Balancing the Load

A Balanced Load

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been carrying my full commute load (lunch, change of clothes, laptop, papers, e-devices, etc.) in a pair of panniers on the back of my Civia. Like the Surly I was riding before I purchased this bike, the Civia has high trail geometry optimized for carrying a rear load. The assumption seems to be that a person will throw a rack and a pair of panniers on the back and call it good, which is probably true in most cases. Up to a point, the Civia handles well when loaded in this way, with the steering livening up as some weight is placed on the rear. Beyond a certain amount of weight though, the front end starts feeling a little light and squirrelly, an issue that may be exacerbated by the fact that the internal gear hub also shifts the weight bias rearward.

In an attempt to mitigate for the unbalanced feeling of overloading the rear of the bike, I recently installed my Pass & Stow porteur rack and Freight Baggage bag on the front fork of the Civia. This is the rack/bag combo I’ve been running on my Surly for the past couple of years. With this set-up I’m able to balance the load between the front and rear of the bike. Like on the Surly, having the rack and bag on the front slows down the steering and increases the tendency for the wheel to flop to the side, but it’s something I’ve been able to adapt to with minimal effort. The plus is that the bike feels much more steady and planted on the road when the cargo is split front and rear in this way. An added benefit is that the front wheel stays on the ground while loading the rear panniers (with no weight on the front of the bike, the loaded panniers cause the bike to tip back on the rear wheel when up on the Pletscher Double kickstand).

This is still a work in progress, but even after a short time I’m liking having a little weight on the front wheel again. I’m carrying lunch, layers, and tools up front, with the remaining weight in the back. My guess is that this splits the load approximately 40/60 front and rear. This weight distribution worked well on my Surly and so far it looks to be a good set-up on the Civia as well.

20 Responses to “Balancing the Load”

  • Chris Baskind says:

    It will take a while before you get this bike dialed-in. Like yours, my bike’s steering gets more “lively” (a generous term) as i load in the back. Also thinking about some front cargo capacity, just for that reason.

    My big question, though, is how you’re liking those drop bars.

  • Tucker says:

    I rode for years with two panniers on the back. As I began to load them heavier and heavier (clothes/shoes for the day, lunch, computer, sometimes a book or two, and other gear) I did not like how the increased weight affected the bike’s handling. I then got a lowrider front rack and put the panniers on it. At first the handling was a little odd, but quickly I learned to love it more than with bags on the back. The bike rides very steady and smooth. I know this seems counter-intuitive, but it works.

  • Alan says:

    @Chris

    “My big question, though, is how you’re liking those drop bars.”

    The jury’s still out. In general, I like drops; the question is how they’ll work with weight on the fork in city traffic. So far they feel pretty good. The shape of these particular bars is not my favorite, so if I decide to stay with drops, I may replace these with a bar that has less drop in the ramp.

    Alan

  • Brandon says:

    I just picked up my new Bryant last week. Almost identical, but mine is a 61cm. I got the Velo Orange Porteur rack and used my old Topeak rear rack. I havent had the opportunity to load up the front with anything other than small UPS packages, so I havent been able to experience the handling that you’re talking to. I also don’t know that I have experienced the lively front when I have the rear loaded down. I’ve had about 20 lbs on it, and didn’t notice anything too drastic.
    However, now that I think about it, the fact that I went from commuting daily on a track bike with panniers (just as loaded) to the Bryant with the same load, took from any sensations that I was experiencing other than a “new bike, new feel, new handling, new geometry” stuff? Was this lively feeling being camoflauged by new bike feeling?
    To be honest, I was a little irritated at first at how the bike handled. But it turns out that it was just me being used to a track bike geometry. Now, after a week of riding it, I am in looooove.

  • John Ferguson says:

    Alan, do you ride it as you’ve pictured it? My question specifically relates to having a single pannier mounted non-drive side in the rear and the bag on top of the front rack. You may have photographed it this way to show more of the Bryant on the drive side (which I support!).

