Improving the “Unimprovable”

michelin_map

A few years ago, I called the Gilles Berthoud handlebar bags “unimprovable”. After all, they are lightweight, waterproof and last (almost) forever. The elastic closures are easy to operate (unlike buckles), and they allow overstuffing the main compartment and pockets. And being made from canvas and leather, the bags also are beautiful. What more could  you ask for? (The top pockets are even perfectly sized for a Michelin map!)

That didn’t prevent me from thinking of improving them to meet my needs even better. So I modified mine: I removed the side pockets to give my hands more room on the ramps of the handlebars. This also improved the aerodynamics and reduced the weight by more than 50 grams. Many readers asked for similar bags, and so we had Berthoud make bags with smooth sides as a special model for us.

rinko_bags

More recently, I noticed how other people conveniently carried their bags with shoulder straps (right), unlike my bag that I had to tuck under my arm (left). A shoulder strap leaves your hands free, whether it’s to take photos or carry other luggage (or even your bike, Rinko-style).

BagsBtPockets

So we asked Berthoud to add bag loops to the models we sell. As a Compass exclusive, we offer all our handlebar bags with shoulder straps – with side pockets (above) and with smooth sides. Even if you use the strap only once a month, you’ll appreciate it when you need it.

three_bags

These handlebar bags come in three sizes. The idea is that they fill the space between your bag-support rack and the handlebars (below). A taller bike gets a bigger bag. That way, the bag attaches securely to the handlebars, and you can open the flap while straddling the bike.

Mule_rinko

If you are tempted to go with a smaller bag to improve the performance of your bike, don’t worry about it. The bags weigh almost the same, since the weight is in the leather reinforcements and pockets. Adding some canvas doesn’t add much weight. And since the bag acts as a fairing, a bigger bag actually is more aero.

OldColumbiaHwy_insta

We also love Berthoud’s panniers. They use the same waterproof construction as their handlebar bags. The laces allow expanding the bags to fit your luggage, whether it’s for a short overnighter or a weeklong trip (above). The only thing we didn’t like was the modern “Klick Fix” attachment that tends to rattle when going over rough roads. So we asked Berthoud to make them with traditional leather straps at the top and a steel spring at the bottom. This provides an ultra-secure and durable attachment. Putting the bags on is a bit fiddly, but the advantage is that you can leave them on when you park the bike.

With these changes, we feel that these bags truly are the best bike luggage ever made. Click here for more information.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. Bicycle Quarterly's sister company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., turns the results of our research into high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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71 Responses to Improving the “Unimprovable”

  1. Ben says:

    I fully agree, Berthoud bags are a very nice and reliable piece of gear.

    But from my experience there is one more thing that could be improved: The transparent plastic “window” of the map pocket. My oldest bag is in its sixth year now, and the plastic has cracked in many places, mostly around the perimeter/seam. It started desintegrating during the winter when the bag was 4.5 years old, and now it is the first season where I need some additional cover for the map in the rain.

    Admittedly I used the bag almost daily in the last two years, including Swedish winter temperatures down to about -20°C. Below freezing the plastic is rather stiff and probably breaks easier than when it is warmer. But I hardly use the map pocket during winter, and try not to put a lot of strain on it.

    I haven’t checked with Berthoud yet if they could replace the map pocket window and at what price. It’s not something easily done with a normal sewing machine. Overall, I like Ortlieb’s map case material better, even though its transparency becomes worse over time.

    How is your long-time experience with the transparent plastic of the Berthoud bags?

    • I haven’t had any trouble with the map pockets, even after 15 years of use. But then, I rarely ride in weather as cold as you experience in Sweden.

    • Alex says:

      I agree with you, Ben: I don’t own a Berthoud but the only thing stopping me from buying one is the fact that the clear plastic is permanently attached to the bag (& isn’t waterproof). I think this is the only weak spot of the bag: rubber & clear plastic don’t last long outside.

      • Separate map holders add significant weight and bulk, and they usually are difficult to use. If Ben’s experience is more common, then it seems that Berthoud map cases don’t last well in temperatures that are way below freezing. Apart from that, they last very well and are easy to use.

