I think the best way to begin this review is to be candid about my bag pathologies.
My name is Narayan, and I’m a bag acquisition addict. I have more backpacks, computer bags, camera bags and cases, messenger bags, and duffel bags than anyone should legally be allowed to amass. Like all those who suffer from this affliction, I justify it by arguing that the perfect bag hasn’t yet been made. For a given situation a bag is either too small, too big, not padded enough, not pocketed enough, too pocketed, not weatherproof enough…you get the idea. Only recently have I started calling this bag acquisition addiction what it in fact is–an addiction. Up to now, I considered myself a bag perfectionist.
In any case, this webpage is dedicated to specific bag perfectionists and bag addicts: aesthetically-minded bag addicts who commute by bicycle to school or work. I hope that all five of you will find this page helpful. If anything, this page will function as a monument to my anal-retentiveness.
I began cycle commuting to school and work seriously in 1998 while I lived in Maine. I lived at the top of a big hill and the commute to both school and work was wonderful: 2-3 miles, all downhill. This of course means that the commute home was an uphill endeavor, and after only a week of riding uphill with a backpack (read: a week of sweaty back, pinched neck, and sore shoulders) I needed a fix felt it would be best to look into stuff-carrying alternatives. I tried someone’s messenger bag for a week but didn’t find it particularly helpful. Rather than have two sore shoulders, I had one shoulder that was twice as sore. Also, the bag I tried had no pockets, didn’t easily or safely accommodate my computer or camera, and, quite frankly, was more ‘hip’ than I could reasonably pull off, especially on days when I was dressed to give presentations. I figured that someone somewhere had to make a bag that:
- was comfortable to carry around, both on and off the bike
- could carry my computer and computer accessories as well as my books and papers
- had pockets or dividers
- was reasonably water resistant, if not waterproof
- didn’t look like a bike or gym bag
- would be versatile enough that I wouldn’t have to transfer the bag’s contents to another bag when I was going somewhere without my bike
Basically, I was looking for a computer-friendly pannier. I found three: the Carradice Bike Bureau, the Jandd commuter pannier, and a pannier and carrying accessory from Ortlieb (Ortlieb’s other commuting offerings were not yet made).
The Jandd commuter pannier didn’t have a mounting system with which I would trust my computer, and I didn’t much care for the gym-bag aesthetic. I shied away from the Ortlieb system because while it was waterproof, large enough to hold my things and comfortable to carry around, it didn’t have pockets, I hated the roll-top thing, and the rubber glove/batman-suit fabric was unappealing. If my commute involved river rapids and a kayak, the Ortlieb would probably fit the bill quite well, but I try to keep underwater expeditions on my bike to a minimum.
The only reservation I had about the Carradice Bike Bureau was that unlike the Ortlieb and Jandd offerings, I couldn’t inspect the Bike Bureau firsthand. They’re made in England and no one even remotely close to where I lived stocked them. While the Carradice website was useful for specifications and a general description, I think everyone–especially a bag addict–knows that specs and descriptions don’t convey some of the small, important details that can make a product either exceptionally fantastic or exceptionally unusable. Furthermore, I couldn’t find any product reviews of the bag, which are generally much more up-front than marketing material about a product’s shortcomings.
After a late-night phone conversation with a very helpful person (a Mr. Chadwick, I believe) at Carradice, a Bike Bureau was on its way across the pond. That bag had some problems after a few months but after a brief email exchange, Mr. Chadwick very graciously sent me another one, free of charge. I have had that bag for a little more than four years.
In those four years that bag has gotten a lot of use. After using it in Maine for a year, I moved to Santa Cruz to attend graduate school. Santa Cruz is a biking mecca–biking weather at least 350 days out of the year, bike lanes on just about every street, a campus that encourages cycling by maintaining a bicycle-only paths and a bike trailer service for those who only want to ride down the mountain, municipal buses and campus shuttles which all sport bike racks, businesses that give discounts to people on bikes…need I go on? Needless to say, my Carradice Bike Bureau has gone pretty much everywhere my bike has gone. As a result, though, it’s gotten pretty beat up. Several spills, tosses, an unfortunate experiment in the laws of momentum, force, and velocity conducted against a car…that the bag is still intact is a testament to its strength. In any case, I recently realized that the bag would need replacing in the near future, and I realized that I wouldn’t replace my Bike Bureau with anything other than another Bike Bureau. Thinking ahead, I thought I would use the experienced garnered in four years of field-testing to draft up a list of ways the bag could be improved and send that list to Carradice.
