Let’s Compare Handlebar and Frame Bags

This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of handlebar and frame bags in regards to one another.

The Advantages of Handlebar Bags

1. More Volume

A handlebar bag can be filled with fairly large items (e.g., a jacket…etc.)

Conversely, the shape and position of a frame bag restrict its volume considerably. If you load a frame bag with voluminous cargo, it may tear or come in contact with your shins and calves while pedaling – an annoying outcome, especially on a long trip.

2. Protected From Dust and Road Spray

A handlebar bag is high above the ground and picks less dirt and road spray.

In different, the bottom part of full-size frame bags often gets really dirty due to its proximity to the road and the rider’s shoes.

Obviously, the contamination is a lot worse when the bike doesn’t have full fenders. But even with full fenders on, some dirt will reach the lower part of the bag.

3. Quick Installation and Removal

Most handlebar bags are fairly simple to install and remove. The vast majority of models attach to the handlebars either via Velcro loops or a quick-release mechanism.

Consequently, the rider can easily get rid of the bag when it prevents repairs (e.g., replacement of a gear or brake cable…etc.) or when it’s simply not needed.

On the other hand, frame bags, especially the larger models, are trickier to fit and attach. Hence why most cyclists rarely remove them from the bike.

4. Easy Access

Some handlebar bags have a “basket mode” (a.k.a. an option not to close the bag) which gives you easy access to the contents.

Also, some models have side pockets that can be used for storing small items that you need frequently during a ride.

5. Maps

Some handlebar bags have a special compartment for a map. This option is very convenient for touring cyclists who don’t rely on electronics and GPS systems or simply want to have a backup navigation option.

The Disadvantages of Handlebar Bags

1. Poor Steering

If a handlebar bag is loaded to the maximum, it harms the steering of the bike.

If the transported cargo is light, however, this negative effect is not observed.

2. Cluttered Handlebar Area

A handlebar bag and its mounts add a lot of clutter to the handlebar area. The bag makes repairs and adjustments involving the zone more difficult and may have to be removed for some procedures.

In addition, a handlebar bag could interfere with handlebar accessories (e.g., computers, lights, water bottle mounts…etc.)

4. Vulnerability

During a head-on collision, the bag and its contents can be damaged if the bike hits a tall object.

5. The Front Wheel Cannot Be Seen

A bulky handlebar bag could make it impossible to see the front wheel from a seated position.

This is a problem when you have to maneuver around obstacles because it’s difficult to choose a line.

6. Drag

Handlebar bags are in front of the rider and create additional drag. The bigger the bag, the more noticeable the effect.

Thus, if you’re going strictly for speed, a saddlebag or a frame bag would be a better solution since they are far more aerodynamic.

The Advantages of Frame Bags

1. Do Not Affect Steering

A frame bag is part of the frame and subsequently does not affect the bike’s steering, unlike handlebar bags.

2. Discreteness

A handlebar bag is “in your face” and changes the bike’s aesthetics from all sides. Conversely, frame bags are more discrete and more difficult to notice, especially from the front and rear.

Thus, if you want a more blended cargo option, a frame bag is a logical choice.

3. No Dead Space

A frame bag is a very neat way to fill up the frame and add additional cargo space to a bike.

4. Lighter

Frame bags are potentially lighter because they don’t require additional support structures (e.g., wooden dowels, racks…etc.) which are needed by larger handlebar bags.

The purpose of the wooden dowel is to preserve the shape of the bag whereas the rack prevents the bag from hitting the front tire or fender.

Frame bags do not require such contraptions.

The Disadvantages of Frame Bags

1. Narrow

Frame bags are narrow and cannot store bulky items such as large jackets, tents…etc.

2. “Water Bottle Thieves

A large frame bag occupies the entire triangle of the frame and prevents the rider from using the water bottle mounts.

The options to circumvent this problem are:

  • Install water bottle cages on the downtube (very few frames offer this option)
  • Install water bottle cages on the handlebars, the seat or the seat post.
  • Use an alternative hydration system (e.g., hydration bladder)
  • Use a smaller frame bag allowing you to install a water bottle cage on the downtube’s upper side.

3. The Bike Becomes More Difficult To Carry

With a frame bag on, you won’t be able to carry the bike by putting the underside of the top tube on your shoulder. This could be problematic if you have to climb stairs or hills.

One way out is to put the underside of the seat on your shoulder instead and carry the bike this way. The downside is that many people find this method unstable and uncomfortable.

4. Slower Installation and Removal

A large frame bag is a bit finicky to install hence why most people are reluctant to remove it once it’s on the bike.

5. Custom Frame bags Are Expensive

The only way to ensure that a frame bag fits nicely is to get a custom one made for your specific frame. However, this route is expensive and will cost you hundreds of dollars.

When To Choose a Handlebar Bag

A handlebar bag is a good choice when:

  • You want to see the cargo at all times.
  • You want to transport bulky items.
  • You want a bag that’s fast to install or remove.
  • You want to install water bottle cages on the frame.
  • You frequently carry your bike over stairs and like to “shoulder” the top tube.

When To Choose a Frame Bag

A frame bag is a good choice when:

  • You want to preserve the aesthetic profile of your bike from the front and back.
  • You want to minimize drag.
  • You don’t plan on transporting bulky items.
  • You want a bag that doesn’t affect the bike’s steering.

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