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.

1980 Meral 650b Conversion – Long Term Update

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I’ve been riding my “new” 1980 Meral 650b for over a year now.  Only recently has it become my bike of first choice, however.  As with any bike, and especially with a frame-up build combined with a wheel size conversion (700c to 650b), there were a number of challenges and some disappointments.  Here is an overview of the results:

Frame and Fork:

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My favorite aspect of this bike is its beauty and the build quality of the frame and fork.  It’s just an absolutely gorgeous, well put together bike.  The Reynolds 531 tubing feels great and is not punishing, as can happen with stiff aluminum frames (especially smaller frames).  I love the chrome accents and chrome fork, and the lovely sloping fork crown.

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The deep purple color is eye catching and I like the gold lettering of the Meral logos, which goes with the gold-lined chrome lugs.

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The frame geometry is suited for my riding preferences – with a steep seat tube and head tube angle.  It has more stand over height than I really need, and if the frame were taller I would not have had to use a Nitto Technomic stem to get the bars at the height that feels good (slightly higher than the saddle height.)  But, it wasn’t custom built for me, after all, so I’m not complaining.

Tires, Wheels, and Handling:

Panaracer Col de la Vie 650b tires

The Panaracer Col de la Vie 650b tires were extremely disappointing – to the point that I actually stopped riding this bike while I figured out what to do.  They produced a lot of tire noise, and the deep treads picked up rocks like a vacuum cleaner, then spit them into the aluminum fenders, for an even greater cacophony.  The tires felt squishy and ponderous no matter what pressures I tried, and made climbing feel like I was riding through quicksand.  On descents, the bike was noticeably slower than ALL my other bikes, causing me to conclude that the tires had an enormous amount of rolling resistance.  Since the tires come so highly recommended, I delayed changing them out while I tried out other theories to explain the bike’s slowness.  Were the wheel hubs improperly adjusted?  Was the freehub bad?  No, and no.

Velocity Synergy 650b Velocity Synergy 650b Wheelset

In fact, I am really happy with this Velocity Synergy 650b wheelset.  The hubs were adjusted perfectly right out of the box and are very smooth.  I did have to make a small truing adjustment to the front wheel, and that was all.  I ordered this 32 hole set from Rivendell and I think they were well worth the price (about $400 for the pair).

While I pondered what to do about the tires, I also had to contend with a problem that I had never experienced before to this degree:  fork shimmy!  The bike shimmied from the get-go, at high speeds and slow, and would get worse if I rode with just a single bag in back instead of two.  So, I did a lot of reading about fork shimmy and found that it is as mysterious as “planing”, “q-factor” and bottom bracket drop in terms of facts vs. mythology.  For instance, Jobst Brandt has a pretty scientific explanation of fork shimmy.  Here is a quote from his treatise on the matter:

“Shimmy is not related to frame alignment or loose bearings, as is often claimed. Shimmy results from dynamics of front wheel rotation, mass of the handlebars, elasticity of the frame, and where the rider contacts the bicycle. Both perfectly aligned bicycles and ones with wheels out of plane to one another shimmy nearly equally well. It is as likely with properly adjusted bearings as loose ones. The idea that shimmy is caused by loose head bearings or frame misalignment seems to have established currency by repetition, although there is no evidence to link these defects with shimmy.”

He goes on to state that shimmy is caused by the gyroscopic forces of the front wheel, which combined with the tilt of the steering axis, exerts force on the top tube and downtube, causing them to oscillate.  While absorbing this explanation, I read a number of other explanations, but none seemed as true to my mind as this.  Based on that, I concluded that I definitely needed to replace the Panaracer tires because I felt they were contributing to, if not causing, the shimmy problem, with their deep tread pattern.

Compass 650b tires

I finally broke down and ordered these Compass Loup Loup Pass 650b tires.  I ordered the regular model, not the super-light.  Conclusion:  what took me so long!  These are the best tires I have ever ridden, ever.  They are comfortable, fast, quiet, and seem to help spur me up hills.  I have ridden them on gravel, pavement, and over some bad and deep potholes.  They are fabulous!  Now, when I take the Meral out for a spin I find that I end up riding far longer than planned.  They have restored my enjoyment of riding, and have really been the turning point in making this bike my favorite.  And, I have absolutely no more fork shimmy, at any speed.  So, I guess we can add tire tread depth and design as a possible contributor to fork shimmy – let the mythology continue!

