Empowering The Bicycle Traveler

How to Load a Touring Bike.

I have a strong memory of my first overnighter on “Bernard” my Gilles Berthoud Adventure Touring Bike.  I loaded him up the same way I had always loaded “Sky” my Rivendell Bleriot.  I pushed off and on the first small down hill immediately noticed a pronounced shimmy in the front wheel. WTH?,  I got off checked to see that all was attached correctly, it was.  I fought the shimmy the entire day (I should note that the Bike Hermit was not on this ride with me.) The return the next day was a bit better but not much.  I was crushed, thinking I had made a big mistake in buying this bike.  I expressed my dismay to the Bike Hermit and his first words – “Stacy this bike has a low trail geometry, you can’t pack it the same way as you did your Rivendell”…  “Oh”, I replied, “I didn’t know there was a difference between touring bikes.”

[Bike Hermit: “trail” refers to how far the center of the tire footprint on the road surface falls behind the imaginary point where the steering axis hits the road and it is a function of head tube angle, fork rake and tire size.

Trail is the distance between the two lines where they hit the road.

Trail is the distance between the two lines where they hit the road.



In this photo,the rear panniers on “Chief”, the A Homer Hilsen by Rivendell, sit much higher than my panniers on “Bernard”, the Gilles Berthoud. Typically, in our experience, a Rivendell bike does better with the weight on the back of the bike.

One thing I have learned in the last 15 months is that Bernard performs best with the load distributed between the front and the back.  He has these amazing custom Gilles Berthoud Racks that have low rails for panniers.  For short trips, I don’t really want to carry 4 panniers along with my front bag so getting the weight balanced can be a challenge.  On a short trip with a smaller load, I am better off with the weight being heavier in the front than the rear.  Attaching panniers to the low rider rack in the front and then strapping my sleeping bag on the rear rack makes for a much smoother ride.  Our recent trip to Texas I wasn’t really thinking and I had my lower rear rack but not my lower front rack so I had some challenges in getting my load balanced – I basically carried all of our food in my GB front rack bag. Then had the tent (sans poles) and my clothes in the rear panniers.  Next trip I am going to go ahead and bring 4 panniers, putting the smaller ones on the rear and the larger ones on the front.


This photo of “Bernard” with a full set of panniers demonstrates how the low trail design is meant to be implemented.


Surly Long Haul Truckers and Surly Disc Truckers seem to be very forgiving when it comes to packing.

Obviously there are other design and construction details and considerations that affect how a bike handles when loaded. The type and design of racks used can affect handling too, as can the type and size and inflation pressure of tires. Most bikes billed as touring bikes should have the characteristics which will make them able to handle a load without becoming squirrely or unpredictable in handling. But every design will have its own unique nuances. Keeping in mind that an unloaded touring bike with rider aboard will have more weight on the rear wheel adds heft to the theory of biasing the added weight to the front of the bike.

The bottom line is that their are many factors which contribute to how a bike handles when carrying a rider and a passive load. That awareness means that, with some trial and error, it should be possible to optimize the load carrying setup on almost any bike.

8 comments… add one
  • Rod Bruckdorfer February 24, 2015, 10:29 am

    With low trail geometry bikes, you can reduce the likelihood of front end shimmy but installing a needle bearing headset, such as a Miche Primato headset. This is especially important if one used wide (38-42 mm) supple, low pressure tires.

    • Bike Hermit™ February 24, 2015, 6:50 pm

      Good point Rod. Bernard sports a PMP headset but I have not taken it apart to see if it uses needle bearings. I can’t find much on line about the PMP headset either. Now you have made me curious; I think I will ask the supplier from whom we bought the bike about that headset. Your point about tires also emphasizes that several factors might contribute to shimmy.

  • John Hawrylak February 24, 2015, 6:59 pm

    Just for Reference:
    What is the trail of the GB bike
    When you used font and rear panniers, and put more weight in the front, did the shimmy go away?
    Any such problems on the normal trial bikes like the AHH?

    • Bike Hermit™ February 25, 2015, 9:18 am

      Not sure about the trail on the GB bike- will need to measure that, but being French and having custom racks designed to carry larger bags in front, my guess is the trail is relatively low. Need to do some more experimenting with different load configurations. My AHH definitely does not like a front biased load. And others’ experience with the Rivendell Atlantis suggests the same with that bike. To be fair, the AHH is not designed as a loaded touring bike and using it as such sort of pushes the frame tubing to the max. A dedicated touring bike like the Atlantis and the Gilles Berthoud Aventure or the Surly Long Haul Trucker will have thicker tubing gauges which also influence stability.

  • dan February 26, 2015, 8:12 am

    Just curious if you used to load your Bleriot in the same manner depicted in the photo of the AHH (weight in the back, rando bag in front)? With the Bleriot being 650b and supporting 38-42mm tires, did you notice much difference from the AHH “load style”? Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Sky King February 26, 2015, 11:48 am

      I should first note that I am not the “everything but the kitchen sink” bike tourist. Because of that, I have a tendency to load more on the back of my bike than the front. The Rivendell Bleriot handled fine with a heavy back end. I think I will insert a photo of “Sky” into the post. Both my bikes have been amazingly comfortable for loaded, multi-day tours. I throughly appreciate a supple wide tire and have no qualms descending, at a good clip, fully loaded on either bike.

  • IndyFabDad November 28, 2015, 7:35 pm

    You say the AHH isn’t really designed for heavy touring — something confirmed by Rivendell and Waterford, who I queried on this point. Yet you also say it was amazingly comfortable for loaded, multi-day tours. I want to use mine for a light tour. Please tell me how much weight you put on the back. It looks like more than the 30 or so pounds recommended as the max by Waterford…. Thanks.

    • Bike Hermit™ November 29, 2015, 9:40 am

      I think somewhere I read that the AHH is fine with a rider up to 200 pounds and since my touring weight is about 160 I figure even with 40 pounds of gear I should still be OK. So far so good!


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