Hey lady, Need Help With That Case of Beer?
For those of us using our bicycles as primary transportation, the ability to easily and safely carry stuff is the difference between getting by and not. It's also an issue of advocacy for non-car transportation. The most frequent excuse I hear from car drivers as to why they couldn't possibly use their bikes instead is: "How do you get home a week's groceries on a bicycle?" Car drivers say this as if the impossibility of such a task is self evident. I don't argue, but I do chuckle, because many of us do it all the time.
Some of the more ridiculous things I have carted on my bicycle include: a year's supply of hickory nuts, my fifty-five pound dog, a small cast iron stove, and myriad 7 mm wrenches. (Why do people lose only their 7 mms?) A couple of things I wish I had been prepared to carry, but was not, are: a dressmaker's form at a great price in a yard sale, a foot and a half wide puffball mushroom in prime condition, and a watermelon.
What are the logistics of carting stuff on a bicycle? Let your bicycle do the lion's share of the work, whenever possible. For a major grocery buy, or taking large packages to the post office, or any such task where big and undefined space is best, I use a trailer affixed to the rear axle of my bike. I and other family members have used our BOB trailer for nearly ten years, and have found it reliable and sturdy, both for weeks-long self contained bicycle trips and for day-to-day chores. Interestingly enough, the only failure of the trailer was not when it was loaded down with weight, but when it was empty and I hit a pothole, which caused the center pivoting rod to come undone. It was easily repaired and has been in regular use without further incident.
Another factor about the trailer is that it does gain some notice, probably because it is so purely functional and runs counter to the idea of us cyclists as merely out playing. When using my trailer to carry cases of beer, I experienced perfect strangers offering to assist in whatever ways I might find helpful. (See title, above.) These strangers were amazed to the point of shouting that something so comprehensible, even enviable, as a case of beer can be carried with ease on a bicycle. If you'd like to replicate my experience, I suggest you carry a case of Chimay or Corsendonk or some other good import or the best of your local microbrewery. And be sure to smile as you pedal.
Using a trailer is not an every day event, as there are many other ways to cart your stuff. Ordinary chores, like carrying a purse or wallet, a laptop, a few books and other work accoutrement, are handily done in a pannier or two over a rear rack. The upside of using panniers is that they protect the contents from weather, especially if you routinely line the panniers with plastic bags. I have found the panniers available from Adventure Cycling to be ideal, because of their size, variety of separate pockets, durability, and night-riding specs, including places to easily install rear lights for safe night riding. However, there are also times when open bags are more useful (carrying plants from the nursery, or loaves of bread still warm from the oven, etc.), and keeping a set of these handy will expand your options. For those of you interested in etymology, the word pannier, dates back to the 13th Century and in addition to meaning a carrier slung over the rear tire of a bicycle, refers also to the hoops once used to expand women's skirts at the sides.
If you're too broke (or concerned about keeping a slim silhouette) to afford panniers, the next best option is a rear rack and a set of bungee cords. Bungees are cheap and versatile and come in a variety of sizes. If you want to go super frugal, limit yourself to the bungees you find by the roadside, keeping in mind that they are there because of a bungee failure. (No, Virginia, there is no Bungee Fairy.) The downside of this simple method is that your goods will be subjected to all sorts of weather, and can easily shift from their original spot with the rigors of your riding.
Finally, for those of capital so limited that you can't afford even a rear rack and a few bungees, use a backpack. You can carry a good amount of bulk in a shoulder slung knapsack, but increased weight is hard on the neck, shoulders and back, and the loaded backpack changes our balance on the bike in ways we can't always predict, especially when taking curves and turns. We bought a set of bike courier bags from the Canadian Pac Designs a few years back, and they have proved a fine carrying tool; the bag shifts weight from the shoulders to the center back, especially when the rider is in the drop handlebars, so that the rider can carry quite a lot with less discomfort than other backpacks. These particular bags are designed to accommodate carting of your laptop.
I do have one caveat, admittedly bizarre, about using a backpack. Only recently as I was traveling through the center of my small city, I observed a cyclist go by, loaded down with a hefty backpack. He pedaled very fast in a low gear, making slow and labored progress. As he passed me, I looked and saw that his pants were nearly fully down, so that his entire buttocks was there for all to see. "Now that," I said to myself, "Is what comes of being your own beast of burden." The lesson here is, using a backpack is probably the most distracting way to cart your stuff and there may well be unintended consequences to such distraction. A bare buttocks in the bluster of March...Brrr.
Of the many ways to cart stuff on a bicycle, which is the best method? After years of carrying things all ways, I recommend that you have all of the options available, and use the one that works best for a given job. Sound extravagant? I tallied up the cost of all the carrying equipment I currently use, including a rear rack, a set of rear panniers, a set of open bags, a trailer, and a bicycle-specific back pack, and I come up with about $841, retail. This may seem a hefty sum by itself, but not compared with the ever increasing cost of using a gasoline vehicle to do your errands.
One final thought: Years ago when my then thirteen-year-old daughter and I were on a cross Pennsylvania tour in scorching summer, we came to a farm stand selling watermelons. The brutal heat of that July day made the luxury of a cool watermelon a necessity, but we had no room in our bags. So we made do by buying a watermelon, walking our bikes to a tree-shaded spot down the road, and eating it right there in mid-day. But that experience taught me to always leave just enough room to carry some unexpected pleasure -- I think of it as my "watermelon cache." The slow pace and immediacy of bicycle transportation allows us to appreciate the way a simple item like a watermelon or a puffball mushroom or even a dressmaker's form could add far more to our lives than we should do without. In other words, when traveling by bicycle, it's always best to be prepared for the best.