Bikes seem like a fun, simple way to replace your daily commute—at least until you add some cargo to the equation. But bikes can pull their own weight. With a little know-how and the right accessories, your two-wheel ride will be able to handle a wide range of loads, from a light-but-bulky box to a month’s worth of groceries, and even a basket of your favorite furry friends.
It’s all about what you’ll move and how often
If you’re only carrying a gym bag and a laptop from Monday to Friday, you don’t need to buy a trailer. And if you plan on bringing your three corgis along for the occasional weekend ride, trying to fit them all in a front basket—as cute as that might look—is just absurd. Let alone unsafe.
The volume and weight of your cargo will determine what kind of gear you’ll need, and how often you have to carry it will determine how versatile you’ll need that rig to be. There are a lot of options and it’s not out of the question to keep a couple of them around in case you need to adapt. We’ll go from the smallest and most basic, to the bigger and more intricate.
Carrying your stuff in a backpack is pretty much the go-to method for transporting small to medium items on a bike, but if you want to avoid those unglamorous sweat stains on your back in the middle of summer, know that you do have more options available.
Messenger bags are a classic choice. Some of them are specifically designed as biking companions, made with weatherproof or waterproof materials, and have comfortable straps that won’t sink into your shoulders or allow your bag to slide to your front as you pedal.
If you don’t want anything strapped to your body, you can always opt for something that attaches to your saddle or handlebars. The former is generally known as that little pouch you strap to the seat post to carry tools or patches in case you get a flat tire. You can use something like this if you’re only carrying your phone, keys, and wallet, but saddle bags also come in bigger formats, with capacities reaching 10 liters.
An all-time classic, front baskets are a great way to carry medium-sized cargo, such as your tote bag, a purse, one or two grocery bags, or a dog the size of a corgi. Baskets are cheap and easy to install. You can even get a detachable one and use it as a regular basket when you arrive at your destination, or just remove it when you know you won’t use it. In terms of style, you can go for a cheap metallic model, or for a more romantic wicker version that will perfectly complement your assortment of baguettes.
When filled to the brim, baskets can block the front light on your bike—usually attached to the handlebars—so if you go for this option, make sure you get a light you can latch to the front of the basket. Also, it’s not advisable to load heavy cargo on the front of your commuter bike unless the fork is designed and built for it.
Some bikes even have a basket built in as part of the frame. Those can generally handle heavier loads, but have some drawbacks—they’re heavier overall, and you’ll be stuck with the basket even if you’re not carrying anything with you.
They may be the most efficient and versatile pieces of gear you can add to your bike. They can also be cheap, but cheaper usually means less capacity—generally, up to 55 pounds—whereas heavy-duty, more-expensive racks can carry up to 165 pounds.
Generally, cargo racks attach to the seat post on one end and to the bike frame on the other, though this may vary depending on the model. They are easy to install and detach, but keep in mind you won’t be able to do it quickly and you’ll probably need tools like a wrench and a screwdriver.
Once installed, all you need is a couple rack straps, bungee cords, or cargo netting, and you are good to go. Place whatever you’re carrying on your rack, and secure it with your straps. Make sure they are tense and properly hooked, and wrap them around your cargo as many times as necessary to make sure you’re securing it from all sides. Not doing so will most likely result in all your stuff rolling down the street as soon as you make a turn.
A classic way of transporting stuff on two wheels, panniers are basically the biking equivalent of a trunk. These bags are easily detachable and come in all shapes and sizes. It’s easy to find one that’s also made of waterproof or weatherproof materials that will keep your things safe and dry, and if you invest in something a little more stylish, people will even think it’s just a cool bag.
There’s a catch here though—to use a pannier, you need to have a cargo rack installed. Unless you have a secure place to park your bike, panniers aren’t perfectly secure. But if attaching and detaching your panniers is not something you want to be bothered with, you can always opt for a pannier/basket hybrid, which you can screw to your cargo rack. This won’t protect your belongings from the rain and the elements, but at least you won’t have to worry about finding it’s missing when you return from your coffee run.
If what you want to carry is too big for a bag or pannier, and you simply cannot strap it to your cargo rack, you need the help of a trailer. There are all sorts of this kind of carrier, and the one you get will mostly depend on what you want to transport.
Most of the time, trailers attach to your seat post or the axle on your rear wheel, and the bigger they are, the more likely they’ll require proper tools for installation. The most common carrier you’ll see is the kid carrier, which acts as a rear car and fits two seated toddlers—or a bunch of corgis. You can also find similar trailers meant for actual cargo that come with waterproof or weatherproof tarps, and even tall trailers that look more like a bike-friendly grocery cart.
If you often find yourself carrying boxes or heavy items that might need more stability, attaching a trailer to your bike might be a great idea if you don’t mind the installation and removal process. Also, carrying a heavy load will definitely make your pedaling more challenging, especially since you’ll have to consider wider angles when turning.
If you regularly carry large loads, you may want the pedal-powered equivalent of a truck: cargo bikes. This type of bike has a trailer built into the frame—either in the front or back—which you can adapt with different accessories to safely transport heavy loads, kids and cute dogs.
