Product Review: North St. Grocery Panniers

While searching for locally made COVID masks, I came across a Portland cycling bag company I wasn’t previously aware of.  North St. Bags is located in SE Portland, and was founded by Curtis Williams back in 2009, a bold move considering not only the difficulties of small manufacturing on U.S. soil but also that the Great Recession was fully underway.  The company makes not just cycling related bags, but backpacks and travels duffels as well as PPE gear for virus protection.

The bags pictured above are the “Gladstone Grocery Panniers”, and are available in a number of colors.  However, you can’t go wrong with basic black, no matter what bicycle you ride, and the bags look quite handsome as mounted on my 1975 Centurion Semi Pro.

I’ve used many bags and panniers over the course of my cycling adventures spanning the last 50 years (and hopefully continuing for many more!).  Those many decades of experiences have made me very picky about my cycling bags.  I want a bag that is so well constructed that it will last for a long time if not forever, and to have all the right features that actually work, rather than just looking good.

Most important is how well the bag connects to the rear rack and whether that connection is versatile enough to work on various rack heights and styles, as well as providing for adjustment when used on bikes with shorter chain stays which need to  position the bag more toward the rear of the rack to eliminate heel strikes while pedaling.  These bags fill the bill, with 3 positions for the hook and a very sturdy connection to my vintage Blackburn touring rack.  It was a little difficult stretching the elastic loop enough to get the hooks over the rack tubing, but once on they are completely secure, with no danger of them popping off on rough roads.  However, it might be difficult to mount them on a really tall rack.  This hook system also only works on racks that have a place for the hook to connect to at the bottom of the rack.  Most, but not all racks have this, and that’s why some manufacturers use the “Ortlieb style” connection which can absolutely fit any rack.

The stitching is straight and there are no loose threads or sloppy corners.  The bags close with a buckle and tightening strap, feature two long handles, as well as D-rings for attaching a shoulder strap, which can be purchased as a separate accessory.

I also purchased this organizing pocket which can be attached with Velcro to the bag’s interior.  This model doesn’t come the the strip already sown in, but it’s easy enough to DIY it myself.  Most of their other panniers do feature the strip sown in, and it would be nice if that feature were consistent across the company’s product line.

Here’s where I will position the pocket once I have the Velco strip, as well as a view of the bag’s interior.  It looks reasonably cavernous, but we’ll see about that shortly.

Now for the true test:  how do these grocery panniers compare with the the best grocery panniers out there – Jandd’s.  I’ve been using their grocery panniers, pictured above on the left for at least twenty years, and the bags still look new and have shown no wear.  They have an interior frame which keeps the bags from sagging when loaded down.  The frame collapses and the bags can be folded up when not in use.  Of course, the North St. bags are not constructed with a frame so they do sag a bit when weighted down with a grocery bag filled with a few canned goods and some veggies.  Anything much heavier and they might sag significantly.

Another concern is how the top hooks are positioned:  they place the bags significantly higher than the rack.  Strapping stuff to the top of the rack, as is often needed for oddly shaped items, is more difficult due to the high placement of the bags.

One advantage of these North St. bags over the Jandd bags is the cover, which could help to keep groceries dry during a typical Portland autumn downpour.  I use a rain cover with the Jandd bag, stolen off one of my old motorcycle panniers, but these bags have a long flap.  Unfortunately, it is not long enough to actually cover a grocery bag.  As to being waterproof in general, the bags are not advertised as such but are constructed with Cordura, a tough fabric which is very water resistant and should keep water out for a while if the flap can be fully cinched down.

Panniers can swing from side to side, especially when heavily loaded.  One way to minimize this is to position the mounting hook very low on the bag.  The North St. bag can be easily pushed away from the rack, and has a lot of “swing potential”, due to the high placement of the hook on the bag.  For comparison, the Jandd bag, shown on the right, has the hook placed much lower.  I’ve never felt the Jandd bag swing back and forth while climbing with groceries, and I don’t know yet how the North St. bags will perform as I haven’t tested them out long enough, so on that count, the jury is still out.

I’ll be using these bags over the coming fall and winter, and will plan to update this post with my conclusions.  But, so far I can say that these bags are well-constructed and practical.  They easily hold a full bag of groceries. They are very competitively priced at $60 each, a price so low that I wonder if there is any profit margin at all.  As many readers know, I am highly critical of our American-style consumerism which focuses only on price and not on quality.  These bags seem to offer both, and that’s one reason to consider them for your next pannier purchase.

Upright Handlebars for Smaller Cyclists

With many new cyclists dusting off the bikes hanging in their garages, and trying to get them road-worthy I thought it might be a good time to discuss handlebar options.

Handlebar and stem choices are two of the most important elements contributing to rider comfort.  The above chart from Fred DeLong’s Guide to Bicycles and Bicycling, published back in the 1970’s, provides a nice visual for the effect of hand position on the cyclist’s head and eyes.  Commuting requires attention to all one’s surroundings, so a more upright position is the absolute ideal for a commuter bike.

Velo-Orange Tourist Bars

Don’t be fooled by “flat bars”, often marketed as suitable for commuting.  Flat bars have no rise, the distance which the bar rises above the stem clamp, and no “sweep”, the degree to which the bars angle back toward the rider.  The Velo-Orange Tourist bars, pictured above, have 60 degrees of sweep, and 70 mm of rise.  Depending on your stem selection, that might be just about perfect for commuting.

