Cycling Bags & Panniers

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Carradice Long Flap saddlebag

I have used quite a few cycling bags over the years.  But, bags and panniers can be tricky.  How well they work depends not only on the mounting system designed for the bag, but also on what kind of rack system you have, or whether you have racks at all.  And, for saddlebags, the question of whether they will work for you depends a great deal upon your bike’s rear triangle geometry, as well as whether or not your are using fenders. In order to use front bags and panniers you need not only to have a front rack, fork braze-ons, and handlebar or stem mounting system, but the success of carrying a front load also hinges on whether your bike has the right front end geometry to carry a load there.

I have always had a special obsession with bike bags, which started back in my touring days when I would load up my 1976 Centurion Pro Tour and head out to explore my surroundings.

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I was happy that my handlebar bag and rear panniers were purchased from REI – a consumer cooperative being somewhat radical back then (even though REI was founded decades earlier).  The handlebar bag mounted with a removable rack which rested on the handlebars and stem.  The lower part of the front bag was secured to the front dropouts via a stretchy cord, which as you can see in the above photo, got overstretched so that I had to tie a knot in the cord to keep tension on the bag while underway.

I liked the rear panniers, but didn’t like the front bag so much.  It interfered with the beam of my battery powered head light. And, probably the Pro-Tour’s geometry was not ideal for carrying a front load.  However, one nice feature was the map case on the top of the bag.  In those pre-iPhone days, having my maps at the ready proved invaluable, although I will say that often my maps were totally wrong!

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Velo Orange Handlebar Bag

Eventually I stopped using front bags altogether until I began building up my 1980 Meral as a 650b Randonneur, a few years ago.  Even so, I am not all that thrilled with front bags, finding them fidgety, noisy, and irritatingly intrusive on my hands.  Perhaps a decaleur could solve these problems.  But, for now, I only occasionally use this really nice Velo Orange front bag.  I have not used low rider front panniers, but have occasionally used small panniers mounted to the front racks of various bicycles I have ridden.  Mastering a front load requires a bit of saddle time.

Below is a list of some of the many cycling bags I have used over the years, as well as my comments on their utility.  If you have been searching for the right bag for your bike, perhaps this highly personal list will be of use:

Jandd

IMHO, Jandd is the gorilla manufacturer of cycling bags.  Their bags last forever.  They never wear out.  They are intelligently designed and reasonably priced, given their longevity.  They are not particularly pretty, but offer the best in bike bag value and utility.

Here are the Jandd bags that I have used over the last 35 years:

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Grocery panniers – large, securely mounts to most racks, holds an actual grocery bag, unlike other competitors which are much smaller and less robust.  I have a set of Jandd grocery bags that I purchased in the early 90’s and they are still in use.

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Hurricane panniers – These are the grocery panniers on steroids.  Excellent mounting, total weather protection, tons of visibility.  But, there are also very heavy weighing about 2 lbs each, unladen.  I use these on my Panasonic winter/errand bike.  A perfect utility bag.

Jandd Trunk rack bags – I used a Jandd trunk bag for many years.  It never wore out, and I finally gave it to a friend, as I don’t use trunk bags any more.

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Jandd Throw-over small panniers – I am using these “small” panniers on my 1980 Meral.  They are deceptive in nomenclature and appearance – I have managed to jam all kinds of stuff into these bags.  Lightweight, fits any rack.

Brooks

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Brooks Roll Up Panniers – who can say anything bad about a Brooks bag?  These are beautiful bags, with appropriately lovely packaging.  They are NOT waterproof, and they do not have any attachment at the base of the bag.  I am using these on my 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist, which is perfect for what they are designed for.

Ortlieb

Terry Symmetry in Ashland

Various “roller” models – Ortlieb bags are the perfect Portland commuter bag, being totally waterproof, easy to mount on any rack, and with a lot of visibility.  Newer models have internal organizing pockets.  These are my commuting bags of choice.  I have these smaller panniers, pictured above, as well as an older set of larger panniers.  The smaller model is actually able to carry quite a bit of stuff, and I have successfully loaded these panniers with way more than I would have anticipated, so I use the smaller bags pretty much all the time.

Electra Ticino

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Electra Ticino Large Canvass Panniers – I hate these bags and have them sitting in my shop – awaiting some kind of disposition that I haven’t thought of yet.  The bags are narrow, heavy, and feature the worst mounting system I have ever seen.  After having these bags pop off the rack while riding at speed, and thankfully not crashing as a result, these bags are on my s$#t list.

Detours

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Detours seatpost mount quick release bags – I own three of these bags.  These are excellent bags for bikes which cannot take rear racks.  However, based on a recent search it looks like these bags are no longer offered by the company.  That’s too bad as I find these bags quite useful.  They are not as big I would like, but can still hold enough stuff for a day’s adventure.

