The best thing about cycle touring is opening the front door when I return home at the end of the trip. It is familiar territory and everything has its place so it is like a reward following a great journey. You can tell that when I am travelling by bike, I still want some comfort and organisation. Swap the rough and dirty with a nice place stay overnight to keep me happy. Leave the tins of baked beans and safety matches at home… but if it rains, I am not turning back.
This year I embarked on a new travel experience with the bike and bahn, as in the Deutsche Bahn (trains) in Germany. My work trip to Eurobike involved travelling across Germany by train and doing all the short trips by bike. Usually I take a plane or car and this time was really looking forward to travelling door to door with the bike. I knew it would let me avoid the dreaded congestion and allow me to simply enjoy the ride.
For this type of trip, the only way to be all-inclusive is with big pannier bags. If I was doing a crazy long-distance ride against time then I would opt instead for a bike-packing setup. Bike packing is ultra-cool and very much about a minimalist, aerodynamic setup. My distances are shorter and my demands for comfort are high so the best bike for the job is my daily commuter which has pannier racks on the back and let’s me tackle gravel paths and trails at a whim.
In Germany, if you want to buy bike bags, the two main brands are Deuter and Ortlieb. Deuter are reliable but don’t have the same edge as Ortlieb who have established themselves with practical designs that have a tendency to be simultaneously classic and contemporary. I have always liked Ortlieb gear and for years rely on the Ortlieb Vario Urban which is a backpack that can also fit onto a pannier rack. I only every use it as a backpack because it is extremely comfortable and because I don’t like the thought of hanging my laptop from the side of the bike. Therefore, the Vario backpack is already booked in to house my laptop and DSLR on the trip while new panniers will do the rest.
The Ortlieb Back-Roller is a popular model available in a myriad of variations; 9 models with different sizes, material and features. The Back-Rollers are waterproof pannier bags which close securely by rolling the of the bag closed and then fastening it so that it doesn’t unravel. There is no ‘zip lock’ to actually seal it, but the mechanism works fantastically and the contents will stay dry when it pours with rain. Ortlieb also offer fully sealed bags which I haven’t tried – these would be of interest if you are crossing rivers and the bags are submerged.
To mount the back-rollers on the bike it has a brilliant ‘quick lock’ fastening system which allows you to simply set it into place on panner rack. It automatically locks into place and you are ready to ride. The same beautiful convenience lets you also ‘unmount’ the pannier bag simply by lifting the bag off – it releases immediately and you are on your way.
I opted for the large 40 L Back-Roller Black’n White, the price and the size were right. The Black’n White model is available in a dominant black or dominant white version, both feature a big Ortlieb logo splashed across the front. The panniers a cost 129 Euro (AUD200) for a pair directly from Ortlieb, I got them slightly cheaper as there was a special with better pricing for the panniers with the big ortlieb logos. In Australian bike shops, the retail price for this model ranges between $190 to $225. At the time of writing, this particular model has suddenly been labeled on the German site as ‘discontinued/sold out’ though was still available in Australia.
An important trend for the Ortlieb company is sustainability which stretches from their brand philosophy and into all facets including manufacture and recycling. Traditionally PVC has been used in Ortlieb bags, it lends the bags a lot of positive traits such as durability and waterproofing but the recycling is problematic because PVC can release pasticisers into ground water or toxic dioxins when burnt. Across the entire Ortlieb range, the materials are being shifted to materials which can be recycled or are degradable. The Back-Roller Black’n White is completely PVC free and utilises polyurethane coated canvas.
Setting up the Pannier bags
Out of the box, the Back-Rollers are straight forward to setup, I only referred to the instructions to setup the shoulder strap properly. The shoulder strap functions both as a shoulder carry strap and as part of the bags fastening – it secures the ‘flaps’ to ensure that the panniers remain closed and protected from water. For casual trips about town you can leave the straps off and just use the hand-carry strap.
