Group test: bar bags

A "klick" of bar bags (with thanks to @GaryinScotland for the collective noun!)
Sam Jones's picture

Group test: bar bags

Cycling UK's Sam Jones reviews five bar bags currently out in the market suitable to provide stand-alone bike luggage or help complement your touring set up.

If you don’t fancy carrying valuables in your pockets, or just simply have too many items that you want close to hand (eg camera, sunscreen, waterproof etc) then a bar bag is seriously worth considering. 

They’re part of the classic touring set up with good reason, as they allow you to lump all valuables in one easily accessible and most importantly, transportable place. This means the bar bag will need a quick release attachment, with the most universal system being the Klickfix provided by Rixen&Kaul. All of the bags came with mounts, and four of the five had the Klickfix system which made it much easier to switch between them. Each bag also came with detachable straps unless the review says so. 

A not often mentioned benefit of the bar bag I soon learned to appreciate was how in the colder months they can act as a bit of a windshield for your hands. As the mercury has dropped quite significantly in recent mornings, I definitely noticed the difference when I cycled in without the bar bag to protect my knuckles from the wind chill! 

I used all these in the test to carry my normal commuting clobber (spare inner, mini pump, multitool, lightweight waterproof jacket and lunch) and put them through a solid equal soaking in the Cycling UK shower to test their water resistance too. 

1. Ortlieb Ultimate6 S Plus
RRP £75 

This is a new compact bar bag from Ortlieb and at five litres was one of the smallest bags on review. It fitted everything I needed, as well as the office’s D-SLR camera without the top popping off or causing steering difficulties. In many ways, I prefer the smaller size, as it forces me not to overpack!

The Plus range is made of Cordura fabric which I prefer to the normal shiny vinyl style. It’s allegedly as robust and as durable as the Classic range, and after a rough time with me it’s still looking like new. During the shower test, there were no issues in terms of leakage, with water beading rather than soaking the fabric. 

The lid is kept in place by two magnets, and I had no issue with it popping open mid ride. The lid is touchscreen compatible which is a nice touch, and I suspect large enough for an iPad mini. You can squeeze a single side of an OS landranger map in, but I think this would be more faff than use when out and about, and that if you go with this bag and need guidance, you’ll probably want a GPS device. 

The interior is pretty basic, but features a zippable valuable bag and a fastening for your keys, and there's a reflective patch on the front. 

It features a Klickfix lockable mount which locks both the bag to the mount, but through quite a neat loop also locks the lid. It’s not going to stop a determined thief, but it will provide added security if you’re worried about your lip popping open. 

Colour: green, red, black, blue 
Capacity: @5 litres
Max tube diameter: up to 31.8 mm
Weight: 606g

​Verdict: Light, durable and well thought out, only let down is lack of compatibility for a map cover.


2. Carradice Super C handlebar bag
RRP £70 

I've long been a fan of Carradice's use of waxed cotton duck and have never been let down by either the products or the exemplary service of this Lancashire based company, so I had high hopes for the Super C handlebar bag. Needless to say, during the course of my testing I wasn't disappointed, and my gear remained dry though out the test. 

It's not the prettiest of bags, but what it lacks in looks it sure makes up for in practicality. Carradice seems to have pretty much thought of everything a bar bag might need, and then added it. This means if you're looking for just a simple hold all, this bag probably isn't for you.

On the outside there are two small side pouches, which I found useful for popping a spare rear light in. They're pretty tight and not especially capacious, so don't anticipate being able to stuff them full of goodies, but for a few odds and ends they're perfect. The other reason you won't want to stuff them, is with a width of 26cm, if you're fitting it to a bike with drops, you might struggle for room. I tested this on my Surly Disc Trucker which has bar end shifters, but if you've STI shifters you might find the sheer girth of the bag getting in the way. Then again, if you go for a touring classic like the Super C, your bike probably won't have STIs...

Carradice says their bag is only 5 litres, but I have my doubts on this and suspect it's bigger, particularly when you compare it to the other 5 litre offerings I reviewed from Altura and Ortlieb. Judging by the the other bags I reviewed that were sized at 5 litres , I'd suggest the Super C is closer to 7 litres. It's certainly spacious, and easily held my daily belongings with space and to spare. Inside there's a zipped pouch, and two large pockets on the side, all of which should make it a bit easier to organise your belongings. The top is held down by two solid clips on adjustable straps.

