When I got this bike I didn't intend to ever put pannier racks on it even though it comes with all of the needed mounting points. I already have a touring bike so I had no need for them. Then I read a recent article in Bicycle Quarterly where they used front panniers on randonneuring bikes for an overnight camping trip. Jan Heine went on about how much more fun it is to be riding a performance oriented bike rather than a heavy touring bike for one or two night trips. He also talked about how well these low trail bikes handle a front load vs. the adverse affects of a rear load on any bike. I decided I needed to see for myself how true this was on my Soma Grand Randonneur.
The only rack I had available was a low end Nashbar (OEM Blackburn), which I knew would be ugly on this bike, but adequate for testing. This rack will only accommodate panniers that do not have a locking type of hooks, as these require a round tube to latch on to. The rack went on without an issues except it angled down more than I would want. There was no way to get it level without adding some sort of tab to the rack at the point it attaches to the fork. Once again not something I would want for a tour, but adequate for testing.
For the test ride I loaded the panniers fairly light. My sleeping bag took up most of one, and I had both my hammocks in the other. Lighter than it would be for a camping trip, but enough to see how it would affect the handling. At first one of the panniers kept jumping off the rail, but I eventually got it locked in good and ready to see how it would do on the fast downhill on Highland going over to Crescent Valley (Corvallis, Oregon). This is a fast, but straight and smooth, downhill. I got up to about 32 mph and it was very steady and stable. Having the extra weight on the front seemed to eliminate the feeling that the front wheel is kind of floating, which is what this bike is like without the load. This was verified on the next two hills, both of which got me over 30 mph.
Climbing was certainly a little slower. The bike couldn't compensate for the fact that it was carrying extra weight. One of Jan Heine's comments was that you'd be able to go much faster on this type of bike vs. a heavy touring bike. That might be true for him, but not so much for me. For a slow rider like me the difference in speed is not really going to mean very much. What might make a difference is that if I'm expending less energy on the lighter bike I might not be as worn out at the end of the day or might want to go longer distances.
Then there is the matter of gravel roads or even trails. My touring bike with 700x35 tires can do gravel okay as long as its not to rough or loose, but the Grando with it's 650x42 tires is much more at home on this kind of terrain. I did ride some gravel with the front load and it was fine except for uphill in loose gravel. With the front load my rear tire lost traction more frequently than it normally would. I didn't have enough opportunity to see if I could adequately compensate by shifting my weight back. Further testing will be required to see how big an issue this is.
After a 20 mile loop in this configuration, I emptied the panniers and headed to the grocery store. I then filled them with a much heavier load than I would ever take camping, certainly heaver than this rack and panniers were designed for. While I didn't have any fast hills to test this on, I can say that the bike handled the load quite well. It felt very natural and after a while I wasn't really aware that anything was different. It just felt normal. Steering was precise and smooth and the bike just went where I wanted it to. The load even seemed to smooth out some of the bumps.
So my testing confirmed that this bike does indeed handle a front only load quite nicely, and that the Grand Randonneur equipped this way is a good option for lightweight touring. With so much emphasis these days on going lightweight or bikepacking, this combination is a real winner.
This then brings up the issue of finding a good low-rider rack and panniers for this bike. There are several all-in-one mini-rack low-rider combinations. Nitto makes the Campee , and Velo Orange has the Campeur which has the integrated decaleur the same as the Pass Hunter rack I use now. This might be a good option but I can't say I like the look of it that much. I would rather just add a low-rider to my current setup, one that I can easily remove when not needed. The Tubus Nova stainless steel rack may fit the bill. I'd have to see one up close but so far this looks like my best option. As for those classic panniers the Bicycle Quarterly crew uses, I'll probably just have to settle for what I've got.