Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Bundle of Joy for Drop Bar Commuting: the ILE Racktop Porteur Bag

On my way home from the supermarket last night, a neighbour - in the rural sense of the word, as this was a good few miles from my house - flagged me down as I pedaled past. She was holding a parcel for me, mis-delivered to her address. When she handed it over, I thanked her profusely, while wondering how the heck I would get it home. The bundle might fit into my front bag, just barely, on top of the groceries already in there. But the resultant bulge would surely prevent me from using the brakes on my drop-bars, as they were already quite close to the sides of the bag. Happily, when I stuffed the parcel inside, this proved to be a non-issue: As the bag swallowed the goods, it grew in height but remained just narrow enough in width for the sides to clear my hands when I held the brake levers.

And that sums up what I love about the Inside Line Equipment Racktop Porteur Bag: It's a front bag that is not only handmade, durable and roomy, but - oh joy of joys! - compatible with drop bars.


Inspiring me to set up one of my roadbikes as a "transporteur," this bag has expanded my long-distance commuting possibilities by enabling me to combine the speed of a roadbike with the carry capacity of a utility bike - while allowing me to stick with my preferred front-carry method of hauling weight.

A setup that allows for both drop bars and a large, porteur-style front bag is notoriously tricky to get right. The lower and the narrower the handlebars and the wider the bag, the more potential for interference. And in that sense, I am probably one of the more difficult riders to accommodate: Smallish in stature, I ride bikes with short head tubes and I set my (42cm wide) bars pretty low. While for a taller rider, the bars might be positioned well above any front-carry setup, for me any front bag will sit right in between my hands. For that reason, many porteur-style bags will be too bulky to work with drop bars. But the 14"-wide, collapsible ILE bag is just narrow enough to clear my hands.

Granted, especially when the bag is full, it's close. Lucky for me, I am on the right side of close. But if you ride with bars which are narrower than 42cm and set just as low as mine, be aware that this setup will not work. Various other factors, such as hand size, hand position, and brake lever style could affect the setup as well.


Of course the ILE Racktop Porteur Bag bag can also be fitted on bicycles with upright handlebars, and without any of these issues. The bag does need a wide platform rack for support. And it is compatible with most porteur-style front racks on the market today, including Pass & Stow, Soma, Cetma, Velo Orange and Pelago. The latter two (Velo Orange Porteur Rack and Pelago Commuter Front Rack) are shown with the bag here.


In the case of the VO rack, the bag will even fit with the rail attached, although it's a crumply fit and to attach it without the rail is easier.

With a stiff, padded base for structure, the ILE Porteur bag attaches to the rack with two easy to use straps, which can be adjusted for tightness. The on/off with these straps is pretty quick, especially once my hands developed a memory for where to find the clasps, making it unnecessary to bend over and look under the rack. Once attached to the rack tightly, the bag sits sturdy and does not shift when the bike is in motion.

When off the bike, the bag can be removed and carried as a shoulder bag, via the adjustable strap that otherwise remains stowed tidily within the roll-top fold.

The roll-top, messenger bag-style design with its 42L capacity probably means that you will max out your rack's weight rating before you will run out of space in the bag. Still it can be useful to have the room for bulky, but lightweight items.

And if additional carry capacity is needed, overflow items can be easily secured with the extra tie-down straps, stashed in the over-sleeve when not in use.

Inside, the bag is fully lined with vinyl, making it weatherproof (according to the specs, as well as my own experience of commuting through the winter). I have ridden with this bag in heavy rain for up to an hour at a time, and I have left it attached to my bicycle when parked outdoors all day in bad weather. The interior always remains impeccably dry. 

Overall, in the many months I have used this bag, the waxed cotton canvas exterior (also available in cordura nylon, in a range of colours that you can view here) has proven to be exceptionally durable - resisting scuffs and barely showing any wear or tear despite regular use and utter lack of maintenance. That said, I do have full mudguards on my bicycle. I suspect an absence of a front fender might make a difference in how this bag weathers.

