Eight years (or so) ago, I negotiated the purchase of a wonderful touring bike. It happened that the negotiation was done by email, and that part of it was done while I was visiting Vancouver, British Columbia, on a work project.
Vancouver is a wonderful city. Talk about bike-ability! I saw hundreds of folks commuting by bicycle. The food was great (and came in a wide variety of types), the hotel I was in was very comfortable, the streets felt safe and street lighting was kept to a minimum so you could actually see the stars at night from the heart of the city. Lovely.
But for me, one of the chief attractions was that Vancouver had an MEC store. MEC–Mountain Equipment Co-op (think “REI,eh?”)–had become one of my standard bits of bike accessory porn when I was looking for panniers a couple of years before. I hadn’t bought any, but I really liked a particular set on MEC’s website. So it only made sense, now that I was getting a touring bike, that I stop by MEC and grab what I needed.
So I did. (Sadly, these particular panniers are no longer available, but MEC still makes good stuff, IMO). These panniers are a little small for touring, but for the kind I’d do, they’re good enough. And they’re certainly good enough for groceries, books, bike parts, etc…
But. I had a love-hate relationship with the panniers almost from the start. The panniers themselves are great, but the attachment mechanism worked well only on racks with very narrow tubing. Once the touring bike was gone, I installed racks on my other bikes, but preferred Axiom‘s rather heavy-duty units (see photo showing an Axiom rack on my VO Rando; as you can see, it’s made of rather fat stuff).
Comes time to decrapify, and I’m staring these things in the face. I don’t really want to chuck them or sell them–they’re too nice, and it would feel silly to buy another pair of panniers. What to do?
So the next question was, who makes decent pannier hooks? I should specify that I wanted locking hooks, because I once had a bad experience with a Cannondale pannier that slid off a rack in my youth.
I looked around, and there are some very tempting mechanisms out there. Coming highly recommended (and clearly the price leader) were Lone Peak’s units, but the issue there was that they might have been slightly too small. Ortleib makes some nice stuff, but they don’t sell complete kits–as far as I can see. You can assemble what you need from the parts that they sell, but you do need to think about compatibility, since they’ve had several systems over time. Finally, I was worried about the various sizes of inserts falling out of the hooks, etc. So I came to the no-nonsense Arkel stuff:
Arkel’s equipment looks, for some reason, like someone went into a hardware store and got what they needed to invent something. It’s solid and utilitarian. It isn’t swoopy and plasticky. It isn’t “polished.” There aren’t (with the possible exception of the cams) any parts that don’t look like you could get them off the shelf. The cams themselves, though, make the system work.
The webbing from the handle is secured to one side of the cam and wraps part way around it, so when you pull on it against any resistance (like the lower hook), the cams slide out of the way. Release the webbing, and the cams (which have internal springs) rotate into closed position, taking up just enough space to prevent the bag from shaking around. The hooks themselves are aluminum, lined with plastic, and the cams are plastic, lined with rubber. They’re not going to do a hack job on your rack’s finish. Also, their rack-swallowing capacity is huge. They may not fit all racks, but they certainly do fit Axioms.
To release, just pick up the bag. That rotates the cams out of the way, and the pannier is free.
Arkel recommends that you install their system by first removing the old hardware from your pannier and then–if you’re modifying a non-Arkel unit–by drilling through the pannier and the backing plate inside it and then “cauterizing” the pannier fabric so that it doesn’t unravel. I’ll go a little farther: use a soldering iron to go right through the fabric and backing plate. Most backing plates are made of an easy-to-melt plastic, and this will keep things aligned nicely. If your backing plate is aluminum, on the other hand–well, ya gotta drill.
Assembly is not hard if you were careful when disasssembling things. Arkel ships the units assembled as if they were already installed, but with slightly shorter screws than you’d want in an actual installation (they include a bag of correctly-sized screws, too, so no worries). And there’s a well-defined order in the installation instructions. Just be sure to follow it. The screw and washer come through from the back, then you put the D-ring/bungie assembly over the screw, then the “handle retainer”, then the rail, then a square nut, which is prevented from rotating by the rail. Tighten this part-way, then do the other side, then tighten down the bolts from the inside of the pannier. Done.
Ultimately, everything is attached to the heavy-duty metal rail by the two end-bolts except for the hook-and-cam assemblies themselves. The latter slide inside the rail, and are locked into their chosen positions with set screws. I used an 8″ rail, but Arkel also sells a 10″ for larger panniers. The D-rings for attaching a shoulder strap to the pannier are a nice touch. Once it’s assembled, you can fit the pannier exactly where you want it on the rack (both for purposes of “I don’t want this to move” and “I don’t want to hit my heels on this thing!”). I tend to like my panniers farther back, since I have size 13 feet.
It’s easy to see why Lovely Bicycle felt these units “look kind of rough in comparison to Ortlieb,” and that they were a little counter-intuitive. Took me a couple of minutes to figure out where the webbing was supposed to go in order to work the cams properly. But it’s worth it.
And one of these days, they might–just might–be going on tour.
The Arkel system is on the expensive side–twice as much as the Lone Peak system–but is certainly worth it if you have a rack built with oversized tubing.
A final note–this is an all-Canadian pannier set up. Axiom, Arkel, and MEC are all Canadian companies. Nice that they play well together, eh?