Bicycle panniers are a very useful accessory; they allow you to transport plenty of objects (e.g., clothes, laptops, food…etc.) while saving you the trouble of carrying a rucksack suffocating your back.
Somewhat ironically, panniers’ versatility and voluminous nature create another problem for mundane commuting – too much space.
Having lots of room is great when you are on a tour or doing a short trip, but most city commuters rarely fill both units. As a consequence, some choose to ride with a single pannier.
However, the asymmetric nature of solo pannier riding raises an interesting question – is riding with one pannier good or bad?
Riding with a single pannier creates an undeniable weight imbalance. As a result, some maneuvers such as signaling with one hand, riding out of the saddle, and transporting the bicycle become more difficult and shaky.
Nonetheless, if the pannier is reasonably loaded, the pulling effect wouldn’t be as noticeable when riding conservatively. But if you plan to carry heavier loads, it’s better to do so with two panniers or a more symmetrical system to balance the load.
The Effect of a Single Pannier on a Bicycle
When you put a single pannier on a bike, you create uneven load distribution. And since bicycles are very light machines with only two points of contact with the ground, the result is a noticeably uneven scale.
In order for the bicycle to remain balanced, someone has to compensate for the offset. Guess who that is? The rider.
If the pannier isn’t stuffed with many items, the effect of the unequal load wouldn’t be particularly notable when riding over smooth, non-demanding terrain without extreme turns.
Hence why some commuters choose the single pannier route as it’s manageable when you travel light and saves you the trouble of hauling another unit.
When Do You Start To Feel The Weight?
Last year, I spent a couple of months commuting with a single pannier. I was carrying the following in it: rain pants, a waterproof jacket, a spare T-shirt and occasionally a few energy bars.
With this set-up, I rarely had problems, but I could still feel that my rear wheel was pulling to the left (the side of the pannier). The effect was more pronounced during more extreme maneuvers (e.g., a mini wheelie over a small obstacle), but overall, it was manageable, and I certainly enjoyed having the versatility of a pannier with me.
But when I was carrying more, sometimes as much as a thick book, the instability would raise quickly. Riding aggressively out of the saddle was unstable to the point where I stopped doing it.
Therefore, in my experience, unequivocal instability begins once the pannier is loaded with 3-4 kilograms or around 6-8 pounds.
Ultimately, however, it’s difficult to produce a definitive number because the bicycle’s geometry and the rack structure have a great influence on the final result too.
For example, if you’re riding a long touring bike with a rack that has special mounts for panniers allowing lower weight distribution, you’d feel more stable than if you were on a flimsy bike with a rack carrying the pannier higher.
In my case, I was riding a hardtail equipped with a very sturdy aluminum rear rack with dedicated rails for the panniers a few centimeters lower than the main platform.
Note: The effect on the bike handling will be even greater if the pannier is put on a front rack as the bag would be pulling the front wheel directly.
Situations When You’re The Most Likely To Feel Great Instability.
Normal riding. Unfortunately, if your pannier is overloaded, you’ll notice that even basic rides could be uncomfortable.
One time I filled my pannier with the provisions mentioned above plus 2kg/4.4lbs worth of groceries and a computer keyboard sticking out of the bag.
The machine instantly became difficult to operate. I had to hold the handlebars firmly to stop the bike from swaying.
Riding with no hands. When the pannier wasn’t heavy, I could ride with no hands, but it was more difficult than usual. Also, turning while riding with no hands was a no-go most of the time.
If the pannier that you’re transporting is heavy, forget about even trying to ride without hands on the bar.
Descents. Riding with a single pannier increases the chances of speed wobbles exponentially. And if the pannier is mounted to a front rack, the danger level amplifies even more.
Ascents. Climbing a hill out of the saddle while having only one pannier attached to the rack is no fun. And if that’s your style of climbing, you’re very likely to abandon the single pannier system quickly.
Why? Because when you ride out of the saddle, you’re pulling the bike and moving it from one side to the other. The uneven load will alert you of its presence right away.
Cornering. Sharp cornering with a single pannier is out of the question. The instability is just too much.
Signaling. As mentioned, taking your hands off the handlebars instantly exposes the balance issues created by the single pannier approach. As a result, signaling when making a turn becomes a sketchy experience.
Extreme riding. With a light pannier, I could still manage to do a short wheelie and jump the occasional bump, but it never felt right.
Of course, this isn’t a strong downside, since most commuters don’t do that anyway.
Carrying the bike. When I carry my bike, I usually put the saddle on my shoulder and stabilize the frame with my hands. When you have a heavy pannier on the rack, similar actions become more complicated and restricted.
