Shopping by Bike: Tips and Tricks for the Commuter Cyclist

Easily attach a pannier or even DIY, impromptu gear to haul everyday cargo with a clear environmental conscience.
By Denise Wrathall
January 11, 2013
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“On Bicycles” is an anthology of bike culture — an informative collection of 50 how-to essays supporting all things cycling, from how to carry cargo on bikes, folding bikes, biking with kids, bike advocacy and more. 
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Bike culture is exploding in cities across the world. Whether people are riding folding bikes to the commuter train, slipping through traffic on streamlined single-speeds, or carrying children and groceries on their cargo bikes, bicycles are making urban life more dynamic and enjoyable. Carrying cargo — following shopping trips, or just as part of the normal commute — on most bikes can be a challenge, but it’s far from impossible. In this excerpt from On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life (New World Library, 2012), cycling enthusiast Denise Wrathall gives great tips on shopping by bike and hauling items with just a little bit of planning.  

Every cycling enthusiast has a “big fish” story. For urban cyclists, it’s sometimes about the weirdest or biggest thing we’ve carried by bike: furniture, pets, toilet augers. Before you bungee your new armchair to your bike, here are a few basics to get you started.

Shopping by bike is the hippest way to shop, hands down. We shop by bike because it’s faster than walking. We shop as we commute. It’s easier to carry things by bike than on the bus. We exercise as we shop. It costs nothing. It reduces our carbon footprint. Parking is right at the door. It’s easy to make several stops. It soothes our environmental conscience.

Why, then, do so many shy away from shopping by bike?

Stowing and hauling all that stuff can be a bit intimidating. And yet there are many options. Here we look at all the ways to shop using a conventional bicycle.

Packs

Without special accessories, you can shop with a backpack. It’s great for small loads, and several packs on the market are designed specifically for cyclists. A pack makes it easy to carry your purchases off the bike, and many have a strap or pocket to stow your helmet. The only downside is that cycling with a backpack isn’t as comfortable. Your back gets sweaty, and the load shifts around as you ride. Still, a backpack is a great starting option, because you might not need to buy anything new to start shopping by bike.

Messenger Bags

Messenger bags are a popular and stylish option specifically designed for cycling. They usually come with both a shoulder strap and an anti-sway strap that prevents the bag from sliding around to the front of the rider — an important safety feature. For small purchases, a shoulder bag will also work, as long as the strap isn’t so long that you could sit on it by accident after standing up to pedal.

Messenger bags are best for lighter loads, since the weight is carried mostly on one shoulder, and this can be hard on your body. For heavier purchases, consider letting the bike carry the load for you.

Racks

If you are willing to make a few changes to your bike, a bike cargo rack is a good place to start. Racks are available for front and rear wheels from any bike shop and can be lightweight or heavy-duty. All sorts of purchases can be strapped to the flat space on the top of a rack, and the weight that a rack adds to your bike is negligible compared to the cargo it can carry.

Low-Rider Bikes

One type of front rack is the low rider, which only lets you carry panniers. Nothing can be carried on top of the rack. With this design, weight is carried lower on the bike—a definite advantage for steering with heavy loads.

Straps or bungees?

Everyone has a preference for strapping things to a rack. Bungee cords, straps with buckles, and plain old rope will all work. Just make sure there are no ends dangling to get caught in the wheels.

What if your bike has front suspension?

Don’t worry—racks and low riders are available for bikes with front suspension forks, and the prices have come down dramatically. Be aware, though, that once you attach a front rack, you’ll have to remove your front skewer every time you need to take your wheel off.

Baskets

Rigid bike baskets come in many shapes and sizes. There are folding baskets, front baskets, rear baskets, and split baskets. They can be made of wicker, wood, metal, or synthetic materials. They’re ideal for shopping. Some are even sized so that you can slip standard grocery bags inside them—no fuss, no muss! Baskets are convenient to use, and many versions can be attached securely to the bike, so that you can leave them on the bike with little fear of theft.

I love my folding side basket — it allows me to spontaneously stop and pick something up, even if I didn’t bring a pannier. Baskets are less likely to squish the veggies, and, properly packed, they will keep bottles upright.

Homemade bike baskets can be fashioned from milk crates or a wide variety of commercially available baskets. Strap these onto the rack with zap straps (zip ties), toe-clip straps, or bungees — just be sure they’re well secured to your bike before you load it up and take it for a ride.

