Bike Commuting – How I Chose What Panniers To Get

If you’re reading this it means you’re probably interested in using panniers for commuting or perhaps completely new to commuting in general. Bike experts need not read on; you probably know more than I do 😉 I’ve been commuting by bike for years and it only occurred to me this year that I really, REALLY needed a pannier. Ever since I started commuting in university, backpacks and messengers bags toted all of my essential stuff to school and beyond.  Usually, I’ve never really had to worry about anything more than a few books, some lunch and the occasional badminton bag, so that suited me just fine. Though once I did barely manage to cycle to school with a trombone strapped to my backpack, it wasn’t enough motivation to get panniers.

Arkel's Bug Pannier Backpack http://www.arkel-od.com/en/bug-cummuting-bag.html
Arkel’s Bug Pannier Backpack
http://www.arkel-od.com/en/2012-arkelblog-Bug_Pannier_Backpack_video

Panniers


So let’s talk about panniers – bags that allow a bike to carry your stuff by clipping onto a rack attached to the bike. This could either be at the front or at the rear of the bike, over the wheels. Sometimes, racks can also attach to the seat post but generally they don’t hold as much weight and are prone to shifting. There are tons of panniers out there ranging from large, fully waterproof touring panniers to weekend shopping-at-the-farmer’s-market basket panniers. Here are some of the considerations I thought about for my purchase:

  • Intended use – Where are you going? How long is your trip? Is your bag going to take a beating? What size of bag do you need? The pannier you take to the office will likely require less space and be easily carried whereas a touring pannier will need to be spacious, sturdy and compartmentalized. Some bags like Arkel’s Bug doubles as a backpack or Ortlieb’s Downtown messenger/briefcase pannier.
  • Waterproofing – Will you need to cycle through rain? Usually, a sturdy rain cover and decent pannier waterproofing will keep most people’s stuff dry. But if you plan on cycling rain or shine in wet climates, it would be good to get a pannier that’s roll-top with a PVC-type material that resembles dry bags used by kayakers and canoeists.
  • Bike frame – Is your bike strong enough handle a large load? Some people put racks on road bikes but they won’t seriously load it up because the frame isn’t designed for the weight. People with small bike frames may find that large panniers will get in way of their heels when pedalling, which makes it dangerous to cycle.
  • Features – Side pockets, laptop sleeve, roll-top closure, internal organizer, shoulder strap, light attachments etc. Features aren’t as important and really depend on your preference.

Any one of the above categories could change your choice of pannier.

The Arkel Signature V Pannier
The Arkel Signature V Pannier.

How I Chose Mine


Here were my considerations:

  • Intended use – Commuting to school, grocery shopping and short trips to the gym, beach etc. The storage capacity I want is between 20-30L.
  • Waterproofing – A must in Singapore where sudden monsoon rains can leave you drenched in minutes.
  • Bike Frame – I have a hybrid Scott Speedster 55. The frame is more like a road bike and is a XXS frame, so the pannier can’t be too big.
  • Features – A pocket for keys and other small items, definitely a laptop sleeve, and a roll-top closure in case of thunderstorms.

What I ended up settling on was Arkel’s Signature V urban laptop pannier. It’s a 28L roll-top pannier that’s waterproof with a laptop sleeve and a small organizer pocket on the inside. It has a shoulder strap and shopping bag type handles when fully open. I did think about getting one that transforms into a messenger bag or backpack but I was sold by the simplicity of a roll-top pannier and my deathly fear of getting things soaked by water made me avoid zippers altogether. It’s double layered (if one layer is punctured, no probs), with the inside being a waterproof zip-out liner and the outside, tough-as-nails Cordura fabric. Another thing I was sold on was Arkel’s Cam-Lock attachment system. As the name describes, when in place, a cam keeps the hooks in place so that the pannier won’t become air-borne over a large bump. The part that attaches to the rack is solid aluminum and it doesn’t use a bungee. Take a look at the following pictures:

DSC_0430
The Cam-Lock attachment system.
DSC_0431
Attached to the rack.
DSC_0429
The Cam-Lock system uses the handle pictured to lock the cams in place.

Before you start suspecting I’m a secret salesperson for Arkel, I’ll have you know I did debate over several panniers before finally deciding. I looked at a lot of panniers from Mountain Equipment Co-op when I went home for the holidays. I also checked out Ortlieb panniers in Singapore because I’ve heard great things about them but they are very expensive here. Another thing I like about Arkel is that their products are Canadian-made from Sherbrooke, Quebec (support local companies!). Their panniers are even signed by its maker! Thanks, Pauline!

Merci, Pauline!
Merci, Pauline!
The organizer pocket inside.
The organizer pocket inside.