I was impressed by how fast I was able to get both the bags properly setup on the racks. Each pannier has the QL2.1 (Quick Lock) system and by hand you can simply adjust the position of the rack mounts. The aim to set up the mounting clips so that the bag can’t slide about. You also want to ensure that the bags are far enough back so you don’t hit them with your foot while pedalling. On the rear of each bag (neat the bottom) is an adjustable mounting ‘latch’ which helps to keep the bags into place and prevents them from swinging. The end result is a stable and reliable mount and in my case it was setup, adjusted and completed in less than 90 seconds.
The QL2.1 mounting system will suit racks with tubes up to 16mm in diameter. Small inserts for the clips give you an exact fit for racks with 8, 10 and 12mm diameter tubing.
For every day use there no complicated steps to follow, you just set the bags down into place on the rack and Quick Lock does the rest, or pull the bag up and it releases. This ease-of-use meant I immediately put the bags into action and you could see me cycling about town transporting power-tools or piles of books which were securely stowed inside the back-rollers.
Travelling with Panniers
The big trip by train and bike was looming and after years of experience, whittling the luggage down to the necessities was routine. The bags were comfortably full with clothes, shoes and toiletries and the extra weight noticeable. If you have a big stand and heavier pannier bags there will be a limit to how much weight can be supported. I don’t use a bike stand though it means taking care when leaning the bike to making sure it won’t topple.
The trickiest part of travelling was lifting the bikes with loaded panniers onto and off the trains. I could have taken the panniers off but when a lot of other passengers are also trying to get on or off, it is simpler to leave the bags and do it in one swoop. The train trip from Frankfurt to the bottom of Germany requires three different trains so there was some lifting and shuffling involved. Inside the train I simply parked the bike in the reserved spot and took all my bags with me to my seat.
A real plus point of these bag is that they can generally stand upright on their own and don’t topple quite as easily as other panniers. As the bags come as a pair, it is also easy to lean them against one another.
Bike Handling with Panniers
If you haven’t used panniers before, the first thing you will notice that the broad surfaces of the Ortlieb Back-Rollers catch the wind. As the panniers have a low center of gravity when loaded, this is usually not a big concern. In high-wind locations, the bags will create enough drag to affect stability and bike handling.
I like to ride swiftly so the drag is very noticeable. If I really wanted to be aerodynamic then bike-packing would make more sense so I have to keep reminding myself that bike touring is not a race. When the weight is distributed across the two panniers the bike remains easy to control but it is ‘back heavy’ so is best to take bit more care when turning or braking on wet or loose surfaces.
Let it rain
I was able to start my journey with balmy, sunny weather. Halfway through the second day, dark clouds crawled across the skies of southern Germany and torrential rain set in. Despite wearing a fully waterproof jacket and waterproof pants I was soaked to the bone, but the spare cloths and supplies in the Back-Rollers were bone dry.
The rain continued and for each 15km trip from my accommodation to Eurobike and then back again, it was only the intensity of the miserable weather that changed. With the Ortlieb panniers I always had a change of dry clothes and my verdict after putting them through days of pretty awful weather is that I completely trust them to keep my gear secure and dry. Over the days, dirt and grim collected on the bags but with the dark colour and design, it was perfectly in-place.
Just one thing…
The only issue I experienced was when hand-grip would get tangled inside the quick-lock and jam. The first time it happen I dismissed it but when it happened again, and I had to try and pry open the quick-lock, it made me wonder if this is something can can be improved somehow in the design or construction. As a minor issue, this barely affects the overall functionality.
But there are a few details that I could easily overlook as I have used a few Ortlieb products and just expect them to work well. For example the reflective patches on the bags make sense, the comfortable hand-grips feel great when I have to lug the heavy bags about and the re-enforced base that makes it more durable and stable. All of the plastic clips and buckle are ‘quality’ parts and all of the details contribute to form an overall package that last.
Ortlieb panniers are not the cheapest panniers on the market but they have a design that works and deliver superb quality. Coming into the review, I was already convinced that Ortlieb are good and still can’t fault them following my test of the Back-Roller Black’n White pannier bags.
The German brand are well known among touring cyclists but for commuters and bike packers, they have some very good looking bags in their range. More from www.ortlieb.com/en