Tips for Shopping by Bike

Vegetables in a market

Photo by Thomas Le on Unsplash

Tips for Shopping by Bike

by Ry Shissler

Heading to store to pick up something awesome doesn't have to be an exercise in frustration as you drive around looking for that perfect parking spot that you'll end up paying for in cash. Any standard bike can be used for your weekly shopping trips. The accessories needed aren’t expensive and in a pinch your bike can still be useful for shopping without any extra equipment at all. First, there are some rules that apply no matter your approach to cycling for groceries.

Me after picking up more than a week's worth of groceries with room to spare.

Steps to safety

Make sure your rack or basket is firmly attached before every use. Give it a good tug back and forth and it shouldn’t move around or else you risk losing a week's worth of vegetables in the middle of the street.

Strap it down. Your cornucopia of supplies may look secure, but the first time you hit a pothole things will go flying unless properly secured. Use bungee cords, a net, or adjustable straps to keep everything in place. Twine or rope can also work if you tie a good knot.

Nothing should hang off your bike or trail behind it. Any excess straps, bungee cords, etc. need to be tucked and tied away. Anything that hangs off risks being caught in your wheels.

Take it slow. No need to rush. Enjoy the ride knowing that gentle starts and stops, and cautious turns will make it more likely for your supplies to arrive intact.

Hold your bike steady. When you’re adding extra weight to your bike it’s going to balance differently. This is especially apparent when you’re stopped. Make sure you keep a firm grip on your loaded bike to keep it from falling over when you're loading or unloading.

Purpose-built gear

Bike Racks

A rack that attaches to eyelets or a frame. Made by 49°N.

A rack that attaches to the seatpost. Made by Bontrager.

 

 

Adding a rack to your bike gives a base for carrying a much bigger load. Bike racks are versatile because they give you the ability to safely attach a wide variety of accessories. Most bicycles have attachment points on the rear of the bike that make for simple installation. 

It’s possible to buy a new bike rack for as little as $30-$50 that will easily hold the weight of a week’s worth of groceries. Racks can be found at a much higher price point, but that’s not necessary unless you’re toting a child, or carrying a lot of weight. When you’re looking for a rack, remember racks that attach directly to the eyelets on your bike or a brake mount will always be sturdier than ones that attach to adapters on a seatpost. And always read the manufacturer’s recommended carrying capacity and make sure it fits your bike before buying.

 

Bike Baskets

A front basket that attaches to the handlebars and front fork for stability. The basket is intentionally large to transport many groceries. Made by Wald.

A front basket that attaches only to the handlebars, intended for bicycles that do not allow for mounting on the fork. Made by Wald.

A rear folding basket. These are typically zip-tied or locked to a bike and left on the rear rack. Photo by Lovely Bicycle! Made by Wald.

A rear basket mounted on a bike rack. This version is intended to be left on the bike rack, but you can also purchase a removable version.

 

Adding a basket to your bike significantly increases your carrying capacity and keeps stuff from falling off your rack! Bike baskets come in two different styles: those that are mounted directly to the front of the bike, and those that attach to bike racks. Baskets that attach to racks are more common, but if you’re looking to keep it simple it could be worth finding one that directly attaches to your bike. 

Purpose-built bike baskets start at around $20 and come in a wide variety of designs. Even some of the more affordable models are collapsible so that when you’re not using them they take up less space. Some bike baskets are even designed so that you can attach more than one to your bike rack and increase your storage even more.

Front baskets have a disadvantage compared to rear baskets: if you load up a lot of items in a front basket, it can make it harder to steer your bike. The heavier your basket, the harder it is to steer. In comparison, carrying heavy items with a bike rack and rear basket or panniers does not affect your steering.

 

Panniers

A single pannier for a rear rack. Photo by Bicycle2work.

A pair of rear panniers that are intended to remain on the bicycle when parked. Photo by Dutch Dutch Goose.1

 

Panniers are bags that attach to a bike rack and much like a basket they can drastically increase your bike’s storage space. The main difference between a simple basket and a pannier is that panniers are typically fully sealable and easily detachable. Being able to fill your panniers inside the store,2 clip them to your bike rack, and take them inside to your kitchen is a huge benefit. Many panniers are even waterproof in case you get caught out in soggy conditions. One more consideration is that panniers don’t offer the sturdy walls a rack does, so you need to be careful if you're transporting crushables like bread or ketchup chips.

Panniers run a bit more expensive than baskets and often come in pairs. A pair of panniers can start at around $100. Spending more can buy you more stylish bags, more space, more durability, and basically anything else you can imagine in a piece of luggage.

Some bags, like this one from Arkel, include a bottom hook.

 

If you plan on transporting heavier items, consider purchasing a pannier with a bottom hook. This stabilizes the load and prevents your bag from swinging out when going around a corner.

1If you plan to leave your panniers on your bike, consider locking them with a cable lock or small padlock so they aren’t stolen.

2There have been some concerns that reusable bags aren’t safe to use during the pandemic due to cross-contamination. No widespread bans have yet been announced in Ontario, but if they are, you may not be permitted to bring your panniers into a store. Yvonne Colbert, “Should you use a reusable shopping bag? Government, stores have different answers,” CBC News, April 2, 2020.