Perhaps my favourite feature of the ILE Porteur bag, aside from its drop bar compatibility, is the presence of large, easy-to-access rear-facing pockets. The flaps close with velcro, making it easy - even for someone as uncoordinated as myself - to extract items from the pockets while the bicycle is in motion.

Each of the two rear-facing pockets is roomy enough to fit items such as a standard size bike lock, a large smartphone, tools, a hat, even a sizable snack such as an apple or a sandwich. As my commutes are often quite long, I find it handy to have quick access to my phone and bits of food via these external compartments. It allows me to retrieve items without having to stop, dismount, unroll the bag and fumble in its vast interior.

Inside Line Bags are handmade in Berkeley, California and are available in the UK and Ireland from VAM Performance, whom I thank for the opportunity to test this bag.  I have been using the ILE bag for 9 months now, on several different bicycles. As you can probably tell by the frequent appearance of this bag in my photos, I like it very much and use it often. It has been particularly useful during the long, windy winter we're just emerging from here in Ireland - allowing me to use my roadbike as a utility bike with ease.

Of course, no bag is perfect, and personally, I would like this one even better if it had a simpler (and more accessible on the go) closure in leu of the roll-top design (the VO Porteur bag comes to mind). I would also appreciate something in the way of (perhaps optional) separators or pockets for the main interior, so that the contents can be kept better organised and items such as laptops and cameras do not bang against each other. Finally, offering a slightly narrower size would be ideal for riders with super low and narrow handlebars.

That said, I think the ILE Racktop Porteur Bag is as good as it gets for those seeking a roomy front bag that is compatible with most porteur-style racks and most drop bar setups. Starting at $160, the cost is in line with other US-handmade bags of its type. In addition to the Porteur Bag, a range of other bicycle bags are available from ILE, with custom orders accepted. Check out their collection here, and visit here to find a UK retailer.



30 comments:

  1. I got this bag after you first posted about it here. Love it!

    Also worth having a look
    http://www.freightbags.com/products/porteur-rack-bag-working

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    1. Another Freight Bags owner here. How fun to see west coast USA bags featured here. Where is Dill Pickle at?

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    2. I have never seen a Freight Bags porteur bag in person (I inquired about a review on reader request 3 years ago, but did not hear back). But my impression is, it's a backpack, with straps that attach to a front rack? I don't see rear facing pockets. And the price is quite a bit higher. Not sure it would be my cup of tea, but again I have not seen it in person. Seems to have quite a fan base at any rate! Whatever works for you, is good in my book.

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    3. Very much wanted a Freight bag as it seemed the perfect companion for the short cycle camping trips I enjoy.

      They took my money well enough. But they never sent the bag nor answered my e-mails. Caveat emptor.

      Currently I have a Swift Porteur. This ILE looks to be a very well thought out alternative.

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  2. 42 liters! That's the volume of 2 Ortlieb rear Packer Pluses, which I use for heavy duty grocery runs on my Rivendell Road.

    How much weight can you carry in the ILE on the front rack? -- On your road commuter, of course.

    One reason I've stuck with rear loading --after a brief experiment with a Pass & Stowe porteur and custom fit bag -- was that, even if volume is adequate, the bike wouldn't handle more than 20 lb without awkward handling -- this was a 1958 Herse. With a decent rear rack on the Rivendell, and a pair of the Ortliebs, I don't even feel 20 lb, and I can manage 40 lb and more, at least for shopping distances -- 10 miles or less 1 way.

    I realize that a frame designed for heavy front loads will carry 50 lb or more, but then, doesn't the handling suffer when the front is unladen? And at any rate, we're comparing road bikes here, not dedicated porteurs.

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    1. I can answer your last question and some of the other bits.
      I've got a low-trail bike that I use the ILE bag with. Handling is best/most neutral when carrying a small load: rack + bag + spares/tools + extra clothing layers + food. Steering gets slightly heavier as the load increases, but I've never felt that steering has become difficult even with a large load. It's still really nimble, like able to swerve around potholes or glass on the road quite easily. In short, it handles with a load how a "normal" road bike handles without a load.
      Now, unloaded: the steering gets quite light and (not really sure how to explain this) it feels like more input is needed to turn the bike. It's a slightly strange feeling but I become accustomed to it after a couple of turns/a few minutes.

