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I've been starting to commute by bike more (about 6 miles each way) and decided to upgrade from my cheap, old mountain bike to something more suitable. I just bought a used 2009 Kona Jake off Craigslist. Pretty excited about the bike -- it came with fenders, read rack and two panniers.

Previously I've just carried everything in a messenger bag or backpack when riding. Panniers are new to me. What are some tips you have for packing and riding with panniers? I'll be carrying a laptop part of the time and beyond that a book or two, a lunch, maybe some clothes and other miscellaneous bits.

For example, I'm wondering:

  • If I don't have much on a given day, should I just use one pannier or try to distribute between two? In general, how important is it to keep them balanced?

  • Should I be concerned about heel spacing or getting on/off the bike? (In my initial short ride, it wasn't an issue)

  • When I have more weight, how much will it change the stopping distance and the bike's balance?

Unfortunately, the bike's in to get a tune-up so I can't recall the make of the panniers. Beyond the rack hooks, there's also a strap that runs from the middle, has a hook on the end and some velcro that attaches to the top of the bag. I can't figure out what they're for.

** Edit **

Here's a photo of my new (used) panniers. They're by D2R.

enter image description here

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I put a lot of icon on refletive strips on my panniers. Also check the backligh and reflector can still be clealy sene when using the panniers. –  Ian Aug 21 '13 at 14:12
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The hook on the strap is intended to hook over the bottom of the rack, near the axle. (There should be a sort of inverted V built into the rack there.) Then the strap is fed up through the slotted square and the guide above that and finally goes through the latch thing at the top. You first snag the strap's hook on the rack, then set the top hooks on the top of the rack, then tug on the strap to pull it taut. When taut, the bag should not pull away from the side of the bike more than an inch or two. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 23 '13 at 19:17
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6 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

In general panniers are more comfortable and efficient than carrying weight on your body. There are some things to be aware of, however.

Safety. Every time you set off, make absolutely sure that all the pannier straps are done up. Apart from things falling out, the last thing you want is a loose strap getting caught in the spokes. This can wreak a wheel, and a rider!

Regarding stopping distance, I don't think it make much difference as the weight increases the friction between wheel and road. However, the extra weight does contribute something to heating the brake pads and rims/discs, but it's probably only an issue on long steep descents which are unusual on a commute.

Panniers getting in your way. Yes, aim to keep your heel clear of the bags. This can be different when the bags are fully-laden as they tend to bulge further than expected. Worst-case you can pedal with your toes pointed down to avoid heel-strike, but this isn't comfortable for long. If you swing your leg over to get on and off then definitely take a bit of extra care to avoid pratfalls. Also be aware the rear of the bike is slightly wider.

Left-right loading. Ideally it's nice to have them balanced, but unless there's more than 5kg difference between the sides, I'd say it's not really noticeable. So if all you're carrying is clothing and spare shoes, then it should be fine to take just one bag. However, if it's a stack of books consider two half-filled bags.

Vibration and bumps. In my wife's experience, laptops seem to suffer from vibration in panniers more than rucksacks/messenger bags. Hers acquired a serious soundcard issue after being bounced in a pannier back down a slightly bumpy road. I'm not talking about crashing or dropping the bag, just riding the normal bumps in British roads. Your road surface may vary. Putting sensitive kit on your body is less comfortable for you, but more protective for the kit.

Consider waterproofing. If the contents are sensitive to moisture (like the laptop), then you may want to double-bag unless you're really confident in the pannier's waterproofing.

The strap that runs from the middle with the hook on the end may be to wrap around the lower part of the rack (and possibly back up to the pannier). The aim may be to stop the pannier from swinging out away from the bike or from jumping off when you go over a bump, but in my experience if the strap is made of elastic it doesn't prevent this. The best design to stop the panniers hopping off is a clip which fully-encloses the top horizontal bar of the rack, as is found on Ortlieb and many modern panniers. If you want more detailed advice, post some pictures when you get the panniers back.

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Regarding bumps I've had quite a few broken spokes on the back wheel. I suspect that crashing into pot holes with heavy panniers may well be a contributing factor. –  Martin Smith Aug 21 '13 at 12:38
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Regarding vibration and bumps it might be good to put the laptop inside a laptop carrying/travel bag/case (which fits shock-absorbing foam around the laptop), inside the pannier. –  ChrisW Aug 21 '13 at 16:26
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@MartinSmith depending on the type of bike and your posture, chances are that you're putting quite a bit more than half your weight on the back wheel in any case (it's often 60/40 even for race bikes, and even more skewed for city bikes and the like), so it could simply be that. –  Daniel B Aug 22 '13 at 6:47
    
I added a photo -- you'll see the strip has velcro on one end and a little hook on it. I haven't figured out how, but I assume the hook is meant to attach to the rack or frame. –  Voodoo Aug 23 '13 at 16:40
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I've been commuting by bicycle even since I learnt to ride as a kid, and I've never commuted in any other way. I'd like to add one aspect that nobody has mentioned yet: be wary of theft.

If you stand at a traffic light in a busy city, and have a visible laptop-bag in a pannier at the rear, it can be all-to-easy for someone to grab it and ride away with it. Therefore, you should make sure that your panniers can be properly closed and are not too easy to take off. Stealing from an open pannier is much easier than ordinary pick-pocketing!