    • Andrew Squirrel says:

      @Ben Yeah, i’ve been doing some thinking about how the map case function on front handlebar bags since i’ve dealt with moisture constantly entering the pocket & now the holes from the sewed edge ripping out. Seems like a detachable (and replaceable) system with velcro or snaps on the corners & shaped exactly the perimeter of the lid would be a better solution for these bags. The detachable map case could be fully waterproofed with a zip-lock style entry point to keep water out. I dunno how many rides i’ve been on where water soaks into the lid fabric and cappilary action draws it under the window. My current solution is putting the cue sheet in plastic bags but if enough moisture gets inside it really clouds the visibility. Overall we are really stuck in ancient history with these bags. We could really use more high tech fabrics with sealed edges, lightweight plastic or carbon mounting points (with quick release) and fully waterproof cue sheet holders.

      • Overall we are really stuck in ancient history with these bags

        It often seems like that, until you consider the alternatives. It’s like all those builders who’ve made carbon fenders, which end up heavier than aluminum ones…

        It’s ironic that the only complaint people have about these bags is the one piece made from plastic – the map case. So the solution hardly is using “high tech” fabrics (i.e., more plastic), plastic mounting points and Velcro that will lose its grip after a few years. If you want modern materials, there are many options, but almost all weigh more and aren’t as durable.

      • Alex says:

        I think a roll-up closure is more reliable than a ‘ziplock’ system.
        (answering Jan below) I don’t find it ironic that the only complaint is the one plastic part: that’s the point! it doesn’t last as well as the rest. The Ortlieb system (my hbar bag from Ortlieb has lasted 16 years with moderate use; the map case only 10 – it got cloudy/yellow), while not perfect & also subject to age, has the advantages of being completely waterproof & replaceable without affecting the life of the bag it’s attached to (you just need blind pop studs to stop them rattling if you’re riding without the map case . . .).
        Perhaps Berthoud could find a way to attach the map case to allow replacement – and/or a change of system if it’s used in extreme conditions? The way trousers & shirts sometimes allow for ‘letting out’ or lengthening without falling apart afterwards.

      • Ortlieb bags are great and last almost as long as the Berthouds. There, too, it’s the hooks and other plastic parts that become brittle and fail. The roll closure is very waterproof, but unless you carry your panniers through rivers, it isn’t needed, and it makes the bag harder to access.

        Ortlieb’s handlebar bag is designed to be used without a rack, which is why it’s so heavy and ungainly. It’s easier to retrofit to a bike, though.

        The Berthoud bags are as waterproof as Ortlieb’s. My friend Ryan did not believe this, so we filled one with water. Nothing came out.

    • Kevin Womac says:

      I’ve had a Berthoud bag for about ten years, and a crack in the map plastic developed about five years ago. I’ve patched it with clear box tape, and it works well enough. However it is near the edge, and tape over leather would be unsightly, so I do still get some leakage. I’ve just learned to move the maps when it’s raining heavily.

  2. Thanks for pushing Berthoud to improve their products, they are BEAUTIFUL!. I use my handlebar bag for touring when I am getting off my bike several times during a day and leaving the bike to explore. So I want a small bag with a strap so I can carry all my valuables – wallet, passport, money, camera – with me. Most important it needs to come off easily and quickly. On our tandem we have used a Topeak TourGuide with a QuickClick attachment that could not be easier to use. For my single bike, I added an elastic cord to the bottom of my Berthoud Mini 86 which loops “fairly” easily with one finger over the eyelets of my VO Rack. Most of us have no need for a very large bag for what fits in a Mini86 nor a decaleur. I don’t want to haul that around a castle or museum in Europe. What we need is a QuickClick to attach the bottom of the smaller bags to the rack. I noticed Berthoud just modified the GB 805 for a KickFix to fit quickly to a handlebar, but they still have the stupid cover straps with the cover closing forward instead of backwards.

  3. Nick Bull says:

    One other thing that could be improved is to make the map case more waterproof. I waxed the stitching but water still comes in at the velcro side (I think). Also, any idea where to get the elastic cord? Some of mine is wearing out on my 5-year old GB bag. I searched the internet and bought some elastic cord but it is too stretchy.

