07 July, 2016

Front Loading Basics

by Igor

Whenever I think about a typical cycle tourist, I always conjure up an image of a mid-80s steel bike, rear rack loaded to the brim with a stuck-in flag happily waving in the breeze. This is close - Scott touring Sweden in 1993 with Canada flagged panniers on a Rocky Mountain Sirrus:

By the way, Scott's bum bag (fanny pack for us in the Colonies) game is on point.
From numerous years of trial and errors, my preference has swayed to a front load only. This has developed due to a combination of a minimalistic approach to carry and packing, easier in-saddle accessibility, frame design, and surpassing environmental hurdles.

It is worth mentioning that the Campeur has lower trail than the majority of production touring bikes. This makes for neutral handling when loaded with no wheel flop and downright lively when lightly loaded or unloaded. Bikes with high trail have more difficulty with a heavier front load due to introduced wheel flop when going into corners.
So let's say your bike is designed to handle a front load well. Why should you front load? First, your rear wheel will thank you. It will be much less susceptible to spoke heads breaking, pinched tubes, and uneven tire wear since your carry weight will be distributed to the front wheel.

Second, when making efforts out of the saddle a front load does not introduce any luggage sway. Standing out of the saddle with a heavy rear load flexes the frame and rack side to side causing the front end to wander, which zaps energy during sustained climbs.

Similarly, during high crosswind conditions a loaded rear end has a tendency to make the front end wander if the front isn't loaded. Solution? A front load bias plants the front end and crosswinds have a drastically diminished effect so you expend less energy keeping straight. This is very different to a deep section front wheel in which the extremely lightweight front end wheel acts as a sail.

Fourth, you can monitor your luggage to ensure everything stays put safely. The last thing you want to happen is to hit a bump and lose your flipflops or worse get something stuck in the rear wheel without noticing.

Lastly, your gear and food is more easily accessible while you're in the saddle. Your handlebar bag is right there, ripe for the rummaging. Grabbing stuff out of the pannier while riding is definitely more of an acquired skill, but it is possible with lots of practice and gumption.
Non-drive side to show the tent setup.
There is one hitch with front loading. You really need to have your panniers balanced well, otherwise the bike will want to pull to the side with the heavier load. If you're doing a short commute with uneven weights or one pannier, don't worry about it, but anything longer and you'll want to distribute weights evenly.

Which method do you prefer: Front, rear, 4 points? Or are you on the side that says, "People still use racks? It's 2016, get out of the Mesolithic Era!"


bsimon said...

Definitely biased towards the front; small front panniers, small frame bag & saddlebag work for me.

Unknown said...

I'm a forever front load advocate. It just feels more natural, and with my back half almost exclusively appropriated to the rear for the majority of pedaling, the distribution is more even.

Thanks for the write up.

headset said...

Rear load!

Adam said...

What is high vs. low trail?

VeloOrange said...


You're going down a very nerdy rabbit hole. Here is a good calculator for trail: http://yojimg.net/bike/web_tools/trailcalc.php

Trail is a function of head tube angle, fork rake, and wheel size. Generally, lower trail is better for front loading and for going straight for long periods of time (randonneuring/touring). Racing bikes typically have higher trail for quick maneuverability.

peddalhead said...

Front loading is the way to go especially after breaking a rear spoke on a tour. About the only thing that rides on the rear is light bulky stuff like a sleeping pad, the worst case is when packing heavy then the tent, sleeping bag and pad (less than 8 lbs total) go aft, otherwise everything else goes forward. One other thing of note about front loads is the ride simply feels more secure since the load is directly controlled by the hands.

Neil E. Hodges said...

I personally prefer a rear load as it's much easier wresting the bike out of the saddle that way. Stiffer touring frames can manage a rear load when doing that a bit better, but it's still less responsive than a front load.

There is a caveat with that, though: wheel sleep. When I was climbing out of the saddle up a ~7% grade with only a front load—on saturated, somewhat mossy pavement—the rear wheel kept slipping until I stopped to walk it. This was on a Surly Troll with 26×2.15" tires, too, so there was plenty of rubber on the pavement. I've never seen anyone mention this issue before, so I was a bit perplexed.

Mike and Sherry said...

This page has a pretty detailed pro vs con regarding front and rear loading: http://www.cyclingabout.com/best-carry-load-bicycle-touring-front-rear-panniers/

He scores front vs rear for a number of different situations. Worth a read if you are trying to decide.

As is my nature, I took a hybrid approach on my recent 6-week tour: https://goo.gl/photos/dYDeEz1YEPRrWZHN8

Anonymous said...

Front loading is clearly the way to go. After a 50+ miler in a national forest on mostly gravel roads this became clearly evident to me. Now if you have a rear wheel from VO which easily comes apart to allow spoke changes on the drive side then maybe you don't care as much. I have such a wheel set and I am thankful for that little feature each time I head out.

Anonymous said...

This is a great discussion!! Thanks Igor!!!

Stephen said...

