The post below compares the advantages and disadvantages of front bicycle racks and handlebar bags.
The Advantages of a Handlebar Bag
- All-in-One Solution (self-sufficiency)
The strongest side of a handlebar bag is that it offers a safe storage compartment without requiring additional accessories to use it efficiently.
All you have to do is attach the bag via Velcro loops or straps, and you’re good to go.
Therefore, in essence, a handlebar bag combines a rack, a bag, and a basket in one package.
In different, a front rack is a mechanical support structure and doesn’t offer the convenience of a bag or a basket by itself.
A handlebar bag allows you to just throw stuff in it and ride away. If the bag is in a good condition, you don’t have to worry about losing stuff. Once it’s there, it’s secured.
For example, I often toss my wallet and keys in a small handlebar bag because carrying them in my pockets feels uncomfortable, especially when pedaling hard.
- Protection From The Elements
Unless a handlebar bag is waterproof or at least highly water-resistant, you won’t get maximum benefits out of it. Sooner or later, a rainy day will catch you unprepared. Having a safe, dry place where you can put your most important belongings is essential.
The bag doesn’t protect items only from water and moisture. It offers protection from UV rays and road dust too.
- Neat Look
A bag with a nice design looks slick and compliments the design of the bike. It’s simple and doesn’t require a lot or any additional hardware.
- Unlikely To Fail Suddenly
Unlike metal constructions and bolts, the materials that handlebar bags are made of are highly unlikely to fail completely.
Most handlebar bags can be removed from the bike in seconds and without the need for specialized tools.
This makes bags practical for commuting purposes. If you leave your bike outside for hours while working in an office, you can easily take the bag with you and eliminate the chances of losing it.
Another benefit of the quick release option is the ability to recover the race look of your bike within seconds. Just unstrap the bag.
- Compatible with All Kinds of Bikes
There’s a handlebar bag for virtually every bike type – road bikes, MTBs, folding bikes…etc. And if a model doesn’t quite match your bike, it can be modified to offer a better fit.
Meanwhile, apart from a few exceptions (e.g., Old Man Mountain rack, Thule Pack ‘n Pedal…etc.) most front racks are designed for bicycles with rigid forks and cannot be installed on MTBs with suspension forks.
- Interchangeable Between Bikes
If you have multiple bicycles, you can easily move the bag from one bike to another. The procedure will be faster if both bicycles use the same type of handlebars (e.g., flat bars).
- Harder To Damage
If you happen to fall or drop your bike accidentally, the bag is unlikely to be catastrophically damaged because it’s soft and changes shape. It may be torn a little, but the chances of it being completely unusable are relatively small. You may be able to patch it with duct tape.
In different, a rack may get deformed or cracked during a fall.
- Changing Volume
If you’re carrying something small in a bag, you can roll down the top to minimize the bag’s size. Or in other words, the volume of the bag changes according to the cargo. This is a nice feature allowing an otherwise voluminous bag to be small when its full capacity isn’t needed.
Thus, in a sense, handlebar bags are foldable. Meanwhile, racks are always as big as they are.
The previous two points make bar bags “lock-friendly”. Or in other words, the process of locking your bike is a bit more convenient for two reasons:
a. You can remove the bag and lock your bike as if it’s free of cargo.
b. If you want to leave the bag (not recommended), you will still have more options when it comes to locking your bike because the bag is high on the bars, and you don’t have to worry about damaging it as much.
A bulky rack, on the other hand, takes more space (fewer locking options) and can be easily scratched.
It’s easier to find a relatively cheap handlebar bag of decent quality than a front rack.
For example, I’ve been running a relatively cheap RockBros handlebar bag for quite a while. It costs a fraction of a decent front rack’s price and works very well for my needs.
- Quick access
A handlebar bag provides quick access to food, water and essential tools such as a map.
The Disadvantages of a Handlebar Bag
- Limited capacity
Most handlebar bags are small and have a very limited cargo capacity. If you plan on transporting bulky, odd objects (e.g., a bike frame), a handlebar bag won’t cut it.
- Crowded Handlebar Area
A bag takes a lot of space on the handlebars and changes the looks of the bike. The bag clashes against the gear and brake cables too. Thus, technical adjustments involving the area are more inconvenient.
In some situations (e.g., replacing a brake cable), you may have to remove the bag to complete the procedure.
- Unfriendly To Drop bars and Brake-shifters
Drop bars and brake-shifters limit the size of the handlebar bags that you can install. The drops on most road handlebars are only 43-45cm apart, and brake-shifter levers have to go inward during shifting. Consequently, if you put a larger bag, its sides will prevent the levers from operating properly.
