Ok, I'll admit it. It would be kinda cool to have the Mavic neutral support vehicle (bristling with spare wheels) follow me around on my rides. Or to have a domestique fetch my water bottles, and a team car to roll up with a spare bike if mine develops a mechanical problem.
But sadly, for those of us not named Nibali or Quintana, we gotta carry our own stuff. And it goes without saying that if you ride your bike for transportation, a lot of times that stuff is heavy.
There are an increasing number of cargo hauling options for people who ride bikes for utility. Examples include porteur racks, Carradice-type bags, Randonneuring-style front bags and (of particular interest to bikepackers and gravel riders) frame bags. Trailers and dedicated cargo bikes are also an option.
But, at least for the time being, the majority of utility cyclists seem to wind up in one of two camps; messenger bags or panniers.
For a cyclist who bikes for transportation, the decision which camp to pitch your tent in is as much a philosophical choice (and even an aesthetic choice) as it is a practical/functional one. Do I want to keep my bike light, nimble and uncluttered while I carry a bunch of weight on my shoulders? Or should my bike be carrying the burden, sacrificing a bit of zippiness, but letting my back glide along unencumbered? Do I want to look like a bike messenger, or do I want to emulate those grizzled cross-country touring types?
I've personally spent equal time with both setups (about five years apiece) so I figured I'd share my opinions on the pros and cons of each.
For about three years, I rocked a set of the ubiquitous Ortlieb Back Rollers. When they started to wear out a bit, I picked up a set of Arkel GT-18's. These are technically front panniers designed for unsupported cross-country touring, but I think they work great as rear panniers for commuting and riding around town. (Side note, I also own a set of full-sized rear panniers for that cross-country trip I'm only ever going to take in my dreams.)
Pros of Panniers:
Cons of Panniers:
While handy for carrying larger loads (like groceries) I've found that full-sized rear panniers can be overkill for everyday riding. Using smaller front panniers (which also can be used in the back) has worked out great for me.
As such, a lot of companies that make "messenger bags" are starting to favor a two-strapped backpack-style format. Savvy urban cyclists are often pairing this type of bag with what can only be described as a modern, cooler version of the fanny pack. This is used to carry items that are frequently needed mid ride (thus negating the need to access the contents of the main bag until you reach your destination). If you don't mind wearing a fanny pack, this is a super smart way to go, IMO, especially if you make lots of stops requiring you to frequently lock up your bike and walk around.
The important thing to note is that I'm purposely using the term "messenger bag" a little differently. To me, regardless of the number of straps, a messenger bag is designed specifically to carry cargo when riding a bike (in other words, what an actual bike messenger does). To serve this purpose it has to be durable, cut/shaped for cycling and it absolutely has to be waterproof.
Like pretty much everyone else I knew in the late 2000s, my Chrome messenger bag was surgically attached to my upper body. If I were to ditch my panniers nowadays, however, I'd probably look into a Mission Workshop backpack. Sadly, local Chicago company Wig Bags seems to have stopped selling their well-designed product. But I've heard really good things about Trash Bags out of Minneapolis and would want to give them a look too.
Pros of Messenger Bags:
Cons of Messenger Bags:
The Bottom Line:
That said, I personally think the decision should be based on the type of riding you do.
Specifically, if you're doing most of your riding in an urban environment, traveling relatively short distances, making lots of stops and locking up your bike a lot...messenger bag all the way.
If you're traveling longer distances and/or carrying more cargo, you're often riding in a suburban or rural setting, and generally going from "point A" to "point B" with few stops in between, you might prefer panniers.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.