Building a Near-Perfect Beast: Hacking the Real World

This project has been updated, in case you’re interested…

I only encountered the term in my late 20s, but I can say firmly that I have always been a hacker.  OK, hacker is a term that today, everyone has heard.  But what does it mean? gives three definitions, only one of which (3) is relevant here:

Computer Slang. a.  a computer enthusiast.  b.  a microcomputer user who attempts to gain unauthorized access to proprietary computer systems.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that definition is highly inaccurate.  To my mind, and in my experience as a user of the term, a hacker is someone who knows (or can find out) how to make something work that might not necessarily have been intended to work in that particular way.  I like to think of hackers as the people who go “It doesn’t work?  Well, why the hell not?” and then go on to make it work.

Clearly, I flatter myself.

My most recent hack came about in an interesting  (to me) fashion.

I like handlebar bags.  They’re handy.  But there’s a complication.  Bags that are small enough to stay out of the way are generally too small to be useful (to be useful, a bag should be able to hold at least a light jacket).  Bags that are big enough to be useful generally get in the way of your grip on the handlebars orrequire a massive receiver to be permanently attached to the handlebars.  Even then, they tend to sit up high, which is not optimal for balance.   There is a solution, however.

Maybe, just barely possibly, a history of the handlebar bag

I’m putting this together from what I’ve learned and seen over the past forty-odd years of riding a bike, plus what I’ve read and heard.

1.  In the beginning was the bike.  And the bike was good.  At first, the bike was transportation and little else.  You needed to get from point A to point B?  Cool.  If you needed to carry stuff, you strapped it to the frame, or to an improvised rack.  This reading comes from looking at photographs of Ordinary or Penny-farthing bicycles in The Lost Cyclist.

2.  Then came the need for the basket.  Baskets were perfect for bicycles.  Initially made of wicker, and later of steel, they provided a perfect place to put lunch, groceries, small dogs, etc.

The evolution from wicker to steel meant that whatever was in the basket was generally also in its own container, so that it wouldn’t fall between the rather large gaps in the basket material.

3.  As steel became a more acceptable material, thanks to the great god Wald, some people thought to themselves, “y’know, we’re putting bags in baskets.  It would weigh less if we just hung bags…” and lo, so was born the handlebar bagas we know it.  Well, not quite.  But the bags that many of us strapped to the handlebars (and which are still sold today:

) embody what I think of as the first generation of handlebar bags.  Big enough to carry just what you need.  Not big enough to get in the way.

4.  But some people wanted more space.  And this was a problem, because in the United States the bicycle, in wake of the automotive explosion of the 20th Century, emerged as a recreationalvehicle.  And Americans, being literalists, hooked their handlebar bags to the handlebar.  Which lead to things like this:

Thisis a perfectly good handlebar bag, supported by a complicated bracket that sits on the handlebars.  The bag is excellently made and can hold quite a lot, but only as much as the bracket will permit.  Similar brackets support even larger bags, like this:


These bags are good, but.  Pick up something that weighs a few pounds, say a notebook computer.  Hold it out at arms length by the edge.  Difficult?  Yes.  Well, that same strain was put on these handlebar bags, which meant that they were best used only for light things.

5.  Meanwhile, in France (and Tokyo?) a different approach evolved.  Partly because the bikes were less recreational—Europe didn’t adopt the auto quite as quickly as the United States—bicycles developed a little differently.  They were more likely to be fendered, and more likely to have some kind of front rack.  Porteurs and Randonneurs developed.  And while American tourists carried a few light things in their handlebar bags (and the rest in back in panniers), the French often carried their touring loads were they could get at them, thanks in no small part to things like this:

This is a freaking enormous handlebar bag!  Read an excellent account of it hereThiswas possible because although the French handlebar bag depended on the handlebars for stabilization, it was really just a shell.  Weight was supported from underneath, by a rack.

Now take that laptop and hold it with two hands—one underneath to support the weight, and another to keep it from slipping around on your hand.  Easier than holding by the edge, yes?  Of course yes!

6.  Pluperfect.  The only problem with having the handlebar stabilize the bag is that it only works, for a given bag, with a limited range of handlebar and stem combinations.  There are two solutions to this problem.  The first looks like this:

You fit the bag to the bike.  This can work well.  The other option looks like this:

This is one example of a class of items known as decaleurs—bag-hangers.  In this case, the washer goes onto the headset stack of the bike below the stem, and the long part with two projections goes on the back of a handlebar bag.  the projections slide into the two tubes on the “receiver” portion on the bike and—et voilà—your bag is stabilized.  It’s got to sit on the rack, but it no longer depends on stem height to accomplish this.  And there are zillions of kinds of decaleurs—some built into racks themselves, some hanging from stem bolts, you name it.  The idea is just to keep the bag from sloshing around.  I use one of the ones shown, made by Velo Orange.  But they’re also made and sold by Gilles Berthoud, Compass Cycles, etc.  I’ve also seen some very clever homemade examples.

