Using Handlebar Bags on Modern Bikepacking Bikes

Bikepacking is popular because it allows you to go places where bikes with panniers face difficulties. Bikepacking bags are inside the outline of the bike, so you can go anywhere an “empty” bike can go. Pushing the bike is easier, too, when there are no bags hanging off the sides.

The only problem with bikepacking bags is that their carrying capacity is limited. Frame bags must fit between your legs, making them very narrow. Top tube bags are even smaller, plus they can get in the way of your knees when you rock the bike while riding out of the saddle. Large saddlebags hold a bit more, but they can give the bike that dreaded “tail wagging the dog” feel.

That is why more and more riders adopt handlebar bags as part of their bikepacking luggage. Handlebar bags fit inside the handlebars, so they don’t encumber the bike in rough terrain. Shaped like a cube, they offer an excellent volume-to-weight ratio. Putting the load on the front helps keep the front wheel on the ground during steep climbs, yet the wheels are easy to lift across logs and other obstacles on the trail.

Handlebar bags have one drawback: They work best when supported by a small front rack. How do you fit a rack on a modern bike?

The Compass UD-1 rack was specifically designed for this purpose. (UD stands for “Universal/Disc”.) The rack is adjustable to make it compatible with many bikes. It is available with two lengths of struts, depending on where the braze-ons are located on your fork. The extra-long struts work even with eyelets on the front dropouts. The rack is lightweight, yet strong enough to support a large handlebar bag.

I recently mounted a UD-1 rack on Bicycle Quarterly‘s Specialized Sequoia test bike. Installation was easy: I used the standard-length struts. After mounting the rack, I marked where the struts extended above the rack platform, then removed the struts to cut them to length. With a file, I rounded the ends of the struts. After mounting the struts again, the bike was ready to roll.

The UD-1 rack’s simplicity is key to its strength and light weight. The platform is made from ultra-strong and lightweight CrMo, while the aluminum struts are easy to shorten to the required length. The rack platform sits level above the front wheel, and it incorporates a mounting point for a front fender.

Key to the rack’s elegance is the strut attachment on the inside of the platform, rather than on the outside as on many other racks. Compared to the other Compass racks, we widened the platform to make it all come together functionally and aesthetically.

The crown of the Sequoia’s carbon fork has a countersunk hole, so I used a brake nut (above) to attach the rack. That provides a very clean look, as the nut is recessed into the fork. For the Sequoia’s large fork crown, I used an extra-long nut (not shown).

With the rack installed, the Sequoia became much more versatile. With a handlebar bag, I finally could carry the gear I needed for my rides with ease. And I found that the Sequoia’s high-trail geometry tolerates a front load well.

The next step to make the bike even more enjoyable would be installing the Compass light mount, a headlight and a generator hub. Then I could enjoy the bike even after the sun goes down.

The UD-1 rack is a great solution for bikes with disc or cantilever brakes that aren’t specifically designed for rack mounting. As long as you have eyelets on the fork blades or on the dropouts, and a hole in the fork crown, you should be able to mount this rack. And yet it’s not a compromise solution: It offers performance, durability and beauty similar to other Compass racks.

Click here for more information about Compass racks.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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45 Responses to Using Handlebar Bags on Modern Bikepacking Bikes

  1. Dr J says:

    The only problem I have with many handlebar bags, just like the Berthoud bag you’re showing here, is that they are too “retro”-looking. They are certainly functional but somehow I can’t picture using one on a modern bike. It’s not the function but the looks that makes me skeptical.

    • Perhaps we can ask Berthoud to replace the leather reinforcements with carbon fiber? 😉 More seriously, if you are willing to sacrifice a little weight and function, there are a number of handlebar bags made from “modern” materials that work well, too. Swift Industries even offers them in custom colors.

      • Katharine says:

        Jan did you ever weigh the Ozette Random bag when you reviewed it? I have issue n° 54 but there is no weight listed. I bought my Ozette back in 2012 thinking it was much lighter than the Berthoud (.62lbs is what they quoted on their website). I just got a scale and measured mine at 2lbs 5oz!? Surely that can’t be right.

