I’d never used a handlebar bag during more than 35 years of riding. The 1970’s versions often were simple cylinders of nylon and foam that hung limply from the handlebar, swaying with every pedal stroke. And of course, handlebar bags were about as uncool as you could get, at least from the perspective of racers or wannabes.
Recently, however, I’ve been introduced to handlebar bags that not only work well but have style too — traditional waxed cotton and leather as used by the cadre of long-distance cycletourists for decades.
I began noticing these elegant bags in magazines dedicated to randonneuring, such as Jan Heine’s Bicycle Quarterly. Then I rode with Jan during a trip to Seattle and admired his well-used Berthoud bag. I could see the usefulness for the long “adventure” rides I like to take in western Colorado. So I ordered one of the French-made beauties from Rene Herse Bicycles in Boulder, Colorado.
The Berthoud Model 22 isn’t the largest bag in the Berthoud line but for most riders it’s the ideal size, fitting neatly between the front rack support and the handlebar. A front rack is necessary to stop the bag from swaying and to keep heavier loads from making contact the front tire or fender. I used a Nitto Mark’s Rack ($97) from Rivendell Bicycle Works. It allowed me to remove the bag’s internal plastic stiffener, which saved 200 grams (7.1 oz.) and kept items from thumping against it when I rode rough pavement.
Most handlebar bag users also buy a decaleur (one type shown here), a lightweight bracket that holds the top of the bag away from the handlebar. These are available from Rene Herse for around $75. I rigged a useable substitute from the clamps on an old pair of Spinaci aero bars that were collecting dust in my parts bin. You could also attach the bag directly to the bar with supplied leather straps, but then the bag will interfere with gripping the bar top as you might when climbing.
Did you notice how the bag, front rack and decaleur just added up to $366? Berthoud bags are expensive because they are hand sewn in France. The beautiful detail work and leather trim drives up the price. The necessity for a front rack and possibly a decaleur makes this one of the most expensive accessories you can put on a bike.
Is it worth it? When I mounted the bag on my Rivendell Rambouillet and set off on a 96-mile (154-km) ride through orchards, pastures and steep hills, I immediately discovered the biggest advantage of a handlebar bag: You have easy access to all your gear while riding. You don’t have to stop to dig around in a rack trunk or seat bag. This is a big advantage if, like serious brevet riders, you want to keep time-consuming stops to a minimum.
The secret to easy access, besides the bag being right in front, is a top flap that is hinged at the front. I didn’t even need to secure the flap. The headwind created by riding kept the flap closed until I wanted to reach inside for a camera or an energy bar. The 5 outside pockets held my wallet, cell phone, spare tubes and tools while I stashed a jacket and leg warmers in the main compartment.
Another big advantage of handlebar bags compared to wedge-shaped seat bags: When the flap is open the whole compartment is accessible. You don’t need to remove everything through a small opening to get at gear stowed near the bottom.
The bag is elegant in an old-school way. It dressed up my lugged steel Rambouillet and gave it an even more classic look. The sewing is flawless and the leather trim makes it more akin to expensive luggage than a simple bike bag.
It’s obvious that much thought has gone into the design. For instance, each pocket flap is secured by an elastic cord that attaches to a small metal hook. This arrangement is lighter and easier to use while riding than a strap and buckle, and it allows much faster access to contents.
Berthoud bags have a reputation for durability. Riders report that they withstand years of abuse and still look good. Although you wouldn’t think that cotton would be very water resistant, tests and experience show that Berthoud bags repel water well. In fact, Heine says he tested his handlebar bag by filling it with water and it didn’t leak. He rode the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris randonnee, beset by rain for many of the 1,200 km, and his gear stayed dry. Cotton swells when wet and fills in the needle holes to keep out water.
I always figured that a handlebar bag would ruin aerodynamics but Heine has run tests showing that this isn’t true. The bag is directly in front of the rider so it doesn’t add measurable drag to the bike/rider combination.
Now the Bad News
Unfortunately, most modern road bikes aren’t designed to carry a front load. I won’t bore you with the details of frame and fork geometry. Suffice it to say that many bikes these days have 50-60 mm of trail, which makes them unstable with a front load. To use a handlebar bag, ideally you’d want 35-45 mm of trail. Bikes with carbon forks almost never have the appropriate amount.
If you want to use a bar bag, check the geometry of your bike or the one you’re about to buy. You can usually find it on the manufacturer’s website. Your local pro mechanic can also do the measurement, or you can use this handy online trail calculator.
Interestingly, my Rambouillet has 60 mm of trail and handles fine with a light load in the Berthoud. It doesn’t shimmy on descents and it tracks well on straight sections. However, I can’t ride no-hands at slow speeds, a technique That’s easy without the bag. This negates the ability to sit up to remove warmers or peel and eat an energy bar while on a long uphill grade, for example.
Although this Wasn’t a big issue on the rides I did, if you want to get the maximum effectiveness out of a handlebar bag you’d either need to have a framebuilder re-rake your (steel) fork or get a bike with lower trail figures. Yikes! A new bike would really drive up the price of a bar bag.
High-quality handlebar bags are an expensive specialist purchase. If you buy a Berthoud Model 22 you’re buying a piece of cycling history and traditional elegance as well as a highly useful accessory for long rides.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.