 

Adapt & Improvise

Riding a bike is a great way to save money; there’s no TTC fare, no gas and insurance, only the extra calories from quarantine snacks that you’re burning on your ride. Picking up groceries doesn’t have to be any different. 

 

Have bike rack, will travel

There’s a lot that can be done with a bike rack if you get a little creative. You don’t need to buy a basket or set of panniers, I’ve seen everything from milk crates and Ikea cubes to cardboard boxes and two by fours attached to bike racks.

A milk crate used as a rear basket. Tutorial on Bicycle2work.

Kitty litter tubs as panniers. Tutorial on Instructables.

 

Milk crates can be a great alternative to baskets on the back of your bike. You can use zip ties to attach it to your rack, just be sure to use lots of them. Crisscrossing two zip ties like an X on each attachment point can add extra stability and durability.

Kitty litter tubs can also be a good option, but take a little more effort to attach than a milk crate. However, they’re waterproof, have tight-fitting lids, and have handles to carry them around off the bike. Check out this Instructables guide to making your own

Another option can include constructing panniers out of reusable grocery bags, reinforced with plastic. You can even make your own bike trailer!

Keep in mind, if you’re going to undertake do-it-yourself storage on a bike you need to be extra cautious that your setup is safe and will hold up when you ride. Every time you hit a pothole or stop suddenly, parts may wiggle loose and you don’t want to get hurt trying to buy some burger buns. Check and double check that your setup is safe before you ride.

 

No bike rack? No problem

Having a bike rack is going to make things easier, but isn’t entirely necessary. A big backpack can pick up a lot of supplies and most people have one sitting around. When riding with a loaded backpack you need to be careful as it will change your centre of balance. Movements that might have been comfortable before like shoulder checking can be more difficult. You also shouldn’t use a bag that moves around, hits your knees or arms. It’s unsafe to ride if your bag is going to interfere with your mobility.

Many backpacks aren’t going to cut it in terms of volume and won’t be able to carry enough groceries for an entire week. Another option is to ride your bike to the store, load up your handlebars with grocery bags, and WALK it back. Your bike is like a shopping cart on two wheels. However, you should never ride your bike with items dangling from the handlebars; it’s far too easy for things to get caught in your wheels. 

 

No bike? Bike Share Toronto might be right for you

If you’re thinking about picking up bike riding it can be daunting contemplating spending money on a bike when you don’t know if it will be right for you. Bike Share Toronto could be the answer for you. A membership costs $99 per year, but you don’t have to do any maintenance or worry about your bike being stolen. You just have to make sure that when you take a bike you get back to a station within a half hour of starting your trip. So, you could get a bike, ride to the store, and put the bike in a station. Then get a bike for the way home. 

10kg of bocce balls fit nicely on a Bike Share Toronto bike.

 

Bike Share Toronto bikes don’t offer a huge amount of storage, but you can fit a decent sized grocery bag in the front basket. If you wear a backpack with that, it adds up pretty quick. 

Go Big

Trailers - Feed your whole family

A flatbed trailer can increase your carrying capacity. Photo from CJHoyle's video.

A child trailer can be used to transport two children or groceries if you need flexibility. Made by Weehoo.

 

A big backpack and two panniers is probably enough to purchase everything for a couple for a week, but what if you’ve got more than two hungry mouths to feed? With a small investment in a trailer, you can transform your bicycle’s carrying capacity. They really are a game changer when a rack and panniers won’t quite do it. Trailers are handy for more than just groceries they can carry almost anything, even a live musical performance. A decent trailer starts at around $300 new but you can find used ones for much less than that. If you’re worried about storing a trailer, on many trailers the wheels can disconnect and the frame can be folded. Then you can stash it behind a door, or between appliances. It would probably see more use than an ironing board, and takes up less space.

 

Cargo Bikes - A car replacement

A seven-speed three-wheeled cargo trike. Made by Babboe.

An electric eight-speed three-wheeled cargo trike. Made by Nihola.

 

Cargo bikes are bikes with a storage area built in. They come in a wide variety of styles to meet different needs and styles of riding. They're a bit pricier than traditional bikes, starting at around $3500 for a new one, but they can easily be worth it as a long-term investment. In terms of price, the sky's the limit depending on the features you want. Cycle Toronto has an electric-assist cargo that we use for our outreach events around the city. It easily hauls over a hundred kilos of equipment in conjunction with our trailer.

Cycle Toronto's e-assist cargo bike with trailer loaded and ready to go to an event.


Cycle Toronto’s mission is to create a safe, healthy, vibrant cycling city for everyone. We rely on memberships and donations to do outreach, run events, produce and deliver educational material, and advocate for cycling at City Hall. Memberships and donations of as little as $5 go a long way toward helping us achieve our goals.

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None of the products mentioned in this article are endorsed by Cycle Toronto. They are provided as examples only and we encourage you to explore your options before making a purchase. 

By Ry Shissler on Apr 17, 2020

  Shopping, Groceries, COVID-19, How to