My suggestions were welcomed and warmly received, though a bit too late. They had just put the finishing touches on a newly designed Bike Bureau and the new bags were just going into production! Luckily, many of the improvements I suggested had already been incorporated into the new design, so after a lengthy email exchange with a very patient Margaret at Carradice, a Bike Bureau was again making its way across the pond.
I’ve had the bag for almost a week now, and I have to say, it’s as close to a perfect commuting bag as I could possibly imagine. I was thinking about how to best review this bag, and I’ve decided that comparing it with the old Bike Bureau would be a suitable strategy. I already thought the old Bike Bureau a great product, and the new Bureau improves on practically every aspect of the old. Pointing out the differences should, I think, aptly communicate the virtues of the new model as well as the things I miss about the old.
First, the new model has been restyled. The photo at the top of this page shows the new Bike Bureau on my bike. As an aesthetic reference, here’s a similar photo of the older Bike Bureau on the same bike:
Here’s the new Bike Bureau again, so you don’t have to scroll:
Here’s a picture of both bags side by side:
The new Bureau is more modern-looking but because of its lack of contrasting colors, actually sports a toned-down appearance. I prefer the new style but there are aspects of the old style I miss. I miss the green and I miss the leather straps. That said, I think the new style makes a lot more visual sense–its elements seem better integrated into a cohesive aesthetic, and as such it probably blends seamlessly into a more modern office environment than does the former. The large chrome buckle against the white leather plate on the original, the lighter-colored velcro strap above the buckle, and the black stitching on the white buckles, while not offensive by any means, appear very busy next to the new one. While I don’t like logos on things I buy, the logos on the new bag are very smartly placed on reflective diamonds, allowing for a safety feature that doesn’t immediately appear obvious as a safety feature. The repetition of the diamond on the sides allow for reflectors where they perhaps matter most without breaking the bag’s visual continuity.
A few more aesthetic comments before moving onto the real substantial issues. Other than the zippers and a few rivets and screws, there’s no metal on the new bag. I don’t quite know what to think of this; I’m sure the silver plastic D-rings for the shoulder strap and the carrying handle are quite strong, and the large silver plastic buckles are standard issue, but I suppose I take issue with the use of metal-colored plastic. The plastic seems like brushed metal from a distance, so realizing its plastic upon closer inspection is a bit of a letdown. This is purely subjective, though, and what’s important here is that as far as I can tell, the quality and strength of the bag don’t suffer at all from the absence of metal. One functional reason for this change, perhaps, is that I found the old bag tended to make a lot of noise as it vibrated on the bike. On bumpy roads and paths, it could sound like I was carrying a large jar of coins. Not so with the new model.
Onto the functional differences. The main carrying handle on the new model is much improved (see side-by-side picture above for reference). The handle isn’t quite as nice as some bags I’ve used in that it’s flat, but the wider profile and the ridged rubber grip are very comfortable even when the bag is heavy. The handle has one odd feature, though, and that’s the wooden dowel to which it’s attached (pictured here). One only notices the wooden dowel upon opening the bag, but the wood is rather out of place. I imagine it’s there to provide the top of the bag with some lateral rigidity, and that it does, but why a wooden dowel was used (as opposed to, for example, a metal or plastic plate) isn’t quite clear.
One serious problem I had with the former model was its carrying capacity. Because of the way the older model was stitched, it didn’t expand very well. This problem was exacerbated when I started using the widescreen Apple Powerbook G4, which is about an inch thick but it’s 13.5” wide. I had to struggle to get the computer (in a neoprene case) into the older bag, and after I did, the sides of the bag were stretched to their limit, making inserting books and so forth very difficult. When I inquired about the new model I was told that the dimensions were the same as the older model but that the new one would accommodate quite a a bit more.
That’s an understatement. In the old bag, I could fit my computer in its case, my small thermos, and two average sized books in the main compartment. Being a student in Literature, I often come back from the library and take to classes many more than two average sized books. Add to that the thick stacks of papers from courses I teach, photocopied articles, a jacket or sweater, and night-riding equipment such as lights, and more often than not I was taking both the Bike Bureau and a Jandd duffel rack pack on my bike. Carrying the two around was cumbersome to say the least.
