Pannier bags that hang from the bike rack free your body of the weight, and lower the center of gravity improving bike control. You do however require a bike rack and this may not suit your choice of bike or your needs. The backpack is a common option amongst commuters to carry a change of clothes, laptops or gym wear. A lot of the backpacks you see on the back of commuters are not intended for cycling and will work up a sweat on your back.
The Ortlieb Vario really is for cyclists, it is a versatile daypack built with attention to detail and if you do like panniers the day pack will transform in about 30 seconds.
The Vario in action
The name sums up this backpack well; Vario meaning Variable. If you’re after a light day pack for commuting or day trips on the bike, the Vario may be just the bag you have been looking for.
I have taken the Vario through its paces as a backpack for commuting and everyday urban cycling. My daily commute involves transporting my laptop, shoes and an extra jumper or jacket. With 20 litre’s of space, the capacity is limited, however, the size also makes it perfectly suited for light and compact items. For transporting a laptop – Ortlieb have a fantastic soft case accessory. This fitted my 15" Mac laptop perfectly and has a pouch for the power cable.
I did try take the Vario to its limits, during one shopping trip I topped the pack to capacity with milk and juice, it was obviously heavy, though performed flawlessly.
The bag has a roll closure and is closed by taking the font and back sections, rolling them together, and fixing with a velcro tab. The means it is flexible enough to contain a compact or bulky load, and keep the load dry.
I hung the Vario outside during a heavy four hour downpour, the wind made sure that there was rain from all sides. It was a pleasant surprise that the contents remained perfectly dry. Unlike some fabrics that start to seep after a while when they are soaked, the Nylon tear and abrasion resistant fabric stood up to the elements admirably.
The version I tested was lime and black version which drew in positive comments from friends. Looking closely you will see that the designers have put in a lot of attention to detail; it is stylish, functional and is very well made. You can tell that Ortlieb have created the Vario by tapping into years of experience.
Like most backpacks, the straps can be easily tightened and loosened on the fly to fit. The comfort while riding (and walking) is excellent. I didn’t experience any chaffing or discomfort from the shoulder straps and used the chest strap when carrying a heavier or bulkier load. Most of the comfort can be attributed to the padded back, the shoulder straps and padding kept the contents of the pack away from my back (so no unusual shapes or objects protruding) and also allowed for good air flow, so much less sweating compared with a conventional backpack.
Inside the pack is a pouch with zipper to secure small items and outside on both sides there are neoprene pouches which are quite handy to store small items like keys or a map.
Backpack to Pannier conversion
On the front of the backpack there is a zipper, it doesn’t provide access to the inside rather is the smart solution to store the ‘Padded Carrying System’ (shoulder straps and padding) when converting to a pannier. The Padded Carry System is removed in seconds, can be folded and then stored inside this cavity. After a little practice to get the right folding and packing technique to nicely stow away the ‘carrying system’, it becomes a routine and quick transition.
To actually mount and fix the pannier there is the intelligent "Quick-Lock2" mounting system. A that you have to do is lift the bag using the top handle and let it down on the rack for a secure and tight lock. When lifting up on the top handle, "Quick-Lock2" mechanism opens and the bag can be easily lifted off. Simple.
This Quick-Lock2 is a feature of many Orlieb products and as you would expect, can also be easily adjusted to get the right spacing of the Quicklock clasps to suit your rack plus ‘spacers’ are provided to suit the most common rack tube diametres.
In every day use, I was often quickly setting the backpack down onto the rack, without removing the ‘Padded Carrier System’ when I had to lock up the bike for a short moment, to pop into a shop.
In addition to the removable "padded carrying system", a helmet net is provided which allows the bicycle helmet to be be fastened o the font of the back. I found this very fiddley and it was easier just to hang the helmet from the handlebars on the bicycle.
Room for improvement
It is hard to find fault with this backpack because it just wants to be loved. There is however room for improvement, the first criticism is that the pack doesn’t easily stand alone. It tends to have to lie down or lean against a wall unless there is something inside to give it enough stability to stand.
The second criticism is that if you are regularly transporting a laptop (with or without the soft carry case), the laptop doesn’t sit perfectly in the pack alone. Without a jacket or shoes or something to fill the extra space, the laptop tends to lean at an angle inside the pack. While this rarely bothered me while riding, it would be better if the back could be compressed (with side straps for example) to better hold a laptop or smaller items that may otherwise move around.
The Vario gets top notes – whereas I was using it mainly for commuting, it will also perform well as a compact style day pack and coverts wonderfully as a pannier bag. The Vario is a top quality product that offers a comfortable, convenient and flexible backpack/luggage solution for a day trip, commuting or every day riding.
The Vario retails for RRP $225. Ortlieb products are distributed in Australia Allegro Bikes and can be found at bike shops across the country.