      • I don’t remember whether we weighed the Swift Industries Ozette bag. Since it has a separate liner (the outer Cordura fabric isn’t waterproof), it makes sense that it would be heavier than the Berthoud, which uses waterproof fabric and doesn’t need a liner.

        We often think that modern materials are strong, lighter and better than traditional ones, and then come along people like Craig Calfee and make bikes out of bamboo that are as light and strong as carbon fiber…

      • Dr J says:

        No carbon fiber necessary, just less leather will do. I saw Swift bags before. They do look better and are also much lighter than Berthoud bags (at least according to the specs). Not sure about functionality – I didn’t have a chance to use one.

      • I really like Swift Industries’ bags, but I don’t think they are lighter than the Berthoud ones – see comment above.

  2. Frank B. says:

    Nice setup.
    Two problems still remain to be attacked: Ideally the bag is supported at the top as well. Bikepackers might be fine with strapping it to the handlebar, but a better solution would be a decaleur, of course. Unfortunately only Gilles Berthoud offers one that works with the common 4-bolt faceplate stems. I modified a VO headset decaleur by welding it to a plate which has holes so it can bolt to the stem faceplate. Works fantastically. I still wonder, why such a design isn’t widely available. One could enlongate the mouhnting holes so they fit a wider range of stems.
    The other problem is geometric trail. I think, only Rawland builds bike-packing oriented bikes with low trail. This is much harder to solve if you already have a bike with long trail.

  3. Nick J says:

    A handlebar bag is indispensable. It’s nice to see a modern bike using tried and true solutions.

    How did you mount a decaleur to the Sequoia? Compass doesn’t sell a decaleur that works with the generic four-bolt stems that come on every bike these days. I’ve seen some solutions to this on the Internet, but most look like bodges.

    • I attached the handlebar bag with the provided straps to the bars. There isn’t an obvious way of making a decaleur for a 4-bolt faceplate stem. If it was my bike, I’d install a Compass 1 1/8″ stem that works with our decaleur.

      • Justin Hughes says:

        If you installed a Compass stem on that bike it would no longer fit (assuming the fit is correct as pictured) because it would put the handlebars too low even even if you put as many spacers as there is room on the steerer. I dig the Compass stems, but 17d doesn’t suit many modern sloping TT designs. As is, a Berthoud decaleur is about the best game in town for threadless stems and decaleurs. Until a better solution comes along I’ll have to continue with it.

      • Frank B. says:

        I think, the way my modified VO decaleur works isn’t exactly rocket science and to me it looks like an obvious approach to attach decaleurs to faceplates:

        http://footils.org/2014/04/08/decaleur-new/
        This prototype has been modified a bit since then, but is used daily since 2014 (incl. commuting)

    • Gugie says:

      I’ve been making decaleurs to use with 1-1/8″ threadless steerers. It has a 20mm tall stem piece that replaces spacers as needed. It can be used with any stem you’d like. https://flickr.com/photos/115397703@N04/sets/72157665229628403

      • That is a neat decaleur design. I am a bit concerned about the long lever arms causing the decaleurs to break on rough roads. I’ve seen quite a few of the original Velo-Orange decaleurs break on our rides. What is your experience with this?

      • Gugie says:

        Thanks! I’ve used that design on three different bikes with no issues. I got the idea to make them for others after un-meeting #2. I met a few people that had broken the VO decaleur, which has a small weld. I was part of the small bail-out gang before the push to the granite batholith I saw from your pictures. The final gravel run was very bad washboard, no bending, no breaking. I’ve used it on other gravel roads, including three times on the North Trask route from Portland to Tillamook. I made one to proof test, the arms bent before breaking. I think the key is that instead of a butt-joint, I drill the stem piece using a jig to make two symmetric holes at complex angles, then braze the tubes into the holes, trimming off the insides with a hole saw, then file and sand smooth. The process is documented in the album link.