    • I haven’t yet seen any map case that was waterproof in the long run. Most of us put the map in a Ziploc bag when it’s raining.

      As to the original elastic cord, it’s available from Compass. Contact Theo through our web site, and he’ll be able to help you.

      • Alex says:

        The Ortlieb map cases are completely waterproof and the material lasts very well. I agree with Ben and Nick: the map case should be completely waterproof and not permanently attached to the bag. THEN the Berthoud bag would be truly perfect!

      • For me, the need to access the map case quickly is more important than waterproofness. Whether it’s a randonneur ride, where I need to flip the route sheet over as I progress through the ride, or to get my notebook out on a cyclotouring ride, I’d rather not mess with a roll closure. I don’t ride in the rain that often, and I don’t mind putting my stuff in a Ziploc bag then. However, the durability of the map case is an issue. We’ll see what can be done about repairing the plastic if it breaks after many years on the road.

  4. Steve Palincsar says:

    Thing is, those side pockets are a great place to put spare tubes. No digging around to find them, and no chance the stink of rubber will contaminate the sandwiches carried inside the main compartment. The one bone I have to pick with the construction of the Berthoud bags is the size of the rear pockets: they’re a little too small to fit my phone or my bag of tools, unlike the old Kirtland Tour Pak’s rear pockets, and those on the deluxe model are enough smaller than those on the GB28 as to make them useless for anything but car keys.

  5. canamsteve says:

    Lovely bags. I do wonder about how robust those hooks are? I have seen similar ones straighten out under even modest loads. I look for cast metal connectors (much thicker than those shown) or name-brand resin. If I filled this bag with rocks, what would happen to those hooks?

    • The hooks only hold down the elastics for the flaps. They don’t wear out or bend. I’ve used my first Berthoud bag from 2000 until 2014, almost daily, often in the rain, and the only reason I don’t use it any longer is because it’s the wrong size for the bike I ride now.

  6. Dr J says:

    These are beautiful bags for a classic (or retro) bicycle. GB25 (the medium one) at 473g is reasonably lightweight… until I realized that you would also have to add a stiffener, front rack and some hardware, totaling 897g (ouch!).

    For a modern bike, you can go much, much lighter if you are willing to compromise a bit on ease of access. I recently switched to Apidura bags and been using their Handlebar Compact with additional Pocket. Their total capacity is pretty close to GB25 but they weigh only 348g together. Not to mention that at $180 (total) are also much cheaper. However, the functionality is not the same as you can’t access the Compact bag while moving (you can access the smaller Pocket though). But I figured that if I wanted to put on the jacket I would stop anyway.

    • The stiffener is purely optional. In fact, the bag sits much better on the rack if it can conform to the shape of the rack. With the stiffener removed, the bag moves much less. The stiffener is useful if you carry very heavy and unevenly shaped objects.

      When I compared the weight of an Ortlieb handlebar bag recently, I was surprised that the Ortlieb was much smaller than even a GB22, yet it weighed exactly the same as the GB22 (without stiffener), Compass CP1 rack and decaleur combined! (And that is without the optional map pocket of the Ortlieb.)

      • Bob C says:

        I agree most other bags are heavier. And on my bike, without a stiffener the Berthoud bag does exactly has you describe, Jan.

        However, because of the design of my decaleur, without a stiffener, the bag starts to sag badly. So I’ve put together a small, lighter stiffener with aluminum to prevent the sagging. I might try carbon fiber wands next, as the aluminum tends to bend a bit. I wish Berthoud had better stiffeners.

        On the pockets, I think the rear pockets are designed to be shallow to allow them to be finger length for fishing out chapstick or something small at the bottom of the pocket. However, that choice is anachronistic because I believe most of us would prefer it to fit a phone or digital camera and the rear pockets aren’t great for that. If they were 1.5 inches taller, it would be great. I’m thinking of taking the rear pockets off and sewing on some new, deeper ones.

        Internal organization capability is a weakness too (I wish Compass had a version of GB bags with the inside the lid organizer of the deluxe model AND elastic closures as opposed to buckles, which are standard on the deluxe bag with the organizer.)

