Unimprovable: Berthoud Handlebar Bag

Unimprovable: Berthoud Handlebar Bag

Berthoud handlebar bags are among the few things in this world that are so well-designed and have proven themselves for so long that they have become unimprovable. These bags first were introduced by Sologne in the 1950s, and they have been made almost unchanged ever since. Handlebar bags have many advantages over other ways of carrying your luggage.

The most important is that you can access your food, clothes or camera without dismounting the bike. Some do this while riding, but even if you prefer to stop before opening your bag, it is still very convenient to not have to dismount and deal with stabilizing your bike as you access a bag on the rear of your bike. On a tour, you’ll probably take many more photos if it is easier to access your camera: Just put a foot down, grab your camera, shoot, and then continue on your way.

The Berthoud bag’s flap opens forward, so air resistance automatically closes it as you ride. This makes it easy to access the contents while riding at any speed. I only close mine with the elastic closure when the road is so bumpy that things might jump out of the bag otherwise.

Carrying your bag in front also improves the handling of your bike – as long as your bike’s geometry is designed for a front load. You balance your bicycle by moving the front wheel from side to side. Thus, a front load can be balanced immediately. To balance a rear load, you first move the front wheel, then wait for the rear wheel to follow with a lag and with reduced amplitude. This makes balancing a rear load less immediate. And when you rise out of the saddle, a handlebar bag exhibits none of the “tail-wagging-the-dog” effect that you get with a rear load.

A handlebar bag also provides a convenient spot for your map or cue sheet. Having your directions visible at all times greatly reduces your likelihood of getting lost, and it is safer than fumbling with cue sheets in ziploc bags that you retrieve from your jersey pocket.

The Berthoud bag’s map case is sized to fit the French Michelin maps. Most maps from all over the world use a similar format.

Berthoud bags are made from cotton duck with leather edging. Any thoughts that these material choices are somehow “retro” and offer less performance than modern materials are quickly dispelled when you ride in the rain. In the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris (above), I rode for 50 hours in almost non-stop rain, and the bag was completely dry inside when I arrived at the finish. The fabric is waterproof because its fibers swell as they get wet, forming a tight seal against one another. There is no waterproof coating that wears off over time. (The bag was seven years old when I rode PBP.) The flap keeps out water even when you open the bag while riding in the rain. In addition to being waterproof, the material is lightweight.

The Berthoud bags’ capacity is amazing. Since the flap is pushed down by the air resistance as you ride, in addition to being held by an elastic closure, you can overstuff it without risking to break zippers or having your things fall out. On a crisp day that starts cold and warms up, it is nice to have a place to put tights and extra jerseys. Or you can go by the Farmers’ Market on the way home from a ride and stock up on fresh vegetables.

The small pockets are handy for carrying things you want to access without digging through the main compartment: wallet, lip gloss, a small camera, a helmet light… This capacity does not mean that you always need to carry a lot of stuff. Often, my bag is almost empty, but being able to carry what I need has allowed me to contemplate rides that I might not have undertaken otherwise.

Berthoud bags are amazingly durable. When I took the photo above, the bag had been in regular use on my Alex Singer for 11 years. It has acquired a nice patina, but it remains 100% waterproof and functional. I still use it every time I ride this bike.

The best way to mount a handlebar bag is on a front rack (not hanging from the handlebars), so the weight sits as low as possible. The bag also needs to be supported at the top, so it does not swing from side to side. On many randonneur bikes, the top of the bag attaches to a “decaleur” on the stem, which keeps the bag away from the handlebars, so you can access all hand positions. The decaleur also doubles as a quick release, allowing you to take the bag with you when you lock up the bike. (Two prongs on the bag attachment fit tightly into two tubes on the stem-mounted part, so you just pull upward to remove the bag.)

