Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Product Review : Avenir Rain City Panniers

Bike commuting is de rigueur in my native Portland, and a growing force in Seattle. I've been a dedicated cycle commuter for the past few years, but my commute has now stretched to a 35-mile round trip, and I do a fair bit of grocery shopping on the bike to boot. My Chrome messenger bag is great, but when on the half hour’s ride from downtown to my folks' place in suburbia, the weight on my back became uncomfortable and I'd end the ride with a stiff neck and a headache.

The obvious solution, then, is to move the weight off of my body and onto the bike. Racks make your bike look unhip, I suppose, if you are a big hipster, but they are awesome. Your bike can fit one, even if it hasn’t got eyelets, ask your bike shop!

Onto that rack goes panniers, and whether you pronounce them with our without the English "R," most look a lot like a basic daypack or briefcase that connects to your bike.

In the Pacific Northwest, this is not going to cut it. You need more than “water resistant,” and you’ll need something better than the pull-out rain fly that some so-called waterproof panniers deploy.

Enter the dry bag. Starting in water sports like kayaking, these keep contents dry by a disarmingly simple principle: take essentially a sack made out of a totally waterproof, treated material like rubberized nylon or polyester tarp material, and close it by rolling down the top. Think a lunch sack. Use a simple buckle closure to keep this rolled top closed, and as long as the opening is rolled under at least twice, there’s no way water is getting in.

So long as your bike isn’t meant to go all Doctor Claw and turn into a submarine, you’re set. In downpours and drizzles, not a thing I carried got wet, so they're true to the name.

Yours Truly owns a pair of Vaude panniers, which work quite well but are among other things unavailable in the United States. The best known name in the US market for bags like this is Ortlieb’s Back Rollers, and the Avenir Rain Cities make a solid alternative that should slot in below Ortlieb’s price point.

Ortlieb and Vaude both equip their panniers with bells-and-whistles mounting systems that are quite secure but fiddly: hex wrenches and occasionally frustration are required to mount them to your bike, and I cannot switch them quickly from one of my bikes to another.

Another nice thing about the Rain City bags is that they make for excellent grocery shopping. Their waterproof nylon is surprisingly lightweight, and they are “soft” on all sides, so when you attach the shoulder strap to carry them into the store, they are comfortable and easy to carry. The Vaude panniers have a heavy, hard plastic backing which makes them super secure with heavy loads on the bike. This makes them also cumbersome and unwieldy to handle off of the bike.

The Rain City mounts with a fairly universal pair of hooks and a spring-loaded clamp, and locates to the bottom of the rack with a bungee cord and hook. It’s simple, but it works. I’m not sure if I’d need to pack a spare part if I were going on a longer tour, but this mounting system allows me to swap rapidly between a variety of rack dimensions. I tried to load a very heavy load of cans in the Rain City, and it stayed more stable than I expected, but still deformed and bumped more than the heavier Vaude panniers. This was while carrying in excess of twenty per side, though.

Fit and finish is good – they have a reflective strip on the rear, and reflective tabs that you can mount a light to for additional visibility. The plastic buckle seems durable and well made, though there is only the single securing strap as opposed to the three of Ortlieb and Vaude. Velcro strips inside and tabs outside to keep the opening well sealed are probably unnecessary and occasionally interfere with putting “Velcro-sensitive” cycling wear in the bags.

In conclusion, if you’re a dedicated cycling commuter and grocery getter in potentially nasty weather, these are a good bet. Ease of access, lighter weight, and better all around portability make these a preferred choice for daily use, and they are not prohibitively expensive. I used the smaller 910 cubic-inch version – also available in the Rain City line are 1171cu in large panniers, 560 cu in handlebar bags, and an undersat wedge. Available anywhere Avenir products are sold in early 2009.


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