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But it's stupid to have an open pannier anyway, since stuff can jump out of it on a bump. ALWAYS securely fasten whatever closures the pannier has. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 21 '13 at 12:11
    
I disagree. If I buy several litres of milk in the supermarket, there's no chance that's going to jump out of my panniers. A laptop is also too heavy to jump out on a bump. –  gerrit Aug 21 '13 at 12:48
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My panniers sometimes jam against the back wheel when not properly closed and fastened. This is because the cover, when strapped to the opening, improves rigidity and doesn't allow the pannier loth to twist and get sucked by the wheel and jammed against the frame. –  Vorac Aug 21 '13 at 13:52
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@gerrit - But the papers you slid in alongside the laptop are pretty light, and will often tend to work themselves up as you ride on a rough road. Or the box of macaroni in the top of that bag of groceries may decide to make a break for it. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 21 '13 at 15:00
    
@DanielRHicks, gerrit. It might depend on the design of your panniers. I close my bags because you can never be sure when it's going to rain in this country. –  JamesBradbury Aug 21 '13 at 15:32
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I commuted for years carrying just one pannier. In fact, I have a pair of mismatched panniers because I wore out one of each original pair. If you just have clothes and incidentals in the bag, one pannier is certainly sufficient -- you will barely notice the slight off-balance.

Definitely worry about heel spacing. Figure out how to get the bags as far back as you can, and note that most bags have a preferred side, so that the forward face is sloped back to give more heel clearance.

For commuting and light touring the change in stopping distance is hardly noticeable (and obviously no different from the same load in a backpack). A fully loaded setup (with 50-80 pounds of gear) will increase your stopping distance proportional to the change in weight (ie, a 20-30 percent increase), but this is generally not a problem unless you ride aggressively or have some long downhills to deal with.

The strap you describe sounds like it's intended to hook near the axle and keep the pannier from swinging out from the bike. This hook also keeps the pannier from "jumping" off the bike on bumps, and must be securely fastened at all times while riding. When the pannier is properly secured you should be able to almost lift the bike by lifting up the pannier.

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and obviously no different from the same load in a backpack -- I'd guess that stopping may be /easier/ than with an equivalent-weight backpack, if/because in an emergency stop your chief worry is stopping /yourself/ not just the bike, without going over the handlebars. –  ChrisW Aug 21 '13 at 11:19
    
Great point on increasing brake distance proportional to change in weight. –  Vorac Aug 21 '13 at 13:54
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I would suggest that panniers are likely to produce superior stopping performance than the same load in a backpack. The weight is closer to the ground and positioned over the rear wheel. That should keep the bike more stable under braking, and distribute the braking between the wheels better allowing for more braking force to be applied without (a) locking up or (b) going over the handlebars. –  Jack Aidley Aug 21 '13 at 15:04
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Well, folks rarely put 50-80 pounds of gear in a backpack (and then ride a bike with it). The main point is that stopping distance is not dramatically increased. It FEELS like you're driving a truck, but stopping distance is still fairly normal. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 21 '13 at 22:49
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One thing that surprised me about using panniers to commute was that the inside of the panniers had an influence on the stuff that I put in them. In particular, my panniers (JandD) partially expose the back sides of some of the mounting clips inside the bags themselves. I found that this exposed hardware scratched up my laptop one day; it could similarly mark up clothing or other possible undesirable things if painted surfaces are involved. I'd recommend "double-packing" the work equipment you add to your panniers to make sure it comes out fine when you arrive.

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Well, there shouldn't be grease inside the pannier, but paint can presumably rub off of fasteners. But in maybe 15 years of commuting 20 miles once or twice a week I never had any such problem. A laptop obviously should be padded against contact with any hard surface. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 25 '13 at 12:35
    
Yes, good point. I replaced "grease" with a more general comment on marking stuff. –  lmjohns3 Aug 25 '13 at 12:41
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If I don't have much on a given day, should I just use one pannier or try to distribute between two? In general, how important is it to keep them balanced?

If it's not heavy then it's not important, assuming it's close the wheel (so not much torque). I expect it's easier than a top-heavy back-pack.

When I have more weight, how much will it change the stopping distance and the bike's balance?

Unfortunately I expect that depends on how good your brakes are, and the weather (i.e. on whether your rims are wet, which reduces the effectiveness of brakes). In contrast my bike has hydraulic disk brakes, which are always more than strong enough to stop the bike (so that I never apply full squeeze to the front brake).

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Something to take care of is the increase in influence from side winds, and a small increase in aerodynamic drag.

I used to bike in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, which is often a bit windy, and you can immediately feel the difference riding with and without panniers.

However the net effect from side wind can be overall positive; as with sail-boat, depending on the shape of your panniers, aerodynamic drag with side wind can be smaller than without. You can optimize the shape of your panniers by carefully filling them.

It can be sometimes fun to have to manage your bike stability in strong wind. See this video to see an example :)

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+1 as this does make a difference, even if the panniers are empty. However, I think it would be rare that it would actually help you. Even if you had a freaky sail-shaped pannier you'd need to lean so far off the side to counter the leaning moment that you wouldn't be able to pedal. –  JamesBradbury Sep 14 '13 at 20:36
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