Paul and his self designed racks.
When I first began bicycle touring, I was sold on the idea of an extremely light, minimalist approach: I even shunned a sleeping bag, instead donning all my cold-weather cycling clothes at night and rolling up in a sheet of 4-mil plastic vapour-barrier - and many times I was up at 4 A.M., shivering and soaked in condensation, forced to get on the bike and hammer down the road in an effort to get warm. Obviously this wasnıt a plan destined to be long-term (Iım just not cut out to be a 'Spartan'), and gradually I added bits and pieces for trips farther-afield, where I was on the road for longer periods. Presently I live for long trips that are free from a 'city-to-city' mode of touring: I enjoy the independence (not to mention the economy) of being able to pull off anywhere for the night, and still be well fed, warm, and comfortable. Iım no longer a minimalist; I take what I need to be at home anywhere. This approach has not been free of problems, though....
On several of my tours in Asia and Australia I've been forced to carry up to 17 litres of water, not to mention 3-5 day's food, fuel for my stove, camping gear, tools, spares and all the rest, and I've yet to come across an aluminum rack that didn't break under the strain. I've spoken to a lot of other cyclists, and they all have similar disaster stories to relate: of time wasted looking for a welder, or of being marooned on the side of a road or trail mending broken racks with splints and wire cut out of fences, even wrapping spare spokes and twisting them, 'rebar' fashion, to keep the whole together - honestly, what good is a manufacturer's guarantee, when you're stuck way-the-hell out in the middle of nowhere? I've also seen expensive deluxe panniers held together with duct tape or secured with shoelaces, innertubes, and once even a bound-and-knotted arrangement that utilized a pair of XC-ski long underwear!
Those very up-market Gordon and Sakkit racks are out of my reach, dollar-wise; no point in even thinking about them - the money I'd have to put out, including exchange, duty, and shipping would keep me literally for months in places like India; I think it makes much more sense to save the money, to invest in Goan beer....
To put an end to failures at the most inopportune time (as if there could ever be an opportune one...), and considering the implausibility of my owning those work-of-art tubular 'Cro-Moly' racks the Yanks make, I decided to cobble together my own racks and panniers. I no longer put any faith in aluminum as rack material, so I chose 1" x 1/8" '316' stainless-steel bar stock, because of its high Nickel and Chromium content and high resistance to corrosion. If I did it all over again, a choice of 3/4" rather than 1" x 1/8" flat bar stock would reduce the weight by 25%. However, I've no inclination to abandon what I've already made, since it has proven itself to be up to the task. I realize this translates as heavy (and it is, relative to the Blackburns and Nagaokas I used-and-abused previously), but the finished articles are fairly close to the published weights of the aluminum Jandd racks, found in Rivendellıs catalogue. Grant Petersen of Rivendell bicycles has seen mine, and commented that they resemble racks he's seen in Japan on courier bikes, which were designed for up to 50 kilogram payloads - in fact, I pinched an idea from an Indian bicycle manufacturer's racks, by putting a twist in my front's single stays and in two of the rear's four stays, to stiffen them up. They're not completely rigid, however; I've found that a little 'give' is a good thing, to absorb shocks - when expedition loads are mounted on a rock-solid rack, there's a risk that shock energy will be expressed not only in rack failures, but also in bent or broken frame eyelets and drop-outs. I have seen this happen, and itıs potentially a much more serious problem, if it were to occur in an isolated area far from water (any Aussie readers will confirm this).
The choice of common, easily-obtained material with which to build my racks was part of my overall strategy to come up with equipment that was not only strong and dependable, but simple in design and execution; the rationale being that by keeping it simple, repairs or modifications in the future would be equally so, and it also acknowledges the non-technical (or often non-existent) support that's available on tours in my favourite places. This principle of simplicity is something I find conspicuously absent in much of today's equipment, which has become more and more esoteric in design and manufacture (possibly a market-driven development, rather than answering the real needs of the consumer), and therefore much more difficult to fix when it does 'pack-it-in'. This is not a characteristic to lend one confidence on trips far from home: for my purposes then, 'low-tech' actually becomes 'high-tech'. Does one really need welded racks? Well, I would've, had I used tubing rather than bar stock. Tubing would've necessitated a greater amount of time, money, and labour, and I would've been drifting farther away from my ideal of simplicity. And what if I welded something up, and found I'd made a mistake in the dimensions, or something? I'd be stuck with...scrap. Bar stock was the obvious choice: what could be simpler than bending, twisting and drilling a few holes, and then bolting a rack together? If there were ever a problem with dimensions, I could always drill another hole.
I used the following tools, found universally in any metalworking shop: a bench-mounted vise; hacksaw; mill file; ball-pein hammer; center-punch; large Crescent wrench/"adjustable spanner" (for bending); scriber (a nail works); electric drill, and drill bits (cobalt bits work best on stainless steel, but if you have a lot of time and patience and go slow, and use cutting oil (and know how to sharpen drill bits...), High Speed Steel bits will be OK; and finally I used a chunk of 1 1/4" O.D. plumbing pipe to radius the bends. My front rack's bolted-together construction allows simple leveling on different bikes using spacers and pre-drilled holes, and allows it to fold flat in the bottom of a bike box, when my bike is packaged up to travel.