Many makers have tried to improve upon the classic Sologne/Berthoud bags. Berthoud offers a “luxury” version that replaces the elastic closures with leather buckles. I personally do not favor it, because this increases the weight, and more importantly, the buckles are difficult to operate with cold fingers. Other companies have made handlebar bags from Cordura and other modern materials. These materials are not waterproof for long, and the bags tend to be heavier because they need additional stiffeners. In the end, the old Sologne/Berthoud bags still are the most functional, most elegant and most durable handlebar bags you can buy. We are proud to offer them in our program.

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Comments (41)

  • mulveyr (@mulveyr)

    I love mine, but I have to admit that there’s one thing that annoys me on my small ( 50cm ) framed bike, a Box Dog Pelican; There’s so little finger space with the decaleur/canti brakes/short headtube that it’s a royal pain to get the top elastic closure closed. I need to come up with an elegant way of being able to close it near the top of the bag.

    October 23, 2012 at 10:59 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I rarely close mine, but just let the flap rest on the bag. If the road suddenly gets bumpy, I just slide the elastic over the rear of the stem. That keeps the flap closed, and it can be done one-handed in a second.

      October 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm
  • Alexander Regensburg Germany

    I strongly agree. Very functional, very nice, very durable. Individual parts available. I use one for 3 years now and they are highly recommended. But nevertheless I have a second one. There is also a new generation of makers of handcrafted bags on the market. Some of them are really well made and can also be ordered to measure. I used a individualized quite huge “parsley bag” in PBP 2011 and it served me very well. Not being Jan I had to use the dormitories and it was very hand to have only one piece of luggage to take care of. They have sighly more “modern” appearance so they are an alternative for those who want to match their modern coloured bike but use a handlebag nevertheless.

    October 23, 2012 at 11:59 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think one of the biggest compliment for the Sologne/Berthoud design is that the best new bags use the same materials and outline, whether it’s Guu-Watanabe or Phil Woosley’s Loyal Design bags. (Both are excellent, too.)

      October 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm
  • Fred Blasdel

    You really don’t think it’s possible to improve on the decaleur interface? They do work very well when custom made to bridge the gap between bike, rack, and bag. The stock options are far worse, the vast majority of non-constructeur bikes I see with traditional handlebar bags are fit together awfully. The newish Berthoud adjustable decaleur makes some great progress on just getting the bag situated sanely but blocks access to the bag closure on a lot of bikes.
    You wouldn’t know it within the bicycle bag ghetto where everything seems to be either canvas & leather historical reenactment, or cordura & vinyl tarpaulin dirtbag messenger affectation — but there’s a whole other world of modern outdoor fabrics, framing, and fasteners out there. Wander into the wilderness backpacking bag section at REI some time, note that you won’t find any metal supports or canvas weave materials.
    Revelate Designs is the only company I know of making bike bags out of the lightweight waterproof materials invented in the last 50 years with professional construction, and they’ve got more than enough work in their bikepacking niche to branch out into rando stuff.

    October 23, 2012 at 2:44 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Decaleurs are like racks: Making them adjustable always will be a compromise. That is why we advocate making these parts to fit the bike. Select your stem so that the bag sits in the right place, and your bag size so that it fits between rack and bars. Then you can use a Grand Bois stem and decaleur, which will work very well.
      The ultralight materials hold a lot of promise, but many give up long-term durability for light weight. For a backpack, that is a worth-while compromise, because you carry the thing on your back. For a handlebar bag, a few extra grams don’t make much of a difference, and having a bag that ages gracefully and lasts a few decades is a plus.

      October 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm
      • Fred Blasdel

        I agree that racks should not need any compromise for adjustability other than the upper stays of a rear rack, there are enough fixed constraints that standards are easily possible. Useful adjustability in racks adds literal pounds while dramatically reducing the weight capacity.
        But decaleurs are far smaller, adding adjustability might double the weight but that’s just a few ounces more. And it is not remotely practical for people to fit their stem length to match the needs of the bag and how far the rack extends, the frame and its reach is usually set in stone long before, followed by the choice of bar (with a 5cm range of reach), with the stem fiddled around with last to dial the rider’s fit. It’s extraordinarily difficult to forecast all that in advance for a retail customer. There’s also the issue that many of these customers have compact bars positioned high and close, making a stem mounted system out of the question.
        A Berthoud decaleur that came with more length options and attached to the steerer as a clamp-on spacer would be a far better solution for the current crop of bags and racks.
        Good rackless handlebar bags would require a significant amount of innovation, the current QR mount standards can’t support the weight of a water bottle without their anti-rotation support failing in short order.