If you have a bike with a front rack, or if you can fit a front rack to your bike, you can carry substantial weight up there—which, by the way, can improve the handling of your bike because it distributes the weight more evenly between the wheels.  But you have to to have a rack.  The decaleur keeps it from sloshing around.


Building the beast

And a bag.  And that’s where this story comes to.  The randonneur handlebar bag has become very popular and fashionable in recent years.  In addition to the lovely Berthoud bags shown above, which are priced in the $200-300 range, you can get them custom-made by various craftspersons, or try to snag one of the excellent (I hear) Acornbags.

All of these “rando” bags are very well-made, and all are very (IMO) costly.  And here I’ll make an admission.  I don’t like waxed cotton.  Waxed cotton is very nice stuff, and it’s the material of choice for craft builders throughout the world.  But I just don’t care for it.  I likeCordura for some reason.

So, when I happened, after my hip-replacement accident, to end up with a bike with a rack:

I had to think for a while.  What I wanted was a modern embodiment of the Rando bag.  As such, it needed to have a flat bottom to distribute its weight on the rack, and I wanted some pockets for organization and a map case on top (I am a slow, solo rider, and so it’s always helpful to have a map).  I wanted the bag to be large.  I wanted what I wanted.

And so I prepared to hack.

The first thing was to look at what was available that fit my criteria (this is called building a near-perfect beast because my beast is not yours).  I looked at a Nashbar handlebar bag that was too big.  I tried an MEC bag that was cheap but was too small and not well-enough structured with stiffeners (no longer available, in any event).  I browsed eBay.  And then I stumbled upon this:

8.5 liters, so big enough.  Three outside pockets.  Map case?  Check.  By the way, the cords shown on top of the map case?  An error by the photographer—they’re actually supposed to hold a jacket or something on under the map, and the map case is usually folded—it’s large enough to unfold and fit over even a significant load.  The red rubber tab in front is for a blinky, but it’s pretty useless, and I sliced mine off.  And did I mention that the thing comes in black as well as high-viz?

Step one was to remove the substantial quick-release bracket on the back of the bag, easily done because the bag has excellent internal structural supports.  Four bolts, and it’s off.

Now, look at the rack above.  See that loop nearest the fork?  That’s called a tombstone.  That’s half of what stabilizes the bag, in addition to the decauleur.  I found an old belt that I had, and cut about 4” from it.  I then punched two holes in the belt segment and using that as a template, burned two holds into the bag with a soldering iron (hint:  nylon fabric doesn’t take well to being drilled, but you can seal it with heat.  Hence the soldering iron.  I affixed the belt with some nice bolts–and finishing washers to increase the “tooth” of the bolts on the leather:


When I put the bag on the bike, the leather strap fits tightly across the tombstone and keeps the bag from shifting fore-and-aft.

Next, I measured the distance from the bottom of the track to the top of the decaleur receiver mounted on my headset, and installed the bag portion of the decaleur just a little higher on the bag, so there was room for error.  Once again, I burned—rather than drilled—the bag, and attached the decaleur with stainless steel bolts:


You can see in the photo some of the holes left from original quick release fitting.  I still haven’t patched these, but I may.

Now, when I want to use the bag, I first stretch the strap over the top of the tombstone, then push down until the two rods engage the decaleur receiver.  Push the bag down onto the rack, and that’s it.  No buckles or Velcro or other straps or anything.  I use a narrow set of handlebars (40cm) but the bag fits nicely, and doesn’t interfere with braking (photo taken before I removed the useless red tab, and I was running with my lights on since it was a gray day):


Now, your ideal bag may well be different.  You may want a Berthoud bag or an Acorn bag, or you may see something in Target that looks like it’ll do the job.  Don’t be afraid to make it fit.  Will my bag last forever like Berthoud bags are supposed to?  Probably not.  But it cost me about 20% of what a Berthoud would have.  I’m not a randonneur.  I’d like to be, but at most I’m a century rider.  Maybe someday.

But at mile 65, when I’m starving?  I know where my food is, and I don’t have to stop to get at it.

Hack On!

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2 Responses to Building a Near-Perfect Beast: Hacking the Real World

  1. Pingback: In Order to Form a More Perfect …Beast? | Law School is So Over

  2. Pingback: Take It Easy | Law School is So Over

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