Travel romantic that I am, I’ve always had a soft spot for those old-style French touring bikes, the sort you see in those golden-age-of-cycling photographs – bike and rider all kitted up for distant places on dusty untrammelled roads and projecting either pre-war innocence or sunny, post-war optimism depending on the date of the photo.
So naturally enough when I decided to build up my own dream tourer last year I was keen to affect a bit of that yesteryear elegance and styling for myself. And to me one of the most evocative elements of that French randonneur ‘style’ were those boxy French handlebar bags into which you could tuck a bottle and a bird and head out into the countryside for your picnic. They were de rigueur on tourers back then but have largely vanished today.
Largely, that is, but not quite, for I discovered that there are a few boutique pannier makers these days – generally in the US – that have taken to reissuing these old style randonneuring bags; obviously I am not the only romantic out there. I wanted the originals, though, if I could, and once I found that French hand-built bicycle-maker Gilles Berthoud had acquired the patterns of the old original Sologne bags – the very ones you see in the old photos – and was making them, by hand, in a workshop France, as of old, my heart was set having one of those.
Knowing my champagne tastes I had a niggling feeling they were going to be expensive, and by golly they were. Not only did you need to buy the elegant hand-sewn bag itself, which on its own was nearly twice the price of Ortlieb’s top-self bar bag, but you also required a front rack on which to support it. In addition, when using these old-style bags a decaleur – a kind of bolt-on support bar that extends from the stem – is also considered not a bad idea. It was all there in the Gilles Berthoud catalogue – randonneuring bags of varying sizes, racks and decaleurs to match – everyone you needed to achieve this stylish authenticity, all of it hand-made in France, and all of them together adding up to a pretty hefty bill.
I had pushed the boat out pretty far already in the design and building of this dream tourer of mine, but after a bit of soul searching, and being the kind of guy who can resist anything but temptation, I decided I’d regret it if I didn’t nudge the boat out that bit further and so I took a deep breath and placed my order. The parcel from France arrived a few days later. I wasn’t disappointed. The goods inside oozed class. I’d ordered the GB28 bar bag, the largest size, in grey. It was an exquisite piece of luggage, hand-crafted of sturdy water-resistant cotton, trimmed with fine harness leather. As I took it out of the box it filled the air with an expensive, leathery smell. The accompanying rack and decaleur had also obviously been constructed with the same care and precision as the bag. Any lingering doubts I might have been harbouring at my having splurged like this were cast to the winds; here was the perfect finishing touch to my dream classic tourer. Guilt be damned.
The proof though is in using, and in this I was still a bit leery. I’d bought into this old-style randonneuring set up purely on the strength of its visual and emotional appeal. In practice I’d never ridden with anything like this combination of top-of-the-wheel front rack and bag, and frankly I wondered what the effect on handling would be.
At twelve litres my new GB28 bag was nearly twice the size of any of the bar bags I’d used in the past (my Carradice Super-C at 5.5 litres, and my old Ortlieb at 7) while the only front racks I’d ever used were low-riders. I was well used to riding with those, but here the weight would be higher up, riding above the front wheel. I am happy to report I needn’t have worried. As far as handling went, I soon forgot my big new randonneuring bag was even there. The bike rode like a dream.
I’ve had bag and bike for nearly eight months now, and while my lovely new tourer led a pretty sheltered life over the winter, I put enough miles on it last autumn and, more recently, this spring to form a better – and very favourable – impression of how the boxy randonneuring bar bag functions in real life. It rests nicely on the rack, despite there being no attachment point on the bottom of the bag – something I’d wondered about when I first set it up. I suspect the decaleur helps there, in keeping it stable. There is no shifting.
As I noted from the get-go, the bag’s effect on the bike’s overall handling is negligible, really, at least not with the loads I have put in it thus far – typically camera gear in the main compartment and with the usual assortment of roadside tools and spares tucked in the side pockets, of which the GB28 has five. Modest loads in other words, but enough to count. Obviously, with twelve litres capacity at your disposal and a rack to support it, you could carry a lot more.
From a photographer’s point of view, the extra space is useful simply by virtue of its being there. With so much elbow room in the bag I do not need to fuss and fiddle to pack things away, but can just chuck in my camera and mini tripod when I have finished a shot and want to move on. This can be especially handy when the light is changing and I want to shift my perspective in a hurry. Just grab and go. And with the classic bag’s old traditional loop closures – as opposed to the company’s newer style model with the (more expensive) buckles – getting stuff in and out is very quick. It’s great.
I suspect too the extra spaciousness of the big GB28 will prove very handy when touring. I like to travel light and for week-long tours in the past I’ve managed nicely, but with a squeeze, with just my Carradice Super-C bar bag (at 5.5 litres) and a Carradice Super-C saddlebag (at 23 litres). By using the capacious Gilles Berthoud randonneuring bag instead, I have 35 cubic litres to play with. While I wouldn’t fill the vacuum with more gear, the extra space would allow for swifter and easier packing on the road and give me greater freedom to buy and carry trail snacks et cetera along the way – or to keep my cameras handy and ready for use. In short, I really like this old randonneuring set up and while its retro styling might clash with modern compact-frame tourers and road bikes, someone who wanted to dispense with panniers and travel light could do a lot worse. And if you want to grab a decent bottle of red and all the accompaniments head out into the countryside for a stylish retro-classic picnic, you couldn’t do better.