        October 24, 2012 at 2:31 pm
      • James Cloud

        The Gran Bois stem and decaleur, which basically are copies of those previously designed by the French constructeur builders (e.g. Rene Herse, Alex Singer, et. al.) won’t work with a bike that has a very long headtube with any of the available Gilles Berthoud handlebar bags.
        I have a Berthoud GB2886 bag, the largest they make, on my 65cm bike with a Velo Orange decaleur that is no longer made (it attaches to the handlebar bolt). The top of the bag is about 2 3/4″ beneath the handlebars.
        Gran Bois: http://www.compasscycle.com/images/stems_gb_decaleur3.jpg
        My Bike: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37964304@N05/6039071852/sizes/l/in/photostream/

        October 24, 2012 at 3:31 pm
      • Christoph

        I agree that adjustable decaleurs are a tradeoff. I am using a Gilles Berthoud decaleur that mounts to the face plate of an ‘Ahead’ type stem (for threadless steerers). While this decaleur works great as long as the road surface is smooth, its adjustable ‘fork’ keeps coming loose rather quickly when riding bumpy dirt roads or singletrails. This is a bit annoying, as I tend to take my bike offroad whenever possible. I am currently making a decaleur that has no moving parts and will—hopefully—keep the bag in its place.
        The Nitto stem and decaleur combo you are selling looks great and, in my opinion, is reasonably priced. It is, however, of limited use if a bike isn’t using a threaded 1″ steerer…

        October 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm
    • Antisthenes

      I am with Fred on this. I see no need for racks on my bike, not to mention that I do not want to have to get a rack on every bike I might use the bag with.
      I have a ‘Revelate Designs’ seatbag and couldn’t be happier. I don’t think they’ve nailed it for the design of a road bike handlebar bag yet (business model is more oriented to back-country/overnight mountain ‘bike packing’), but I do not see why they couldn’t. When they do, I’ll buy.
      For now I hang my handlebar bag off an accessory stem to lower the weight. Works a charm. http://www.sjscycles.co.uk/thorn-accessory-bar-t-shaped-55-mm-extension-0-deg-prod11041/?geoc=jp

      October 23, 2012 at 5:31 pm
  • James Cloud

    “The fabric is waterproof because its fibers swell as they get wet, forming a tight seal against one another. ” This attribute of a cotton canvas material is the same one that was designed into the classic professional photographer’s camera bags from Domke. Originally developed by James G. Domke, a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the classic original Domke F-2 completely changed the market for a working photographer’s camera bag. With it’s padded inserts and cotton canvas material, the bags became the working photographer’s “go-to” camera bag, replacing the hard box-like leather bags that previously prevailed.

    October 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm
    • Aaron C

      I love Domke bags. Once you get used to them you can’t really use anything else. When I first got a hold of my first traditional canvas bike bag, my first thought was how similar it was in form AND function to the Domke bags I’ve grown accustomed to.

      October 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm
  • Mike

    Jan, I have two problems with your choice of handlebar baggage system. The bags are only available in a small range of sizes (namely they are too short for my bikes; the distance from tire to handlebar on my bikes is 36-38 cm) and the system is expensive. Rack ($140) + bag ($250) + Decaleur ($165) = $555!
    What do you see are potential problems with Coroplast bags as shown here:
    Cost is neglegible, except for rack, it may not require a decaleur due to inherent stiffness, and it would be completely customizable in height and also width and depth.

