Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reviewed: Banjo Brothers Handlebar Bag

If you troll the web too much for bike stuff, as I do, you'll eventually stumble across a particular sect of cycling fanatics: hypernostalgic europhiles wishing they were some mid-century French gentilhomme,  pipe firmly set in teeth, casually wheeling over a Gallish col on a ten speed crafted lug by painstaking lug by his grandfather's best friend, and painted the hunter's green of a sparkling new 1952 Citro├źn. These good folk have convinced themselves that suitcase-sized, handstitched handlebar bags costing more than your latest laptop are the very best and only way to transport goods on a bicycle.

In my continuing personal exodus from the psuedo-racer ranks, I, too, have been experimenting with ways to carry stuff conveniently on the bike for over a year now. Last winter, I decided to try out the handlebar bag pudding to see if the proof was indeed (as the ancients avowed) in the tasting.

As often happens in the winter, I over-researched, over-indulged in the opinions of others, and, finally, overspent. I bought a beautiful Arkel handlebar bag I thought might last me forever, but turned out to be simply too much bag. (Hit me up if you're looking for a cheap, waterproof, bomb-proof, highly-engineered, 7-liter bar bag.)

This fall, I decided to try again. After more days of research than I care to admit, I settled on Banjo Brothers' Medium Handlebar Bag. Even though they have a quick-release version of the same bag with a snappy plastic handlebar mount, I wanted to try something that didn't project so much from the bars. My version attaches via simple-yet-sturdy Velcro straps, and is vertically secured by slim straps that plunge down to hooks which one mounts in the fork eyelets.

Being a bit esthetically neurotic, I wasn't crazy about the extra straps, and assumed I would end up jury-rigging a less visible way to keep the bag from rocking. However, after mounting the bag (which, by the way, is dead easy) I decided they are sleek enough, and now view them as the mark of a cyclist who is ready to ride anywhere. Any visual clutter they create is offset by the low profile of the bag itself, which (in the Velcro version) sits snugly against the bars and is small enough to more or less disappear into the overall handlebar picture (especially if you're sporting black bar tape).

The size of the bag was a deciding factor for me. There are very few 4.5 liter bar bags out there (most are much larger or smaller) and that was what I calculated would hold the stuff I need to reach all the time: jacket, phone, camera, snacks, sandwich, a small lock, and maybe a couple other items. It turned out I was right -- it's the Goldilocks size, neither too large nor too small.

The bag has just the right amount of structure. Whereas the Arkel bag was heavier -- custom-made for a grueling two-month tour with all kinds of abuse -- this one features enough stiffness to protect my camera and phone, but is still plenty lightweight.

Flip up the front flap, and you'll find a nifty hidden map case. Secure it with a metal snap near the bars, and you're navigating in style (the background fabric is a deep scarlet, a very stylish touch). The map case is smaller than the giant pocket the Arkel offers, of course, but should easily meet the needs of any day tripper.

It also feature a zip pocket underneath reflective trim on the front side:

Borrowing a leaf from much more expensive bags, the main compartment is lined in a bright crimson, which makes finding smaller or darker-colored items easier. There's a hefty, clear plastic pocket big enough for most phones or digital point-and-shoot cameras -- even for both, depending on size. The outside of the front flap also has a flat zip pocket, where you might hide money, extra maps, thin tools, and so forth.

One reason I chose this modestly-sized bag was my intention to pair it with a saddlebag of a similar size. My plan was to spread out the load, keep it light both front and back, and yet have plenty of room for any extra gear I might need for longer or colder rides. This way, I wouldn't have to deal with an over-sized, over-priced, painfully-authentic French bag perched pretentiously over my front wheel on an otherwise useless rack. I would have all that capacity, but twice the flexibility.

I found just what I was looking for in Banjo's small saddle bag in their Minnehaha canvas and leather line. (See second photo, and stay tuned for seat bag review soon.) Even when full (and that's about 9 liters, for those keeping score at home -- a lot of stuff) bike handling seems totally unaffected. Mission accomplished.

When a bag of this quality costs a paltry $29.00, it's hard to complain, but I feel obliged to mention a few points. Craftsmanship does not rule here: the Velcro handlebar straps are off-center on my model (see first photograph), and have thus worn away the electrician's tape on one inside edge of my bar wrap. If I leave the bag on, it's not visible, but the bar tape is effectively destroyed and needs to be replaced. I'll have to devise some remedy or other for the sandpaper effect of the straps.

Another point: this bag doesn't advertise itself as waterproof, and it's not. I rode home once through a torrential storm with monumental winds, and the outer fabric was drenched. However, everything in the inner plastic zippered pocket was dry, and everything else was barely damp, if at all. It was, however, a brief ride. If you want a hermetic seal, hit me up for that Arkel bag. It costs more, but even baby chicks would arrive warm and fluffy after a ride through Noah's Flood.

Finally, there will obviously be less room on the 'bars with the the Velcro version of this bag. My hands (admittedly large) fit just a little behind the outside corners of the bag for a somewhat centered bar position, but I will not be protecting my cold fingers from the wind behind the bag's modest bulk, as I could with the quick-release model. Nor will I be mounting a bar-clamp for a headlight. The good news is, this trade-off bothers me far less than I thought it would.

In all, I am very pleased indeed. With the two-bag set-up, I no longer have to pay style dues and jam all my snacks and layers into straining jersey pockets. (Really, who first thought that look was cool?) I've ridden hundreds of miles and felt totally prepared and light as I need to be.  It all sits quietly tucked away, readily accessible, with little-to-no performance penalty. And there's room for an apple from that farmer's market I pass, or a bottle or loaf of something I pick up for my loved ones waiting patiently at home.

The perfect set-up for an adventure-loving cyclist.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the review. I've been doing some research on the same setup (handlebar+saddle bag) and shopping has been difficult because all the options are either too small (I need more room!) or way too large (I'm not travelling across the country!). Waterproof would be nice, but in reality, not a deal breaker.

Velosopher said...

You're so welcome, Anon. I continue to find this set-up pretty ideal for one-to-five-hour rides on which I might need extra clothing, tools, or might be picking up a used paperback at an unexpected bookstore or a couple pieces of fruit, etc. I could pack a lot in here if I had to.

The handlebar bag is pretty water-resistant, and there's a small waterproof plastic zipper pocket inside for phone or camera and maybe one/two other small items. The saddlebag is a tad more porous, but nothing inside has ever gotten very wet -- nor, by the same token, ridden in a drenching storm, so it's not totally proven there. I've thought about waxing the saddlebad, haven't done so yet (or felt the need).