The new bag can easily accommodate all of those items. All of them, and maybe even a few more books. The computer goes in with ease (with plenty of room to spare, even on the sides). I’ll take Carradice on its word when they say these bags have identical dimensions, but to me the new bag uses its space so much better that the new one seems easily twice as large.
Also made larger is the bag’s flap. This flap serves three functions. First, it’s a pocket, presumably for wet cycling clothes. Secondly, when mounted on the bike it covers the top of the bag kind of like a rain cover (the cotton duck is on the outward-facing side when the flap is in this position). The addition of the reflective strip on the outward-facing side was very smart, and the velcro which holds the flap in this position is placed much better. Thirdly, it covers the rack-mounting material on the back of the bag when the bag is being carried off-bike. This is the flap’s most important feature, I think, and the new flap protects your legs and hips much more effectively than does the old flap. Also, it’s large enough to store a small towel and my cycling jacket which leaves even more room in the main compartment. Some kind of bellows would be nice on this flap, though. When carrying items in the pocket, rather than expanding its thickness, the pocket shrinks vertically, which makes the back of the bag feel quite strange when carrying it. Even so, it’s a much better improvement over the old Bureau’s flap.
The new Bike Bureau has a much better system for protecting the bottom and back of the bag from wear and road dirt. The old bag had a small piece of plastic sheeting on one side of the back. This piece of plastic has curled over the years, creating a rather sharp, protuding edge that would rub against me while carrying the bag and catch on things like clothing, papers and desks while moving the bag around.
The new Bureau has a sheet roughly four times as large which extends all the way across the width of the bag along the bottom, wrapping about a third of the way up the back. This design will keep the bottom and back of the bag safe from water and road grime and should prove less susceptible to the curling the old plastic exhibited. Time will tell.
The plastic feet are attached to this sheet on the new bag, and there are six feet instead of the four found on the old one. Unlike the old Bureau, this one stands upright when set on the ground. The older bureau, though, had leather flaps to which the feet were attached (see above picture of the bags’ sides). These flaps wrapped around the sides of the bag and because of the way they were riveted, they provided a convenient mounting point for a clip-on rear light. I like having a light on the outermost part of my bike so that cars approaching me from behind know how wide my bike is. Also, because I often had the Jandd duffel bag strapped to my rear rack, a seatpost-mounted rear light was often obscured. The new bag doesn’t have a place to mount a light. It has the reflective diamond, though, and I anticipate not having to carry the duffel, so I can mount a light on my seatpost. Still, I think I’ll have to stitch a small strip of black canvas to the rearward-facing side of the bag for mounting a second light.
One problem I had with the old bag were the interior pockets. These two pockets were located on the front side of the interior divider on the old bag, and they’re located on the back side of the same divider on the new bag. The location of these pockets isn’t nearly as important, though, as their dimensions, which are awkward on both models. They’re very deep (they run the height of the bag), and they’re only three or so inches across. As such, they don’t quite work as pockets…any pens placed in them inevitably fall to the bottom, and the pockets are far too narrow to easily use a hand to pull something out of them. I’ve had to turn my old bag upside down to get things out of these pockets before! Perhaps in England they use 10” long pens? To be fair, the newer pockets aren’t as deep (i.e., tall), so pens don’t fall as far, but the pockets are just as frustrating. There’s no way I could use one of these pockets for my cellphone because my phone is small enough that it would get irretrievably lost. In short, I think these pockets could be made much wider and more useable, and I avoid using them if I can.
The exterior pockets (calling exterior is a bit of a misnomer, since they’re hidden under the bag’s lid) are a tad wider, though, and that’s good. There are two pockets…one zippered, and one unzippered, stacked on top of each other. It’d be nice to see pen-holders in the unzippered pocket so that one wouldn’t have to open the bag completely to write something down (pens get lost in these pockets too), but I think I’ll just stitch those myself. I do wish that the new Bureau had at least one side pocket, something big enough for a water bottle or even just a cell phone, but ultimately it’s not that big a deal, especially since the bag is capable of carrying so much now.