        I’ve made over 25 of them now, many for people who broke the VO model. I even stopped making the bag mount portion, and redesigned around the VO part, since they offer it separately. Some have asked for an Ortlieb compatible model, I make one with a 16mm cross piece for that as well.

  4. Marco O. says:

    Can nuts and bolts be used on carbon bikes/forks?

    • The Sequoia’s carbon fork has many threaded inserts for mounting racks. The fork is designed for this. On other carbon forks, rack mounting eyelets can be incorporated by adding a few layers of material around them. The Calfee 650B Adventure we tested a few years back had a Wound Up fork that was modified in that way to accept a small front rack.

  5. Rider X says:

    The Sequoia’s carbon fork also had internal routing for a dynamo light! Not sure if there is a another carbon fork on the market that does this. I appreciate someone actually doing a modern fork correctly.

    Is there any reason mainstream manufacturers don’t want to embrace a lower trail front end geo? The Sequoia, and its predecessor the AWOL, have seemed to settle a longer top-tube/shorter stem setup in an attempt to improve the front loading ability of a higher trail geo, but it is still a compromise in my view. It could be interesting to re-explore front end geometry (Full disclosure – my commuter is an AWOL, front loaded with about 20 lbs most days).

    Any opinions on this Jan?

    • I think a low-trail geometry works very well with wide tires, but it requires a light touch on the handlebars. If you grip the bars with conviction, and tense up when you round a corner, a low-trail bike will wander off its line. It requires some confidence to let the bike find its course almost on its own, and I don’t know whether the big makers can be confident that their customers have the riding technique that makes a low-trail geometry work so well.

      • Rider X says:

        This makes a lot sense, many haven’t either developed the core strength or postural awareness to roll the top of the hips forward and straighten out their back. Using core muscles to support the upper body keeps a light touch on the handle bars.

        I see so many hunching over placing more weight on their hands. Have you ever done an issue on body posture? Its a bit of a passion for myself after years of un-diagnosed thyroid dysfunction led to crazy muscle tightness, but gave me amazing insight into proper body posture. Now all I see everywhere is bad posture.

      • Ted Rzad says:

        While a rider experienced with the subtleties of front end character can adapt to front loading a high-flop/trail geometry, I suspect the majority of potential buyers of new, complete bikepacking rigs are much less experienced with different front end approaches and would conclude in their 10 minutes around the parking lot that low trail is twitchy (i.e. bad) just like their dad’s old Peugeot.

  6. Th. V says:

    “How do you fit a rack on a modern bike?”
    I can’t help but think of the alternative perspectives to the problem:
    —Why have most modern bike manufactures chosen to ignore people’s need to carry stuff?
    —How come most (if not all) other makers of small front racks only make them to fit certain forks and not supply longer struts to allow greater flexibility when matching to a certain fork/bicycle? (Kudos Compass for the UD–1 btw!)
    (Suppose my fork is a bit of an oddball, hence the grumpiness ; )

  7. verbekeerik says:

    I’m curious about what you think of the solution Avaghon developped: they mount the front rack to the frame so the fork remains free from any weigth. Haven’t ridden it, but seems an interesting alternative? https://www.avaghon.nl/en/our-bicycles/avaghon-x29 (scroll down for pictures of the rack)

  8. Ken B says:

    I’ve read of your experiences with VO decaleurs breaking. I set up mine so that pins on the bag are a little shy of fully inserted when the bag is installed–that way, all the weight is on the rack, and the decaleur only handles fore-aft and lateral forces. So far so good, but I have yet to really load it down on a rough ride.

    • Andy Stow says:

      Ken B, I did the same thing. I’ve had mine in service for over 31 months and 9400 miles, including plenty of bumpy off-road riding on a steel touring bike. I’ve had the bag eject exactly once, and the decaleur is holding up just fine.

  9. Rick Thompson says:

    Even with its wider platform, the support area of the UD-1 is smaller than a typical handlebar bag. Why are all the racks smaller than the bags they are designed to support – is it weight, aesthetics when the bag is off, something else?