        These are darned good bags — my favorite — but with a couple of small modifications they could be soooo much better. Please consider using your weight with Berthoud to urge him to keep improving.

      • Your suggestions are interesting, and we’ll consider them for future refinements. Perhaps the biggest problem is predicting how big or small your cameras and cell phones will be over the life of the bag, since it’s unlikely you’ll still be using the same ones 10 or 15 years from now, while the bag will still be going strong.

        Adding pockets to the top flap: I find that adding more weight there is not a good idea. The heavier it gets, the more it tends to sag into the bag as you ride. For organization, there already are all those outside pockets. I hope that suffices for most riders.

      • dsecky says:

        +1 for bigger rear pockets
        no side pockets

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        Ortlieb just released two new bikepacking-influenced rackless handlebar bags that totally upset your comparison. Their “Handlebar Pack” that adjusts up to 15L is 426g, the quick-access “Accessory Pack” is 3.5L / 206g and can be used together or independently.

      • The bikepacking bags you mention look nice, but they are intended for totally different purposes from a traditional handlebar bag. A handlebar bag provides two main advantages: Improved handling and ease of access.

        The bikepacking bags only mount to flat handlebars. They swing from the handlebars, so they will affect your steering more than a handlebar bag. They also cannot carry much weight. The roll closures really aren’t intended for access on the road. You’ll have to get off the bike, if you need anything.

        So the bags you mentioned are best used for added capacity on a bikepacking bike, not as a place for quick access of your camera, food and spare clothes.

      • dsecky says:

        I took out both the stiffener and the reinforcement bracket that Boulder Bikes provided. Soon, I found that while the sagging was not a problem, the swaying was, so I put the bracket back in to keep the bag from flopping side-to-side. Actually, later I made my own minimal bracket:-) It seems that some lateral reinforcement is beneficial but the bottom of the bag doesn’t necessarily need to be stiff.

  7. Andrew Squirrel says:

    Cool! I’m a big fan of shoulder straps for front bags during commuting rides that are on-off-on the bike. I was really dissatisfied with the shoulder strap that came with my Swift Industries bag so I rode up to Seattle Fabrics found some fancy plastic hardware, webbing and made my own custom straps to match my two front bags. I noticed the strap you included doesn’t have swivel pieces and I find these to be great for pulling the strap out of the bag and not dealing with a twisted mess. I also found this neat piece of clip hardware for the webbing. it allows you to fold the strap and keep it tight inside the bag. Previously the strap would sneak out of the bag at the edges and interfere with my brake levers but this clip piece tends to hold it inside a bit better.
    Here are some photos of the outcome:
    Magenta Version: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andy_squirrel/20607649006/
    Orange Version: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andy_squirrel/20445875688/

  8. Jules Audy says:

    I applaud the changes but the strap doesn’t meet the elegance of the bag. I understand function before fashion and all that, but the strap looks better suited for a mass-produced messenger bag. Still great developments.

  9. Lohe Chang says:

    How does the newer bags, such as Swift Industries, stack up against the Berthouds?

    • We tested a Swift Ozette bag two issues ago. It worked very well. It’s made from Cordura, with a waterproof liner, so it’s a bit heavier and probably won’t be quite as durable… but it’s also less expensive. And you can get it in many colors. One thing about the Swift bag is that you need a decaleur – it doesn’t come with straps to attach to the bars. But then, even a Berthoud bag is best used with a decaleur. I think both are great bags.

    • nickskaggs says:

      I ordered an Inujirushi bag directly from Japan a while ago and not only was the pricing better than Swift’s, but the craftsmanship was incredible, especially on the binding, where I feel Swift’s bags struggle a little.

      They do open from the front, which some people dislike, the shipping takes something like six weeks, but I’m very fond of mine.

      In the US, Jitensha Studios sells these bags too, although they cost more. On the plus side there’s little to no wait time, the Jitensha versions have a strap to mount to the rack’s tombstone, and you don’t have to communicate in Japanese with anyone. I really like my Inujirushikaban bag and you should look at them, too!

