside the pannier. This is a good option if you live in a place where you don’t worry about the cable or strap being cut and the pannier disappearing.

Transverse panniers — a staple Dutch bicycle accessory that permanently attaches to your rack — are great for this. You can also purchase square pannier-baskets that are shaped to fit a single grocery bag and intended to be left on the bicycle in low-theft areas.

A somewhat dizzying array of panniers is now becoming available that more closely resemble fashionable purses and briefcases, or conversely that are made of oilcloth and suitable for rugged outdoor use. These are all very different in their attachments and closures as well as their aesthetics. When choosing a pannier for daily use, a primary consideration should be how easily it can be easily opened, closed, and taken on and off the bike multiple times a day.


Reprinted with permission from Everday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation by Elly Blue and published by Cantankerous Titles, 2012.


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