    I’m mostly commuting with a single rear pannier, which is sometimes loaded with up to 16 lbs of stuff. It makes the bike tilt a bit to the left and I notice it in corners and sometimes while going straight on the flats. Wonder if you have side balance issues as well as front/rear balance ones.

    I would imagine having the weight balanced over the rear wheel would help, but perhaps loading the front wheel more has a compensatory effect? Dunno – that’s why I come here to ask questions before spending a bunch of dough..

  • dominic furfaro says:

    Tucker has a point about low riders. The lower center of gravity improves steering and it keeps the front wheel from flopping. As with any cargo loading even distribution is key but overloading sometimes happens too. A lightweight day pack in a pinch can easily carry 20 pounds. I have used the Flash 18 REI ultralight technical daypack this winter as a grocery getter. For heavy loaded commuting this pack is insurance against overloading panniers front and back.

  • voyage says:

    People are still hauling laptops back and forth!!!???

    VPNs, thumb drives, even CD-RW weigh nothing and take up no space.

  • Tucker says:

    voyage,

    Some companies require the use of only THEIR IT configured and provided laptops. Since that is the way with my company, and since they are not going to give me a laptop for the office and another for the home office, I must haul the one and only one they give me – which is the only one I am allowed use to access the VPN. And, of course, any company with sense would not allow its employees to carry valuable data on a thumb drive out of the office. Any company that truly understands what good network/data security is all about follows such rules. All others are gambling more than they probably know. If I could use my personal computer to access the company’s network I would be happier, but at least in this economy I’m more than happy to have a job ;)

  • voyage says:

    @Tucker

    I’m glad I don’t have to lug/haul a laptop around and hope I never have to again.

    Glad you have a job. Looks like your employer is doing the best it can to cope!

    Regards.

  • John L. says:

    I’ve been using my Arkel messenger briefcase to haul my laptop, book(s) and papers on the non-drive side of my LHT, with no pannier on the other side. First time I did so I really noticed the balance issue. Now, I guess I’ve adjusted to it, because I sometimes even forget I’ve got it loaded back there. One issue I’ve had with the Pass and Stow front rack (which I love otherwise), is the fact that, when you load your bike on a bus front rack (for multi-modal commuting), it prevents the spring-loaded arm that normally fits over the front wheel from securing the front wheel near the top. I’ve had to bring the arm up as far as it will go, and then secure it to the frame with a bungee. Once done, though, it holds the bike securely on the bus rack.

  • john bokman says:

    I’m curious: is the geometry (especially trail) about the same on your Sam Hillborne as on the civia? Would you load your Hillborne in the same fashion if it were your commute bike?

  • Alan says:

    @John Ferguson

    “Alan, do you ride it as you’ve pictured it? My question specifically relates to having a single pannier mounted non-drive side in the rear and the bag on top of the front rack.”

    Hi John,

    Yes, I ride it as pictured. I rode the Surly this way as well.

    “Wonder if you have side balance issues as well as front/rear balance ones”

    I find side-to-side balance is not as much of an issue as fore-and-aft balance, though if I’m carrying a larger load (i.e. groceries) I’ll use a pair of panniers and distribute the weight evenly. I’ve been riding with a single pannier on-and-off for so many years that it sometimes feels weird with two.

    “I would imagine having the weight balanced over the rear wheel would help, but perhaps loading the front wheel more has a compensatory effect?”

    My experience is that front-to-rear adjustments have more affect on steering and the character of the bike’s handling (slow steering, quick steering, etc.) than side-to-side adjustments.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @John Bokman

    “I’m curious: is the geometry (especially trail) about the same on your Sam Hillborne as on the civia? Would you load your Hillborne in the same fashion if it were your commute bike”

    Hi John,

    The Rivendell has lower trail (~59mm) than the Civia (~65mm) which, at least theoretically, makes it more well-suited to a front load. That said, neither of these bikes are optimized for heavy front loads like true porteurs.

