Backpacks, racks, and panniers, oh my!

Recent question from reader Rebecca: “At the moment I’m using a backback, but it has limited capacity. So I’m wondering what you do… baskets? panniers? racks? I’d love any advice on that subject.”

Great question.  I used to be a backpack gal, too.

At first, I carried a regular back pack, plus a small gym bag.  I found that carrying two bags was awkward (and sometimes unsafe), so I switched to the internal frame backpack pictured above (yes, I’m in the picture too, hiding behind the pack).  With a volume of 50.5 L (3082 cubic inches), this pack easily handled everything I needed most days, and, with the waist belt and suspension system, felt pretty comfortable, even fully loaded, when riding my hybrid.

Once I switched to a road-style bike, with the bent-over riding position, the huge pack was a) more awkward and less comfortable and b) somewhat dangerous — when I turned to look over my shoulder, I couldn’t really see the road behind me — not good!

I took the plunge and bought a rear rack and panniers.

With a total volume (for the pair) of 20 L (1220 cubic inches), the panniers (Cartier by Axiom) provide much less space than my pack.  Although they come with a detachable over-the-shoulder carrying strap, it is not very comfortable, making these panniers great while on the bike, but not so good when you want to take them off and carry them around.  I hesitate to leave them on the bike, even when empty, because they’re not cheap.    For some errands, I need more volume (or a different configuration) than these provide.

I experimented with adding a milk crate (which is what my husband uses).

I like the milk crate because I can use whatever bag I want — just toss it in the crate.  With the milk crate and panniers, I have lots of carrying capacity, although the panniers are a bit difficult to access and pretty much impossible to remove while the crate is attached (which is good from a theft perspective, not so good when I want to remove them quickly).  For now, I just use bungee cords to secure the crate when I want extra space, but my hubby uses zip ties for a more permanent attachment (just make sure to carry a couple extra, as zip ties eventually wear out and snap).

Cool green tip: Over the weekend, I heard about people using cat litter buckets as make-your-own panniers (see here and here).  I wish I knew about this innovative reuse solution before I sunk $100 into my panniers.

Who knew . . .

. . . that you should use your front brakes when biking?  And here I thought they were just there for decoration — to balance things out.

But no, the front brakes, when applied with the rear brakes, can help you stop faster than applying the rear brakes alone, which might be useful in an emergency situation! As I consider myself a rather experienced cyclist, I make this admission with a bit of embarrassment.  I just bought a new pair of rear brake pads, while the front pads look almost brand new — time to conquer my front brake fear.

Apparently my fear of touching the front brakes on my bike is irrational, and you can, in fact, use the front brakes without causing your bike to flip over the front tire.  The strange thing?  The situation I so fear has never happened to me.

There WAS a close call a couple of years ago.  My eyes exceeded the size of my backpack at the farmers’ market, so I foolishly biked home with a bag of produce hanging from my right handle bar.  The bag started to slip, so I reached my right hand out to adjust it.  Next thing I knew, I braked hard with the only hand available, my left hand (front brake), and my bike and I came THIS close to taking a little flip.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I did to prevent it, though if you find yourself in this situation and have the presence of mind, all you have do is release the front brake and the back of your bicycle will return to the ground.

After yesterday’s enlightenment (at a bike course, which I found to be very useful, even after 5 years as a bike commuter), I’m forcing myself to use both my front and rear brake.  I feel my left hand cramping up already from all of the unaccustomed exercise 😉

Bike or bust

Last night’s Green Drinks at the Green Center in U-City was kind-of far away, and there was a chance of rain in the forecast, but I’d made up my mind to bike there.  Then I plotted a route and saw that it was 10 miles, one way.  Twenty miles in one night when I’ve been doing very little riding (other than the sitting on my butt in the car variety)?  Gulp.

I gave myself a choice: bike there or don’t go.  Although I hesitated because of the distance, I was really itching to get on my bike.  (Here it is, Bike to Work Week, and I’m stuck on the sidelines.)

Turns out, it was a gorgeous night for a ride, perfect temps to not be cold and not get sweaty.  We encountered a bit of rain on our return ride, but it wasn’t too bad.  And the 20 miles?  They flew right by, no problem!

Open Streets in St. Louis!

Open Streets is coming to St. Louis, with four events from May through October!  The first Open Streets takes place this Saturday, May 1, from 8am to 1pm.  This great event features five miles of city street from Forest Park to Busch Stadium open exclusively for bicycles and pedestrians (i.e., non-motorized traffic), with lots of fun activities along the route.  Click the image above to go to the official website for more details and a route map.

Sadly, I will miss the inaugural event this weekend, but I plan to volunteer at all of the others.  To sign up as a volunteer, visit the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation website.  View this Trailnet blog post for more information on volunteering and the event in general.