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Sackville Bags from Rivendell   For awhile I used these Sackville front and rear rack bags, which I purchased from Rivendell.  The color scheme went well with my 1973 Jack Taylor Tourist.  However, these bags have no internal pockets, are not expandable, and so are of very limited utility.  They do have visibility, as you can see from the above photo.  Because of their limitations, they are sitting in my shop now awaiting some purpose in their lives which I haven’t thought of yet.

Other Bags I Have Used:

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While too numerous to list here I have tried out many different kinds of cycling bags.  Trunk bags, which I used for a time, put the weight up high and also make it difficult to throw a leg over (depending on how tall your rack is).  I no longer use trunk bags at all.  Saddlebags often interfere with your thighs while pedaling, and can also swing from side to side while you are climbing.  Mostly, I only use saddlebags on bikes that I will not ride vigorously, and where I can position the bag to sit far enough away from my legs – mostly this would be on larger bicycle frames.

For most riders, carrying weight on the rear of the bike will feel the most stable and natural, but it is is a good idea to think about your bike’s geometry and purpose before embarking on a new bag/rack experience.  You can measure your bike’s angles by using an angle finder, and you can take a rudimentary trail measurement of the front fork rake by following instructions which are readily available on the internet.

Electra Ticino Canvass Panniers and Constructeur Rear Rack

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I needed some stylish bags to go on my Meral 650B conversion.  The bike was originally a 700c sport touring bike, and when converted to 650B has fairly neutral geometry meaning that it should carry weight on the front or the rear with aplomb.  Since I ran into trouble mounting a front rack, I decided to install a rear rack instead.  I wanted to use the Velo-Orange constructeur rear rack, as it is made in the traditional style and mounts to the fenders.  It is currently out of stock so I decided to use the Ticino rear rack instead.  It is not as pretty, but looks to hold a lot more weight.  That’s a good thing, because these Ticino panniers weigh in at 2. 3 lbs – each – unladen!  But, more on that in a minute.

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First, the bags:  they are handsome, with nicely turned-out lining, like the what you might find in a fine Italian sport-coat.  They have two interior pockets, and the outside laces can be adjusted with the inside leather bound straps shown above – although fairly minimally.  They are long, tall, and not very wide.  They are very easy to mount and remove from the rear rack, and I wouldn’t hesitate to haul these bags into a business meeting in any setting.  They look professional and business-like.  They are made of waxed canvass.  On my first outing with the bags installed, a fine mist began drizzling, and the rain-drops simply beaded up on the bags, with no penetration.  I haven’t tested them in a typical Portland downpour (and I’m not sure I want to).

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Okay, now for the down-side.  On the Ticino rear rack, the bags are placed very high above the hub, meaning that you are carrying weight higher up than is ideal, and to my eye, just doesn’t look right.  And, on my little Terry commuter they simply overwhelm the bike, although with the Tubus rear rack on my Terry, the bags are sitting much lower which is better if you are going to carry some serious weight.

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One problem with mounting these bags on the Ticino rack (the very rack these bags were designed for) is that the enormous length of the bags make them extend far beyond the rack support.  With a lot of weight in these bags, you will feel them swaying back and forth as you climb out of the saddle; they can even slap back and forth against the rack and fenders – not a good thing and possibly unsafe if the bags become dislodged with all the movement.  However, with a lighter load, I didn’t notice any problems with the bags moving around while I was climbing.  The other problem is that, while it’s nice to have the two interior pockets in each bag, they are very shallow and do not hold my “kit” that I keep on each bike (the V-8 is a trick I learned from Grant Peterson – if your energy is lagging because you got carried away on a long ride and have run out of steam – the V-8 is a amazing energy drink!).  This kit easily fits in the internal pocket of my small Ortlieb panniers.

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The shape of these bags makes them ideal for someone who needs to haul work files and notebook computers or tablets.  The bags are long and tall enough to accommodate just about any legal or letter sized files or 3 ring binders.  They are super easy to remove – in fact so easy that I will use a luggage lock on these bags to prevent casual theft (I am someone who likes to leave the bags on my bike when I am doing errands and shopping, as I usually carry a few cloth shopping bags inside my panniers).  The two hooks fit perfectly onto the Ticino rack, but I also had no trouble mounting them to a Tubus rack.  The hooks can turn a bit from side to side so that if you are short of space you can turn the hooks and hopefully get them to fit just about any rack.  They are very attractive bags, but rather large, and probably won’t look great on every bike.  I am not sure I will let these bags endure the Portland rains, as I am not sure how well they will weather.  Although they are “water-resistant”, they are definitely not waterproof.  With their really nice lining, I would hesitate to throw in a 1/2 gallon of milk, or anything else that could spill.  And, the bags are so narrow that you could not possibly carry a gallon of a milk in them.  That said, these bags appear well-made.  How they withstand the rigors of transportation cycling remains to be seen.