This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of front and rear bicycle racks.
The Advantages of Front Racks
- Constant Visibility
One of the main incentives to use a front rack is the ability to see the cargo at all times. This property alone is enough for most people to make a choice because it greatly reduces the possibility of losing cargo due to distractions, failed attachment systems, or even theft.
- Constant Access
Imagine that you deliver newspapers on a bicycle. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to have the newspapers at arm’s length and thus be able to throw them around without having to get off the bike?
Well, a front rack allows you to do just that because you have very quick and easy access to whatever you’re carrying.
A rear rack, however, requires you to stop and get off the bike.
- No Frame Stress
The vast majority of front racks connect to the fork or the front axle via steel struts. As a result, there’s no stress on the frame coming from the rack and the weight on it. This is beneficial because heavy cargo on a rear rack places a lot of stress on the most fragile part of a bicycle frame, namely the chainstays. The heavier the cargo, the higher the chances for the frame to twist.
- The Front Wheel is Stronger
The front wheel of a bicycle is notably stronger than the rear one for two reasons:
a. Symmetrical dishing (the spokes insert at the hub from the same angle because there is no cassette).
b. Most of the weight is on the back wheel
A front rack takes advantage of the front wheel’s strength and thus offers more capacity while also reducing the stress on the rear wheel.
The rear wheel is inherently weaker due to the asymmetrical dishing and already has to support about 70% of the rider’s weight.
It’s easier to guide a heavy weight when it’s closer to your hands. Hence why many bike messengers prefer front racks.
In different, a lot of weight on a rear rack can result in some sketchy turns because the rider is unable to make fine adjustments.
The Disadvantages of a Front Rack
- Affects Handling
A front rack adds weight to the fork and affects the bike’s handling even when empty. That said, once you adapt, it will feel like second nature.
I’ve used my front rack for over a year now and do not even notice it when I am not carrying anything heavy. That said, there’s an adaptation period that has to be taken into consideration.
There’s one exception to this rule – front racks that are either part of the frame by design or attached to the frame via bolts. Those models do not affect handling because they’re independent of the fork and the handlebars.
Their downside, however, is that you can’t carry tall and bulky objects because the handlebars would hit the cargo during turns. Hence why bike messengers still rely on the standard racks that mount to the fork/front axle and the handlebars.
Rear racks do not affect handling all that much by themselves. Of course, that can quickly change when you add extra cargo or ride with a single pannier, for example.
- Not Compatible with All Bikes
Standard front racks cannot be used with suspension forks. If you install such a rack on an MTB, the fork will not be able to move up and down due to the rack’s struts.
In that case, the rider faces the following options:
a. Switch to a front rack that attaches only to the handlebars (the downsides of this method are the higher center of gravity and the reduced carrying capacity)
b. Use a frame front rack (not always possible unless the frame is already designed for one)
In different, a rear rack can be installed on a hardtail right away if there are rack eyelets (if there aren’t, there are still plenty of workarounds.)
Of course, a standard rear rack isn’t compatible with a full-suspension bike, however.
Front racks are less common than rear racks. As a result, they tend to cost more and could be hard to find locally. This is one of the reasons why I made my own out of wood.
- Not ideal for Drop bars
If you combine drop bars (or similar handlebar types) with a front rack, you will limit the height and dimensions of the cargo that you can carry simply because the drops will get in the way. For that reason, most people with front racks switch to flat or riser handlebars.
- Less Aero
A front rack with cargo on it creates drag and thus hurts the aerodynamic properties of the bike.
The Advantages of a Rear Rack
Rear racks are a lot more common and available at most bike shops. Also, many bicycles, including some that are designed for pretty aggressive riding, often have rear eyelets either for a rack or fenders. This makes the installation process simpler
If you’re transporting light loads that are evenly balanced, a rear rack would have close to no negative effect on the bike’s handling. However, this will quickly change when you load it up.
- Compatible with Many Bicycles
Rear racks are fully compatible with all bikes apart from full-suspension MTBs. (As already mentioned, there are ways to equip a full suspension bike with a rack too.)
- Front Wheel Lifting
By installing a front rack on a bicycle, you immediately make it more difficult to lift the front wheel due to the extra weight and heavy steering. In different, a rear rack has no similar effect, and it’s even possible to do wheelies and other tricks when the rack isn’t loaded, of course.
A rear rack sits behind the rider and thus does not create drag by itself. However, if you rely on rear panniers, they will hurt the aerodynamic properties of the bike.
The Downsides of Rear Racks
- Frame Flexing
A heavily loaded rear rack stresses the frame and makes it flex during turns. Hence why rear racks can be problematic for thin frames.
- Rear wheel Stress
A rear rack stresses the rear wheel which already supports most of the weight anyway. By loading the rack, one increases the chances of breaking a spoke or deforming the rim.
- No visibility
A rear rack increases the chances of cargo losses because you can’t see the load.
- Difficult Access
A rear rack doesn’t offer quick access to the cargo.
|No stress on the frame
|Harder to find
|Easier to control with heavy weights
|Most models aren’t compatible with suspension forks
|The cargo is visible at all times
|More difficult to lift the front wheel
|The cargo is easily accessible
|Not ideal for drop handlebars
|The front wheel is stronger and less likely to suffer deformations
|Easy to find
|Stress on the rear wheel and frame
|Compatible with hardtail MTBs
|The cargo can’t be seen
|Doesn’t affect handling when lightly loaded
|The cargo is difficult to access
|The user can still lift the front wheel easily
|Heavy weights are difficult to control
What to choose?
If you plan on carrying heavy and odd objects routinely, a front rack would be a good choice.
However, if you plan on moving light cargo and don’t want to change the handling of your bicycle too much, then a rear rack would work just fine.
I have a decent amount of experience with two setups:
- Hardtail + Rear Rack
- Road bike + Front Rack
The first setup was good because it gave me the freedom of an MTB while still having the option to carry cargo when needed (usually I would strap a light backpack on the rack). With this bike, I was still doing wheelies and small bunny hops (obviously when it wasn’t loaded).
Eventually, I removed the rear rack in favor of a Carradice SQR bag and liked the bag a lot more because it was easy to remove and offered safe and secure cargo storage.
The second setup, however, is undoubtedly superior for cargo transportation. I have transported heavy boxes, massive bags full of walnuts, pizzas, wooden material, tools…etc. on my front rack without it complaining at all.