Friday, July 15, 2016

Victorian Bikepacking

Strolling around the display of old bicycles at the International Cycling History Conference in New Haven, CT, a while back, I was struck by all the cool Victorian bags. I’m not talking about Mary Poppins’s famous suitcase. I mean all the brilliant little storage bags attached to these nineteenth-century bicycles. It seems from the very beginnings of cycling, riders devised ingenious ways to hang, strap, and just generally affix storage compartments to their machines—under the seat, inside the frame, off the handlebars. 

What’s striking about all this, of course, is how similar these Victorian storage systems are, in spirit and in practice, to what you find in today’s bikepacking movement. By bikepacking, I’m referring to the phenomenon of ultralight bike travel, usually employing ABP—Anything But Panniers—to carry a minimal amount of gear. 

A typical bikepacking set up, 2016.
In recent years, especially in North America, the bikepacking movement has really taken off, and with it, sales of various storage-bag systems from companies like Salsa and Revelate and Porcelain Rocket have exploded--and inspired countless knock offs. (Whether or not this hostility to traditional rack-and-pannier systems is warranted is a question for another day. For now, suffice to say that bikepackers generally argue that pannier systems are too heavy and bulky for the kind of ultralight travel they’re after.) 

Almost every type of storage system in vogue in today’s bikepacking world was on display in New Haven.

This boneshaker from the 1860s features two storage bags, one hanging from the handlebars (big enough to hold a bugle) and another one atop a steel fender over the back wheel—reminiscent of today’s rack-top storage bags.  

Bikepacking, 1869 style.

An Arkel rack-topper,

Here’s a cute little under-the-saddle bag on a highwheel bicycle from the 1880s, with just enough room for the civilized cyclist's pipe and tobacco. It looks to hold about the same volume as most of today’s road-bike seat bags.

Check out the set up on this weird Crypto Alpha from the late 1890s, an odd attempt at combining elements of the then passe highwheel experience (namely the direct drive pedals attached to the front wheel) with the popular safety bicycle. Note the frame bag strapped between the two top tubes. Who needs Velcro? 

One of my favorite storage compartments on display was on this Elgin from a little later, the 1920s. Don't be distracted by the rear rack. Behold the gas-tank storage compartment; this one is made of tin and has secret door flap and latch on one side. This compartment could easily handle a panini, a salami, and even a zucchini. Note the similarity to Revelate's Tangle design.

Revelate Tangle. 
Bikepacking, it seems, isn't so new after all. Like the long beard, bikepacking is not so much a hot new trend as it is a retro revival, a re-cycling of cycling's good old days. 

Now I'm just waiting for cycling bugles to become fashionable again. 


  1. So cool, Jasper! (What, no double entendre bag jokes?)

  2. You sound disappointed. I thought about adding a line next to Mary Poppins's suitcase, something about Prince Albert's scrotum, but it somehow seemed a little juvenile.


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