Monday, July 7, 2014

The Pannier Problem


Do you ride your bike for purposes that sometimes require you to take stuff with you or bring stuff home? If you do, you may have encountered The Pannier Problem, which is essentially that there does not exist, so far, the truly ideal pannier.

Perhaps you are not a cyclist, and so you don't know what I'm referring to. These are panniers:

I drew this!
As you can see from this devastatingly good drawing that I did in Microsoft Paint, there are different kinds of pannier. The one on the left is just a simple wire basket that hangs on the side of the back rack. This one is removable (I know you could already see that), while some wire panniers are permanently installed and can fold up to be out of the way. These are quick to use but are prone to rust, and offer no protection against the rain or snow for your stuff. The one on the right is a waterproof job, with any combination of clips or straps to hold it onto your bike rack. It's far more weather-resistant and heavy-duty than the wire pannier, but also requires more work to get it on and off your bike than a rack you simply hang on the back, and looks really utilitarian.

Wire panniers that install in a permanent fashion might cost you up to $80 for a pair, whereas the waterproof kind could cost you up to $300 for a pair. You can imagine that you'd be less inclined to leave your waterproof fancy pannier outside while you get groceries or have a beer with your friends, so the likelihood that you will frequently be taking these off and putting them back on is an important consideration.

I've had a $30 wire pannier on my bike for about two years now, and because it wasn't the kind that installs, I had a tiny padlock on the back to prevent theft. While I like the wire pannier, I've been looking for something that gives weather protection, but many of the options are very industrial-looking, made of technical material, and difficult to get on and off my bike. Some of them don't even fit my bike rack because the bars are too thick. With all the different things to consider, it's taken me two years to decide what to go for. 

I eventually narrowed the field to two panniers that are a sort of mid-way point between the ease of a wire pannier and the protection of a waterproof bag. These are: 

The Linus Market bag


and the Brooks Brick Lane bag


I've been dithering between these two bags for TWO ENTIRE YEARS. The reasons are thus: they are very similar aesthetically, and I was having a tough time deciding between the various features each of them possesses. Let me break it down for you: 

The Linus Market bag: This bag is made of treated heavy-duty cotton, so provides some weather resistance but is not weather-proof. The bag drapes over your bike rack, and if you're not using one side of it you can roll it up so that it's out of the way. The bag has snap ties that hold it in place on the bike rack. It comes with a little brass ring and a small padlock so that you can lock it onto your bike rack if you're going inside and want to leave it, and it comes with a carrying strap so that you can lug it over your shoulder if you're taking it with you. Snap closures make sure the flaps don't fly around as you ride.

The Brooks Brick Lane bag: This bag is made of waxed canvas, and thus provides better weather resistance than the Linus bag, but still less than a waterproof bag would. It also drapes over the bike rack and the bags can be rolled up if you're not using them. The bag has adjustable leather ties that hold it onto the bike rack, and similar ties that hold the bag closed at the top, and hold the flap down (the version in the picture above has magnets). This bag also has an elastic rat-trap at the top for extra stowing, and the leather handle makes it comfortable to carry. 

Pros and cons: The Linus bag is attractive because it can be locked in place and carried with a shoulder strap, while the Brooks bag has neither of these advantages. However, the Linus bag is a bit of a step down in terms of the quality of the material, and ultimately, biking in rainy weather is what I want the bags for. The Linus bag prevents you from using the rat-trap on the bike rack, and while the Brooks bag also does this, they provide you with a new one that actually has better carrying capacity. The Linus bag is also tough to fit onto all bike racks. This review from Biking in Heels was really helpful in its description of how the Linus bag fit onto an older-style bike, because mine is also like this. The Brooks bag has adjustable straps, which means it can fit on any size of rack.

In addition to these considerations, it turns out that the bike stores in Toronto are engaged in some kind of unofficial Linus boycott, and all the stores that used to sell Linus bikes and gear are no longer stocking either. I still have the option of buying the bag online, but not from Linus itself; they don't ship to Canada. Buying online increases the cost of the Linus bag, so that from my position, instead of the Brooks bag being more expensive by $115, there is now only a $50 difference between the two.

On Friday I finally decided in favour of the Brooks bag. It turns out that the bag is easy to carry, and the shoulder strap may have been fairly low in utility after all. Though there is no way to lock the Brooks bag onto my bike, I have found that the four straps which secure it take enough effort to do up and take off (a 90-second job once you've done it once or twice) that I would feel comfortable leaving it on the bike if I was having a beer with friends and my bike was within eye-shot. A potential thief couldn't simply walk past and snatch it; the bag would require sufficient fiddling with straps that I feel confident that I could hurdle the neighbouring tables in time to thwart them. Ultimately, it was the quality of the Brooks bag that won out; the waxed canvas will hold up better in the rain, and the leather straps are thick and built for years of tough use. It also looks really good on my bike, and this has been a consideration for me all along.

My landlord's cat, Tortie, approves. Let's face it, once something has cat-approval, it's basically gold standard.