Thursday, September 17, 2009

In The Bag (Part 1)

One of the big things that seems to put off potential bike commuters (other than the ever-present question of, "How do I un-stink at work?") is how to schlep one's junk back and forth.

Having commuted for a
long time, I think I've tried just about every combination of bike luggage out there. I'll save the specific brand/model reviews for a second post, but here's a breakdown of the general factors to consider when you choose your baggage.

This is the biggest dividing line in bike luggage. Do you carry your stuff somewhere on the bike itself, or do you carry it on your body? Bike-carriage has the advantages of reducing Sweaty Back Syndrome (SBS) and possible back strain issues. Disadvantages can include the need to mount specialized stuff (racks, baskets, saddlebags) on the commuting bike and bike compatibility issues (short chainstays plus large panniers don't always mix, for example). Making yourself the mule means that your baggage is immediately compatible with just about any bike. However, schlepping kit on your body also brings with it the above-mentioned SBS (the flipside advantage for winter commuting is extra insulation back there), and a poorly-placed or heavy load can't be good for your spine.

Within the bike-as-mule camp, you have several options -- a front basket, panniers or a trunk on a rear rack, or a big saddlebag. Front load can provide handling challenges if your bike isn't designed for it; I highly recommend Bicycle Quarterly's analyses of front-end geometry if you're picking a bike specifically to carry gear up front. Rear panniers are a bit more forgiving, though a light, flexible bike can get a "wag the dog" effect from a heavy rear load. I can't really speak to big saddlebags, as those are the one thing I've yet to try.

The body-carrying breaks down into a couple simple categories: Backpack or "messenger" bag. I scare-quote that second one since they've become so ubiquitous among people who don't even know what a messenger is, it's hard to connect them back to their origins with real working cyclists. I've used both types, and honestly, if you choose good ones, I think the differences come down to style. Messenger bags do provide easier access "on the fly" if you need to grab something out of your bag or shove something in there without taking it off. I'm using a backpack now, but -- I have to confess -- a large part of it is a perverse desire to
not look like a fixed-gear hipster wannabe.

This is an aspect that I'm not sure a lot of commuters consider until they're actually out there doing it. How long does it take you to get from "riding mode" to "locked up, bags in hand, on-foot mode"? I see a lot of riders struggling with hard-to-remove bags, multi-step pocket emptying, and awkward locking techniques. It's no wonder they don't like to commute. If you had to unstrap a NASCAR safety harness and crawl out the window of your car Dukes of Hazard-style every morning, you'd probably hate driving to work too. Bags-on-body wins here, since a big part of your transition is done as soon as your foot hits the ground. Still, smooth transitions are possible with bags-on-bike, either by carrying a body-mounted bag in a basket or by choosing a pannier with quick-release hardware. If you're an all-season commuter, consider how easy that hardware will be when you're in bulky gloves or mittens, too.

There is just nothing worse than riding in the rain, getting to work, drying off, and finding out that your work undies are sopping wet in the bottom of your bag. When you're reading manufacturers' buzzwords, "waterproof" and "water-resistant" sure sound similar, don't they? They don't behave similarly in practice, though. Seams, hardware mounting points and zippers on water-resistant bags can all provide entry points for water, leading to damp undies. You really have to make a choice based on your local climate and commute distance, though -- for my short commute here in the Midwest, I can get away with less-sealed bags. Seattleites will tell you something different, though. A water-resistant bag can always be supplemented with a waterproof roll-top dry bag, too.

A bag that's big enough to carry a change of clothes and a lunch will by its very nature provide a decent amount of surface area. Use it to your advantage. Get a bag that has plenty of reflectorized accents or add your own. Choose a bright color that provides plenty of contrast against your surroundings. Mounting points for blinky lights are a nice add-on, but don't be lulled into a false sense of security by them. Most blinkies are extremely directional -- if a driver's the slightest bit off-axis to them, the light doesn't look nearly as bright. Since a light on a bag relies on the position of a floppy fabric loop and the position of the floppy fabric bag on your body or bike, the chances that you'll actually have the thing aimed where it belongs when it counts are pretty slim. Hard-mount the blinkers on your bike and use your luggage for reflectives.

Bigger isn't always necessarily better. A bag with a lot of unused space will flop around or fit awkwardly on your body. Pull together whatever your standard commuting load will be (change of clothes? lunch? shoes? laptop? files?) and pick a bag that holds that with just a bit more room to spare. That will allow you to fit bulkier clothes in the winter, stop at the store on the way home for a couple forgotten groceries, or bring donuts for your coworkers (an important peace offering if you haven't figured out that "how to stay un-stinky" commuter issue). The proliferation of really compact reusable grocery bags can come in really handy -- stick one in the bottom of your bag and use that for those "special occasions" where you have load overflow rather than picking a giant bag that's underused 90% of the time.

Next up: Some brands and models of bags that I've actually put through their commuting paces.


john said...

I use a Chrome messenger bag for short trips and keep the Carradice Nelson(with support) on my commuter. A PHX summer is a bit harsh to keep a bag on one's back.

Steve Fuller said...

If I'm not on the LHT, I now have a messenger bag on most of the time. I like how the weight sits on my back better, and it's a lot easier to get into at the store while still keeping it on my back. Anything needing to stay dry gets put in a freezer bag. The one I have now is a cheap one my son used for school for a couple of years. It might be time to step up to a Chrome or a Timbuktu.

I use one of my Arkel GT-54 or T-28 panniers if I'm on the LHT, tho there are days that I can fit my gear into the handlebar bag (I tend to leave a pair of jeans and a pair of shoes at the office.Yeah for casual dress environments). If things really need to stay dry and I don't think the bag plus rain cover will cut it, I will use the freezer bag trick again, or I'll bust out with the Arkel Samurai.

I've stuffed everything I've needed into a Camelback mule once or twice. I only do that if I'm mountain biking or gravel grinding right after work.

KarmaCycle said...

Hi Jason - I've just found your blog and love the way you write. I can't resist commenting on this issue, as even in London, UK, the issues are the same. Personally, I used to go for the old ruck-sack option but found (sorry about the sordid detail) that my sweat would seep through and I'd end up with soggy contents and a soggy back. I've now had paniers from the Mountain Equipment Co-Op in Canada for about 10 years and I much prefer them to a backpack. The downside is that they are definitely not waterproof and I have to wrap up anything I want to keep dry in several plastic bags. I also find that over the years I've accumulated mounds of rubble - old bits of paper, puncture repair bits and bobs, coins - and I'd love to know how to manage that. Perhaps a portable trash can inside a pannier??? I'm blogging here if you're interested:

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Steve -- if a medium Timbuktuu is big enough to replace C's old school bag, ping me off-blog before you drop any bucks on one. Mine's sitting unused, and it would keep our tradition of bag hand-me-downs going.

KarmaCycle -- Thanks for the compliment! I checked out your blog and I like your style too. You're officially in the blogroll here at The Cycle. Now I have two confirmed international readers from the UK! Does this mean I now need to publish alternate versions of my posts in real English like the late, great Sheldon Brown?

KarmaCycle said...

I like the idea of that Jason! Funnily enough I was already having to use American English on my first comment - we'd normally say "bin" for trash can, but I opted for "trash can" out of respect for your (mainly) US readers ... I'll do my best to spread the word about your blog over here. Though I'm only just getting a grip of how to do things as I'm a novice blogger.