  10. marmotte27 says:

    For the time being I haven’t felt the need for a shoulder strap overly much on my GB28 (directly from Berthoud, so doesn’t have the strap loops). However, as I left on the leather handlebar buckles to use on a second bike with an old fashioned decaleur, I could quite easily attach a shoulder strap to those.

    About the side pockets, iInitially I wanted a bag without them, even asking Berthoud if they’d consider making one like that for me (would be pretty easy for them, as it only means leaving something off – but they didn’t respond), now I’ve come to like them quite a lot, as it actually makes organizing small items like inner tubes, repair kit, phone, money and what not far easier, as they tend to get lost in the big compartment, needing lots of rummaging around, with the risk of having things fall out of your bag.

    • Andrew Squirrel says:

      I’ve been going back and forth on the side pockets of my two swift bag. On one hand I like to put handkerchiefs in them but I often go “Off the Beaten Path” with my bikes so i’ve been hesitant to put important items in side pockets for fear of losing them. Turns out 90% of the items you bring on a ride can be considered important items. Lately the pockets have been collecting the wrappers and garbage from my food but i’ve had those creep their way out too, unintentional litter bug isn’t something I want to be known for. The last long ride I went on (Fleche return) included some singletrack riding and during the course of that ride I lost my toothbrush! Luckily a friend spotted it bristles up and saved it!
      If I had to go back I think I would opt out of side pockets and give myself a little more breathing room on the sides

      • marmotte27 says:

        I don’t ride over much bumpy terrain, so I haven’t experienced things falling out of the side pockets so far (but I might in the future).
        I’ve seen in pictures that the original Sologne bags had differents flaps on the side pockets that covered the openings far better. Maybe Berthoud should go back to these.

  11. erick says:

    i have a bag with flat side pockets, they are really useful, looks very good and they are aero.

    that is the only change i would do to the compass version of berthoud bags, the are really the mos beuatiful bags out there

    • I always thought the flat pockets added much weight for little volume. However, my main concern is that the pockets are open at the top. Don’t the contents get wet when it rains?

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        The body of the bag is technically open at the top too! The flat pockets aren’t any worse, in practice they don’t collect any water. I’ve found them incredibly useful for stowing wrappers and other refuse, this seems to be common practice among other Swift bag users.

      • Bob C says:

        In my experience flat pockets are extremely useful for stashing things like trash left over while eating and riding (wrappers, etc), holding a bandana or hand towel to wipe off your sunglasses or brow, or holding your sunglasses temporarily, maybe a map you refer to that isn’t in the top map case, just a quick place to stash things you use in a transient manner when you ride. (i.e. no permanent storage.)

        In the rain, they can take on water, but with a drain hole it doesn’t pool. And because they’re quite flush they take on a lot less water than you might expect in anything other than a deluge.

  12. Kevin Womac says:

    I’ve had a 2086 bag for years. In place of the side pouch pockets, it has a pair of slash pockets. Aero and narrow, as is the bag w/o pockets, but still with capacity. I often will put trash (food bar wrappers, etc) or even my smart phone in these pockets. As long as the main compartment is full, the pocket is tight and the phone won’t come out. But I can retrieve it likety split.
    I’ve also added a piece of 1/4 inch beadboard to stiffen the bottom of the bag. This was in response to anchoring the bag to its rack. I tend to ride my bike over rough terrain and don’t like the bag swishing around. To anchor I created little loops in two spare spokes and poked them through the bottom of the bag (with nipples on the inside). A spare front QR skewer runs through the two loops and below the Berthoud rack. Removal is not as fast, but I typically leave the bag on, and carry it’s contents in a lightweight canvas grocery bag if necessary.
    On a side note- Soma’s Thick and Zesty Charcoal cork bartape is a perfect color match for the grey Berthoud bags! and comfy too.

    • Yes, the smaller bags like the 2086 need a good KlickFix type rack attachment. I bolted a Velcro cinch strap to the bottom of mine that loops over the front of my rack. It works great if I only take the bag off once or twice a day but not if I am doing it a lot as we do when touring.

  13. Damon Taaffe says:

    Is it really the case that large handlebar bags improve aerodynamics by acting as a fairing? One would think they’d be ubitiquous in the triathlon world, and in time trials generally.

