Thursday, October 31, 2013

General luggage

There is a long running debate on the net about soft versus hard luggage. Hard luggage would be easily damaged in a fall and no longer be waterproof while soft bags would absorb the fall and survive. I'd like to see a soft pannier survive a crash and slide over the road without having a gaping big hole in it and thus leak. The pro-soft pannier fans will tell you they can simply be repaired with needle and thread, conveniently omitting you will never get that stitch work waterproof and also omitting that aluminium panniers can be knocked back into shape and fixed with sheet and pop rivets or Sikaflex if needed. The impact absorbing argument of soft bags is utter rubbish. If your bags absorb a fall then they'll do so by transferring the impact to whatever is in the bag. In other words; your camera, laptop, tin food etc. In reality the choice between soft and hard luggage comes down to one thing: weight! In general the empty hard luggage cases together with their mounting racks are just about as heavy as what you would pack in them. And that is the biggest drawback of hard luggage, and one we definitely overlooked as we found time and time again during this trip. Next time I would definitely use soft bags for that reason alone.   

In Utah I was hit by a car. The driver simply pulled over to the other lane as I was next to him... His wheel hit my pannier; and so hard that the rubber of his tyre is visible on my pannier. He pushed me and a 300 kg fully loaded bike a metre (3 ft) over. The pannier took the full hit, didn't dent and I didn't go down. With soft bags it would have been a totally different story.
Soft panniers aren't lockable either, an argument often played down by saying 'we have never been broken into'. Well, we have; in Tasmania. Therefore we wanted a set of hard panniers to keep our valuables in. There are quite a few on the market. I'm not keen on finicky little locks or clever mounting systems if it involves special cast or plastic brackets, which are difficult to repair in the woop-woop and thus disregarded all the plastic and nylon ones. 

So, how do you find out what is best to use? Well, if you have a BMW Adventure weapon and a bank account the size of a grain silo than the answer is easy: go to Touratech and for a small… no, make that a large… fortune they will fit their whole catalogue on it, if you need it or not. If the grain silo is missing and you don't have an adventure weapon, then it's somewhat more complicated. 
In the 21st century everything can apparently be found on the internet. Soon Google becomes your biggest enemy. Every question you ask is 'rewarded' with 15 million hits in 0.17 seconds. Great. Try to struggle through it all! Another 'great' source of information is forums, where every Tom, Dick and Harry can claim to be experts and give you advise on things they know nothing about. And as you don't know anything about it either it's hard to separate the truly knowledgeable from the impostors. Unfortunately there is a very small amount of good information to be found on these Forums, so you have to dig your way through thousands and thousands of pages full of rubbish, put on there by people who have nothing to do all day but putting their rubbish on the net. 
One could of course simply ignore the internet and call companies that advertise the products you like to use or purchase in magazines. Only to be confronted with receptionists that know even less about their products than you do and put on hold to sales managers who are more annoying than Google. Whatever happened to experienced and knowledgeable people that used to answer the phone?

There are actually salespersons who direct you to their website… which apparently contains more information than their brain. Quite frankly I have given up on calling as it's an even bigger waste of time than Google. I have also given up on hopelessly complicated websites that direct you through page after page without giving any information. If I think they have something that might work for me then I'll send them an e-mail. 

Metal Mule
Metal Mule seemed an option. Seemed. For starters they are very expensive. Aesthetics are personal of course, you like or don't like pop-rivets(!) but the piano hinge is at best a 'hardware store solution' and the whole opening system a pain in the butt as you can't open them when there is luggage strapped to your seat. The dumb lock on the top of the lids rubs through any roll-top bag you may want to strap to your seat as well. They also look like mercy-less ankle crushers to me as the bottom is not bevelled. The frame with drilled flattened pipe ends didn't impress me either but the main problem turned out not being 'allowed' to buy them… I simply asked Metal Mule a few technical questions about their panniers but received no reply. I also asked the appointed importer in Australia about the availability and price of a set of Metal Mules for my Bonneville. Again no reply. I asked again a month later, and again no answer. So I gave up on them and send an e-mail to Metal Mule that I wondered why they did advertise here in Australia as they didn't answer my e-mail and that the importer in Oz didn't seem to be interested in selling them either. Well, all hell broke loose then! I received a stream of abusive e-mails from the Australian importer as, according to him, I wasn't allowed to contact Metal Mule directly…! Right, Metal Mule sells directly to the public on their website, but I'm not 'allowed' to contact them?!? The stream of abusive e-mails kept coming… this guy is really insane! Metal Mule wasn't much better, they never apologised for the behaviour of their representative. In fact the only thing they wanted to know is if I would still buy their panniers… 
Still, with the benefit of hindsight I'm glad it happened as I didn't end up buying them, which is just as well as when we met someone with a pair of Metal Mules at Lake Louise in Canada we were astonished to see how poorly they are made and finished. They look, at best, like a back room, home made effort. Seriously, there are ute-boxes available from hardware chains that look better made and finished; but cost just $100,-

Hepco and Becker
I looked at Hepco again, but they still looked like grandma's biscuit tins from the 50s… which kind of did it for me. There is also a more expensive 'DeLuxe' model, which looks like it's made out of corrugated aluminium… They wouldn't look good on a Bonneville, or on anything else as far as I'm concerned. 

Pelikan cases (also sold as a complete system by Cariboo)
They are plastic but the specs read impressive which is why I looked at them. They seem to be waterproof to military standards and also seem to be very tough. Pelikan makes the cases and companies like Cariboo add a few handy touches to make them into a pannier system. So far so good. But my word are they ugly! The Cariboo racks are made from square tubing and look like my nephew has 'designed' something from Lego… They also open sideways so all your stuff will drop out when you open them. 