Some people think that low trail is better with a front load, but I'm not convinced. It's more accurate to say "some prefer handling with low trail." A panacea it is not, in my experience. When people refer to low trail there's a range too, and IME there's a huge difference between 30mm and 45mm.

Low trail definitely does *NOT* provide more straight line stability than normal trail. Road bikes typically have trail in the 55-60mm range to make them easier to ride in a straight line and more stable on downhills. Low trail rando bikes are less stable - and more prone to shimmy - but (arguably) easier to make large or sudden course changes on.

This is very much an apples versus oranges thing - some will prefer one, others not so much.

Re packing: Agree that front loading only has advantages, but sometimes there's not enough volume there without using huge front panniers, which do not-so-good things to steering, especially at low speeds. Low speed steering can be "improved" with low trail, but then stability goes out the window, so not such a great solution IMHO, however I like to descend as rapidly as possible and abhor shimmy, so YMMV>

Unknown said...


I think my French meets English packing game is solid :). A carradice or similar trunk bag requires no rack and doesn't wag the rear of the bike like a rear rack and pannier set up does, atmo :). And like a more modern Porcelain Rocket or Revelate kinda deal, keeps the pack out of the wind.

Igor's pack looks dope too. I think there's lots of right answers, depending as always on personal preference, go fast orientation vs stopping for all the pizza/burritos/coffee/beer and what kind of front end geometries you dig and/or are accustomed to. Whatever gets you out there happily digging it, right?

Unknown said...

Another problem I noticed when commuting with a rear load only is that the front wheel goes sky high when trying to throw a leg over to mount the bike. Maybe jus bad technique, but have never had that problem with a front load. My ideal setup is primarily a front load and secondary (for light bulky stuff) in a carradice camper saddle bag. My "aero" set up!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of all this fron load stuff, when will the Polyvalent be back?

Unknown said...

This discussion is great!

I personally really like the feel of a primarily front load. It's a little more tiring on my arms, but I like the slow, swoopy, predictable feel on tour. Just a little sketchier on rough roads, because of the slower steering adjustments.

I will say that for errands around town, the front load is more work. Rear panniers allow for one pannier, easy load and unload, no weight balance concerns, etc. while loading and unloading the bike. I'm talking commute, stop by the store for groceries, grab a drink with friends, then go home sort of riding.

I'll echo "Mike and Sherry" above that cylcingabout.com has several great articles on loaded riding: wind drag, weight drag, front vs. rear feel, etc. I greatly enjoyed reading them.

Unknown said...

I can see the merits of a front load but most of the bikes in http://www.pbase.com/canyonlands/fullyloaded have front and rear loads. Why do you think that is the case?

VeloOrange said...

@ Unknown- The reason all the bikes on that page have front and rear bags is because the rules for posting on that site is that all bikes must have front and rear bags:

Andrew said...

What is that rack? Thanks!

VeloOrange said...

@Andrew, it's our Campeur Front Rack.

bsimon said...

Sean Baird wrote
I will say that for errands around town, the front load is more work. Rear panniers allow for one pannier, easy load and unload, no weight balance concerns, etc. while loading and unloading the bike. I'm talking commute, stop by the store for groceries, grab a drink with friends, then go home sort of riding.

That is a really good point. I typically commute with a backpack, but if it were with a pannier, I'd go with a single on the rear. For touring, I balance the load on a lowrider on front, with the remainder in a saddlebag and/or frame bag. Last time out the sleeping pad was strapped under the saddle bag; which may not be an option for smaller frame sizes. Another factor is how much you carry. I typically travel on the more minimalist end. People carrying more of the comforts of home may require bags on both ends.

JP said...

My understanding is that low-trail is more about steering with the hands than with the hips, and high-trail is more about steering with the hips (more lean, less hand input). My Brompton has low-trail, and that is always the impression I get in comparison to my other bikes (granted, the wheels probably change things).

Does the extra weight on the front of a low-trail bike tone down the extra hand-input of a low-trail bike, to make it feel more like an unloaded high trail bike, kind of like the front end gets light with too much rear load on my high trail bike?

Am I accurately describing the phenomenon?

GGriffinSLO said...

It's been difficult for me to trim my gear down to allow only two bags. We tour self supported and take all we want that makes our camp comfortable and less costly. That means a full cook set up. My rig usually has the bulk of the weight up front, which is all the cook gear, food, and tools, but clothes, tent and sleeping stuff are in the rear. To top it off I have a handlebar bag for accessing things like snacks, camera, etc...

Kaptain Amerika said...


Lower trail is more maneuverable. Course correction is easier and faster. High trail in racing bikes is for high-speed descents where you slalom/lean to turn and is in the Italian tradition; it also reacts less to bar torquing when in a sprint. Reactions to cockpit input are slower/more sluggish with high trail. Yet lower trail is no less stable on high-speed descents, still plenty of caster in effect.

Stuart Fleming said...

I saw one guy in New Zealand with front load only, and he had a hack of a time stabilizing his bike when stopped.
I like front and back paniers. The front paniers even out the weight and make the bike much more stable.