When I started commuting by bike again, I went back to my former tried-and-true Timbuk2 messenger bag. Which gave me a sweaty back. I wanted to be able to carry more and not have to change my clothes after getting to work, so I started looking into racks and panniers.
The gold standard here seems to be Tubus and Ortlieb. Tubus racks are made of steel, with tubular steel arms that connect to the seat stays instead of the sheet aluminum on cheaper racks. I’m sure if I were riding across a continent, this is what I’d want. I’m only riding across town though, and Tubus is expensive. Ortlieb similarly seems to be the choice for a long tour when you need things to be waterproof, but their basic line of panniers is lacking in organization for an everyday work bag, and they also don’t come cheap.
I looked at the Racktime line of more affordable racks from ortlieb, and while they seem sturdier than your run of the mill rack, the main feature seems to be their unique connection system for Racktime bags. None of the bags seemed to be what I was looking for, and so it didn’t seem to make sense to get a proprietary connection system I’d never use.
While doing this research, I got a package in the mail from Blackburn. I few weeks back I had discovered that the Flea headlight I had bought years ago had stopped holding a charge. I emailed them about it, but never heard back. Now, no questions asked, was a package with a brand new headlight. It turns out Blackburn has a lifetime warrany on all their products and they really do honor it.
That sold me on trying a rack from Blackburn, the Central Rear Rack. Blackburn had recently reorganized their products around three lines: Local, Central, and Outpost in that order of increasing cost and presumably sturdiness. The Central rack falls in the middle, and is made of tubular aluminum and rated for 35lbs carrying capacity. I liked that it had the tubular seat stay attachments (like the Ortlieb and racktime), and didn’t have anything extra or proprietary about it. It is designed to fit any size wheel from 26″ to 29″ with fat mountain bike tires and to accomodate frames with disc brakes. As a result, the connector to the rear dropout ends up looking a bit bulky as this is where the height adjustment comes in. Having said that, installation was easy with just a set of allen keys and the only time consuming step was shortening the seat stay attachments. This would likely be easy enough with a hack saw, but I had a pipe cutter that took care of it in no time. Once installed, it’s solid, doesn’t rattle, and holds everything without complaint. I don’t notice it, and my stuff doesn’t fall off. That’s pretty much all I need from a rack.
When it came time to choose a bag, I checked out seemingly every bike shop in Boston looking for something right. I wanted a bag with at least a little more organization than just a big waterproof sack, and something that would be easy to throw over my shoulder and carry into work. The Ortlieb commuter bags seemed like more than I wanted, and the Blackburn panniers were either too overbuild (the Barrier line), or not enough (the Local line). I looked into getting a convertible pannier/backpack from North St, but at $270 it was more than I was prepared to spend. Finally, at the Giant Cycle World in Boston, I found the Thule Pack n’ Pedal Commuter Pannier.
The Thule pannier has a unique mounting system that can flip into the bag giving it a smooth back so you can carry it like a backpack. The bottom of the pannier is anchored to the rack by This adds some weight and takes up some space inside the bag, making it hard to carry large items. The latch definitely makes it easy to throw it on my back and head into work or walk around the grocery store. There is a single waterproof main compartment that is plenty of space for carrying a laptop, extra work clothes, or a few groceries. There is a mesh pocket on the inside to hold a laptop against the back. There isn’t any padding for a laptop, but I put my iPad in there without any extra protection and don’t worry about it at all. There is an open pocket on the front of the bag to stash a lock as well as translucent pockets on the front and rear that hold lights, although I have to say I don’t use these much.
On the bike, the combo of the top latch and bottom magnet holds the bag securely. When hitting an especially large pothole it will sometimes bounce off the magnet, but then it grabs right on again. To remove the bag, you just pull up on the blue tab to release the hooks from the top rail of the rack, then flip the latches back into the bag. I keep the shoulder strap attached to the top of the bag and tucked into the front pocket so I just have to clip it on the bottom of the bag once it’s off the bike and throw it over my shoulder.
I’ve commuted in heavy rain with the top rolled tight and haven’t had any issues. It’s kind of cumbersome to have to unroll it every time I want into the bag, but I think the waterproofness is worth it. Overall, I’ve been very happy with this combo and would definitely recommended it.