Those who have read my article “Myyrä and the Golden Age” will already know that I am interested in trying out old concepts which have fallen out of use. This seems to be atleast partly true in the case of the classic box-shaped randonneur-style handlebar bag and the decaleur, the special support piece associated with the bag. They are both being made, yes, but their conception is often unrefined and incomplete and information on them is a bit scarce. Bicycle Quarterly -magazine has offered some information on bags and decaleurs, but mostly only concerning one or two types. I will try here to explain my views and experiences with them.
Without going into too much detail, to quickly summarize the general benefits of a handlebar bag: it is always in sight, easy to access while riding, possibly has aerodynamic benefits and set up high enough it blocks cold wind from your hands. A smartly designed bag will open from the rear towards the front to make use while riding even easier. As a single large bag it is easy to take off the bike and bring everything with you, versus having multiple small bags around the bike like you see on most bikepacking bikes.
A decaleur on the other hand is a piece of steel usually, that moves the bag further from the handlebars, and acts as a quick-release mechanism.
My Routens with vertical, two-prong decaleur, the type I associate most strongly with artisan constructeur Alex Singer. The bag is supported both by the decaleur and the front rack.
Looking at old pictures from “golden age” France, when basically every bike had a handlebar bag in the classic style, it seems that only a minority of bikes with the bags actually had decaleurs. This might be because the bikes pictured are touring bikes or randonneur bikes, not city bikes, and maybe the world also was different back then. The bikes’ use did not probably consist of daily errands around a bustling city where the handlebar bag might be looted or stolen if left on the bike. Thus simple straps worked well as the bag probably mostly stayed on the bike? The bags did not necessarily have shoulder straps either for this reason. All this is of course only speculation, which I have the habit of doing.
Anyway, for modern life in the big city, a quick release decaleur and a shoulder strap are very handy things to have. On bike tours it is also nice to be able to take the bag easily with you when going shopping or visiting nature sites, museums or cafes, while the larger bags stay on the bike. Naturally one will keep the camera, wallet, phone and such easily stealable items in this bag.
Cyclotourists boarding a ship in 1958. Note many people having the handlebar bag under their arm, indicating no shoulder straps. ‘Histoire De Cyclotourisme’ , photo by Maurice Berton.(1) Photo loaned only for educational purposes!
Over the last five years or so I have tried a few different handlebar bag setups. First, I used an Ostrich F-104 bag with a Velo Orange decaleur, which is honestly not that great (more about this in the section concerning alternative options). Then I used a “home-made” Alex Singer -type decaleur for a bit, which worked ok, the system only being very sensitive to the tight fit of the two vertical prongs. But after I saw pictures of the “horizontal support tube” -type on a Jo Routens bicycle, featured in the Data Book(2), I was intrigued by its simple appearance and function. Immediately it made more sense to me to have the retaining mechanism open sideways, rather than vertically, as hitting bumps makes the bag want to go upwards. So with the Routens -type it seems virtually impossible for the bag to come off even in a major jolt.
The Routens decaleur from 1956. In the Data Book.
Soon after seeing the picture and understanding the idea, we worked with my friend Marko from Manymetal Industries to revive this type of decaleur. An hour or two of cutting, filing and welding pieces of steel produced a working example. Now after having used it, the first and original one, pretty much daily on my bike Myyrä, over the span of two years, I can wholeheartedly vouch for the soundness of the concept.
The traditional Gilles Berthoud bag I use is of course an important piece of the system. As it is the one I happen to own, and as it seems to work perfectly in my own use, I have not given much thought to other bag designs or theoretical improvements. This article is mostly about decaleurs and the handlebar bag system as a whole.
As a disclaimer I must say that I’m not at all convinced that this is the best bag setup for a true all terrain/mountain biking/rough riding bicycle. The bag does move a little bit in very rough terrain. Its original design is for (all)road touring and randonneuring and should be used accordingly. Super easy quick releasing and super steady securement of the bag are probably mutually exclusive. But in my experience it is very much steady enough for rough gravel roads and occasional easy trail riding.
The horizontal support tube decaleur. Note rack “tombstone” underneath.
Here is what my own handlebar bag system consists of:
A standard 90mm Nitto Technomic quill stem. The backside is filed a little bit to allow the securing nut to rotate. A short-ish stem helps with keeping the bag close to the steering axis. Many single-bolt quill stems are easily adapted to this system, some with no modifications needed.
It will be a bit more complicated and less elegant to have this system with a 4-bolt ahead type stem, but not too much. I would probably fabricate two clamps onto the handlebar onto which the horizontal support tube is connected.
The handlebar is secured by the nut in the back. Stem has been filed lightly above the nut.
Attaching the bag support directly onto a classic quill stem’s bolt sets the bag automatically at the correct height: the bag top being approximately level with the handlebars. By bending the extension tube one can change the height of the bag attachment. This bending is seen on some of the original models made by Routens (both Jo and later by the junior artesan, Jean-Paul Routens). I'd say though that the optimal way is to use a straight extension, and adjust the bag size. Gilles Berthoud bags come in 3 different sizes, to accommodate different handlebar(or decaleur)-to-rack distances.
