Putting a rack on a bike is a pragmatic statement of utility. It separates the practical peddlers from the the casual or competitive cyclists. It says, I’m going somewhere, and I need to bring more stuff than I can just stuff in my pockets or comfortably carry in a backpack. It says, I’m less worried about looking fast than looking good when I get there.
Whether you’re buying a pair of tires, a set of panniers, or a cargo rack for your bike you must choose between low price, long-term reliability and low weight. You cant have all three. Cheap and reliable racks are heavy. Lightweight and reliable racks are expensive. And cheap, lightweight price racks are unreliable. But a weak, cheap rack can be worse than no rack at all when cargo is dumped to the gutter or damaged en route.
Choose Any Two Equipment Attributes: Lightweight, Cheap or Reliable. You can’t have all three.
The Broke Student needs to get from their part-time job to their part-time school without paying for gas, parking or bus passes. Their racks tend to be either rugged and vintage or new and cheap. They’re the most likely to over pack a seat post rack with a backpack of books, and suffer the consequences.
The Flower Girl has a pretty pink plastic basket on the front of her bike for carrying flowers. She rarely carries more than a couple liters of cargo, so the steering isn’t affected so much. Later in life the Flower Girl may upgrade to a more attractive wicker basket with leather and brass hardware.
The Do-It-Yourselfer can’t find the rack he wants at the price hes willing to pay. While it might be quicker to just buy a better bike rack, the Do-It-Yourselfer will hack his own from a hodgepodge of recycled parts and newly purchased hardware. He might have found the milk crates free on the curb, but he paid almost twenty bucks for stainless steel, metric nuts and bolts. Depending upon his skill set, the DIYer may assemble his racks with zipties, hose clamps, wood, bamboo, parachute cord, chicken wire, coroplast, duct tape, epoxy, fiberglass, bungee cords and cardboard. It rarely looks elegant, but it always gets the job done.
The Dedicated Tourist buys the lightest and most reliable racks available. Titanium and aluminum are both within their budget, although sometimes they will settle for a cheaper, somewhat heavier, but reliable and repairable steel rack. The Dedicated Tourist often designs their kit around their racks, with packs and bags that are designed to interlock with the racks. Nowadays Dedicated Tourists take it off road on fat bikes with custom, integrated racks.
The Newspaper Boy is practically extinct today, and remembered mostly for halcyon guest spots in an Eighties movie and video game. But once upon a time in America, children were sent out alone without cell phones or helmets on their bikes before dawn to deliver daily newspapers! Their bikes were equipped with strong, wide front baskets, which more often than not were mounted sturdily top and bottom to the handlebars and forks.
The Scavenger can be seen near dumpsters, and trolling the streets on trash day. He has strapped milk crates and bread trays and bungee cords everywhere on his bike. The Scavenger likes to have plenty of cargo space. His rides cheap Walmart mountain bikes until they fall apart defying the laws of engineering as they bounce and flex under overloaded freight. The Scavenger is most noticeable at night, when the dozen of red, white and yellow reflectors festooned on every surface of his bike are simultaneously lit up by passing cars, leaving the observer to see psychedelic tracers when they finally look away.
The Beach Bum rides a simple bike for short distances, often with a water toy in tow. Sometimes she will balance a surfboard on her handlebars, but may buy a rack specifically designed to hold her boards. East Coast Beach Bums almost always ride single speed, coaster brake beach cruisers, which are ideal for leisurely pedaling down the boardwalk and along sand-swept, waterfront streets. Beach Bums often add coolers, horns, folding chairs, boom boxes and umbrellas to their bikes. And some Beach Bums upgrade to tricycles, which can offer more stability and cargo capacity.
The Commuter needs to get to work on time, and look good when she gets there. On nice days she might pack a light messenger bag and ride her skinny bike. But most days the Commuter wants her bag, books, clothes and lunch to arrive clean, dry and separate. Depending upon her budget, she may use a hand-me-down bike rack, the rack that she used on her bike tour, or a sleek new rack adorned with brass and leather panniers. Depending upon her skill level and patience, the Commuter may install a rack herself, or get their bike guy to do it, or just pay the bike shop mechanics to do it right the first time.
The Bike Cop/Paramedic rides because its part of their job. While Bike Paramedics will have big, detachable packs of medical supplies on a rear rack, Bike Cops tend to limit their kit to smaller, rack-top bags that don’t impede tactical agility. Both value a reliable rack, and they will often outsource the assembly of their bike to local shops. For small, local bike shops, a contract to assemble and equip a couple dozen police bikes can keep the lights on and the staff employed during the off season.
The Bike Courier rides for pay, and their racks reflect it. They value reliability and price over rack weight. Their racks are scratched and dented from being leaned against walls, or banged against lampposts. They prefer front racks that keep their cargo low, stable and in sight. Handlebar baskets are only used by novice Couriers, who haven’t yet learned first hand that overloaded steering leads to disastrous handling.
But in the end, regardless of how little or how much we strap onto it, the bicycle is a vehicle that allows us to savor the better things in life with those we love.