Outside, there's a long white reflective strip stretched across the front, and up top a very easy to use large map case secured by poppers. This should be able to house any map you can think of, and most importantly allow for a long ride until you need to make any adjustments of the map itself. I also tried the case with my smartphone, but the thickness of the plastic meant the touchscreen was not receptive.

A touch I really appreciated with the Super C was the removable light bracket on the base. Apart from the Carradice and the Altura, none of the other bags seemed to be designed to use at night, or at least they assume the cyclist will have a different light set up to a handlebar mounted position. My light sits at the fork crown, and wasn't obscured by any of the bar bags on review, but I was concerned when reviewing all these bags how effective my lighting set up would have been if they were placed on my handlebars, as I would not have been able to direct the light down to see road defects immediately in front, and would run the risk of dazzling other road users by having to angle them too high. Carradice's simple solution gets round this, and gets the thumbs up from me. 

Colour: black
Capacity: @5 litres
Max tube diameter: 32mm
Weight: 911g

Verdict: The do anything, go anywhere, likely last forever, of bar bags.


3. Brooks Isle of Skye
RRP £125 

I’ve had a chequered past with Brooks’ products, and have usually found that while their saddles won’t let me down, their forays into luggage unfortunately will and usually within a week or two of purchase. I therefore didn’t have high hopes for their bar bag.

All was forgiven and forgotten though when I pulled the Isle of Skye from its cotton storage bag (a nice touch), and was able to look upon this very elegant, simple but fully functional bar bag. Unlike the other bags I reviewed, the Isle of Skye looked just as handsome off the bike as on it, and might get away with not being recognised as bike luggage when used as a satchel.

It certainly is a handsome item of luggage, with leather trimmings, metal studs for fixing a map case (provided and touch screen friendly), and a bluesign-approved waterproof textile, tested for 2000mm water, which dealt with the deluge I put it through with no trouble. The leather band on the front might also accommodate a front light with a clasp fitting. 

Just like the island it is named after, the Isle of Skye is unique, but fortunately this doesn’t stretch to the mounting system, where Brooks has sensibly opted for the universal Klickfix system.

Like the Ortlieb Ultimate6, the lid is secured closed with two magnets which close with a satisfying “click”, and I was never concerned it might pop open. That’s in part down to the cavernous interior which is as simple as the exterior featuring no pockets and I never fully filled. 

Weighing on our scales over a kilo, you won’t want to overfill this beauty, not if you don’t want to unduly affect the steering. There’s definite heft to this bag, which for the weight weenies will be a concern. However, it’s clearly not been designed for ultra light travel, and would fit well on a Tweed Run in looks and just like tweed I suspect it would perform admirably (and stylishly) in more inclement environments as well. 

Colour: green/honey, beige/brown
Capacity: @9 litres
Max tube diameter: 32mm
Weight: 1082g

Verdict: Oozing both style and substance, let down only by price and weight.


4. Altura Arran bar bag
RRP from £23.99 

I really liked the plucky contender of Altura’s Arran bar bag, as it’s an uncomplicated piece of well priced bike luggage that I’d be happy to use on a day to day basis - with a few reservations.

It’s a simple 5 litre hold all, Klickfix mount, with a lid held down by velcro. A colleague borrowed this bag for a tour in Poland, and found that it did pop open when it was very full. In my testing though, it only came open when I wanted it to fortunately - and that was even when taking it on a bumpy off-road commute. In terms of longevity I would have reservations about the velcro, as if in a sandy environment I could imagine it would swiftly grow obsolete. If on a long trip with this bag I’d make sure I packed a bungee just in case I needed a make shift means of keeping it closed and secure.

I would also make sure I kept my valuables in small dry bag as well, as the Arran was the only one bag on review that came close to failing the shower test. The bag soaked up the water, and while the interior remained largely dry, there was some dampness around the seams at the front of the bag. Nothing major, but it’s a problem I would imagine getting worse if encountering several hours of heavy rain. 

The Arran was also one of the bags to consider the cyclist travelling in the dark. It’s more a nod to the nighttime wheeler, rather than a full on solution like the Super C, but there’s a slit on the front which a light could fit into. How secure it would be, is another matter though. 