    October 23, 2012 at 5:37 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The Choroplast bag is interesting, but I don’t think it compares in durability and elegance with a Berthoud bag. You still need to attach the bag at the top somehow, so that it doesn’t swing from side to side. Compared to the cost for mass-produced parts like derailleurs and shifters, the cost for the hand-made rack, bag and decaleur appear very reasonable.
      As you point out, you can save a lot of money by making your own things. However, if you value your time, then it’s often more efficient to buy something if the product you like exists.
      When I was in graduate school, I sewed my own expedition-grade Gore-Tex jacket. It turned out very nice, but when I counted the hours I spent plus the price of the fabric, I made about half of the then-minimum wage during the project. It was an interesting experience, but when I needed another jacket ten years later, I bought one instead of sewing another.
      These days, I make things if I cannot buy them, but I prefer to use my time to ride my bikes, rather than work on them.

      October 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm
  • heather

    What about Carradice? They’ve been around since the 30’s at least and can last generations. I just got my carradice barley bag inn the mail today. I may have to have it next to the bed so I can wake up looking at it! Bigger than I expected and built to last. Same cotton duck and leather construction. The originals are mostly saddlebags, but many use them as handlebar bar bags although they do not have the boxy handlebar bag shape or map holder. I could see retrofitting with a clear plastic folder on top would do the trick. The carradice bags cost a good deal less and if you order directly, if outside the UK, taxes are taken off and their shipping is sweet!

    October 23, 2012 at 11:23 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Carradice saddlebags are great. I have used one for many years. Using one as a handlebar bag is an interesting idea. I am sure it can be done, but you’d have the flap closing the opposite way, and the shape wouldn’t optimize the space between your handlebars.

      October 24, 2012 at 2:17 am
      • Theo Roffe

        Mitch Pryor (MAP Bicycles) has a Carradice handlebar bag which reminds me of the Rivendell Hobo Bag (no longer being made): http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaptainamerika/7125010687 This seems like a pretty nice bag for someone who doesn’t need the capacity of a Berthoud/Loyal/Watanabe (or a map case). Unlike handlebar bags which cantilever off of the handlebars (like an Ortlieb, Arkel, or some of the Rivendell bags), this seems like it wouldn’t have much of an effect on handling.

        October 24, 2012 at 10:05 am
    • Andrew

      I recently used a Carradice super C saddlebag in tandem with a Berthoud handlebar bag for a light touring trip. It was handy being able to strap my tent on top of the saddlebag and it had very little effect on the bike’s handling.

      October 25, 2012 at 5:15 pm
  • Jacob Nauss

    I’ve used randonneur bags, specifically the Velo-Orange handlebar bag, for a few years now, and they are unbeatable in convenience. On a tour from Seattle to San Francisco this past summer the convenience of being able to stop, pull my camera out of the bag, take a quick picture and get going again was really the only way to go. I would have had a whole heck of a lot less roadside pictures if I would have had to get off, fish my camera from a saddlebag or pannier, steady the bike, and take a picture and then get back on. I will be upgrading to a Berthoud bag soon, because after just a few years the Velo-Orange is showing some serious wear and the buckles were pretty annoying to try to undo with cold, wet fingers on a brevet.

    October 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm
  • thelazyrando

    I like my BG bag for all the reasons Jan states. My only area of improvement is the plastic map window at the top doesn’t stay dry in the rain so I have to double bag anything I put in there.
    If there is a DIY fix for that I’d love to know.
    safe riding,

    October 24, 2012 at 6:39 am
  • Lee Ringham

    I have a Berthoud bag that has seen virtually daily use in southwest BC as I commute to work by bicycle on a year round basis. It carries my lunch and a change of clothes easily. On brevets, I pack it with all sorts of ‘stuff’ that randonneurs typically need. I have owned it for 6 or 7 years.
    My biggest beef with it is that is it not ‘waterproof’. I would classify it as ‘water resistant’ but I have experienced a level of dampness among my possession, especially during longer brevets when it is raining or when I carry papers or files home because I want to do some extra work. More than once they have been a little soggy upon arrival, after about 45 to 60 minutes of riding in the rain.
    I am concerned enough about the level of dampness that I usually put my phone and my wallet in plastic bags before putting them into the side pockets if the forecast calls for rain. And I am actually planning on applying a couple of coats of scotchguard inside and out to see if that improves things for my daily commute.
    Apart from that, my other beef is that the largeness of the bag promotes over packing, although that is not the Bethoud’s fault!
    Cheers Lee (BC Randonneurs)

    October 24, 2012 at 10:22 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I usually don’t carry paper – I can see how that could get a tad moist in the bag, even if only from the humidity in the air when you ride in the rain.