Panniers

Panniers — bags with special clips for mounting to the side of a cargo rack — are a popular choice for bike shoppers. They keep the weight low on the bike, can be used in both front and back, and come in a wide variety of designs to suit your needs. The only trouble is that some panniers, when fully loaded, can be awkward to carry around by hand. Look for panniers that come with a shoulder strap or backpack harness. A great DIY option is to make your own panniers entirely.

Balancing Weight

It’s best to balance the weight on your bike, with equal weight on each side and at least some over each wheel. For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that you should carry most of the weight in the back, but many riders now prefer to have the heavy load on the front. This is because the front wheel is stronger than the rear wheel; the front part of the frame is less likely to break; many bikes are more stable and steer better with weight on the front rather than the back; and you can keep a better eye on your load. Either way, give yourself extra time to get used to the load the first time you cycle with extra weight, because your bike will handle differently.

You can be caught off guard by the frame flexing with a heavy load on the back, especially when walking and parking, but it also takes more strength to steer when the weight is up front. If you are carrying a heavy load on the back, putting a bit of the load up front can greatly improve bike handling. A handlebar bag is often enough.

Side-to-side weight balance matters too, even with moderate loads. I often ignore this fact and carry only one heavy rear pannier. But I nearly lost control of my bike on a corner when I carried a balanced load one day, because I was so used to compensating for the imbalance. My rack is also gradually being bent out of shape from being loaded on one side. Not recommended.

Trailers

Panniers and baskets can hold a lot of groceries, but if you really want to haul all your household needs on a bike, you may end up wanting a trailer. Bike trailers have either one or two wheels.

One-wheeled trailers like those made by BOB are narrow enough to navigate small spaces and trails, and they lean with the bike, making them less likely to tip over on corners, However one-wheelers offer less cargo space, and they need to be loaded symmetrically so as not to tip. Two-wheeled trailers, though wider and less nimble, have much greater cargo capacity and stability during loading and unloading.

Trailers typically have a fairly low center of gravity and are stable on the road. Models that attach to the bike’s rear axle affect the steering less than those that attach to the seatpost, especially when cornering. Trailers that clamp onto the bike’s chainstay also have a low center of gravity but are positioned close to the rear wheel’s spokes, which poses more of a hazard if the hitch releases accidentally. Shopping trailers come with a variety of options. Some have removable bags or boxes, and others leave it up to you to attach a container.

You can also use a child-carrying trailer for your groceries, possibly with your child on board as well! Some models of trailer also convert to a handcart, so you can bring them with you while shopping rather than locking them up. If you do need to lock the trailer, bring a second lock—it’s hard to lock up both a cart and a bike with just one.

You can also make your own trailer. Search the web for designs and instructions, or check out the options for build-your-own trailer kits. Although you can feel the extra weight, cycling with a trailer isn’t as difficult as it looks — and it gives you a lot of hauling power! Mostly you’ll find that you need to stay in a lower gear and take corners a smidge wider. Wheeling the bike and trailer around for parking takes the most getting used to — you can’t just pick your bike up or drag it sideways, and it won’t fit through doorways or pull over curbs as easily.

Impromptu Cargo-Hauling Strategies

Even if you buy every piece of gear I’ve mentioned so far, you’ll still occasionally find yourself carrying something you haven’t planned for. Don’t even consider cycling with plastic bags hanging from your handlebars. Swinging bags are dangerous — they make it harder to steer and balance, and they can hit your feet as you pedal or get caught in your spokes. If you have to carry them, it’s better to walk your bike.

A good alternative is to strap the plastic bags to your rack. Tie the bag tightly shut and place a strap or bungee over it, but between items in the bag, so that it won’t slip off. You can even carry produce this way without bruising it, although it’s best for lightweight items. It helps if you’ve got panniers on the rack to support items that would otherwise dangle over the edges. To attach a cardboard box directly and securely to your rack, dent the edges of the box where the straps will go to keep the straps from slipping.

Take time to consider the details of your cargo system. You’ll enjoy shopping by bike more when it’s safe and comfortable. Any time you’re attaching multiple accessories to your bike, think about how they are all going to work together. Where will you store the lock? How can you attach both a front light and a basket to the handlebars? Will the milk crate interfere with the rear light? With a bit of planning and ingenuity, you can work around any issues, and you’ll find that shopping is just another of the fun things you can do with your bike. Happy hauling!

Read More: Ready to upgrade to a bike created for hauling? Learn more in A Guide to Cargo Bikes.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life, edited by Amy Walker and published by New World Library, 2012.


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