When you’re stationary. The uneven distribution is the most noticeable when you’re not moving. For that reason, you’re more likely to feel imbalanced when you stop at an intersection and when you start riding again.
On a windy day. If there’s a lot of wind, the chances of extra instability are greater because panniers act as parachutes. The wind will increase the pulling force of the loaded side even more.
Walking around with your bike. Walking with your bike will be annoying too. If the pannier is truly loaded, and you reduce the force with which you’re holding the bike, the front may jump up and hit something or somebody.
Moreover, passing through buildings, opening doors…etc. are also situations that will test your handling skills.
If I want to ride with one pannier on which side of the bike should it be?
A strong argument could be made that a single pannier should be mounted on the non-drive side (opposite of the chain) for the following reasons:
Some say that if you’re riding with a single pannier, it’s better to mount it against the drive side (opposite of the chain) as the drivetrain (chain + chainrings + cassette + derailleurs) would counterbalance some of the pannier’s weight.
Putting the pannier on the left side gives you a wider profile if the traffic laws in your country require you to ride in the far right lane. In consequence, the vehicles passing by may keep a greater distance.
Also, if your pannier has a reflector, it would be less likely to confuse other motorists where your actual position is.
If the pannier has a big reflector, and you position it on the drive side, some vehicles may pass dangerously close to your left side.
Of course, an experienced driver probably wouldn’t make a similar mistake, but since the situation is delicate, it helps to be aware of that possibility.
If you get off your bike by lifting your right leg over the rear wheel, you will have easier and quicker access and to the pannier upon dismounting.
More stability when using single-leg kickstands
Single-leg kickstands are mounted on the non-drive side as they may interfere with the operation of the drivetrain.
If you’re using one, it should be easier to stabilize the bike after a ride if the pannier is attached on the same side.
I don’t use a kickstand, but I’ve seen a few single pannier riders who follow this protocol.
Alternatively, you could also consider a double-leg kickstand as they greatly increase the stability of a “resting” bicycle.
Smaller risk of interference with the drivetrain
Another reason to position the pannier on the non-drive side is the reduced likelihood of interference with the drivetrain.
When the pannier is over the mechanical parts, it may hit the derailleur upon passing over a large bump.
Having said all of the above, mounting the pannier on the non-drive side isn’t mandatory unless of course, the traffic laws of your country require it.
Summary: The Pros & Cons of Riding With a Single Pannier
|Narrower profile||Constant instability|
|Convenience (fewer bags to carry)||Unstable riding out of the saddle|
|Cheaper (you only have to buy one pannier)||Less space|
Riding with a single pannier has two main benefits:
Convenience. It’s significantly more convenient to carry one pannier than two when you’re traveling light.
Affordability. If you go for one pannier, you would be able to afford a higher-end model. Later, when you have the extra money, you could get one more. This could be a better investment than buying two cheap ones right away.
What to do instead?
If the shortcomings of a single pannier are too much for you, but you don’t want to carry two balanced panniers with you, you could look into bags mounted to the saddle and the handlebars.
Personally, I don’t like riding with one pannier because the instability steals too much freedom from my style of riding.
That’s why I bought the Carradice SQR Slim saddle bag last year. It’s waterproof and can carry just as much as a single pannier. Moreover, its position doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the bike’s handling even when filled.
I regularly carry a pump, a 12.5-inch laptop, rain gear, and other items without experiencing any of the balance problems associated with single pannier riding.
In the future, I will make a long review of the bag as I’ve been using it for a while and have come up with some helpful tricks to make it even more comfortable. I also have some criticism to express as it’s not perfect.
Another option would be a trunk bag that attaches to the platform of the rack. Those models are significantly more balanced than a single pannier but do not have the same volume and width. Transporting computers, tablets and large books with one of those would be difficult.
You could also try carrying a rucksack in a front or a rear basket. This method is surprisingly effective and has one very strong advantage – you can commute with a backpack without having to carry it on your back.
If you’re wondering whether you should choose а front or a rear basket consider the following points:
A front basket gives you the benefit of seeing your belongings all the time. Also, it’s easier to load and unload the bag.
The price of this convenience is the affected steering. Unless you have a rack mounted to the frame and a basket attached to it, the handling will suffer.
On the other hand, a rear basket doesn’t interfere with the control as much but robs you of the comfort offered by the front versions.
In most cases, however, a strong rear basket would be a more accessible choice because front racks are harder to find and most are incompatible with front suspension forks.
Therefore, if you go for the front loading option, you may be left with one of those detachable handlebar baskets that cannot support more than 5kg/11lbs.