It's a brave cyclist who entrusts the fortunes of his luggage (not to mention his safety riding on the road) to a piece of cheap £20-30 metal sold ostensibly as a luggage rack for the front forks.
But that's just what I did ahead of my recent trip to Cornwall.
My trusty Giant Blvd mk II bike has long had a Topeak luggage rack with matching bags, but for a while now I'd been wanting to add front panniers to my bicycle, partly to boost my overall luggage capacity, and partly to balance out my load. Riding uphill with everything over your back wheel makes the bike feel a little prone to popping a wheelie at a time when such a manoeuvre would not be at all welcome.
I had the image in my head of the type of rack I wanted, and where it would mount. But finding something compatible with my particular bike was less easy. It turns out that a lot of bikes which are designed to take front panniers have extra lugs halfway down the front forks in addition to those near the axle. My Giant lacks these extra lugs, so this ruled out an entire range of front racks which require these.
Instead, I knew I was looking for a rack that anchored itself on the lower lugs by the axle (also used for the mud guards), and used a friction-based grippy fastener which secured the upper part to the front forks at whatever height required. The stability of these two matching side panels then comes from a single piece which goes up and over the wheel, joining the pair together solidly.
The rack I settled on, this ETC model from Amazon, seemed horribly cheap at just a smidge over twenty quid. I'd seen similar racks for more than a hundred. On the one hand I figured it's a pretty basic construction: just some bent metal made to a tried and tested design.
And on the other hand I feared that something so cheap could not possibly be strong enough - or safe enough - to load up with heavy bags and be reliably used on busy roads. But I decided to give it a go, drop the cash down, and if I had any doubts when it came to installing the rack in terms of its safety, just not use it and either return it or chalk it up as a life lesson.
I also decided to buy some Ortlieb bags to go with it - easily three times the cost of the rack itself for the pair - partly as I'm well aware they're just the best pannier bags money can buy, and partly as they also double up as drybags. Given that this trip was a camping trip, waterproofness was absolutely a feature I was looking for.
(Kudos, by the way, to Sigma Sports for having my bags in stock, dispatching them super quickly, taking Paypal for payment, and delivering via DPD and their lovely timed slots. They're about the only courier I trust any more.)
When the ETC-branded rack arrived, its basicness was about what I'd expected from the admittedly mixed reviews I'd seen on Amazon. Some buyers found the kit perfect, easy to install, and almost tailor-made for their particular bike. Others had struggled to get it to fit, ultimately abandoning it - to the point of binning it rather than seeking a refund.
One helpful Amazon reviewer gave detailed installation instructions and a series of photos from various angles, for which I was immensely grateful - until I saw another reviewer had done the same, having somehow successfully fitted the rack a completely different way. Hmm.
I knew I'd have my work cut out getting it together - I already knew that it came with no instructions or even photos/illustrations - and that it would either work with my bike or it wouldn't. I also knew I'd have an evening of swearing and calloused hands ahead of me, and this turned out to be the case.
But in the end, I got it to work just fine. The rack fitted - just about - and the fastenings felt secure. The biggest flaw was probably the width of the U-bolt which acts as a clamp around the forks. My forks are oval in section, rather than round, and so the U-bolt fits only unevenly around this non-circular fork, requiring the associated bolts to just be tightened as much as possible, which feels secure, but leaves a little room for movement if the bolts happen to work loose due to vibrations.
Thus far, the U-bolt has stayed rock-solid, with only one of the other bolts vibrating ever so slightly loose, but nowhere near being a danger, and a quick tighten sorted that out.
The Ortliebs I purchased came with three different widths of fixtures for different types of racks, and I was able to fit the nearest fitting brackets, adjust the lower 'foot', and the bags attach and remove as easily as I'd hoped, but still feel secure when attached.
Six weeks on, and probably 2-300km of riding down, the rack has been a great addition to my bike. The forward distribution of weight makes my bike feel more balanced when paired with the larger rear bags. And the racks don't move a millimetre while riding, feeling secure even bouncing over potholes in the London roads. The Cornish roads, by comparison, were in pretty good shape, though there were a few off-road sections that tested the rack's stability. There is some movement in the way the Ortliebs attach to the rack, but this is to be expected.
Overall, I'm really glad I took a chance on the ETC rack - for my particular bike, they worked out just fine. For any would-be purchasers out there, I'd say they're worth a go. The variety of fastenings included in the pack is quite generous, and I think mean they'll fit a wide range of bikes. But my advice would be to not force things: if it ain't gonna fit, don't try and make it.
Without further ado, here's the final result - and a series of photographs of how I fitted it to my particular bike, which I hope might assist any other buyers of this rack left scratching their heads when they unpack everything:
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