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    2. > Bertin753April 13, 2016 at 3:34 PM
      > 42 liters! That's the volume of 2 Ortlieb rear Packer Pluses

      > JonathanApril 13, 2016 at 5:12 PM
      > Handling is best/most neutral when carrying a small load

      Exactly why I think an alternative version of this bag with an easier-to-access main opening at the expense of the expandable roll top would be welcomed.

      My mid-trail bike actually handles just fine with a heavier load. As I add more weight, the steering slows - but I don't really see that as a problem in a commuting context. I'm more concerned about exceeding the front rack's and fork's capacity by carrying too much. Also, after 9 months I find that I very rarely actually need to fill the bag to anywhere close to capacity.

      Oh and to answer your question, the Pelago front rack is rated for 15kg (33lbs). But in my understanding it's not a good idea to carry more than 15-20lb over my Mercian's road fork on a regular basis.

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    3. My commuter is a low trail custom. I've managed pretty heavy loads with minimal steering issues.

      The rear facing pockets on the ILE must certainly come in handy as V points out as you can get handy items during the ride without dismounting. The one issue with a load up front is you need to take extra care dismounting lest the handle bars swing back to smack your top tube.

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    4. This happens when I attempt to move or walk the bike by the saddle, but I am curious how it can happen to you while dismounting. Do you not hold on to the bars when getting off the bike {picturing a truly unusual maneuver}?

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    5. Likely a quirk of my bike's somewhat unique design.

      I have a Retrotec Triple. Before I got the hang of it there were a couple of times when I went to switch my glasses, I stopped, grab the curving top tube with my left hand then reached for the front of the Swift bag with my right. Without my weight on the handlebars the rack swung back at the bike.

      Those little pockets would sure be handy as you would not need to get off the bike to get little items you may want during the ride leaving the primary cargo area alone.

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    6. If your fork has the usual 18/21 gauge (1.22/0.81mm) Reynolds blades you have nothing to worry about, whoever told you the limit was 15 pounds was very conservative. There is no rating, just generations of experience with those blades. With the normal blades you could do five things you shouldn't do and it would still be fine. Anyone offering a load limit has to be aware that users do all sorts of silly things with bikes.

      If you have the 1.0/0.5mm blades (possible, not likely) you are way out on the edge. Those blades are for racing. You could get away with it for a while. "I am getting away with it and I'm not dead yet" is a common attitude and a pretty horrible justification for risk taking. Find out which blades you have.

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  3. I hate to be the hater of any smallish bike company, but we've had just a godawful experience with Freight Bags. Aside from the fact that it took 9 months and countless unanswered emails and phone calls to finally get the bag (after they "lost" the order), it's just your average backpack with extra straps. It's insanely heavy, really bulky, and they use the horrible Velcro that's super low profile but also super low quality. Barely stays closed.
    I've been sewing my own bags for the past few years with waxed canvas and poly lining, and I love that it gives me the flexibility to customize to fit exactly my own set up. I do however, love Swift Industries' designs, and I'm intrigued by ILE. Who makes your rear bag that you have pictured above? I love that one too, and it looks so nice on that gorgeous Mercian.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      The rear bag is a Carradice Barley.

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  4. I've used mine since August and I love it. I just have a hard time understanding how you can so easily fit it inside a 42 cm bar. I actually had to swap my 42 cm Noodles for a pair of 44s just so that I could use this bag, and my bag-to-bar clearance seems about the same as yours.

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    1. I hope it comes across in my description and photos that it *is* a close fit for me. And if you think about it, the difference between our bar widths is a mere 1cm on each side. Factors such as hand size, lever design, rack design &bike geo easily account for discrepancies in user experience. My hands are small. And note my levers are not ergo/STI. Even factors such as rack design and frame geometry will play a role - you can tell in my pictures that the bag is pushed ever so slightly forward on that Pelago rack.

      So I'd say, for those who ride with 42cm bars and set them low, it could go either way; certainly you are safer with 44cm and wider.