    • We measured a bag with side pockets in the wind tunnel, and it was almost neutral (no increase in drag). Now we use the bags without side pockets, our bikes descend faster when the bags are on the bike. I have a friend who descends at exactly the same speed as I (coasting), so the comparison is easy. Take the bag off my bike, and he becomes faster…

      • dsecky says:

        Faster with the bag!? I thought it would be a wash–like you found with the aerodynamics of fenders/no fenders! Anyway, I have a GB 25 bag which sits lower than my handlebars and wish I had a GB28. I wonder if the aerodynamic advantage of a bigger bag is absolute or has something to do with its position relative to the handlebars.

      • Aerodynamics are a pretty complex issue, and it’s really hard to generalize from one bike to the next. We were surprised that our Specialized Diverge, despite its aero frame, aero rims and low spoke count, is significantly less aerodynamic than our randonneur bikes – at least in the aero tuck. When I am on that bike, Ryan just rolls away on descents, whereas on my randonneur bikes, we roll side-by-side, even during long descents, with nobody having a clear advantage. It would be interesting to add a bag to the Diverge and see what happens.

    • Guido S. says:

      Fairings are not UCI legal. No can do.

  14. Jim Langley says:

    If Berthoud or Compass offer a retrofit shoulder strap and hook kit, please let us know, Jan. I would like to add that to my bag and would prefer not to make something myself that’s not up to the standards of the bag. Thanks!

    • Frank B. says:

      I attached a shoulder strap to the horizontal decaleur bag mount on the bag’s back. I used two pieces of parachord tied into bowline knots around the mount as attachement points for the strap. The missing strap loops were really annoying.

  15. Tom says:

    The Berthoud bag appears to be a real well-designed product, and even better with the Compass features. However, even the large size is too small for very large frames (I ride a 68cm). As a consequence, I think I’ll need a custom bag, such as RuthWorks or Loyal. I wonder how they compare, quality-wise, to the Berthoud bags?

  16. Jack Whorton says:

    I know slightly off topic but Jan I was wondering how the cotton bar tape you use holds up after exposure to rain & dirt etc? I wanted to use cotton on my bike as it looks much more elegant! Obviously you can shellac it but then that gives a different finish.

    • I’ve found that the cotton bar tape on my bikes lasts well even without shellac. I replace it every 10,000 km or so… On my ‘cross bike, it’s lasted two seasons without starting to look frayed.

      Of course, with shellac, your bar tape will last almost indefinitely. On my Urban Bike, the tape needed replacing after 7 years because I had fallen when braking hard on a mossy corner as a child ran into my path (no harm beyond the tape), but otherwise, it would have been fine with just some touch-up where the shellac had worn away.

  17. Christoph says:

    I have taken delivery of my Standard GB28 last week and, so far, I like it very much. In person, it is much smaller than you’d think looking at photos of it on the bike, e.g. the above photo of Jan’s Mule. Maybe that’s the impetus I needed to pack lighter than I currently do with my roomy (modern) custom bags…

    I am a bit concerned about the durability of the fabric at the bottom of the GB28, though—my bag is showing traces of usage where the bag touches the rack (a Compass M-13) after just about 100km of commuting and a 100km gravel ride with a moderately loaded bag. While a narrow leather strip keeps the fabric on the back of the bag from rubbing the rack’s backstop, there is no such provision on the bottom of the Standard version of the bag to protect the fabric from wearing through. If I remember correctly, William deRosset posted a photo of his bag showing considerable wear at the bottom somewhere.

    The “luxury” GB2886 has a much wider (and thus more useful) leather patch on the bottom, but is replacing the protective leather strip at the back with a small slotted patch that the strap threads through. This is odd—why add durability in one place while forgoing it in another?

    Personally, I would prefer a bag that is reinforced in all the relevant places, but has the bungee cord closures of the GB2x and the flat side pockets found on the GB2086 “Narrow” bag.

    • I wouldn’t worry about the durability at the bottom of the bag. None of our bags have worn through there, after many, many miles. One of the great things about these bags is that they’ve proven themselves for many decades. Any weak points have shown up long ago and have been dealt with. That is one reason I like classic products.