Hence larger handlebar bags are better suited for other types of handlebars such as flat and comfort bars.
- Low weight Capacity
If you plan on transporting heavy items, a handlebar bag won’t cut it because it will sink down and may even rub against the tire. Hence why some handlebar bags come with a support rack.
- Non-aero dynamic
Even a small handlebar bag creates drag by acting as a sail. The larger models are even worse. Thus, if speed is your ultimate priority, it’s better to use a saddlebag instead of a handlebar bag.
The saddlebag sits behind the rider and thus creates little to no drag.
- Interference With Cantilever Brakes
Front cantilever brakes have a piece of “naked” cable (no housing) going from the stem to the brake. A handlebar bag will interfere with it. The cable may also tear the bag.
The Advantages of a Front Rack
- Heavy capacity
A solid front rack such as the CETMA cargo rack can haul some serious weight. If you intend to carry heavy packages, a front rack is a much better choice than a handlebar bag.
Make sure to buy quality bungee cords or straps for securing the cargo.
- Odd Objects Transportation
Front racks aren’t as limited as handlebar bags space-wise. Thus, one can carry very large objects such as paintings, massive boxes, bike wheels…etc.
- A Base for Large Bags and Baskets
A front rack will allow you to install a large bag or basket on it. If you choose that route, you will benefit from the high weight capacity of the rack in conjunction with the bag or the basket’s convenience.
- An Option for Mounting Panniers
Some front racks come with rails designed specifically for panniers. If you like panniers and carry a lot of cargo, pannier-ready front racks will greatly expand the bike’s transport capabilities.
The Disadvantages of a Front Rack
- Lack of self-sufficiency
By itself, a rack is only useful for transporting packaged items. And even then, you will need a bungee cord or straps to prevent the cargo from falling.
Unlike a basket or a bag, you can’t just throw items (e.g., keys) on a rack and ride away because they will just fall out.
If you want convenience, you will have to invest in a rack bag or a basket.
- Extra Weight
If you want a rack that can support heavy objects, you will have to pay a weight penalty. Most heavy-duty front racks are at least 1.5lbs – a lot heavier than some bags. As a result, the rack noticeably affects the handling even when it’s not loaded.
The table below compares the weight of a bag vs. that of a rack. I’ve used only larger bags to make the comparison more even. It’s obvious that mini handlebar bags will be lighter than legit front racks.
|Lezyne Bar Caddy||263g||Surly Front Nice Rack 2.0||1382g|
|Norco Dunbury Handlebar Bag||740g||Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Tour Rack||990g|
|Revelate Designs Egress||284g||Topeak TetraRack M||910g|
|AGU Venture||420g||Specialized Pizza Front Wheel Rack||836g|
|Zeitgeist Pack||589g||Blackburn Local Basket||1143g|
|Catalyst Pack||424g||NITTO Campee Front Rack||1185g|
|Ortlieb Handlebar-Pack Bag – 2021||420g||Velo Orange Porteur Rack||1079g|
|Ortlieb Handlebar-Pack QR||530g||Origin8 Front Rack||950g|
|Topeak BarLoader||276g||Mash Front Rack||770g|
|Ortlieb Ultimate Six Classic||590g||BLB Frontier Rack Front Rack||1000g|
Conclusion: Front racks are about 2 times heavier.
- Extra Volume
Racks, especially the pizza style, increase the dimensions of the bike. The extra size makes bike storage and locking a bit more complicated.
- Easily Damaged
During a fall, a bike rack can be bent (if it’s made of steel) or cracked (if made of aluminum).
When To Choose a Handlebar Bag
A handlebar bag is a good choice in the following situations:
1. You’re using the bike primarily for commuting and want to transport basic utilities such as a rain jacket, food, electronics…etc.
2. You have a race bike and want to add some utility to it without mounting permanent hardware such as a rack.
3. You have multiple bikes and want to quickly take your kit from one to the other.
4. The items that you carry require a waterproof bag.
5. You have a hard time finding a rack that would fit a suspension fork.
6. You want your bike to remain as light as possible while still being able to carry stuff.
When To Choose a Front Rack
A front rack is the better choice when:
1. You intend to haul relatively heavy cargo (>20lbs)
2. You plan to carry large boxes and other odd objects.
3. You use front panniers or want to.
4. You have narrow drop bars preventing you from installing a large handlebar bag.