Needless to say, this is not the kind of bike you’ll want to ride to work every day. This is a rare mode of transportation, and just thinking about trying to lock such a vehicle to a bike rack on the street will make your head hurt. But, since they’re designed with heavy loads in mind from the start, they provide great balance even with lots of payload.
When in doubt, go for the essentials
You might be overwhelmed by options, or you carry multiple kinds of cargo that make it hard for you to opt solely for a trailer or a front basket, for example. If that is your case, the most versatile and comfortable option is to go for a plain and sturdy cargo rack, plus some bungee cords. Cargo netting is preferable, but optional.
The beauty of the cargo rack is that it’s cheap, lightweight, simple, and you really won’t notice it if it’s empty. Bungee cords are compact and easy to keep in your bag for when you need to make an impromptu stop at the grocery store. You can also use your rack to quickly install an improvised and not-so-aesthetically-pleasing rear basket. Just pick up a plastic or wooden crate at a supermarket and secure it to your rack with the bungee cords. This setup is perfect for transporting your favorite corgi.
How to load your bike
The exact way to load your bike will depend on your cargo and what kind of add-on you’re using, but these tips might come in handy in all types of scenarios.
Manage weight correctly
Loading your stuff in a backpack, pannier, handlebar bag or saddle bag is rather easy—you just put your things in there, close it, and you’re done. The only problem is knowing how much weight is too much.
If you’re new to carrying stuff on your bike, no matter the method you choose, the general rule is to start small and light, and build up from there. Backpacks are a great starting point—you’ll be the one carrying the load on your back, so you’ll know how much you can handle. Keep in mind it will most likely be less than you think, though—heavy backpacks have been proven to cause severe damage and back pain not only in children, but also in adults.
Panniers are easy, too. The cargo rack handles all the weight, so as long as you’re not carrying more than what the rack was made for, you’ll be good to go. Needless to say, your pedaling will become more strenuous the heavier your load is.
Since handlebar bags are smaller, it’s less likely you’ll be able to fill it with something super heavy. But if you’re into moving bricks two at a time, you’ll have to be careful. A lot of weight on your handlebars will make it harder to steer, so if you have to move fast to avoid a sketchy manhole, for example, you won’t be as quick.
A similar principle applies to front baskets. Depending on the model, baskets either only attach to the handlebars, or attach to the handlebars and to the axle in your front wheel. The latter setup has a higher capacity in terms of weight, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easier to steer with a fully loaded, super-heavy basket. Also, you don’t want to strain your fork too much, so stay away from any hefty loads that might damage it.
Cargo netting is your friend—use it
Whether in the front or the rear, if you go for a basket, you will definitely want to have cargo netting at hand—it will prevent your stuff from spilling all over the place whenever you hit a bump on the road. I learned this the hard way when my tote bag flew in the air while I rode my bike on a bumpy street. The main victim of that incident was a diamond ring my parents gave me on my 18th birthday. I still haven’t heard the end of it.
Use a kickstand
The lighter your bike, the easier it’ll be destabilized when you put weight on it. If you’re balancing bags on your handlebars (more on that later) or putting stuff in your panniers, it’s likely your bike will fall on its side when parked. Leaning it against a wall is a good idea, but that will only let you load one pannier or put a bag on one side of the handlebars—which will make it unbalanced. Using a kickstand will make things easier, and will prevent whatever you’re carrying from being smashed against the ground and then crushed by the weight of your bike.
Practice wise balancing
If your panniers, basket, trailer, or bag are fully loaded, or you simply don’t believe in bike add-ons, it’s possible you might want to press your luck simply hanging a bag from your bars. The level of difficulty—and danger—you’ll be dealing with, will depend on the weight and volume you’re carrying, plus how low your load is hanging from the handlebars.
You’ll want to keep things as compact and light as possible, and as close to the center of the handlebars as you can. This will prevent your cargo from swinging while you’re pedaling, which is not only annoying, but also dangerous, since it will make it harder to control your front wheel. Your cargo could also get caught between the wheel and the fork, the brake pads, or the spokes. As a result, you could find yourself diving over the bars and onto the ground. But those are not the only factors to consider—your upper body strength, the width of your handlebars, and the build of your bike also play important roles in determining how much you can safely carry using this method.
If you’re hauling stuff often, it’s always a better idea to equip your bike accordingly—it’ll make things easier and safer for you. But if you have no alternative, start small and try to see how much you can handle before things get uncomfortable, bearing in mind that it’s possible you just won’t be able to carry everything you want.
Whatever you do, keep both hands on the handle
You may have seen that picture of a guy on a bike carrying a big chair in one arm. And even though an image like that might make you feel like you could move houses with your bike if you set your mind to it—just don’t. Please keep in mind that “possible” doesn’t mean “safe,” and the fact that you saw it online doesn’t mean you should do it too.
Just in case you have to deal with something unexpected ahead—a bump on the road you didn’t see coming, or the guy in front of you in the bike lane suddenly breaking to a halt—you should always have both hands on the handlebars.
Using one to carry cargo while you pedal won’t only make it hard for you to react in time, but in trying to do so, it’s highly likely you’ll drop whatever you’re carrying—a basket full of corgis, for example—ruining your cargo, but also creating a whole new dangerous situation for whoever is biking behind you. And you don’t want to do that to them—or the corgis.