      I’ve tested enough products for Bicycle Quarterly that felt more like prototypes than like finished products. If I were a paying customer, I’d consider that unacceptable.

      • Christoph says:

        I guess you’re right in regard to the durability of the fabric, although I have seen several vintage Sologne and TA handlebar bags that had worn through at the bottom. After the owners had an upholsterer repair and reinforce the bags, they were ready for another 30 years of usage, though.

        I’m not against sticking with the tried and tested, and I prefer to buy sustainable products that last a long time and can be refurbished, should the need arise—that’s why I bought the Berthoud bag after all. Nevertheless, I wonder why some of its shortcomings still exist after all these years in the market. Also, the quality of manufacture (or the quality control, respectively) isn’t great in places: I just noticed that the hook that closes the inner horizontal flap has a sharp burr that has almost worked its way through the lid of the bag. Furthermore, some of the leather edging was cut and sewn on somewhat unevenly. Some customers may consider this inacceptable. I will file away the burr, and I don’t care about the seams as long as they last.

        The fact that many products you’ve tested seemed like prototypes is a separate topic, though. Many of these products actually were prototypes or one-offs that the manufacturers hadn’t tested properly. This is bad practice, of course, and should not happen. On the other hand side, provided the problems you encountered while testing an item did not affect your safety, imperfections (or flaws) found on these new products are a little less inacceptable than those found on a product that has been in the market for decades.

      • Some of the products we tested were from big manufacturers, like Shimano’s first Di2, or the Specialized Diverge that suffered from severe fork judder under braking. Even a small builder should first test their ideas, either themselves or by giving them to serious riders who’ll quickly find flaws. The fact that we have stuff fall off or fail within a few hundred kilometers of riding isn’t acceptable.

        The worst part is that in most cases, I predicted the failure, and was wondering how I could write about a “hypothetical” failure in my test report. However, in most cases, the issue went from hypothetical to actual, making it much easier to write about it (and photograph it). Examples were decaleurs attached to the rack upright rather than the stem (broke off), lights mounted on long spacers (fell off and dangled in the spokes), fenders without sufficient attachment (broke off and wrapper around the front wheel), and similar things that could have killed me.

  18. Christoph says:

    One more thing: Choosing the right size of GB bag–or checking whether or not one of the bags would fit at all–would be easier if the product description stated the position and size of the rear-facing horizontal leather strip that reinforces the decaleur mounting area. I had to ask the local retailer that I bought my bag from (wouldn’t have made sense to send the bag from France to Seattle, then back to Europe…) to measure the size and placement of the leather strip.

    On bikes with non-adjustable decaleurs, e.g. used bikes in need of a new bag, or thos using a non-custom decaleur bolted to the stem, fitting a bag can be an issue. My 650B bike, for example, is a 59cm frame with not a lot of stem showing, so it’s not overly tall. Nevertheless, the stem-mounted Nitto ZAO decaleur barely reaches the top of the bag, and the bag-mounted part needs to sit in the topmost position, directly below the seam of the leather strip. I suspect that on 650B bikes taller than about 60cm, riders who want to use a GB bag wil have to have a custom decaleur made, or resort to the Grand Bois stem and matching decaleur that can be attached using drop bolts.

    • The bag size isn’t that crucial. You have some leeway on the top leather reinforcement – where exactly you attach the decaleur. And without the stiffener, the bag will “sink” onto the rack, so a few centimeters won’t make a huge difference.

      • Christoph says:

        Removing the stiffener was the first thing I did after I had received the bag—with the stiffener installed, the bag did not even touch the rack, so it was only supported by the decaleur. Without the stiffener, the bag sits nicely on the rack, but just barely so. What I’m saying is, the leeway you have isn’t endless. People riding bikes taller than mine will have to go the custom route on either the bag or decaleur.

  19. TimJ says:

    I love articles like this. Years ago I bought an Arkel handlebar bag. Like Jan’s Berthoud it was well thought out and I thought it was perfect, at least until one too many rideless winter evenings. Over the years I’ve steadily modified it, cutting out more and more of the plastic stiffeners, lightening all the metal parts, sewing in a removable “valuables pouch” for keys, cards, and cash, replacing the strap and strap mounts, filing the locking slides to make them smoother… And I thought it was perfect!