Two original Routens decaleurs I recently bought online. The angled one can be used with very short or tall frames or to accommodate different bag sizes. Shown also is the optional little bungee cord to make sure the bag doesn’t come off.
The decaleur itself is a simple 8mm tube welded onto a M8 bolt, which seems to be the common size in single bolt quill stems. The bolt head is cut off and the tube welded in its place. A M8 nut is threaded all the way on the threads and then grinded into a round shape to fit perfectly inside the stem front hole. The nut can be welded or threadlocked in place just in case. This rounded piece stuck in place makes possible the tightening of the stem clamp.
The two little “receiving tubes” are cut from a 10mm outer diameter, 1mm wall thickness, tube which naturally has a 8mm inner diameter to match the support tube. M4 bolts with heads lightly filed to increase the surface area for welding, are welded (or brazed) onto the little tubes to produce the threaded protrusion.
These two receiving bits are secured by threadlockered (important!) nuts onto an aluminum strip that is attached onto the inside of the bag. The nuts should be left a little loose to allow the receiver tubes to rotate coarsely and facilitate easier bag attachment and removal.
The alu strip has pieces of velcro glued on, to be attached to the matching velcroes on the Gilles Berthoud bag. Rene Herse Cycles offers the same “bag stabilizer” part for a reasonable price. But it is very easy to make one by yourself too.
All the decaleur parts: stabilizer, receivers and support tube.
The Gilles Berthoud bag has inbuilt velcro strips. The normal wearing out of velcro is not a problem here as the stabilizer is never removed from the bag after initial installation.
A loose friction fit of the main tube and two small receiving tubes is rather important. Thus we decided to cut slots in the receiving tubes, so their tightness is easy to adjust with pliers. The original Routens decaleurs did not have slotted tubes. They were instead supplied with an additional small bungee cord to make sure the bag does not slide off sideways. (see picture of original Routens decaleur earlier) In my own use, the tight enough fit of the two tubes is such that no additional securing is needed. I have used this system for well over 10 000 kms in varying terrain and the sleeves have never slid off while riding.
The tombstone, the vertical piece of the traditional front rack, is also an important piece of the system. The bag’s back strap is slid onto it and this stops the bag swaying sideways and back and forth. It eliminates the need for a bottom strap, which can be cumbersome to use.
I have a further theory that the support tube could be bent slightly in the front-back direction. The aluminium strip in the bag, when installed, would then be flexed slightly and would produce extra grip on the receivers.
Using the attachment
The use is simple, first aim the bag’s back strap onto the tombstone and then slide the receiving sleeve tubes onto the main support tube. The bag lid is closed by pulling the string loop behind the stem. Voilà! This takes maybe about 15 seconds, on or off, and is quite easy even in the dark. Compared to the Carradice quick-release system for example, it is less fiddly to use as all the parts are larger and require less precision.
For the system to work properly, everything needs to fit well together: the height of the decaleur from the rack, the height of the bag, and the position of the back strap need to be correct. This is probably why any decaleur system has not been used in modern production bikes at all, as it requires more attention than mass produced items can usually afford. It also requires some understanding from the user to set up correctly and thus it is not an “easy sell”. But after initial setup it seems to be very durable and easy to use. I see it as a marvelous example of well conceived low-tech beating mass produced products.
Alternative methods for handlebar bag attachment:
The Velo Orange decaleur. I used it for a while and did not like it. In my opinion it doesnt work well as it tends to rotate on the steerer and has a poor friction fit of the vertical prongs. Basically it must be used with a bottom strap which makes it much slower to use. Also the receiver part is in an unoptimal position (too low) on most bikes. With some modifications it can probably be a decent alternative. Töölön Pyörä used to sell these, and maybe will one day again. But at the time of writing they are out of stock.
Generic bag supports like the “Minoura Multi-Support”. My colleagues have used this and it seems to work fine. But I have no personal experience with it, I’m guessing it's not quite as quick and smooth to operate. Töölön Pyörä sells these, I think.
Another low-tech DIY solution, also from ‘The Data Book’. Seems intuitively like a working concept and easy to make even without welding.
A non-detachable DIY solution made with hose clamps.
Yet another variation from the Data Book.
And lastly the ascetic option: simply strap the bag on your bars. It’s the most simple, lightweight and stable solution. Only it’s not very quick to detach, and another problem is the lack of the “décaler” part, that is from French meaning “slightly to move away”. Thus it blocks the “on the tops” hand position.
So far the seemingly best decaleur available today is the CS Hirose -type marketed by Rene Herse Cycles. It is nice, but it is also a bit of a complicated contraption with its button and spring locking mechanism. It is only available for certain quill stems and the matching Rene Herse 2-bolt stems. I’m sure it works, but if one can achieve the same result with a simpler and arguably more elegant solution, I’d say that is always for the better.
If I’m not convinced of some other, even better system than described here, there might be some kind of a production run of this Routens -type decaleur at some point in the future. Until then you should contact your local bikesmith. It is very simple in design and should be easy to make from basic supplies for anyone who can weld or braze.
Histoire Du Cyclotourisme, Raymond Henry, Federation Francaise de Cyclotourisme
The Data Book - 100 years of Bicycle Component and Accessory Design, Cycle Publishing