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Panniers 101: Purchasing the Bike Bag

Friday, March 5th, 2010 at 05:01 PM

The noble pannier can be either friend or foe. On the one hand a good, well made pannier can make carrying your gear around much easier, while a bad one can cause all types of headaches. Panniers, which most people would simply call bags that attach to racks on your bicycle, were probably so named to avoid such a long winded explanation, have been around for quite a while. Since the dawn of the two-wheeled transportation thingy we call a bicycle people have needed ways to carry their stuff. And so the famed pannier came to the rescue.  But how do you know which of these fantastic creations are the best for your needs? The Where, When Conundrum?

Where are you going to ride and when? Let me elaborate, when you are looking at pannier bags you should try and set a realistic idea of  where and when you will be riding or aspire to be riding. Are you going to restrict your pannier usage to fair weather days, only exposing yourself to poor weather when you have no choice?  Maybe you will be riding to work and back 20 kilometers each way no matter what that wily Mother Nature throws your way. Or are you a touring addict, taking to the road for weeks on end each year?

Answering this question will influence your pannier decision in more ways than one. If you ride to work every day you will want something that is waterproof and durable and that can maybe hold your laptop a change of clothes and some food so you don’t need a monstrous touring size bag.  If you have a short commute to work and only plan on ridding in nice weather, wear your work clothes on the ride and only need to carry a laptop and some food then a slim purpose built pannier will fit your needs.

You probably get the point; answering this question will make sure you get a bag that will fit your needs and doesn’t under deliver on your expectations. If you have questions then you can always swing by your local dealer for help or advice on the right bags for your needs, or leave a comment on the blog.

But what should you look for when you get to the dealer?  There are four main things you should consider when buying panniers bags: fabric(s), construction, size and attachment system.

Constructions and Fabrics

All bags are not created equally. It seems obvious I know but you really do get what you pay for, though, not everyone needs the top of the line.  Most pannier bags are made from either Nylon or Polyester fabrics and often feature a denier or Tex number, which refers to the linear mass density of the fabrics, the details of which are beyond the realm of this discussion – just know that as the numbers rise so does the quality, durability and the price. You may also see the name Cordura which is actually a brand name fabric, much like Gore-Tex is to waterproof membranes.

Most of the panniers use coated fabrics making the fabric itself essentially waterproof but the construction or how the seams are joined and the zippers can be the Achilles heel of dry gear. There are three main ways to join fabric: Sewing, hot welding and Ultrasonic Welding.

Sewing is the old school method you learned in home-ec but better; however, this still leaves you with a bunch little holes – perfect for letting water in. Hot welding involves overlaying two fabrics and joining them with heat, creating a seal and is often found on dry bags and higher end water proof bags. The final and most technical and expensive, not to mention coolest sounding is Ultrasonic Welding to join the materials using sound. But when looking to keep water out there is more.

Going that extra mile, top end panniers will feature taped seams and waterproof zippers which will ensure your gear stays dry. Many mid end bags come with covers, but if you are concerned about staying dry drop the extra coin for the Gucci gear: it will last longer and make sure your stuff stays dry.

Attachment Systems

There are many systems out there and even more opinions on which are the best.  The most widely accepted systems come from a company named Rixen Kaul, which effectively combine ease of use with durability. Many companies have their own proprietary attachment systems or use a combination; Axiom uses their Posi-Lock system on most bags and started using the Rixen Kaul on the top end gear for 2010. When looking at attachment systems it is always a bonus if the pieces are replaceable, just in case you run into a problem like a broken clip. When looking for panniers go to your local shop and try out a few bags to see which best suit your rack.

Size Matters

I’m sorry for the overused cliché, but it seems apt for this situation.  If you aren’t going to be carrying a lot of stuff then buy a smaller pannier. Extra size will leave you with awkward and cumbersome bags and a lot of empty space.  Go back to the Where, When conundrum and use your answers to gauge how much space you need.

If you made it this far you have read over 800 words on bicycle panniers.  Wow.  I know there is more to cover but  I don’t know how much longer you want to read about panniers. If you want to know more leave a comment and I will dive deeper into the pannier void. The next step is to go out and find your perfect pannier, get on your bicycle and go for a ride.

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