Review of the Thule Commuter Pannier and Blackburn Central Rack

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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.

The tubular aluminum seat stay attachment is sturdy and was easy to install.

The tubular aluminum seat stay attachment is sturdy and was easy to install.

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.

The dropout attachment system provides flexibility, but looks a little clunky.

The dropout attachment system provides flexibility, but looks a little clunky.

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.

The clips to attach to the rack flip back into the bag, making it easy to carry

The clips to attach to the rack flip back into the bag, making it easy to carry

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.

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Building a Commuter Bike: Making Fenders Fit

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When picking out parts for my new commuter bike, I went with mini-V brakes so I could use a Sparse light and be compatible with road levers.  After carefully measuring the clearance on the Cross Check fork, I thought I would barely be able to fit them in there.  Turns out barely was right:

Front brake clearance Rear brake clearance

As you can see, the brake wire rides just above the fender.  I actually had more trouble fitting things in the rear, which I didn’t think to measure ahead of time.  The rubber boot over the end of the brake noodle actually rubs the top of the fender, but in practice this doesn’t seem to cause any trouble.  In retrospect I could have gone with cantis in the rear where clearance was tighter.  For now it’s working fine.

Building a Commuter Bike: Parts Selection

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With the frame decided on, I needed to make a few more key choices for parts to build up my new commuting bike. I knew that I was going to start out single speed and with a flat bar, but I wanted the option to switch to gears and a drop bar later on. I had also come across a couple things I definitely wanted to include, and they would further dictate my component choices.

While it may seem silly, the two things I knew I definitely wanted to have were a Sparse headlight and PDW full metal fenders.

The fenders were a more practical consideration.  I’d used Velo Orange fenders on my Raleigh and while they were an asthetically good match, the installation wasn’t straightforward (partly because the frame wasn’t really built for fenders) and they always seem to have a bit of a rattle.  I’d read a good review on the Blayleys blog and the appearance fit what I was going for.  The city version are 45mm wide and PDW says they work with 28-38mm tires.

The Sparse light I first saw on the Firefly Adventure Team bikes, and wanted it just because it seemed cool.  No other reason.  I could say because it was theft-deterrent, but I just like the way it looks.  Now the problem is that you can’t use the Sparse with center-pull or cantilever brakes, because it sits right where the cable should run.  I already had the Cross Check, so I’d committed to cantis.  V-brakes would be an option, but I wanted to keep

Extensive searching lead me to the mini-V brake.  They are linear pull brakes just like regular Vs, but with shortened arms so they work with road levers.  This chart at Gravelbike.com lists all the available models with arm lengths.  The Paul Mini-motos definitely had bling going for them, but I ultimately decided on TRP CX8.4, again mostly because I felt like they were a good asthetic match.  These would run the cable off to the side allowing for my Sparse light and would work with drop bar levers in the future.  In the meantime, I got a set of SRAM 700 flat bar levers that were designed for road-style short pull brakes.

I wanted to start single speed, but eventually add a cassette, so after finding an old-but-unused SRAM Rival compact crankset on craigslist, I picked up a Wolf Tooth drop-stop chainring.  This would work single speed, but would allow me to convert to 1×10 in the future if I wanted to.  I made a similar decision about the wheelset, picking something with a freehub body so I could use a single cog now and switch to a cassette in the future.

In the end, this is what I ended up with:

  • Frame: Surly Cross Check
  • Wheelset: H+Son TB14 with 105 5700 hubs (10-speed cassette
  • Brakes: TRP CX 8.4
  • Crankset/BB: SRAM Rival with GXP bottom bracket (craigslist find)
  • Chainring: Wolf Tooth 42t
  • Cog: Surly 17t and Surly spacers
  • Chain: Slightly used ultegra I had sitting around
  • Brake levers: SRAM 700 flat bar levers
  • Bar: Ritchey comp (craigslist)
  • Stem: Ritchey comp (to match the bar)
  • Seatpost: Richey WCS (again to match, they don’t make a comp in 0 offset, which I need for my relatively short legs)
  • Saddle: Fizik Antares (craigslist)
  • Fenders: PDW Full Metal, city version
  • Headlight: Sparse
  • Taillights: Fizik on the saddle + PDW Radbot for the seatpost and eventually on the rack

With all this together, I can put together a bike.

