Thursday, June 18, 2009

Minnehaha Canvas Utility Pannier

Along with the Minnehaha Medium Saddle Bag reviewed last month (which rocked!) I also had the opportunity to try out a pair of Minnehaha Canvas Utility Panniers.

These, like the saddlebag, are stylish lookin’ canvas and leather bicycle panniers. They sport a pair of hefty metal hooks to attach the pannier to the top of your rack and an equally sturdy metal D-ring on an adjustable leather/bungee combo strap to hook on the bottom. It has a beefy leather strap (no pun intended) wrapping over the top of the flap, with a sturdy steel buckle on another beefy strap coming up from the bottom to fasten down the hatch and secure your load. I really love that there are no zippers, plastic buckles or Velcro on these – all of which eventually fail through wear and/or breakage. The metal hooks are considerably heftier than ones I’ve had on other bags that eventually got beaten and bent out of shape after years of use. These seem like they might last longer.

A lot of the same initial impressions and apprehensions I had about the saddle bag applied here too. I dug that they are made out of natural materials that I could theoretically compost after its service life. Well… MOSTLY natural – there are big high-density polyethylene panels in the back and on the bottom to prevent sagging. I was concerned about waterproofness, and, despite the hefty straps and buckles, I was a bit concerned about the long-term durability of the canvas. The waterproofness was proved to be not so big of an issue. When soaked with water the fibres in the canvas expand and the contents of the bag stay more or less dry. Depending on how much stuff you had in it I could see water getting in the top of the bag, but if one were expecting a serious downpour they could always line the pannier with a plastic bag. As for the long-term durability… well, only time will tell…

Now, I have to admit I’m not currently much of a pannier guy for everyday use. Panniers are great for touring and if you’re commuting to a job where you’re going to stay all day and not have to carry it around for any length of time. That is so not me. I more or less “work” out of the house and when I am going out, which is fairly regularly, I generally have to take a great deal of stuff and when I get to where I’m going I have to carry around whatever I’ve got with me – sometimes for hours. So these panniers didn’t really work out for me. Even if I could cram all the crap I generally cart around with me into the two of them, it would be a pain carrying them around for extended periods off the bike. So this may have coloured my overall impression of them.

Amanda helped me out with the testing of these as she DOES commute daily by bike to her job and always uses panniers.

One thing the bag really did have going for it – that none of panniers I’ve previously owned had – was a pair of solid d-rings on either side of the top back that a shoulder strap could be attached to. So if one were a bit more of a minimalist than me (or didn’t have to carry crap for two kids in addition to what one has to carry for themselves… like me), and could carry most of their necessities for a single day in just one pannier, they could quite easily carry the pannier around as a rather elegant looking shoulder bag. Well… a lot more elegant than most of the panniers I’ve owned.

At first they looked a bit smallish to me, but that was probably just comparing them to my absurdly HUGE messenger bag and some of the deluxe “world tour” panniers with piles of external pockets we have. These actually hold a surprising amount of stuff. A single one could easily carry a binder or sketchbook, magazine and notebook, a lunch, a water bottle, a small tool kit and assorted tubes, a u-lock, a jacket and a tire pump….

When I used them for hauling some groceries I stuffed a 10kg (22lbs) bag of flour in one and eight 1L tetra-packs of juice with a handful of other sundry items and room to spare in the other.

As mentioned there are no external pockets and there is a single internal pocket for a wallet, keys and pens or similar smaller items. That’s fine if you’re not going to be going into the bag regularly or you’re good at “action packing” – keeping most frequently needed items where they’re most accessible. If you love lots of pockets to organize all your stuff, you’re out of luck.

To paraphrase Henry Ford – You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black. Great if you’re ninja, not so great if you want to be seen. Black’s not my personal favourite, it gets warm in the sun and shows dirt and if you have a big fluffy dog that sheds a lot of long white hairs (like we did until very recently…) they will be forever covered in them!? But it does give it an… I don’t know… refined look…?

Further to the visibility issue – if you’re concerned about such things – there are no big reflective strips or panels sewn onto the bag. They did come with a pair of tag-like reflective strips on a loop of bungee material that could be looped through the d-ring on the side of the bag. They are utterly useless, seemed like a bit of an afterthought, and I wondered why they bothered to include them anyway. I suppose if someone was concerned they could add some other sort of reflective material or attach some solid reflectors.

The shape of the bag left something to be desired. Most other bags I’ve had tended to taper a bit more at the bottom – on at least one side – to allow for foot clearance. Both my partner Amanda and I had foot clearance issues with these bags. Amanda is small and commutes on a rather small framed mountain bike and even with the panniers as far back as they could go she was still having to adjust her footing to not have her heel striking the bags. I get around on a large-ish touring bike with a long wheelbase and fairly long chain stays and even I had clearance issues. If I did move them as far back as possible it wasn’t so bad, but in that position they still had occasional clearance issues when packed full of odd shaped things and they couldn’t be put in that position when I had my son’s trailer bike hooked up and it interfered with the hitch/post attachment. Minnehaha suggests that a variable height rack may solve some of these issues, but I would think that would just raise your center of gravity and potentially make your bike slightly less stable.

A lot of more “modern” panniers have some sort of quick-release locking mechanism that, rather than just hooking over the top of the racks tubing, also has something that locks them into place from below. These do not. If you’ve ever been loaded up and hit a bump or pot-hole at high speed and had your panniers eject off your bike in traffic… well you get to appreciate those sorts of things. These ones never came off, but I wouldn’t recommend any such non-locking pannier for extreme off-road use… (or even excessively bump on road use at speed!)

Also almost all other panniers I’ve used had some sort of lateral compression/cinching straps to help stabilize your load. I quite missed these – especially on one trip with a pannier that was half filled with a heavy load that shifted about constantly. Something like this may have also helped with the foot clearance/heel-striking issue…?

I really wanted to love these bags. They look great. They seem simple and durable – not much can go wrong with them. The lack of pockets, high tech materials and a lot of the other “bells and whistles” found on other panniers just add to their elegance (they DON’T scream “STEAL ME, I’M EXPENSIVE!”). But they just didn’t work out for us as an everyday utility pannier.

I do still want to try touring with these. I’m hoping to get out for some short tours this summer with the family and I think they might work pretty good on a front rack.

This review was originally written for Bicycle Smile