Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Panniers for 2011?

EDIT, August 4, 2011: Panniers with a full-suspension bike SUCK! While they worked well my old solid hard-tail, they made the rear triangle of my new full-suspension Cannondale RZ 120 wag, wiggle, and sway like a bowl full of Jell-o. Time to move to a rackless setup!

With the Colorado Trail Race still seven months away, it seems sort of silly to be organized my gear already. But long, cold, dark nights lend themselves to contemplation. Further, I can save a fair bit of money by watching for sales over the course of the next few months, rather than buying stuff at the last moment.

Having completed the CTR last year, I have a better idea of what worked and what didn’t, so this year I’m mostly fine-tuning my choices rather than starting from scratch. Last year’s gear certainly worked well enough, but I’m aiming to cut a little weight for 2011, in hopes of riding a little faster.

The biggest conundrum I’m facing is whether to ride with panniers again, or to move to "modern" racing bags. Of the forty riders who showed up last year, I was the only guy with "retro" rear panniers—which made me feel just a little conspicuous! It didn’t help that several people that I met along the way wondered if I was "one of those racers, or just out for a tour."

The truth is that I liked my panniers. They were incredibly convenient. But I’m worried that I’m missing something that the other 39 riders know about. So, to help me figure out what to do, I’ve been writing up the pros and cons of panniers versus new-style gear:

Pannier advantages:
  1. No heavy pack. Without panniers, it’s not possible to put everything on the bike (especially on my Cannondale RZ 120, which doesn’t have much room for a frame bag). Even with huge seat bags and handlebar bags, most racers seem to carry fairly heavy/bulky packs. This is the biggest reason that I’m considering using panniers--I really don’t want to ride with a top-heavy, arm-cramping, back-destroying, and butt abusing pack! A simple and light hydration pack is OK, and it even helps provide some protection in the event of a hard crash.
  2. “Fluffy” food is easier to carry. While re-supplying in Buena Vista, I discovered a box of Poppycock at City Market. It fit right into my roomy panniers, along with a roll of bagels. Yum.
  3. Lower center of gravity. Panniers make it possible to carry heavy stuff nice and low, thereby improving bike handling.
  4. Easier organization (especially with a rack bag). Rather than have to cram everything into super-compressed frame bags, panniers make it easy to organize and access food, clothing, etc. A dry bag on top of the rack also makes a convenient pantry, shrinking and growing as vittles are consumer and replenished.
  5. Pannier dry bags are DRY! Last year, I used Pacific Outdoor Equipment dry-bag panniers. With just a roll and a clip, everything stayed nice and dry. No covers required. Very nice! Yes, some seat bags have dry-bag inserts, but then they start getting heavier.
Pannier disadvantages:
  1. Weight. Yes, panniers (and a rack to hang them on) are heavy. About three additional pounds (edit: with lighter panniers, the difference is closer to two pounds), in total--which seems like a lot when otherwise counting every gram. How much extra energy is required to move three (two) pounds over 500 miles of trail—not to mention 60,000 vertical feet? Is it worth it to avoid carrying a large pack?
  2. Wide load. When slipping between tight boulders and trees, I couldn’t help feel a little thick in the rear. Not a horrible problem on the CTR, but occasionally distracting.
  3. Unbalanced. While it didn’t bother me as much as I expected, panniers make for a heavy-ended bike. Spreading the weight around would be nice. On the flip side, panniers have a lower center of gravity, which is nice. Maybe smaller panniers combined with a smallish handlebar bag would provide the best of both worlds?
  4. Overkill capacity. With large panniers, the temptation to carry enormous quantities of gear may be an issue. But all it takes is a little willpower to avoid carrying the kitchen sink. My gear ended up weighing about the same as most racers’, maybe a bit less than average.
  5. Wind resistance. My commuter bike has panniers, and on windy days I feel like I’m dragging a parachute. Not bad for training, but not great for getting to work on time. Wind drag isn’t much of a problem on the CTR though.
  6. Hitting legs while walking. This did drive me a little crazy on a few of the longer hike-a-bike sections, although I did get used to it. The bags that I used in 2010 were pretty thick (9+ inches). Thinner panniers would be nice, and Ortlieb makes a nice pair of 5.5”-wide dry-bag panniers...
  7. Rack durability. I haven’t broken a rack, but many people have. OMM racks seem pretty tough.
  8. Panniers look dorky. Bright green love handles? Ah, who cares!
At this point, I’m leaning toward panniers and a handlebar bag for 2011. Perhaps a pair of smaller Ortlieb Front Roller Pluses mounted to an OMM rack, and an Ortlieb dry bag strapped to the bars? Probably time to start sorting, measuring, and weighing everything to see how many cubic inches I actually need. Only six more months to mull this over!

There are a couple of good threads over at bikepacking.net about panniers and carrying gear. Note that when people post photos of their setups, they often omit the pack!


  1. Don't worry, Toby, I'm also getting a little obsessive over CTR gear, even eight months out. I've been making bags, testing, making new versions, testing, refining, more testing - not to mention deciding which gear to buy on items I don't want to make (sleeping setup). My girlfriend, long accustomed to my non-geek attitude concerning bikes, is beginning to wonder about this whole CTR thing...

    As for panniers vs. typical "bikepacking" gear, I've been going back and forth myself. So far everything I've made is pretty squarely in the typical realm. I was thinking about making some low-profile panniers just to try out, however...

  2. Hey Joey, I wish that I had your skill with sewing and gear-making. It would be very cool to make the exact setup that I want! Please send me some pics of the low-profile panniers if you make them. Thanks!

  3. hey bro ever considered freeload racks???

    1. Yep, they seem like a pretty cool solution. If I needed to carry a lot of gear on a hard-tail, a Freeload rack would be a great option. But I think that racks suck on full-suspension bikes, so I'm committed to a rackless setup these days.