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    2. I run 46cm Noodles with mine just *barely* get my hands comfortably on the drops when I've got my normal contents (basic tools/pump/spare tube/ulock + a rain layer) and a few days' worth of groceries.

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  5. I have this bag on a bike with the new Shimano hydraulic brake/shift levers. On 42cm wide bars with a decent flare on the drops I can still manage (with careful packing) to get full sweep of the shift levers. As noted in the review, I would love this same bag maybe 2 inches narrower, or I guess I could find some 44 or 46cm bars...
    As per the rest of the review, I agree wholeheartedly in that it's a great bag with incredible amounts of room and some great features. All those extra straps come in handy when hauling bulky stuff. I have the cordura fabric, but kinda wish I'd gone for the waxed cotton after seeing how it wears: the cordura is still very stiff after a few months of use, not sure if it's going to loosen up at all.

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    1. I am normally not a fan of bags with a plethora of straps; I tend to get confused and make a mess of them. But on the ILE bag the strappage is so common-sensical and stows away so neatly, that I have to concede their usefulness. Comes in especially handy for carrying my big tweed coat in a "4 seasons in a day" situation.

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  6. In 1958, if you could afford to commission a Herse, your baggage would be carried by a porter. The notion that a bike was a beast of burden was for the working classes. A gentleman would disdain to carry 40 pounds.

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    1. Upon a careful reading of the relevant literature, you will find that in those days, the bikes had their own servant bikes. So, when one commissioned a Randonneuse, naturally that machine required its own Porteur. Hence the co-evolvement of the two styles.

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    2. Bikes with their own servants? How arrogant must those bike have been :)

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  7. V @ 5:21

    Assuming the Mercian is now a dedicated workhorse handling would be immediately improved by fitting a wider front tire. Long run you could consider having a longer fork made.

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    1. As is, it should fit a 28mm with fenders. I'll wait till the current tyres wear out and then see if I want to size up. Without the bag, I actually preferred this bike with a narrower tyre.

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  8. After finding commodity bags expensive and/or inadequate, I've decided to craft my own drop-bar bag out of recycled leather. It is coming along. I've been using a leather belly bag, which has the advantage of being wrapped around the waist when not dangling from bars, for example, when shopping, but too small for anything more than bare necessities. Also making a tool bag for hanging from Brooks saddle. Branded ones cost as much as saddle itself, though nothing else nicely fits into clips.

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    1. Fantastic that you are making your own; post pictures!

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  9. After reading your rather positive review, my girlfriend recently purchased the canvas version of the ILE bag in order to use it on the Pelago Commuter front rack I installed on her Mercier mixte.

    It may be worth noting that, while the rack and bag can be be made to work with each other well enough to be used safely, it is obvious they were not designed to be used together. On the VO rack, just wrapping the straps around the outer frame of the rack is enough to secure the bag against lateral movement. On the Pelago rack, the bag would slide sideways because the spacing of the rack’s bracing does not match the spacing of the straps. In order to stop the bag from moving sideways, the straps need to wrap around the rack’s bracing. This seems to strain the seams in an asymmetrical and thus less than ideal way, as is visible in the topmost photo showing the front view of your Mercian.

    Fitting issues aside, the ILE bag seems to be very well made, and the canvas material is as nice to look at as it is durable. Well worth the money!

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    1. Let me process what exactly you are describing and then examine my rack. I have this bag installed specifically on the Pelago front rack (the large version) and have absolutely zero problems with movement or fit.

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    2. I just uploaded some pictures and a short video of the setup to my flickr page. Here’s a link to the video: https://flic.kr/p/JxEBcj

      The rack shown is the large Pelago front rack. Once tied down the alternative (i.e. crooked) way, the bag doesn’t move from side to side anymore. I wonder for how long the seams will last, though.

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  11. Hi! Love your post/photos.

    I am about to buy VO rack and the ILE however the fact I have bullhorns with reverse break levers (at the end of the horns) got me thinking. Will the bag get in my way while breaking? I can't really tell the clearance but my front looks similar to your photo #2.

    Otherwise I might consider another option for not carrying my backpack...

    Thank you,
    F

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