Building a Commuter Bike: Choosing a Frame

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Surly Head BadgeWhile I love my Raleigh, I wanted to get something a bit sturdier for year-round commuting.  I wanted a frame that could take fenders and racks obviously, but I was also looking for something that could change as my needs do.  For now, I have a short commute, only 2-3 miles each way depending on which location I’m working that day.  But given how much driving in Boston infuriates me, I also wanted the ability to go a bit further.

Being able to run single speed was important, as I thought this would be an easy way to get started and would allow for something lower-maintenance, especially during the winter.  I wanted the options of gears however, in case my commute gets further/hillier, or if I decide to use this bike for more than just the daily back and forth.

The other big choice was braking system – caliper vs. cantilever vs. disc.  My thinking was that disc was probably the best option, but also carried with it a higher cost, both for the braking system and for the wheels. For that reason, I was willing to consider cantis as well.  Calipers were last on my list, as they would likely limit

Finally, I needed something affordable.  I wanted this to be a solid bike, but it couldn’t break the bank.  For this reason I was looking mostly at made-in-Taiwan steel frames from a number of US companies.  I ultimately considered the following bikes:

  1. Soma Doublecross/Doublecross Disc: A steel frame that would take the racks, fenders, and wide tires that were my basic requirements.  Color options are nice and plain (grey and black), which is what I was looking for.  Comes with standard vertical dropouts
  2. Velo Orange Polyvalent: All the rack/fender attachments, canti brakes, semi-horizontal dropouts to allow for single speed setup.   But, it has a 1″ threaded fork.  While the classic appearance works with this frame, I felt like it would be limiting in terms of options for bars, as most are made for “oversized” 31.8mm threadless stems these days
  3. Soma Wolverine: This was released just as I was looking for frames.  Seemed like a perfect option – built for discs, has slider dropouts to allow for single speed, and even a split chainstay to allow for a carbon belt drive.  Seemed ideal, but was the most expensive option, and wasn’t yet available for purchase at the time I was looking
  4. Surly Cross Check: The tried-and-true option.  People seem to love this, or feel like it’s completely overhyped.  It checked all the boxes for me in terms of mounting options, tire clearance and horizontal drop outs.  Cantis instead of discs, though.  I also thought about the disc-brake Straggler, but that came at a higher cost and I wasn’t thrilled with the purple “Sparkle Pony” paint job.

Ultimately, as the image above suggests, I went with the Cross Check as I was able to get the prior year “Dark Dusky Blue” frameset at a bit of a discount, and that along with canti instead of disc brakes would make things easier on the budget.

My Bikes: Raleigh Super Course

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Raleigh BrakesShortly after getting back on the road bike, I decided I’d like to try commuting again.  After a few weeks scouring Craigslist, I found an early 70s Raleigh Supercourse only a few miles away.  Some quick googling lead me to Sheldon Brown’s page on the model, and it appeared that this would make a decent frame for my new commuter bike.  A quick trip to the ATM and $120 later and it was mine.

After stripping and cleaning everything, it was clear that it hadn’t seen much use, but also not much care over the years.  There was some surface rust, but overall the frame and wheels cleaned up well.  It had the original The rear derailleur was completely seized, the original drop bars had been replaced with heavy steel cruiser bars and the tires were completely rotted.  It has semi-horizontal drop outs, so I figured I’d solve the derailleur problem by making it a single-speed.

I headed out to Harris Cyclery to pick up the missing parts.  Set it up with some Nitto drop bars, new brake cable housing, new 27″ Panaracer Pasela tires and a 17t freewheel to go with the existing 42t chainring.

Raleigh seat post
Over time I’ve replaced the saddle with a Brooks and added some Velo Orange fenders for wet weather riding.  It was my regular commuter for the Fall of 2013, but that winter I went back to the car.  Summertime got me back on the bike again, but it was starting to show it’s age.  I started popping spokes and the braking on the non-machined rims was less than perfect, especially in the rain.  While all fixable problems, I was starting to plan year round commuting for the next year, and thinking about a new bike that would be a bit more reliable.