At the beginning of summer I replaced my dysfunctional panniers with the Orlieb Backroller Classics. After six weeks of heavy use of the Ortlieb panniers, including a four day bike camping trip, I’m fairly happy with my new choice. As one friend commented, “I hear a lot of people complaining about their bike bags, but not many people complain about their Ortliebs.”
I mainly use panniers for commuting and errand-running in the city but when I bought these I knew I wanted to go bike camping this summer. This time around I prioritized functionality and the ability to carry large loads over office-appropriateness and aesthetics.
They certainly succeed at the ability to carry large loads. While the top rolling closure system can be awkward for other things, such as quick access, it allows flexibility to carry big or weirdly shaped things. When I picked up fenders and rode home to put them on, I was able to carry them in my bag by leaving the rear fender sticking out one side of the top, snapping the top closed in the middle, and cinching the sides as best I could. Wouldn’t want to ride 20 miles like this, but it worked fine and the fender stayed put in the bag.
Other things I’ve successfully carried:
– A giant Tupperware container of salad, blankets, dishes and water bottles for a potluck picnic
– Large quantities of groceries, including a gallon of milk
– My bulky sleeping bag, pad, and sleeping bag liner fit in one bag for touring with room to spare
– A 15″ laptop and two camera bags.
In short, my bike now feels like a mini-cargo bike when both panniers are attached. If only it handled like one with 40 lbs on the back!
The rack attachment system is the kind of thing that gives German engineering its reputation. It’s simple – pull up on the handle, and the clamps open. Let go and they close. Want to attach the bag to your rack? Slide the lower arm around a rack stay and let go of the handle. That’s it. It feels really solid even on bumpy roads. After my bad experience with elastic failure, I’m happy to be using this attachment system.
Straight out of the box, there is some minimal adjusting to make sure the bags fit your rack. A simple allen wrench does it, and the components offer lots of flexibility. If a rider had lots of different bikes with different racks, it could be a challenge, but I had no difficulty setting my panniers up for my Axiom rack. I haven’t touched the adjustments since.
One of the selling points of Ortlieb products is that they are waterproof – most panniers are water resistant at best. They are, in essence, large roll-top dry bags (like the kind used by kayakers) with an attachment system screwed to the back. A late-night deluge on my camping trip was no challenge for these bags. Midwestern weather changes quickly and I love not having to think about carrying extra rain protection for my stuff!
The waterproof aspects of the design do lead to a downfall. These bags are made of tough, plastic-y looking material with welded seams and they look like kayaker’s dry bags. This material also scratches fairly easily and got scuffed on my first spin around town. I think that in three years they will function fine but look worse for the wear.
In her review of the Ortlieb bike shopper, Let’s Go Ride a Bike writes:
“I would like to see Ortlieb apply their awesome mounting system to panniers that are more attractive. I am not interested in carrying into the office or the store a bag that looks like athletic equipment.”
I intentionally picked out white (for night-time visibility) with a cute graphic that coordinates with my bar tape. This helps with the aesthetics a bit, but a big, athletic-looking bag with a pretty picture on it is still a big, athletic-looking bag. I’m in the market for something smaller of the canvas and leather variety for city commuting. However, if you bring a full change of clothes to work with you, these waterproof panniers would be a good bet. There’s enough roomfor a lot of clothes and a pair of bulky shoes with room to spare for a brown bag lunch.
There is a shoulder strap for easy carrying, with a small rubberish piece that somewhat helps keep the nylon strap from digging into your shoulder. This is great for the Farmer’s Market!
Inside there’s one large open top pocket, big enough to swallow my huge U-lock, and one smaller zippered pocket. This is one more compartment than my last panniers had, and the lack of spatial divisions allows packing flexibility. It’s not for everyone, however. I’m OK in the city, but after four days of bike touring organization was a challenge as everything small shifted to the bottom. Next time I go touring I’m taking color coded smaller nylon bags so I can find what I’m looking for!
Like most panniers, these have large, highly visible reflective patches on the fronts and backs. They do not have light loops. I only have one rear blinky light so that’s OK with me, but the two light setup does add to visibility.
One downfall is the closure system. I wish I did not have to unroll the whole thing just to grab my lock or lights. Ortlieb does sell several products with different closure systems, such as the Bike Packer Plus and Bike Tourer. These cost significantly more and travel further down the athletic equipment road.
The Backroller Classic also does not really condense down if you’re only carrying a few things, which I find obnoxious. These might be my main bike bag, but they will never be my only bike bag. Ortlieb also makes smaller panniers, including a front-roller version for front racks. A friend has these and uses them on the back since he doesn’t haul as much stuff as I tend to.
I never understood the use of having lots of purses, but I can understand the use of having lots of panniers, messenger bags, and backpacks. These have a few minor shortcomings, but overall I’m thrilled with their functionality. I anticipate that they’ll get used a lot for years to come, even as I add to my bikes’ bag wardrobe.