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The art of an ideal bicycle touring pannier set-up

Alia Parker's picture
An ideal set-up for mounting bicycle touring panniers. Cycle Traveller

Rack-mounted panniers are the most popular means of carrying gear on a self-supported bicycle tour and if you take a look around at other riders, you'll notice that everyone has their own unique set-up. There's no 'wrong' way to carry your gear, but research shows that there is an 'ideal' way to distribute the weight across your bike.

Back in the 1980s, Jim Blackburn – founder of Blackburn Designs – conducted a number of experiments with colleague Jim Gentes (founder of Giro helmets) to determine how weight distribution affected cycling performance, according to the Adventure Cycling Association. Jim was a pioneer in bike rack design, notably for his aluminium rod racks and low front rack designs.

The ideal set-up

The tests by the two Jims showed that a touring bike handled best when the majority of the weight rested on a high-mount rear rack with a lighter load on a low-rise front rack and a very light load on the handlebars, if any.

Ultra-light tourers carrying less than 10kg need not worry about using front panniers as their rear panniers will easily suffice. A sturdy rear rack mounted on a touring bike is capable of carrying about 25kg, although weights heavier than this are not recommended as many racks are only designed to support up to this amount. But while a bicycle may be capable of carrying a load entirely at its rear, it's not necessarily 'ideal' for handling.

The two Jims found that a combination of rear and front racks allowed for greater control of the bike due to the better distribution of weight. The rear panniers should hold the majority of the weight and a tent can be placed along the top.

A common breakdown of weight distribution is to carry 60% high at the rear and 40% low at the front. The bike's steering was more stable when the load at the front had a lower centre of gravity, leading to the development of the 'lowrider' front rack. As for handlebar bags, too much weight around the handlebars was found to have a negative impact on steering, so keeping weight in this region to a bare minimum of less than 2kg is recommended.

Off-road alternative

This type of set-up is ideal for touring bikes, but it may be impractical for cycle tourers who head off road. The Blackburn tests showed that higher mounted front panniers were also acceptable for handling and these are a better option for cyclist who will need more clearance over the ground to allow for objects and movement in suspension. Bikes with front suspension will need specially designed front racks, such as those designed by Old Man Mountain. Bikes with disc brakes will also need racks designed to mount away from the disc.

So there you have it. An 'ideal' bicycle touring set-up that will give you the optimum control of your bike while hauling a full load.


Completely agree about the weight distribution with respect to handling. However, front panniers create a surprising amount of extra aerodynamic drag, even at modest speeds, or at any speed if there's a head wind. Just because of this reason, I've found it nicer to tour with only rear panniers, even when this results in poorer handling. It feels particularly unsteady at first but you quickly adjust to the less stable setup. I actually feel that the aerodynamic drag of a full pannier setup often slows you down more than the weight of the heavy load.

I know what you mean by drag, but I do prefer to have panniers on the front. Much steadier in the steering, especially going up hill because it anchors my front wheel down. I've ridden with just rear panniers and feel like my front wheel can lift up when going up steep hills.

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