  10. Jon Blum says:

    I have not used a front rack yet, but I have a question about the design. Most of them have a tombstone that is angled so that it is not vertical, but instead is angled like the head tube. Why not have it vertical, since the bags used with these racks all seem to be vertical rather than angled at the back? Just curious.

  11. Reuben says:

    Is there any change I can fit a porteur bag / adapt a platform for one with this rack?

  12. Jan says:

    Useful description, as always, Jan, thanks. I just finished the construction with the UD-1 rack on a modern rando bike (Velotraum Speedster, Germany), so my 2 cents to the topic: The rack: everything fits perfectly, top finish, a high-class product. The mounting: struts should be ordered in the longer version. Cutting them is easier than stretching…You already mentioned the necessity of a (extra-long) nut for the connection to the fork crown. The rack´s end is quite short, especially for the large dimensioned crowns of most carbon forks. Wish I was better prepared to this point, sometimes also the extra-long nuts are not long enough and they are all not easy to get.
    Strong recommendation: use of a decaleur; it contributes to the stability of the front load enormously, particularly by the use of bigger (and heavier loaded) handlebar bags. I installed the GB, a good option for 4-bolt faceplated stems, I think.
    At last: thank you for your cooperation with Phillippe and his 2-11 cycles, it makes the compass products much more easier to get for us here in Europe!

  13. Conrad says:

    If a rack has neither an M6 eyelet or adjustable strut, can the compass light mount be used?

  14. Pano G. says:

    I am curious on your thoughts on the effect of the increased wheel flop due to the added front load on a higher trail bike like the Sequioa with steering presumably already affected by a volumus 700c tire.

    • When we first investigated front-end geometries, we found that high trail worked OK with handlebar bags, and low trail worked even better. It was mid-trail that combined the worst of both situations – lack of stability with less trail and excess wheel flop because there still was too much trail. Clearly, the relationship between trail and stability isn’t linear, and mid-trail may work well for unloaded bikes, but it’s less than ideal for a bike with a front load.

      The wider tire further stabilizes the bike, which is why modern bikes with wider tires generally handle a bit better than the narrow-tired ancestors.

  15. fnardone says:

    Do you know of any magic for installing a front rack on a carbon fork with only mudguard eyelets on the dropouts and a hreaded one on the back of the crown ?
    (Fuji Jari)

  16. Heather says:

    I like this option. I do read some mtb blogs, people going bike packing and even some long distance rando people use those frame bags. Some of them are huge. I do not think I would like the sensation of bags smacking around while I’m pedalling. How do they affect weigh distribution? This bike frame bag set up would be challenging for us little people with small bicycles. Especially since the designs of mtb bikes leave little room in the ‘diamond’ to begin with. Small bicycles generally have little room for saddlebags either.
    Front loaded panniers and handlebar rando bags are wonderful. I have yet to try the porter rack/bag set up that so many love. I do not think I’d ever want to put panniers on the back again. My main bicycle has terrible wheel flop but once I am riding with front mounted panniers or a rando bag all is well, even well loaded.
    Utility minded bike packers might think a rando bag is silly, but they should try it.

    As for Berthoud bags being ‘retro’ or just too much, they might be a hard sell for this crowd unless they come in all black. I used to think so and was terrified by their frenchness, but more and more they grow on me. I have some berthoud and the quality is beyond expectations. I also finally saw some Berthoud bags while walking past some elder cyclists with beautiful custom randonneur bicycles in Vancouver. Such a sight was unusual enough, but the bags were impressive. They no longer looked vintage or cold or snobby. They are well made, well designed, will not fall off. I bought a very cute hipster rando bag which is hot pink and I love it, but the build quality is lacking, the velcro straps are losing their power, and the bag has flung off on occasion. I have to tie it onto the rack. So next time….

  17. marmotte27 says:

    Will there be a version of this rack for cantiever brakes soon?

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