No map case comes with the Arran, but if it did, it would be fixed with velcro. 

Overall, this bag has limitations but at nearly a third of the price of the other bags in this review, if I needed a bar bag on a shoe string budget, I’d probably get one of these - and a bungee and 5 litre dry bag too!

Colour: black
Capacity: @5 litres
Max tube diameter: 32mm
Weight: 538g

Verdict: A respectable budget option.


5. Blackburn Barrier
RRP £79.99 

It’s probably worth stating that I’m really not a fan of zips on luggage which is meant to take quite a battering. For me they’re built in fail points, and that’s a risk not worth taking especially when you’re many miles from home. I was proved right in this from the outset when I made the mistake of trying to rip the plastic tag attached to one of the zips off rather than cut it, as the zip fastener came off instead! 

I’m sure Blackburn would have fixed this problem had I flagged it up, but as it was I was able to use the bag with just one fastener. 

The Barrier is very different to its brethren in this test, in part due to its fixing system which is different to the Klickfix (I actually found this version easier to attach to my handlebars), and the fact that it doesn’t have a removable strap. Instead the strap is permanently fixed to the left side of the bag where it emerges from a curious zippable pocket which in no way could actually house the whole strap, and therefore will never close. 

This curious feature of the strap also means unless you actually cut the strap off, there’s no practical means of ever fully zipping the lid closed as you will always have a strap in the zip’s path. In the end, this didn’t turn out to be a problem, as in the water test not a drop got inside. Short of a full on dunking in a river (which none of the bags on the review would pass), I suspect the Barrier’s contents will remain thoroughly dry (unless you manage to fit something into the strap “pocket” which was still wet a day after the test).

There’s a built in panel on the top which is touch screen compatible and best suited to a mobile  phone or small tablet computer. I tried to squeeze in an OS landranger map, but while possible, the amount of folding would have made it impractical for anything but the shortest of trips. There is a fitting for a magnetic map holder though which would presumably get you round this problem. 

Should you not wish to be zipping and unzipping continually, the lid can be fixed by a very sturdy velcro fastener. I think in the end though, I’d rather Blackburn had ditched the zips and velcro and used the magnets instead like Ortlieb and Brooks. 

Inside there are three pockets to help organisation in the large vestibule area. A nice touch is that you can unzip this interior, which means if there are any spillages the clean up should be much simpler. 

Colour: black
Capacity: @7.5 litres
Max tube diameter: 25.4 mm to 31.8 mm 
Weight: 778g

Verdict: Handsome, but overly complicated.

For a review of matching panniers to go with the above bar bags, check out the 2016 December/January edition of Cycle magazine.

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How to choose the best bar bag

Weather resistance

Any bar bag should keep its contents dry in wet weather and be hardy enough to deal with mud and road grime.

Attachment

You want the shortest attachment that’ll fit, to minimise the effect of bag weight on steering. Klickfix is the gold standard and is worth looking out for in your bag of choice. Beware other bag holders, as they may be difficult to fit or use, and can be insecure. A common fault is weak clamps and/or a lack of anything under the stem to keep it from drooping, until bag meets frame or brake, which rubs a hole in it.

Closure

Simple is best here. Ideally you want to be able to access and close your bag one handed while on the road without running the risk of any jerks which could affect steering. Complicated fastening systems can break and be tricky to fix, which means the top can pop open and your belongings fly out. You want the top to be able to fit over the strap without giving any opportunity for water to come in. 

Pockets

If you dislike rooting around your bags looking for a specific item, then internal pockets are a godsend that help organise your belongings. External pockets can be useful to stuff a little extra you need immediate access to like a light snack, but do your maths and make sure you’ve space to ride on the hoods / use your brakes. 

Lights

If you’re planning on using a bar bag where there’s a risk of poor light, make sure you find a bag which will let your current light set up work effectively. That could be a separate fitting on the bag itself or a size which won’t get in the way of your beam.

Maps

GPS or paper maps? If the latter, the ability to be able to see a map clearly in all weathers, or fit a map case is essential. Even if you rely solely upon your electronics, having the backup option of carrying and using a map is always worthwhile. 

Weight

It quickly adds up when packing and the bag’s net weight is a factor. Include the weight of any attachment system when assessing, and bear in mind that any weight will affect the steering and can take getting used to. 

 

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