Could be good, don't know; they were too arrogant to even reply to my e-mail requesting information and their prices are absurd. I don't buy from arrogant people.

Happy Trails
Square hardware shop boxes with silly lids that not only look ugly but also won't let you open them when there is luggage strapped to your seat. Made in Boise Idaho who's only claim to fame is the Famous Potato…!

You like the looks of them or you don't. I don't. The sliding mounting system is a great idea, but I just don't like the looks of them at all. As they seem well made I thought about them for a while but just don't want them on my Bonneville...

Same square boxes as Happy Trails but without the silly opening system and flimsy locks. They have different flimsy locks.

Holan Nomada
A lot has been said on various forums about Holan. The first US distributor claimed they were so impossible to deal with that he stopped bringing them in. Yet on the same forum an englishman claimed he ordered from Holan directly and had no problems at all.

In the end I did order direct from Holan in Poland and had indeed no hassles at all. Clear website, pleasant communications, very well packed and prompt delivery, half the price of Metal Mules and far, far better quality. The workmanship is second to none, I was really impressed with them, and being black powder coated means they look the part. I've used them for a while now and absolutely love them! In the recent colossal downpours we've had in New Zealand and Canada, they are the only thing that didn't leak. Andy Strapz' Pannierz as fitted on Mike's Yamaha seemed ok the first day of rain but threw in the towel on the second wet day… we had another 6 wet days after the first one which left the Strapz bags dripping with water while the Nomadas didn't leak one drop. When the bike toppled off the stand they prevented any damage to the Bonnie while not even being scratched themselves. They are simple and easy to live with. Can be opened with bags strapped to the seat as they only need a 10mm lift of the lid to be able to slide the lids away. I can leave all my valuables in them knowing they are hard to break into and protected from the elements. We've also found them not just waterproof but also dust proof, which for a pannier is actually harder than waterproof. The fine bull dust like in Australia and northern Alaska gets in everywhere, but not in the Nomada cases.  
I made my own racks, with hoops supplied by Holan, and mounted them as low, narrow and far forward as possible, which on a Bonnie is easy as they don't have those useless high mounted 'Adventure' exhausts. In fact we love the Nomadas so much that we've just ordered a second set for Jeanette's Bonnie and a topcase for Mike!
The new panniers have even better locks and small details have been improved upon too. Not that my pair have problems or issues, the new set is just even better! We can recommend them to anyone and would honestly not look at any other pannier if we need another one ourselves. Available from:

Andy Strapz Pannierz
Andy calls them Pannierz, with a 'z', but they are actually soft bags. Andy is a strong advocate of soft panniers over hard. The Pannierz are tough and well made. So tough that they've now almost covered 70.000km. There is hardly any colour fading and as you can see in our posts have survived a couple of crashes too. They fit virtually any bike as the connecting strips are adjustable. Clever pockets on the outside and simple roll-top opening with added Velcro strips make them easy to live with. In massive downpours they do eventually let some water in, so you do need Andy's dry bags too. Needing dry bags is no big deal though as it makes packing and unpacking in your tent possible.

Ventura bike pack system
Ventura has a range of, what they call, bike-pack systems. Basically they have designed a universal rack with specific mounting kits for a range of different bikes. The bags, made from PVC laminated ballistic fabric (sounds good doesn't it?), range from 35 to 56 litres. The racks seemed well made fit ok and came powder coated.

The bags are actually very strong. They have been through a lot on this trip (and also before this trip) and apart from the zippers struggling there isn't much negative I can say about them. They aren't waterproof, but Ventura doesn't claim they are. They have a rain cover for them.
Mike's Yamaha came with an Aero Spada bag, which we replaced in the USA with a Holan top case to have something that's lockable. We send the bag home though as it's still in good condition. The Rally Euros, as fitted to the Bonnevilles, are still with us and have proved to be very strong. The zippers on them are now struggling, but don't forget that any zipper we have is struggling and the Ventura ones are exposed to the elements 24 hrs a day. They have been covered in mud for weeks in British Columbia, sandblasted in Alaska and even before we left on this trip they had been in the extreme UV of Australia. Don't underestimate Australian UV, I worked at a cattle station there where any exposed rubber hose would perish in months. Being able to extend them from 50 to 56 litres has been a huge bonus!

In Alaska we found the racks are not up to the job we gave them. In other words, the bags were overloaded and we took them over gnarly roads. In the end all three racks suffered at the connection between L-bracket and the universal rack and had to be reinforced (tip: always carry good quality hose clamps, tyre levers and sturdy tent pegs for a bodge-job). We had to abandon the Ventura idea of a removable rack and added an extra support from the back of the rack to the front mounting point (making a triangle, which is strong) and welded it through. We've also fitted an aluminium plate between the rack and the bag to support the bag better. Keep in mind that the rack on my Bonneville had been in use for 40.000km in Australia and had never given me any problem. Which is why we fitted the same system to Jeanette's bike. The repairs needed along the way are the result of the extremely rough 'roads' we have been on and the load we put on them. 

Tankbags Held
I've had a magnetic tank bag from them in the past which worked very well and thus ordered two new ones from them. The magnets work very well and are in the right place too. They have rain covers which aren't stitched and thus work but even without the covers the bags are pretty well waterproof.

The only bit where it starts to leak when not using the rain cover is the zip of the map pocket, and even that is after serious rain. We've been using an anti slip mat between tank and bag and they haven't scratched the tanks at all even though we have used them every day for over 9 months now. The bikes have been plastered in mud in Canada and Alaska, they have been over earthquake damaged roads in New Zealand and through serious rain and sandstorms but the tanks are undamaged as the magnets hold very well. There is an extra strap around the headstock too. Clever details like inverting the strap connectors on either side, full opening top and proper side pockets makes it a bag you'll love.