In Hindsight … Some Observations You May Find Useful


After using my pannier and new rack for a few days, there are some aspects of cycling with a pannier that only occurred to me after the fact:

  • Balance – I got one pannier, which I attach on the right side of my bike, and felt that the lopsided weight was awkward at first to get used to. When I’m cycling it doesn’t feel off balanced but the pannier is noticeable when pushing my bike and when turning. Just have to take it easy at first. Many people ride with one pannier but if you prefer to be more balanced, consider getting two. I might just do that myself.
  • Speed and manoeuvrability – With the added weight, the bike is not as fast as before and I’m not expecting to squeeze through traffic like I used to. Maybe that’s why bike messengers have shoulder bags?
  • Bulkiness – My pannier has a pretty wide profile which takes getting used to when mounting the bike. I’m the type who swings my leg over the bike while the bike is in motion, so I need to swing further out than normal. I prefer to place my pannier away from traffic (they drive on the left side of the road here in Singapore) because I’ve heard of stories where cyclists get their pannier clipped by a car and go flying. Some people advocate panniers on the traffic side to increase visibility.

The commuting conclusion for myself is this: light load = messenger bag; heavy load = pannier. Anything I’ve missed out? Check out the next post on choosing a bike rack. Cheers! -J

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Jean says:

    Always buy panniers with water repellency. It will rain/snow at some point when one cycles several times per wk.

    Arkel makes wonderful (more expensive) panniers. They are….Canadian made in Montreal. 🙂

    For loaded panniers, make sure you ask bike store if the bike rack will take the heavy load. Some bike racks have been designed specifically to hold very heavy weights….heavy enough to haul 2 panniers of groceries plus a small box strapped onto of bike rack.

    The shape of pannier shouldn’t be too rectangular, so that there is an angled cut to prevent cycling leg kickback on pannier when foot makes pedalling revolution.

    An extra pocket with zipper inside or outside pannier to put in wallet without it lost among bags of stuff inside.

    Like

  2. jatanr says:

    Hi… Nice article. I have a question. I have a Trek 7.1 hybrid bike. Will the Signature V fit, without touching the heel while pedaling? Sorry for the specific question, but I am asking since I have no way to check (Arkel is not available in my country and I am planning to buy it from the US, but I will not have my bike there to try it out). Thanks!

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    1. fandemonium says:

      Hi! I bought their Old Man Mountain Sherpa rack and I needed to shift the pannier to the very end of the rack to avoid my heels. HOWEVER, I am 5’4” and rode an XXS Scott Speedster 55. If you’re taller than me, you should be fine. Also, it depends on how far back your rack is spaced.

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  3. jatanr says:

    Thanks. I am 5’8”, so then it should be OK. Also, I need to buy the rack also. So, maybe I can get the pannier first, and then take it to the local bike store here and get the rack on which it fits without hitting the heel. Thanks a lot for your response 🙂 It helped.

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  4. Alan says:

    Thanks for the helpful review. One question: The Signature V connects to the rack via the 2 camlocks on top — but there’s no third point of connection near the bottom of the bag. When you ride with the bag loaded, say climbing up a hill, and the bike shifts back & forth, side to side, does the bottom of the bag swing a bit out from the frame — and then back into the frame? … Put another way: What keeps the bottom of the bag from swinging away from the rack?

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    1. J says:

      Hi Alan! You’re right – there is no third point of connection so there is essentially nothing that keeps the bag from swinging away from the rack. That being said, I’ve only had the bag move away from the rack when going over large bumps, in which it will swing and land with a clunk. My bag hasn’t been damaged from this action as of yet. However, it could be a deal breaker if that’s important to you.

      Arkel does have a touring pannier that has the third attachment point in the form of a J hook. I’ve got the T-42s and like them wayyyyy more than the Signature V. Used them during my Ontario bike tour this summer for about 1200km without incident. The thing is, I think they come in pairs so you’d have to buy two at once.

      Hope that’s helpful, good luck on your pannier search!

      Cheers!

      Like

      1. Alan Mairson says:

        Thanks much for your reply, J. Funny thing is — I have a pair of T-42s that I use regularly, but given the way my bike is set up, the J hook can be a problem sometimes. So I was thinking about getting something simpler for around town. But if you think the T42 is way better than the Signature, well, my search has ended before it really began! 🙂 … Thanks for your help & for a great review.

        Like

      2. J says:

        Hi Alan – I do think it’s a personal preference thing. In my opinion, the advantages that the Signature V has for around town is that it’s top-loading and comes with handles/shoulder strap for convenient carrying. The computer slot is handy too. But I always carry my computer in a messenger bag.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Alan Mairson says:

    Thanks for your very helpful review. One question: The Signature V connects to the top of the rack via 2 cam locks, but there’s no attachment to the rack on the bottom of the bag. When you ride with a full bag, and, say, climb a hill, and your bike rocks a bit side to side, does the bottom of the bag swing out from the rack — and then back into the rack? … Put another way: What prevents the bottom of the bag from swinging away from the rack?

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