Drivetrain:

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The vintage TA triple crankset had a massive wobble so I had to disassemble it, place each chainring between two planks, and smash the hell out of them in my vise.  It took enormous force to get them straightened, but now they are fine.  The rings are 48/40/28.  For this kind of bike, I really need some smaller rings up front, plus I prefer to have a 10 tooth difference between the big and middle rings.  Rather than replace the TA rings, I decided to change the cassette.  First of all, I had to accept the fact that I could not use an 8 speed cassette on this drive train – the Ultegra front derailleur could not handle it.  Instead, I put in a spacer and ended up with this 14-32 7 speed cassette after trying 3 other cassettes that had higher gearing.  I decided to stick with the Ultegra derailleur, though, because after doing much research I realized that it can be very difficult to find any front derailleur that will work with a TA crankset, due to its narrow tread.  So, if it works, don’t fix it.  The bike is geared a bit lower than my other bikes as it is a bit heavier, and I ended up replacing the SLX rear derailleur with the Deore pictured above which seems to work better with the larger cassette cogs.  I am using my Shimano bar end shifters in friction mode and the shifting is fast and precise, with very little trimming needed.  One of my favorite pieces on the bike is this modified Huret downtube clamp which can accept Shimano shifter pods – it looks great and the pods mounted precisely.

Braking System:

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I used vintage Mafac Raid brakes to accomplish the conversion to 650b.  This set was in nice shape and included all the mounting hardware.  Because I was working with what was originally a sport touring bike, made long after these Mafac’s were manufactured, I had to make some modifications to the hardware to make things work.  For the Mafac rear fender mount, I had to reverse the piece, tap out the other side, and mount it backwards in order to make it work with the brake bridge on this bike.  I also “smooshed” the brake hanger and installed a longer seat post bolt to get the hanger to work with this bike.  The brake arms are very long, as you can see, and naturally have a lot more flex due to the long reach.  My Kool Stop replacement pads squealed like crazy for the first month or so of riding, and then finally everything settled down and braking is silent.  However, the front brakes have a squishy feel, which is consistent with my experience with Mafac’s on other bikes I have ridden and restored.  But, they get the job done, and that’s what matters.  I am using Shimano aero levers, which fit comfortably in my hands – I use these for all my bikes with road bars.

Saddle, Rack, Bags, and Fenders:

Cardiff Leather Saddle

The Cardiff saddle, a brand I haven’t tried before, turned out to be a real hit.  It is breaking in nicely.  It has longer seat rails than a Brooks, and a slightly different shape that seems to work well for me.  The saddle is big enough to provide a number of different seating positions depending on where my hands are on the bars.  In short, I will probably not go back to riding Brooks saddles as I find the Cardiff far more comfortable (comfort being a relative term when speaking of bike saddles…).  And, it’s a pretty handsome saddle that goes perfectly with my plum-colored leather mud flap.

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For my rear rack, I had wanted to use the Velo-Orange constructeur rack.  It is very pretty and mounts to the rear fenders, which makes the rack sit down nice and low – ideal for carrying weight in the back.  At the time I was building up the bike, that rack was out of stock, so I decided to try out the Electra Ticino rear rack instead.  While the rack itself is not ugly, per se, it sits up very high, has unadjustable stays, and is very heavy. I sanded the stays to allow for greater adjustment so that I could level the rack (photo above is before I had done this), so that helped a bit.  The Ticino panniers are nice bags, but are also very heavy and suffer from being oddly shaped.  Nonetheless I have continued to use them and they have held up well.

Meral 650b conversion

Here is the bike now, after all these mods, and after a year of riding.  It’s a very striking bike, and now a very comfortable bike after tweaking the components and upgrading the tires.  Today, I meant to go out on just a short ride, but ended up two towns away!  This bike has finally exceeded my expectations.

