Saddlebags for commuting: the old-school solution

Getting to work by bike, under my own steam, has an enduring appeal for me. Getting to work with steam coming out of my ears, lathered with perspiration however is lower on my favourites list. 

And it’s for this reason that I’m a big fan of carrying my day-to-day goods on the bike, rather than on my back. I’m a firm believer these days that the bike should carry the load, like the faithful iron horse it is. 

Now, long-term followers of this blog will know I’ve wavered on this issue, flirted with messenger bags and rucksacks and whatnot. But I’ve come right back around to letting the beast take the burden. 

And I’ve found that the best type of bag I’ve used for commute-size loads is the classic saddlebag. 

I’ve owned a number over the years, all made by Carradice of Nelson. First a Pendle in olive green, followed by a giant 20-something litre Camper Longflap in black and now, a ‘just about right’ 13-litre Cadet

Why just about right? The mid-sized Cadet is perfect for my needs, big enough to carry everything I need for the day. This is generally:

  • Tools
  • Spare tube
  • Waterproofs
  • Lock 
  • Work satchel containing work shirt and sweater, iPad, phone, chargers. 

The Cadet is a simple, unfussy single compartment with no side pockets and is small enough to leave on the bike when lightly loaded. 

I keep the saddlebag permanently attached to the bike and take the satchel in and out when I get to my destination, essentially using the saddlebag as a fabric basket. I’ve used an SQR quick release system before to great success but the aesthete in me prefers the look of the bag simply attached to the saddle loops on my Spa Cycles Nidd saddle. I use an old Pletscher Model C rack as a bag support, lifting the bag away from the saddle and holding it at a more pleasing angle. 

Russian bags?

The bag-within-bag (Russian bags?) setup works well for me, allowing me to switch between cycling, driving and public transport commutes without having to decant my daily goods from one bag to t’other. 

I’ve toyed with the idea of a basket but rattles bug me and the Carradice saddlebag gives weather protection to its precious cargo, being made from deluge-proof cotton duck and being tucked behind the rider and out of harm’s way. 

It scores over a single pannier in being a central weight over the wheel, away from road spray, drivetrain dirt and snagging in control gates and undergrowth on the cycle path. 

And of course all forms of bike-borne portage score heavily over rucksacks in the sweat stakes, allowing air to circulate over the rider and through breathable jackets, minimising the dreaded sweaty back in the office syndrome, so beloved of work colleagues. 

What’s your preferred mode of bike portage? Rucksack, pannier, messenger bag, saddlebag or something else? 

*I have no affiliation to Carradice, beyond loving their work. 


10 thoughts on “Saddlebags for commuting: the old-school solution

  1. Tim Slater

    Preferred luggage system for decades now: pannier bags (if necessary, front and rear). And for some years now, Ortlieb bags (completely waterproof, quick-fastening). I use them both on my touring bike and on my recumbent trike.

    If I were still on the staff of a company, and commuting to work daily, I would have bought one of the attaché-case type pannier bags, as well.

  2. George

    Interesting article..I have very similar issues. I currently use one or two carridice panniers but the day in day out grind along the canal leaves them spattered with mud. I like the “russian doll” approach…I should really do something similar on days I travel by train.

  3. James

    I use a single large Delta pannier – no longer available in the UK, an american copy of Ortlieb in a way – but I prefer the simpler attachment and welded waterproof outer lid to the Ortlieb Roller. I take all my office clothes, wash bag and towel, lunch, and valuables in this, and bring them all home again. Getting it wet and muddy is not issue because it is completely waterproof and wipeable; and in any case, I stay on tarmac and avoid the worst weather for my 3 days a week cycle commuting (17 miles each way). I also use an Altura Arran handlebar bag for tools, lights, lock, rain jacket, mini pump, works pass etc, which I also take off the bike at destination. This is not waterproof, so I keep everthing in a carrier bag inside, but I like the volume and Klickfix quick release attachement of this model. When I (rarely) cycle tour, I add in another smaller Delta pannier on the other side – together enough for a few days in Youth Hostels or B&B.

  4. Jim

    I use a combination of Ortlieb panniers on the rear of my LHT and on the front of my Surly Straggler, using them for different situations. And now I am trying a Revelate Designs Pika saddle bag for some of my daily commute chores. Each system has its advantages. Would like to try some Carradice gear but have to much invested in my current kit. Great site thanks Jim

  5. StephenP

    I like the saddlebag option due to the symmetric load distribution. Have also used the Carradice briefcase type bag which is much better shaped for commuting, but suffers from the load symmetry problem, and is nearer to water kicked up from the road. I guess much of it depends how much you feel you need to carry back and forth. I often feel I need to ship my work laptop back and forth, which possibly says more about my work life balance.

  6. mitchj68

    I have a milk crate bolted to a pack-rack on the back of my daily commuter. It easily takes my back pack, tool bag & lock. If I need to get a few things on my way home, I wear the back pack & put stuff in the crate. Works fine for me. ( Rain isn’t usually much of an issue in my part of Australia!). There’s a picture of it here-

    It’s probably a bit daggy, but I really like the old mixte’s, & it is a really comfortable bike to ride to work everyday (& I’m too old to worry about how “cool” I look anyway!).

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      I love mixte bikes. One day when my hip loses a few more degrees of movement it will be my bike of choice. Milk crates and baskets are cool!

  7. James

    I have never found a problem with pannier asymmetry. I use one pannier to commute to work because 2 would be too awkward to carry around the plant. I put the pannier on the nearside – the opposite side to all the hardware of the drive train (nb: bikes are not symmetrical anyway), and despite Chris Juden’s warnings in the CTC Magazine, I have never noticed any asymmetric wear on the tyres in 30,000 miles of commuting on tarmac.

    1. George

      Well yes agreed. I cycled in with a single pannier today and only really notice the asymmetry when propping up the bike againt walls etc. I think the weight of the pannier is so low (and close to the tyres “pivot point”) that only a small imperceptible weight shift of your upper body is needed to balence it. When cycling you are adjusting your balence all the time against uneven ground, sidewinds, cornering forces etc so the asymetic pannier load is just lost in the noise…

  8. Peter Merchant - you might have guessed.

    1. A rattle is friction is wear. I hate rattles too.

    2. A few years ago I bought from Lidl a bag that looked like a fabric briefcase, but had two hooks on the back that clip on to my carrier. A bungee cord to hold it close and it has worked well for years.

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