Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guest Post: Chica Warrior tests Frost River Highway 1 panniers

Editors Note: When these panniers arrived from the good folks at Frost River I instantly knew who we needed to give them to to put them through their paces; our good friend, Chica Warrior.

Chica Warrior:  Two Thumbs Up for Frost River’s Highway 1 Panniers 

I stopped in my tracks back in 2005 when I first saw a bike outfitted with these bags; in fact I got down on my hands and knees to inspect them.  Rugged, worn, and looking like they stepped out of a bygone era when durable goods were in fact durable and made from canvas and leather and wood.  The design of Frost River’s  Highway 1 Panniers began when the current designers at Frost River were still at Duluth Pack and collaborated with Grant Peterson and Rivendell Bicycle Works to produce them.  Originally they were sold under the Rivendell Baggins label, and while there is currently a disagreement over who has the design rights to manufacture and sell the bags, I know both companies to be excellent and will leave it to them to continue the argument.  And since Rivendell no longer has the Baggins line, I’m just glad one can still get them.

Admittedly, they are not for everyone.  But if you are a tinkering traditionalist and not obsessed with reducing weight at every opportunity, you will fall in love.  They are good-sized–in the vicinity of a 30 litre combined capacity–and they define stout.  The bags are made of waxed cotton canvas, referred to as “tin cloth” for good reason.  Tin cloth gets a spectacular rubbed patina over time, looking remarkably like leather as it wears.  Everything on the bags is secured with either leather straps with solid brass buckles or parachute cords and grommets.  As you might guess, with these materials the bags are heavyweights, tipping the scales at a hefty 1675 grams.  But these materials give you a lot of flexibility allowing you to customize the bags and the fit to your heart’s content.  If you mind the initial futzing around to move the bags from one bike to another and to dial in the rigging, get an Ortleib.  However, if that’s not a deal breaker, it really can be kind of fun.  In my situation, I mounted them on a quite narrow Tubus Airy attached to my single speed and then on a Nitto Big Back Rack with my touring bike.  While they worked on the Airy (and in fact my largest load to date was carried on the Airy), as would be expected the fit was much, much better on the Big Back Rack.

I’ve been riding with them for about 2 weeks doing grocery runs, my regular 20-mile round-trip commute, and one 35-mile urban tour.  As a reference point, I’m a 53 year old woman and alas no longer a spring chicken but the weight has not bothered me.  The carrying capacity makes grocery hauling easy–I loaded up about 35 pounds of bulky, awkward, heavy groceries (think glass half gallons of milk, cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, a melon, dish soap, and the like – not to mention rain gear and a lock) and the bags simply swallowed them.  The 4-inch draw-string cuff and the foot-square flap means I could’ve even stuffed a few more items in there if needed.

 The load on side one

Side 2

With respect to rain, tin cloth is water-resistant but not waterproof.  For light rain/short distances, they do just fine.  For longer, heavier rain situations, this is easily remedied thru the use of a trash bag liner.  As a retired cross country motorcyclist, my biker buddies and I always lined our leather bags with trash bags and it stood up to 400 miles at 60 miles per hour in the pouring rain across Kansas.  With a few Filson tin cloth coats in my wardrobe, I can say that for winter riding, the panniers will perform well in snow but that the cold will make the waxed canvas stiff.  My biggest criticism of the bags are the fasteners at the bottom of the bag, which are leather buckle straps that are hard to reach and too close to the spokes.  An additional strap keeper would be helpful and could easily be installed by the handy owner.  The reach, however, is still awkward.  There are vertical tabs intended for compression straps around the bags, but a horizontal blinky tab would’ve been nice.  Again, because they are canvas, one can easily be added.  The internal sleeve with the stiffener is great to have with soft bags like these.

If these sound interesting to you, go for it.  At a suggested price of $190, they are worth it and comparable in cost to other well-made bags.  And not only will you have a certain je ne sais quoi kind of hip style, with their outstanding workmanship and heritage materials, they will last your whole life.  I have several other Frost River bags; all are well made and the company stands behind them.  When my large Frost River Old No. 7 canoe pack was seriously damaged by a mysterious creature in the night, they repaired it free of charge, shipped it back to me at no cost, and identified the culprit:  a porcupine!  Yep, that’s Minnesota manufacturing at its best.