    My particular Hillborne is one of the early 60cm models with a single top tube. I find it pleasantly supple under my 167 lb. frame, but stronger/heavier riders might find it too flexy, which probably explains why both the 56cm and 60cm Hillbornes now come with double top tubes. Because of the compliant nature of this frame, I don’t like to load it up with too much weight. If I had the stiffer, double top tube model and was using it as a commuter/cargo hauler, then yes, I’d be inclined to set it up in a similar fashion.

    Alan

  • Micheal Blue says:

    Alan, when you have a relatively heavy front, do you find the bike plows into bumps and potholes much more? Doesn’t it provide a more jarring ride? I have a Trek hybrid,
    and sometimes load the two panniers in the back also with groceries, in additon
    to the normal commuting stuff. So there may be good 50 pounds in the back.
    I don’t find the bike’s handling a problem.

  • Alan says:

    Hi Michael,

    “Alan, when you have a relatively heavy front, do you find the bike plows into bumps and potholes much more? Doesn’t it provide a more jarring ride? “

    It’s not much of an issue because the lighter front loads are offset by heavier loads in the back.

    Alan

  • Jay says:

    I’ve got a large/xlarge Trek 700c rigid hybrid, with a wire mesh basket in the back on top of a sturdy rack for carrying heavy loads. I’ll easily put 20-40 pounds in there, and I never notice the weight on there when I’m riding. Maybe I just don’t ride particularly aggressively?

  • voyage says:

    Alan’s fine post and subsequent comments seem to implicitly assume that the bike fits the rider in the first place. But, in the real world, many people buy bikes that flat-out don’t fit or, at least require costly mitigation. Load distribution, though important, pales if the bike don’t fit. Like Sheldon Brown, my bias for myself and dear friends is to fit (select a frame size) based on butt-to-wrist; butt-to-feet being an easier fix. What do you think? Do frame fitting preferences affect load distribution? What are some other factor that might affect load distribution?

  • John Ferguson says:

    Well, I doubt that load balancing is an entry level discussion for cyclists. If a bike doesn’t fit, it probably won’t get ridden enough to be thought of as a solution for carrying anything.

    Fit and position come first, always and forever. Nothing else comes within miles of being as important. I wish all bike shops would internalize this belief and act on it always.

  • Alan says:

    @Voyage

    “Load distribution, though important, pales if the bike don’t fit.”

    Absolutely.

    “Do frame fitting preferences affect load distribution? What are some other factor that might affect load distribution?”

    I think sizing and fit are primarily about rider comfort. If a rider needs to be on a bike 5-6 days a week for transportation, they’ll eventually tire of it unless they’re comfortable. As you stated, load distribution is secondary.

    I’m probably stating the obvious, but mounting points for a sturdy front rack are important. It amazes me how many crossover/hybrid type bikes that are presumably designed to be used for transport lack the fittings for properly mounting a rack on the front fork. This probably goes back to the high trail, “throw a rack and a pair of panniers on back and call it good” school of thought.

    Alan

  • David Coldiron says:

    @Michael, Re: jarring with front load-

    I find that riding with a secure load on the front (panniers or basket), the ride can be less jarring, as the added mass keeps the wheel planted firmly on the ground.

    @Alan

    “It amazes me how many crossover/hybrid type bikes that are presumably designed to be used for transport lack the fittings for properly mounting a rack on the front fork. This probably goes back to the high trail, “throw a rack and a pair of panniers on back and call it good” school of thought.”

    I disagree. The BIG bike companies have yet to accept the permanence of transportation bikes. Most of their R&D and engineering costs go into high-end road and MTB. Transport and utility bikes are still being handled like a fashion trend, and their is no “school of thought”…not yet anyway. Small companies like Civia, Surly, and Rivendell have product that is designed by, and for, people who demand utility and versatility. They (and other small companies like them) are the currend trend-setters in design.

 
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