Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Urban Bike Commuter Tools Part 2 - Bags

The last post of New York Bike Commuter overviewed racks, an essential tool for commuters who want to haul important stuff like a clean change of clothes, a lock, books, etc with little effort.  Bike racks don't reach their hauling potential, however, without a bag draped over them.  This post gives a quick overview of bags that work best for commuting and running errands.

Bags come in three general categories relevant to urban riders: serious commuting bags for people who've got to bring a nice change of clothes to work, cheapo bags that will wrinkle your stuff but are light and easy to use day-to-day, and big grocery bags.  All hook onto a rear rack.  There are also some detachable baskets on the market, and a milk crate strapped to your rack is a great way to carry a basketball...but I digress.

Serious Commuting Bags: Pricey commuting bags earn their keep by getting fancy clothes to the workplace in fine shape.  Top end models have compartments that keep a suit smoothly folded and are waterproof in everything short of a Brooklyn tornado.  With this sort of bag the excuse "riding a bike means I'll look crappy at work" no longer applies.

6th Ave Brooklyn after last week's tornado
Jaand, Ortlieb and 2WG, among others, make panniers that run from about $100 up.  Many of these bags have compartments for books, a carrying handle and look reasonably briefcase-esque.  Thus, no one will suspect your green inclinations when walking into the office at the oil company.  Usually one bag is enough to carry work stuff: the bags are generally sold individually.  But these bags aren't much for general cargo duty - they tend to be tall and narrow so bulky stuff won't fit (top-of-rack bags are another good option for carrying clothes).

Ortlieb Downtown commuter bike bag

Cheapo Bags: If you don't mind wrinkled clothes, want to use your panniers for multiple purposes (which means keeping them hooked to the rack all the time) or simply don't want to spend much money, there are a zillion inexpensive (under $50) bags on the market.  Check the local bike shop, should have many of these, or online.

I use a $25 (on sale), two-sided Nashbar Daytrekker pannier that allows me to stuff a heavy chain lock and shoes in one side and put work clothes in the other.  The bag also works great for quick trips to the supermarket, a picnic and was even enough, tightly stuffed, for a weekend ride up the Hudson River (sleeping at a B&B).
Nashbar Daytrekker bag

Cheapo bags are likely to rip apart after 2-3 year but that's why they're cheap.  If they get stolen, no biggie.

Grocery Bags: These are big, square, wide open bags that allow serious grocery hauling (see top blog pic).  A pair will easily swallow a gallon of milk, cereal boxes and a six pack with room to spare.  Good grocery panniers should have rugged mounting hardware to ensure they won't fall off the rack, spilling Brooklyn IPA all over the road.  Seams should be rugged and the bag should have a flat plastic bottom to hold things level.

For many years I used a pair of bags from L.L. Bean.  They withstood a lot of abuse (they got sliced up but never ripped apart) although the mounting system could have been a bit more trustworthy.  REI sells Novara's 'Round Town grocery pannier, which looks like a more fashionable version of my old Bean bag.

Finally, a safety warning:  Really heavy loads can affect bike handling, making it harder to turn, or making it easy to fall over when at a stop, particularly if one side of the bike is much more loaded than the other.   Pack evenly (note that clothes bags are often used on one side of the bike only but, since clothes generally don't weigh much, the effect on handling is negligible). Also, use caution when moving from a stop - heavy loads are particularly treacherous at slow speeds: the faster you go, the less you notice the weight, until you have to make a quick turn.

Also, I've completely avoided front fork mounted racks and bags, which weigh down your front wheel and make it harrowing to swerve on a milisecond's notice, an important skill on the streets of NYC.


KC said...

I am using the Delta Metro Elite pannier. It has padded inner pockets to keep stuff organized (a laptop fits nicely), a built-in rain cover and it expands to double its capacity.

CatZoo said...

Thanks for the tip, just checked it out online and it looks great for commuting. Question: I've found that some panniers get in the way of pedaling (my heel hits the bag). This one looks very square - any problems with ankle clearance?

Andrew Brown said...

I have an Ortleib pannier. It survived being run over by an SUV due to me not knowing how to attach it the first day I had it. I am a fan of Ortleib now. Just saying. As far as heel clearance is concerned, the nicer pannier bags can be attached anywhere on the rack including further back. Just a thought.

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