However, most commuter style bars are too wide for comfort.  V-O’s Tourist bars are 57 mm wide, significantly wider that the drop bars on most road bikes.  For smaller cyclists, I find that it’s best to cut down the bars to the desired width, which will also help prevent the bars from contacting your knees while turning at slow speeds.  The above photos show this process for a Nitto City Bar, which has a slightly higher rise than its V-O counterpart.  These bars are about 52 cm in width, with a long grip area.  After determining my ideal width for these bars, I removed 3 cm of material off of each bar end. I score the bars to the desired length with my caliper gauge, then take a hack-saw to the bars, being careful to cut a straight section off of each end.  I finish that off with a file and then de-burr the inside of the bar.  The result should look clean and even, so that the grips will settle properly on each bar end.  Many commuters do not have access to a vise and the other tools needed to accomplish this.  However, any LBS will accommodate your request to cut down a set of bars to your specs.

The next question is stem choice.  Generally, a shorter stem with longer reach will be needed if you are switching from drop bars to commuter bars.  This Nitto Young stem, pictured above, is an ideal length (height of the stem) for this type of bar conversion.  These stems come in a variety of reach lengths (distance from center of stem to clamp).  Bars come in different clamp sizes, so they need to match the clamp size of the stem.  The two most common clamp sizes are 25.4 and 26.0.

Bars also come in two different diameters – 22.2 and 23.8 are the most common sizes for city and road style handlebars.  Switching from road bars to city bars means new brake levers, shifters, housing, cables, and grips.  Velo-Orange products, shown above, are generally designed for 23.8 diameter bars, but come with shims so that you can also install them on 22.2 mm bars, which is the diameter of the bars shown above.

The number of handlebar options currently available is overwhelming.  From my own experience, I’ve narrowed down my favorite suitable bars for commuting to three options:  V-O’s Tourist Bars, Nitto’s City bars (B483), and Nitto’s Northroad bars (302AA). Other considerations include the length of your top tube.  If you are riding on a too long top tube (something many smaller cyclists must endure), porteur bars are an option when used with a taller stem.

For this conversion, from drop bars, I used V-O’s Grand Cru levers and Shimano bar end shifters mounted to the bars using V-O’s thumb shifter mounts.

You’ll notice that I like to set up the shifters some distance away from the brake levers.  This is so that I can create an extra hand position, shown above, in addition to the position on the grips.  The cockpit area now looks very inviting!

And…here is the end result for the conversion of my 1990’s Georgena Terry road bike to upright handlebars.

1977 Jack Taylor Tandem Restoration- the Beginning

Mafac hood with dual cables

I’ve been waiting to get in the right frame of mind to begin restoration of a 1977 Jack Taylor Tandem that I had shipped from England back in 2012.  Clearly, I’ve been waiting quite a while, but during that time I have corresponded with the original owner’s son, who has provided valuable information about the bike’s history as well as a few family photos of the tandem’s exploits.

Jack Taylor frame at bottom left

I also needed more shop space to enable me to use two stands to aid with disassembly.  That finally happened last Fall, and I now have not only more shop space, but additional bike storage space as well, all in one location.

So I was finally able to remove the components to begin the process of bringing this tandem back to its original glory.  I had already removed the 650b Maxi-Car wheelset and worked on getting the wheels back in order.

I still need to re-glue one of the brake shoes in the front drum hub, but the rear wheel has been overhauled and adjusted.

Jack Taylor frames are built with Reynolds 531 tubing.  The specs for each Reynolds tubeset will vary based on customer request and on the particular application.  A serial number is stamped on the rear drop-out and the steerer tube.  You can see the matching numbers in the above photo – 7183 – indicating this is a probably a 1977 frame, based on the helpful chart provided by Joel Metz at his blackbirdsf.org site.  This chart was developed from information provided by Mark Lawrence, who happens to be the individual I purchased this tandem from.  He sold the bike on behalf of the original owners.  Mark was a long-time friend of the Taylor brothers.

Tandems differ from regular bikes in a number of ways.  There are naturally two bottom brackets, one of which is an eccentric, which aids in adjusting the timing chain so that that both sets of cranks are positioned at the same angle on the spindle, and so that chain tension is properly maintained.  The matching crank arm position is important for cornering, as you want both crank arms upright when descending at speed while leaning over.  Both bottom brackets are T.A. models, and the threaded eccentric appears to say “Rogers”.  It taps out of the frame after loosening the bolts.  Adjustment is made by loosening the bolts, twisting the eccentric to the desired position, and re-tightening.

The components on this tandem indicate that it was the Super Touring Deluxe model, spec’d with Mafac Tandem cantilever brake calipers (plus a Maxi drum brake up front), Stronglight headset, Campagnolo derailleurs and shifters, Campagnolo drop-outs, SunTour Perfect 5 speed freewheel, T. A. cranksets, plus Maxi-Car 650b wheels.

1977 Jack Taylor Tandem with kiddie crank and trail-a-bike

Four cranksets was one more than expected.  Upon corresponding with the son of the original owners, I learned that this was needed to set up the “kiddie-crank” for the young stoker.  His sister contributed to the effort on her trail-a-bike.

As originally purchased 1977 Jack Taylor Tandem

As I’ve researched the history of Jack Taylor Cycles I’ve come across a few sites I hadn’t accessed before.  One of these is the Stockton-on-Tees History site, which has several wonderful posts regarding the history of the “works” building and of the Taylor brother’s exploits:

Jack Taylor Cycles

Jack Taylor Cycle Maker

While the restoration process may take some time, I’m hopeful about the result.  This is a machine worth preserving.