Both racks feature a lot of clearance to allow me to mount them on bikes with wheel diameters larger than 26², and also to eliminate the interference problems encountered when cycling in 'gumbo', when bicycle tires start to look like their automotive counterparts - Australian 'bull-dust' is absolutely the WORST when it turns to mud; it sticks like glue, and sets like concrete. Due to this problem I've also ceased using ordinary fenders, which would quickly clog my wheels into immobility. Instead, I've adapted found license-plates for the purpose which, being flat, are much easier to clear: "Tasmania/Holiday Isle" on the rear, and "Northern Territory/Outback Australia" on the front (my pump is normally situated behind my seat-tube, but when Iım cycling in muck I store it in my tent-pole bag, so it wonıt also get clogged). My fenders are also guaranteed ice-breakers and conversation-starters: when people are prompted to criticize them for the air-resistance they must create, I get to reply (tongue-in-cheek) that they're my built-in headwind, to help keep my speed down....
I don't find lowrider-type racks suitable for my kind of touring, due partly to the absence of a top platform - my front rack's platform provides a space on which to lay a tent and allows extra water, carried in 2-litre pop bottles slung together, to be draped over the top (see photos). I prefer not to dedicate valuable space in my panniers for extra water; instead I take about 75-80 cms. of 3mm cord knotted into a loop, and I sling together by-the-neck two 2-litre pop-bottles or similar (shampoo them out and theyıre fine canteens) and drape them over the top of my load. This makes more sense than buying expensive reservoirs such as MSR's dromedary bags,² which occupy valuable space when not in use. When the bottles are no longer needed, they can be cashed in where theyıre returnable/recyclable, or simply discarded in the nearest rubbish bin.
In Nepal, India, and Thailand I've cycled in water up to my hubs and bottom bracket, and through foot-deep or more ruts: either the resistance of flowing water against lowrider-mounted panniers, or their contacting the ground would've made my bike unrideable. I've come to the conclusion that lowrider-type racks are far-better suited to the lesser rigors of road touring, since the heavily-laden panniers expedition cyclists favor on the front damage even the beefy steel lowriders that Japanese cyclists use - this is not solely from overburdening, but because of the leverage panniers are able to exert on a rack when they contact anything, to bend and eventually break it.
Another thing: the platforms on most store bought racks are tiny, and it's difficult sometimes to set them up level, so that shoe heels don't rub rear panniers, and with all that must be piled on top of a rear rack there's soon a growing resemblance to a 'rubbish-heap'. Iıve addressed these two issues with my rear rackıs platform, which measures 7" x 17". These dimensions yield almost double the area of the Blackburn's 5"x 12," and allow ample space for everything, plus room for easy brake adjustments and wheel truing.
Regarding panniers: UV's really deteriorate nylon (noticeably so in Oz), and some of the pricey stuff seems to rely on chintzy, light metal hook attachments and/or complicated strapping, which is secure only when Velcro is new and dry. I decided to go with canvas after seeing a bike with a pre-war Carradice saddlebag that was still in good shape. Canvas is very durable and proves to be remarkably water-proof: the tightly-woven fibres expand with moisture and act as a seal, so even when the outside appears sodden, inside there's often no sign of moisture at all. My panniers are adapted from WW II Canadian army surplus, $10 each, re-inforced with linen thread (dental floss) at points of strain. Patching is easy, and if I ever damaged a bag beyond repair, I'd just buy another bag and install my stiffener, hooks, etc. into it - it appears that Commonwealth countries share military equipment designs; I've seen the same bags in Australia, at "Aussie Disposals" surplus stores, and a Brit friend confirmed the design was used from WW I until well after WW II and is readily available in the UK. The stiffeners are fashioned out of scrap aluminum sheet with edges duct-taped, Kirtland-style, to prevent chaffing and then bolted inside. These stiffeners eliminate any sagging of the panniers into the wheel, even with the front rack's single stays. The hooks are 2" deep to eliminate the chances of panniers being 'bucked off' and are made of the same material as the racks, and shock-corded S-hooks ensure my panniers stay put.
Sheldon Brown commented that with the loads I sometimes carry, I should consider using a trailer: I did consider a "B.O.B." once, but I concluded that pre and post-tour travel by air or bus would become even more complicated than it already is....
Even with four 2-litre pop/water bottles draped over both front and rear racks, I find myself compensating naturally for sluggish steering when fully loaded. I don't share a typical MTBer's speed and need for maneuverability on expeditions, and it's not an issue when I'm on pavement and have easy access to water, and I load down accordingly. Despite appearances, I don't always tour 'kitchen sink'-like. Usually I carry 30 to 35 pounds; somewhat less than many of the purely-road tourists I encounter. I just like to have a large total capacity as an option that permits me the greatest leeway in choosing routes, since I often hear locals say things like: "There's a prettier way to go, but there's nothing out there at all...."
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