      October 25, 2012 at 8:37 pm
  • Mark Brewer

    Can’t be improved upon? Well I think the leather straps should be spaced wider on the bars to decrease the wiggle in the bag whilst standing. I stretch the top elastic over the handle bar stem because the hook is unreachable down in front of the stem. Though I like the large map case, it reflects the light off my headlamp the few times I have used such a device for scanning dark roadsides. Nevertheless, the bag is my all purpose bag from commuting, brevets, touring, shopping, and carrying my and my stoker’s extra kit. I love it.

    October 24, 2012 at 2:55 pm
  • jason

    Unimprovable – aside from the side pockets of course. 😉
    Any chance of convincing them to improve them as you have yours? I’ve always preferred the flat side pockets of the old TA bags.

    October 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I’ll ask whether we can have a run done without the side pockets. They made one for me specially, so it shouldn’t be a problem. I agree that for most riders, the pockets get in the way of the hands.

      October 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm
      • James Cloud

        Berthoud already makes one decaleur type handlebar bag without side pockets. It’s the GB2086 (here: http://www.gillesberthoud.fr/anglais/fiche_detaillee/fiche.php?refArticle=321GB2086/N ). Unfortunately, it’s only available in one size, 170mm in height. It would be nice if they produced the bag in several sizes to accommodate different rack to handlebar dimensions. I have one bike, with an integrated decaleur, that would nicely work with this bag in a height like the GB22/GB2286 (190mm height).

        October 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          These decaleurs are made for Grand Bois bicycles, and in Japan, the “problem” of having a very tall frame is not all that common. I am 6 feet tall, and I prefer a tall bag (Berthoud GB28), because having the bag below bar height makes it less accessible.

          October 28, 2012 at 5:10 am
    • Andrew

      My Grand Bois bike came with a “GB” edition Berthoud bag that doesn’t have side pockets, so they are open to producing runs of their bags without the side pockets.
      The bike and bag have now done over 20,000km and the bag has considerable patina, but still functions perfectly.

      October 25, 2012 at 8:46 pm
      • Michael_S

        The Loyal bags are custom made and many are made with a side sleeve pocket that is nice for things like snacks or a phone but doesn’t protrude like the Berthoud. It’s open at the top so it’s not so useful in the rain. Phil takes a month or so to make them. I really like mine.

        October 26, 2012 at 8:29 am
  • BLogan

    My commuter bike is equipped with an excellent set of panniers from a certain bag company that uses modern materials and designs. Their panniers are great, but I tried one of their handlebar bags and was greatly disappointed. This was mostly due to my being horribly spoiled by the Berthoud handlebar bag on my other bike. With my other bags, even the better ones, there are always a few things I’d change if the design were up to me. But I wouldn’t change anything about the Berthoud. With mine I use a small Velo Orange front rack and a Berthoud decaleur. It works perfectly!

    October 24, 2012 at 8:19 pm
  • Peter Hanchak

    Hi Jan,
    Could you share a bit of history about the Sologne company? I always enjoy seeing images of vintage panniers and handlebar bags but I know so little about where they were made and how they fit into the history of Golden Age French bicycling.
    Many Thanks.

    October 25, 2012 at 9:52 am
  • Hamish Moffatt (@hmoffatt)

    I’m interested in trying a handlebar bag. I use a large saddlebag plus a small top-tube bag currently. Won’t a handlebar bag be difficult to mount on a bike using modern groupsets with integrated brake/shifters due to the cables running in front of the bars? I use Shimano Ultegra. I also have my lights mounted on my handlebars and they would be blocked by a bag.