    • Arkel would have done better if they had looked at some classic bags before designing theirs. When we tested one, we were surprised how heavy it was, and how many things needed improvement. I am glad you’ve been able to make yours work for you.

  20. James says:

    I recently picked up a Guu Watanabe bag in their non-traditional style. The type of bag (duck canvas, french styling) is pretty great though and I’m really enjoying the access the bag gives me when I’m riding and not wanting to stop.



    Two things that I feel makes it an improvement over the Berthoud is the removable map flap and the shape. The shape for me gives better access to the front pockets and the removable map flap is really smart (attached via snaps).

  21. Bob Hall says:

    The Berthoud bags are just too expensive. And don’t get me wrong, I have no problem paying a lot of money for something that is well-built and lasts. For example, I own a pair of White’s Boots (made in Spokane). They cost ~ $450, but I will never have to buy another pair of boots again. So what’s the difference between White’s Boots and a Berthoud bag? Easy: I have no hope of ever creating a pair of boots myself, whereas I sewed myself a randonneur bag in a weekend.

    Sewing your own bag has several advantages: First, instead of paying $275, you spend about $40 in materials. (If you want a large bag and a small bag for versatility, make that $550). Second, you can modify it in any way you want. Love side pockets? Easy. Want to modify the map holder to use velcro? Easy. No wrangling with companies to offer more features for what is already a niche product. It took me around 20 hours to make my first bag, but the second one took only 7 hours and turned out much nicer since things tend to get easier with practice. When my plastic map holder wears out, I’ll just sew another bag. Have any of you noticed these bags are just cloth cubes re-enforced with plastic??? What on earth could be simpler to make yourself?

    • If you have the time and inclination to make a bag, it’s a fun project. However, your logic also would indicate that steel frames are overpriced. The materials cost just a few hundred dollars, and in a week or so, you can make your own frame! The same applies to anything hand-made.

      Lastly, Berthoud bags aren’t reinforced with plastic, but with leather. Perhaps you should see one, then you’d appreciate that they are worth the price.

      • Bob Hall says:

        The skills & tools necessary to build a quality steel frame with the correct geometry, braze-ons, etc is a huge obstacle to overcome. (I feel silly pointing this out on this forum). No way I’m gonna get tooled up & skilled to start building frames in a week.

        It would be easy to re-enforce a homemade bag w/ leather. You don’t even need a powerful sewing machine to work with it. Here’s a sewing awl you can buy at REI for $13.50. https://www.rei.com/product/602118/speedy-stitcher-sewing-awl

        It comes w/ instructions. Any 12-year-old could learn to use it in an hour. That’ll sew you your whole bag right there with some materials from Seattle Fabric Supply & Tandy Leather. Hell, with a seam ripper and that awl, you could replace the worn-out plastic map holder on a Berthoud or Swift bag pretty easily.

      • When I was a beginning graduate student, I needed a mountaineering jacket, but couldn’t afford its $ 375 price. (My salary was $ 900, my rent was $ 540.) I borrowed a friends’ expedition jacket, copied the pattern, bought the materials, and sewed my own. It was rather involved – this was in the days of 2-ply Gore-Tex, so it needed full lining, pit zips, pockets – everything. It was a fun project, and it turned out great. I still have it.

        As to the goal of saving money, even back then… The project took the better part of a week. The materials cost $ 85. I calculated that if I had worked for minimum wage, I’d have earned more than I saved by making the jacket.

        Similarly, the one frame I built myself (with help from Hahn) – the “Mule” that you see in the photos from Japan – probably is the most expensive frame I own, if I bill my hours. The goal was not to save money, but to learn first-hand what is involved in making a bike from scratch. That experience helps me when designing Compass parts, like the braze-ons for our centerpull brakes, our taillight, etc.

        If you are poor and without opportunities to earn money, making your own stuff can make monetary sense. Otherwise, it’s best treated as a fun project that you do for the experience, not to save money.

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