The mounting system is the same on both the old and new Bureaus, and anyone owning Carradice panniers is probably familiar with the Klick-fix:
Once installed (for an image of the installed system, see the photo of the Bureaus’ backs), the Klick-fix proves a very quick way to mount the bags onto your rack, and for the most part it’s pretty well thought-out. For example, the hooks come with shims (the blue u-shaped pieces) for racks whose metal pieces don’t have quite the diameter that my Tubus rack has, and the flexible positioning of both the hooks and the anti-sway catch should make the bag mountable on just about every bike. There are some oddities about this system, though, and the most problematic is their profile. They stick out from the back of the bag quite a bit, and while they’re almost always covered by the storm flap when the bag is being carried, they do create a bump which can get uncomfortable when shouldering the bag. Thankfully, Carradice has thankfully provided little endcaps (at the bottom of the above photo) for the metal rail (my previous bag didn’t have these caps)…the corners of the ridge which creates the channel for the hooks is quite sharp, and I once put a pretty large and bloody gash in my calf as I was picking the old bag up. It made for quite a dramatic entrance to class, though–I didn’t realize my leg was bleeding so profusely until I walked into the classroom and one of my students screamed “oh my god what happened to your leg?!” Still, “psychological shock-factor” is probably not a good feature for a pannier. The new endcaps should prevent that from happening again. A better mounting system, I think, would be to have the hooks permanently mounted on the rack and some kind of vertical clips attached to the bag. The clips would then slip vertically into the hooks. This would reduce the profile of the mounting system on the bag but would still allow for easy placement and removal of the bag from the rack. I design neither bags nor pannier mounting systems, though, so I’m kind of talking out of my arse, but not without a semblance of commonsense, I think.
There’s one aspect of the mounting system which I don’t like at all. The rail on which the hooks are attached is at an angle, presumably so that the bag is out of the way of the back of your leg as you’re pedaling. This is a good idea but it makes the bag practical on only one side of the bike. For people in the U.S., that side is the side closest to traffic. I’d much rather have the Bureau on the right side of the bike, especially I’m almost always carrying my computer. Granted, the bag doesn’t extend that much farther when mounted than, say, my leg, but even a couple of inches can make a difference on busy streets. That said, I understand that Carradice has probably sold only a handful of these bags in the U.S., so making a they-drive-on-the-right-side-of-the-road version of this pannier is probably not in their best interests. And to be fair, I’ve never had a problem with the bag mounted towards traffic, and an argument could easily be made that mounting the bag on that side has actually prevented me from banging the bag against things like parked cars or lightposts or parking meters and such. Nonetheless, I think this issue is something that people in the U.S. should consider seriously when thinking about purchasing this bag.
update: Carradice has decided, supposedly based upon this review, to distribute left-and-right sided bags to the U.S.! Go Carradice! (and too bad I purchased mine already.)
One last thing. Both Bike Bureaus come with a shoulder strap. It’s a standard strap…roughly 2-inch wide nylon webbing with a sliding rubber grip. It’s of better construction than most straps, but oddly the hardware on the strap is chromed metal, so it makes the metal-looking plastic look even more like plastic. An oversight, I’m sure. In any case, I think these straps (all of this kind, not just the one Carradice provides) are crap. There’s no padding! I use a strap I got from a Patagonia outlet store several years ago (the left strap in the photo), and this strap has much better ergonomics. It’s very wide, so the weight of the bag is distributed over a larger area. It’s also curved so it sits on my shoulder better, though the curve makes it a little more difficult to carry the bag straight (i.e., to have the strap not cross diagonally across my chest). Anyway, such “Gucci” options are readily available on aftermarket straps, which are easily attainable through most outdoor stores.
So there you have it. All of it. Despite my little issues with the new Bike Bureau, I’m happy to say it’s pretty much the most perfect bag I’ve ever owned. For me, it’s the ideal commuting bag, and I think it would make a pretty great bag even if you never install the mounting system. I can’t imagine having to use my other bags for anything in-town anymore…in fact I may sell a few of them off. My old Bike Bureau is by no means down and out…it’s probably got a good two or three years in it before it becomes unusable (more for someone who doesn’t abuse their bags as much as I do), but the new bag fulfills my needs much, much better. Given the improvements in the stitching and the better use of the plastic flap on the new Bureau, it’ll probably last me much longer than five years. That’s bittersweet, though, because I know that in five years I’m going to be ‘jonesing’ for another bag fix.
For people in the U.S., the total cost for the bag was $102.88 USD including shipping. Considering that the shipping was roughly $28, the bag is extremely well-priced for either a pannier or a briefcase. I don’t know if any stores in the states will stock this bag, but many should. In the meantime, if you’re interested, you can order a new Bike Bureau using the Carradice website at http://www.carradice.co.uk. Tell them resonance from etherfarm sent you. They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about.