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Heavy Duty Touring Racks


"If You Want Something Done Right, You Have To Do It Yourself"

When I first began bicycle touring, I was pretty-well 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. 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 I couldıve continued long-term (a 'Spartan' existence is best appreciated in small doses), so gradually I added bits and pieces for trips farther-afield, when I was on the road for longer periods.

Presently I prefer 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 new 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 liters of water, not to mention 3-4 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 who do similar tours, and they all have 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 seen expensive panniers patched with duct tape or secured on with shoelaces or inner-tubes, 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, price-wise; no point in even thinking about them.  The money I'd have to spend, including exchange, duty, and shipping would keep me literally for months in India. I think it makes much more sense to save the money, to invest in Goan beer.

So, 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 beautifully-crafted tubular 'Cro-Moly' racks you Yanks make, I decided to cobble together my own racks and panniers.

I no longer put any faith in aluminum as a material for racks, so I chose 1" x 1/8" '316' stainless-steel bar stock.  I chose "316" Stainless Steel because of its high Nickel and Chromium content, which makes it highly resistant to corrosion. If I had to do 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 Blackburn's and Nagaoka's that I used-and-abused previously. 

But the finished articles are fairly close to the published weights of the aluminum Jandd racks, found in the Rivendell catalogue.

Front Rack.JPG (37846 bytes)
As to exact measurement of the parts, I'm a little hesitant to put forward a 'blueprint', since there are so many different bikes out there.  I'm hoping the value of my ideas will be in demonstrating that individuals can be far more successful at coming up with their own solutions to a problem, and don't have to have their needs defined and dictated to them by the bike industry

Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycles has seen them, 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've 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 bike frame eyelets and drop-outs; potentially a much more serious problem, if it were to occur in an isolated area far from water. Aussie readers will recognize this concern....

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 also be simple, and which would reflect the reality of the non-technical (or often non- existent) support that's available on tours in my favorite places. This principle of simplicity is something I find conspicuously absent in a lot of modern equipment, with it becoming more and more esoteric in design and manufacture (possibly a market-driven development, rather than answering the needs of the consumer), and therefore much more difficult to fix, when it does pack-it-in; not a characteristic that makes one want to take kit like this too far from home...for my purposes, '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 labor, and I would've been drifting farther away from my ideal of simplicity. And what if I welded something up, and I 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 and drilling 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, which are found universally in any metalworking shop: a bench-mounted vise; hacksaw; mill file; ball-pein hammer; center-punch; large Crescent wrench or '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. A by-product of my front racks' bolted-together construction is the simplicity of 'leveling' it on different bikes using spacers and pre-drilled holes, and also in its ability to fold flat in the bottom of a bike box, when the 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 26", 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. Hint: my pump is normally situated behind my seat-tube, but when Iım cycling in the muck I store it in my tent-pole bag to prevent it from getting similarly clogged.

My fenders are also guaranteed ice-breakers and conversation-starters: when people are prompted to criticize them for the amount of 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 low-rider-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-liter pop bottles slung together, to be draped over the top. And in Nepal, India, and Thailand I've cycled in water up to my hubs and b/b, and through foot-deep or more ruts - either the resistance of flowing water against low-rider-mounted panniers, or their contacting the ground would've made my bike unrideable. I've come to the conclusion that low-rider-type racks are far-better suited to the lesser rigors of road touring: the heavily-laden panniers expedition cyclists favor on the front can damage even the beefy steel low-riders that Japanese cyclists use - not solely from being overburdened, 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 so that shoe heels don't rub rear panniers, and with all that must be piled on the bike there's soon a growing resemblance to a 'rubbish-heap'.

My my rear rack has a platform of 7" x 17," which yields almost twice the area of the Blackburn's 5"x 12," allowing ample space for everything and still leaving room for heel clearance, working on brakes, and wheel truing.

Rear Rack.JPG (23817 bytes)

Regarding panniers: UV's really deteriorate nylon (noticeably so in Oz), and a lot of the expensive stuff seems to rely on chintzy, light metal hook attachments or complicated strapping, which only lasts while Velcro is new and dry. I decided to go with canvas after seeing a bike with a pre-war Carradice saddlebag still in good shape. My panniers are adapted from WW II Canadian army surplus, $10 each, and I re-inforced the seams with linen thread (dental floss) at points of strain. 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 lessen the chances of panniers being 'bucked off', and are made of the same material as the racks. Shock-corded S-hooks ensure my panniers stay put.

bike and panniers.JPG (43121 bytes)

Canvas is a very durable material and even though it's cotton, proves to be remarkably water-proof; the tightly-woven fibers expand with moisture and act as a seal. Even when the outside appears sodden, inside there's often no sign of moisture at all. Patching is easy, and if I were ever to damage a bag beyond repair, all I'd need to do is buy another bag, and install my stiffener, hooks, etc. into it. It appears that all Commonwealth countries share similar military equipment designs; I've seen the same bags for sale in Australia, at "Aussie Disposals" surplus stores, and a Brit friend confirmed the design was in use from WW I until well after WW II and is readily available in the UK.

Sheldon Brown commented that with the loads I 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....

Even with four 2-liter 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 the road and have easy access to water: I simply discard the bottles and load down accordingly. I don't always tour 'kitchen sink'-like; most tours 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...."

Paul Woloshansky





Paul Woloshansky



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