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1980 Meral at Smith & Bybee Lakes

1980 Meral 650b Conversion – Part Three – Fini!

1980 Meralchrome lugsReynolds 531Meral seatpost lug

My Meral 650b conversion is now complete.  In two previous posts, I shared the process of converting this 700c sport touring frame to 650b.  The bike and I have taken a short test ride, and it is going to be my ride tomorrow for a more complete test of its road-worthiness. Today’s test ride revealed that I needed to ditch the vintage Mafac brake levers. They were not effective at stopping the bike when braking from the hoods, and the levers stick out so far from the bodies that I could barely reach them when braking from the drops.  The Mafac Raid brakes had a tremendous amount of flex, and I also had some squealing while braking – partly caused by the flex of the brakes arms.  I was disappointed because I liked the look of the cables sprouting from the non-aero levers (Campy levers shown in this photo)- but function over form must rule when it comes to safety.  I installed Shimano aero levers (perfectly sized for smaller hands), tightened the brakes arms on the Mafac Raid brakes, and that solved the problem, mostly.  The orange Kool Stop replacement pads for Mafac brake shoes are also very hard and smooth, and with the super smooth new rims, there is still some squealing under hard braking.  I have sanded some material off the pads, but the rims will need to break in as well in order to quiet everything down.

Velo Orange mudflapCardiff saddle

But there were some successes, also.  The Velo Orange leather mud-flap looks fabulous and  will really help keep the drive train and my feet dry during Portland’s downpours.  And, the Cardiff saddle proved to be far more comfortable than any Brooks I have ridden – it is comfortable now and I won’t need to endure the thousand mile break-in torture of a typical Brooks saddle.  The copper rails are lovely to my eye, and with the extra long seat rails I was able to get the saddle exactly where I wanted it.

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I decided to use Shimano derailleurs for now, and they are working fine.  I needed an extra long cage on the rear derailleur in order to handle the 3 chain rings up front – the SLX was sitting in the parts bin but I’ll probably replace it at some point.  It’s hard to see the gorgeous chrome dropouts in this photo – but they are beautiful as is everything about this Meral frame.  The T.A. triple crankset has 160mm crank arms, which I chose to help deal with the problem of toe overlap common on smaller frames.  I like the feel of my cadence on these shorter arms (I usually ride 165mm or 170mm).  The outer chainring on the crankset had a serious wobble, so I disassembled the crankset to straighten it out in the vice.  When reassembling, I managed to over-torque one the the crank arm bolts even though I was only going up to 70 in lbs.  I had to order some new fasteners (you can get some from Velo-Orange, or on E-bay), and I have them torqued very low now until I can get the specs on these small fasteners.

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Here is the “smooshed” Mafac brake hanger – working fine – and here are the Ticino bags on the completed bike – they look pretty decent.

Before starting any conversion, it’s important to check the clearances on your frame for:  chainstay and fork clearance for the new wheelset, fenders, and clearance and proper chain line for the crankset and BB you are using.  Below, my clearances were good, but I had to do a little more work to clean up the fender-line and to level the Ticino rack (whose stays are not adjustable).

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How does it ride?  As beautifully as it looks – comfortable, yet lightweight (27 lbs as pictured, including the heavy rack and saddle).

Here is the build list:

Frame and fork:  1980 Meral with Reynolds 531 tubing on frame and fork (49 x 51), chrome fork, frame chromed and then painted, lugs, chainstays and dropouts are chrome.  Geometry:  74 deg HT, 74 deg ST, fork rake 50 mm (approx).  Originally designed as a 700c sport touring bike with eyelets for fenders, but no rack mounts.

Nitto Technomic stem (sanded to French size); Nitto Olympiad bars, Shimano brake levers, Shimano 600 headset (French), cloth bar tape

Shimano bar end shifters in friction mode, Huret modified DT clamp, Shimano Ultegra front derailleur; Shimano SLX rear derailleur; Shimano 8 speed cassette 11/30, TA bottom bracket, TA triple crankset 48/40/28, Sram chain, Lyotard pedals

Cardiff leather saddle with copper rails, Campagnolo seatpost

Mafac Raid brakes, Mafac brake hangers front and rear

Ticino rear rack, Ticino canvass panniers

Hammered aluminum fenders (no brand but never drilled or mounted – an Ebay purchase) – mounted with Velo Orange stays and hardware, Velo Orange “plum” mudflap, Velo Orange constructeur bottle cage

Velocity Synergy 650b wheelset with dishless rear wheel and sport hubs; Panaracer Col de la Vie 38 mm tires.