Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Minnehaha Seat Bag

Last year I got back to doing some distance cycling. At least once a week I’d do a ~100 km trip. I had the idea that I’d like to do some longer rides too – a century or some longer randonées. For longer rides I thought I might want to carry just a bit more stuff than I could carry in my regular seat bag. A pannier wasn’t an option because the bike I use has no braze-ons for a rack. The short version of a story - with the potential to get way too long very fast – is that a long search ensued and the solution to my kit-carrying woes was provided by Minnehaha Bags.

The Minnehaha Medium Saddle Bag is a very functional and stylish lookin’ leather and canvas traditional bicycle saddlebag. It has a beefy leather strap (no pun intended) with a sturdy steel buckle to loop through the rails of your saddle and a second shorter strap with buckle to loop around your seat post to stabilize it.

Strap through the saddles rails

Strap around the seatpost

I’ve only managed one test ride with it – even though I’ve had it since February (Sorry Minnehaha! Curse You Saskatchewan Weather!) – and already I’m in love with it. It’s not about to see everyday use. I probably won’t even use it for shorter (less than 100Km) trips into the countryside. Not that it couldn’t be used for everyday use, I just happen to prefer a shoulder messenger-type bag to carry my everyday gear about, and for shorter rides I just don’t need to carry that much stuff… But from now on this is definitely my bag of choice for any longer expeditions short of a full-on camping/touring trip!! I’ll probably even use it as an extra bag on any camping touring trips!

Here’s what I managed to pack into the luxurious 10L of cargo carrying capacity – just to give you an idea of what you might be able to cram into one:

Wool Vest
3x Cliff Bar (Cool Mint Chocolate)
Small First Aid Kit
Extra Water Bottle (700mL)
Spare Tire
4x Spare tubes
Tire levers
8/10mm wrench
15mm Wrench
Multi-Allen Key Tool
Small Multi-tip screw driver
Couple Extra Links of Chain
Tire Levers
Small Note Pad

(Uh, yeah... I guess I kind of took that whole Boy Scout "Be Prepared" motto to heart...)

All loaded up!

Even with all this stuff I didn’t exactly have to cram it all in. I could easily have stuffed in another half-dozen or so Clif Bars or tubes if I ever really thought I’d need them!? Also, if all that wasn’t awesome enough, there are four D-rings on the top of the outer lid to which I could lash on my jacket (or other things), which would free up more space inside for some PB&J sandwiches… or whatever!

One of my main concerns was moisture. The leather was dealt with by the liberal application of Proofhide (Brooks Saddle’s leather conditioner/preservation stuff). The canvas is untreated and I wondered why they had not made it with waxed or oiled canvas or some similarly treated material? When I think of untreated cotton and water I think of wet t-shirt contests (c’mon, like you don’t…) and the old phrase “cotton kills” – the furthest thing from waterproof, takes forever to dry once wet, and just not a material one seriously considers for serious outdoor use. I should have known better…

Well, for one, this is far from t-shirt material! I did a little research into the treating and waterproofing of canvas. While I found a nice recipe for treating canvas involving soy bean oil and turpentine that I might try out, many sources indicated that cotton canvas WAS waterproof. Once it gets wet the fibres swell up and, in theory, won't let water through. I have to say I was still somewhat suspicious. Although, when I thought about it, I did have a canvas tent when I was young and stayed relatively dry in it through some pretty fierce storms. I seem to recall it had a much tighter weave to it.

On the morning of my first trial ride, I got up to grey skies. At first I was a bit bummed (who wants their first ride of the season to be in the rain), but then I realized this might be a perfect opportunity to see how well it does in the rain (there really is a silver lining to every cloud…)! Well as it turned out I managed to dodge all the rain falling about the land and arrived home bone dry, only to have it start pouring rain a couple minutes after I arrived. So I dumped out all my gear and loaded it up with a couple of towels and hung the bag out in my yard in the pouring rain – just to see…

Well it POURED rain for over and hour! I checked the bag as I was heading out for the afternoon, the lid was soaked but the flaps underneath and the towels within were still completely dry! The rain was tapering off but I left the bag out in the yard in hoping it might rain some more. It didn’t. When I returned in the early evening the bag had completely dried out!

I thought afterwards for a more “realistic” test I could have set up a water sprinkler underneath it as well to simulate spray from a tire… Ah, well..

Minnehaha suggests using Nikwax to treat the canvas. I think I’m going to leave it as is for now, but I might try out the soybean/turpentine recipe at some point…

One of my other concerns is the quality of materials and craftsmanship. The bag is quite soft to the touch and I somehow associate soft with not-so-durable. I bought a pair of canvas sneakers last fall and they are already shredded. The bag was also made in China and I generally associate stuff made overseas with lesser quality materials and poor craftsmanship. The bag seems sturdy enough, but then, so did my shoes. These are just hunches based on personal prejudices, only time and use will really tell. I was wrong about the waterproofness… So, hopefully I will enjoy watching the leather darken and the canvas fade over years of dutiful service.

On they subject of durability though I do have to note that there are no zippers or Velcro on this bag. These are the things that always wear out and fail on all other bags I have owned, leaving them essentially useless and fit to be tossed in the trash. A buckle is pretty low tech and not much can go wrong with it other than getting bent under load. The ones on this bag seem pretty darn sturdy. I imagine they could very likely be cut off and reused on a another bag when the rest of this bag reaches the end of its service life and is cast into the compost bin (another reason why natural materials rock!)

One thing I did notice while riding – and this may be due to how much stuff I had in it and the geometry and set up of my bike – but the back of my legs touched the bag with every pedal stroke. It didn’t impede my pedaling in anyway, nor did I find it annoying, I was just very aware that it was there, and I imagine that might have the potential to bug some people.

Also, again due to the bike I was using and its particular angles and set up there wasn’t a lot of tire clearance. This wasn’t an issue until about half way through my test ride when I got to some moderately steep climbs and had to get out of the saddle. The bag rocked back and forth with each pedal stroke which, being heavily loaded, threw me a bit off balance and caused a couple wobbles. Once I got used to it (three pedal strokes later), it wasn’t a big deal. However, due to the lack of tire clearance, the bag sometimes rubbed against the tire as it rocked back and forth. Not terribly annoying, but it did get the bag a bit dirty. If this carried on for too long, or repeatedly, it might create some wear issues. On a touring or similar bike with fenders and/or a rack this wouldn’t even be an issue.

Tire clearance

Overall this bag rocks my world and I am looking forward to some long rides this summer with everything I could possibly ever need carried neatly out of the way on the back of my saddle in my sweet Minnehaha Saddle bag! The only thing that could have made it better was if it was a handlebar bag – for easier access to stuff while on the bike… Maybe Minnehaha will make one of those someday!

(This review was originally written for Bicycle Smile. Thanks to Ryan at Bicycle Smile and Minnehaha Bags for the opportunity to try out their bags!)


SMB tech geeks said...

What a great review - you were really thorough & gave the bag a good beasting too. The bag has a really nice, retro look to it - I love it already, but it's probably not suited to my new lean-mean-silver-machine ;0)

Anuket said...

I have a regular Minnehaha messenger bag, and I friggin' love the thing. My only complaint about it is the lack or pockets - but that is easily taken care of with fabric and a needle.
Another great thing about my bag is that no one else has it. I've only seen one other cyclist in Houston with a Minnehaha rack bag, but none with the messenger bag. :)