    October 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      A handlebar bag is an integral part of the bike. If your bike isn’t designed for one, you’ll need some changes to make it work. The lights on the handlebars will have to be moved. Since the bag should be supported by a rack, you can attach the lights to the rack. The STI shifters do get in the way – Campagnolo’s Ergopower and some newer STI systems are easier to use with a handlebar bag. If your frame has shifter bosses, you can use downtube shifters… but as you can see, it quickly becomes a pretty extensive list of modifications.

      October 25, 2012 at 9:37 pm
  • Dave Cramer

    As Vik says, the map case is a magnet for water. The supplied stiffener degrades very quickly (I now discard them). I question the utility of the weird side flaps that go over the main compartment. And production decaleurs can be a pain–I have the shortest Berthoud decaleur attached to the top bolts of my stem, which looks weird but works. So the bag is not unimprovable, but still wonderful. I picked up a half-peck of peaches on a ride one autumn, and brought them home.

    October 25, 2012 at 8:13 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The side flaps are very useful when the bag is fully loaded, to keep the contents from falling out when you go over big bumps. The map case isn’t waterproof – but it’s hard to make that waterproof when it’s stitched onto the bag.

      October 25, 2012 at 9:39 pm
  • Bengt Sandborgh

    Note that there are more diffencies between the standard and the “de luxe” version than just the pocket closures. The standard version lacks the handy zipped pocket under the flap, the bottom is not reinfoced with leather, you get no shoulder strap and the strap for the rack’s backstop is fixed. On the “de lux” version this strap is removable and the leather piece is only sewn at the sides so if you have your rack made with the right sized backstop you just slide the backstop behind the leather.
    On my “de lux” bag I have replaced the strap and buckle pocket closures with velcro straps in leather (of course).
    In Gilles Berthoud’s catalogue there are two bags GB2299 and GB2599 which is basically the “de lux” bags but with velcro closure of all pockets. These bags also have a twice as large, foldable, map pocket. I’ve not seen these bags for sale anyplace and you cannot find them at http://www.gillesberthoud.fr.

    October 26, 2012 at 10:42 am
  • ol'grumpy

    I’ve been using these bags for the past 8 plus years. They are quite good. I will throw my anecdotal opinion and vote in for the bags with side pockets, and with leather buckles. I like being able to compartmentalize small things in the side pockets and keep the main compartment free for bulky food and clothing. The side pockets have never gotten in the way of my hands, bars, or integrated shifters. Maybe this has to do with the fact that all my bikes are designed for front racks and bags.
    I prefer the buckle closure system on pockets. I have lost things out of the pockets with elastic closures because they have had a tendency to pop open when going over rough terrain at speed, even after I have shortened the elastic loops. I also have never had an issue opening or closing the buckles with gloves and cold wet fingers. The weight difference between the two models (25 vs 2586, etc) is pretty minimal overall. If one is really concerned with bag weight, carry the absolute minimum needed.
    To close the bag, I do it similar to Jan, I just close the lid. If I am riding in sustained rain or over rough terrain I pull the elastic loop under the bars and loop it around the bell mounted to my stem. This way it blocks rain and the contents from falling out, and I can even sneak my hands in under the main flap to grab contents in the main compartment, all while keeping the main flap closed.
    I do wish the map case was better sealed, but it is not that big of a deal for me to bag or seal my route sheet and Brevet card.

    October 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm
  • Nick

    I prefer flat side pockets, like those on the Ostrich bag. They are great for storing narrow tools like wrenches or tire levers to keep those out of the main pocket. I do wish the basic Berthoud bag had D-rings for a shoulder strap. They add very little weight if you do not use a strap but are very useful if you prefer to keep your hands free in the shops. Can you add these to your special run?

    October 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm
  • john

    Am I alone in liking the older cannondale (or other makes Madden etc) bags which fit onto a metal frame that slips over the handlebars? They just work really well. No need for a rack although you do need two straps attached to front hub. They don’t look as coolly vintage but are very simple and light. I dont have the funds for a Berthoud (my bike cost less!) and this seems like a cheap alternative-not that easy to find though

    October 26, 2012 at 6:13 pm

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