Thursday, April 28, 2016

Blackburn Central Shopper's Bag/Pannier Review

Blackburn Central Shopper's Bag - a snazzy satchel with perfect styling for the office.
Looking to replace my floral upcycled pannier, that eventually started falling apart and was speckled with grime, with something sturdier and hopefully easy on my wallet, I stumbled across the Blackburn Central Shopper's Bag online. Firstly, I fell in love with the material, a grey woven pattern, kind of like a cross between tweed and black denim. Secondly, the volume, a whopping 1440 cu. in. would rival my existing bag which swallows my lunch sack, clothes bag, book, and handbag. And also of importance: the bag doesn't look like a pannier. Hooks are hidden behind a panel, easily zipped up once the bag is removed from the rack.

However, I still had misgivings. This is a new product line for Blackburn, thus lacking reviews. Plus the bag was advertised with only two photos, even on Blackburn's own website, which left me a little suspect. It's easy to take lots of digital photos. But, because I could get the bag at half price and backed by Blackburn's reputation, I took a leap of faith, and ordered the bag.

That's one humongous pannier!
Equal parts excitement and trepidation, when the bag arrived I checked out all it's features. Immediately, I noticed wear spots on the inside nylon lining, directly related to hook placement, even with the bag packed inside plastic. The item was loosely packed inside the box. But with that aside, I knew I could repair the fabric at a later time should the area become more of a problem.

Hooks snap easily and securely onto rack. I also secure lower Velcro-type connection to rack.
After two weeks of daily commuting, I love the features of the Shopper's Bag. The title itself is a misnomer. Blackburn also carries a Grocery Pannier, more in line with what I think of as open-topped baggage to haul groceries in, whereas the Central Shopper's Bag is 18" tall, tapered a little towards the bottom, with the possibility of another 6" extension cinched with drawstring.

In some respects, the bag is a behemoth. One co-worker asked if I felt lopsided, riding with one large pannier. Looks are deceiving. I carry the same weight as before, but the bag appears and may actually be larger, due to it's structure. I never felt unbalanced using the previous pannier, and because I ride a very stable bicycle I never suspected weight would become an issue with the new bag.

Three attachment points for carrying strap. 
The outer fabric is polyester, treated with stain resistant coating. The lining is nylon with coordinated compass pattern. The strap is a good 2" wide webbing, comfortable slung over the shoulder. It is also detachable on one side, though I don't understand the need to tuck the loose end inside the drawstring. I leave the strap clipped in place - it's short enough to stay away from the wheel. The other oddity: why are there 3 slots to attach the strap?

There are red accents on zipper pulls, tiny loops and elastic bands for clipping lights, and multiple reflective spots, including the logo. There is clearly some sort of padding sandwiched between outer and inner fabric for structure and comfort, plus a short stiff plastic piece around the base. I love the bottom material; it feels like neoprene, with four nubs, much like luggage. The bag brilliantly stands upright in my cubicle, with or without items stowed inside. And if that weren't enough, there is an exterior zippered pocket, for easily retrieved small items.

The attachment system works well. Unzip each side zipper, fold the flap inside, and push hooks onto the rack. The first time is awkward, and detaching the hooks later takes some getting used to, like opening a claw, and multiple fingers are required to perform this function, but I like the security the hooks provide. I will never have to worry about this pannier coming unhooked in transit.

Blackburn utilizes this special clip system on multiple products, and if you also purchase their proprietary interlock rack, one can lock multiple panniers, using one key. The other uniquely designed bag feature is the lower two Velcro-like straps, neatly disguised into the design, handy for added security when folded around rack struts.

A pannier with only a drawstring for closure is obviously not waterproof.
By taking a chance on a new product, one with style, functionality, spacious cargo capacity, that won't break the bank, I now have a new favorite bag, one that I'm proud to bring inside my office.

*Update, November 2016: After 6 months of continual use, both latches broke within a week of each other, but main hooks are still in place. Read here for my solution to re-secure pannier to rack.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Rite of Passage - A Lunchtime Spin

Who knew I would need a lunch hour bike fix?

It's a common occurrence to run or walk during one's lunch hour. Some people tend to errands, the only free time to accomplish certain tasks, especially at businesses whose hours align with our own office schedule. And on occasion I've jumped on my bike to mail a package at the post office.

But as a regular bicycle commuter, the idea of riding for exercise at noon is a foreign concept to me. Changing from office attire, swapping skirt for socks and lycra leggings only to reverse the routine 45 minutes later, just for the sake of additional miles, is not an appealing concept. If anything, I spend my free time reading, walking, sometimes checking out what's new at a nearby Goodwill store, or on a whim, hit up the nearby Dunkin Donuts if I get a hankering for an iced coffee.

That is, of course, until the day arrived when time constraints, after work hours, necessitated driving the car to the office. So, planning ahead, I realized that I couldn't pass up a bike ride in beautiful Spring sunshine, the allure of roads I hadn't ridden in quite a while, and brought my bike and riding gear along with me to the office.

I left promptly at noon, changed, and pedaled a loop which included climbing hills, a straight shot south along a ridge with open Lake Champlain vistas, then dropped downhill, rolling along a quiet segregated path, then back north along busy highway with reasonable bike lane. I got back to my cubicle five minutes late, but felt reinvigorated, happy I'd made the effort.

I much prefer to commute by bicycle and leave lunch hour for other things. However, I now know that it's possible to sneak in a few mid-day miles to satisfy my soul, something that hadn't really occurred to me until a disruption in my regular routine. It's nice to know the option is available, should I need it in the future.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Girls Ride Out #3

 Smiling, having fun. First ride along the waterfront, and I know it won't be our last.

 Following our leader, Christine, who hauls a Travoy filled with loud tunes.

 Girls will be girls.

 Obeying traffic laws, always.

We have our own style.

At the start, Old Spokes Home. Photo credit: Megan Humphrey

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Thoughts on Hardware Stores and Bike Rides

Giving my bike a new chain and new brake pads plus replacing my set of tiny wrenches.
On a sunny afternoon, I pushed my commuter bike into our driveway, planning to give it at least a cursory clean up. After much wiping, picking and dislodging dirty globs of grease, I measured and confirmed there was chain stretch - the source of annoying gear grinding these past few weeks. However, I was still prepared to put off replacing the chain (I had a new chain already reserved for this task) for the sake of setting out on a deserved long ride. Unfortunately, during cleanup I'd also noticed rear brake pad wear. If I went for a ride I could also pick up replacement pads and swap them during the same session as chain replacement.

I can justify just about anything to get in a ride!

Just as I had made my decision, ready to clean up grimy hands, change my clothes, and head out, our oldest teenage son returned from work - fatigued as he often is - and plopped into a chair on our front porch, kicked his shoes off and closed his eyes.

I know an opportunity when I see one.

I decided to change course, commit to necessary bike maintenance while also catching up with my son. The ride could be postponed for an hour.

So we chatted for a while as I replaced the chain, scrounged through our stash of parts, and miraculously came up with a mismatched pair of brake pads - one new, one gently used - thanks to my husband who is a collector of some items I would ordinarily throw away. (Who besides my husband swaps only one brake pad?)

Unfortunately I had also realized I had never found my set of tiny metric wrenches, misplaced or lost some months ago, but ideal in tight spaces, especially when fiddling with cantilever brakes. At least I had sun/son for company! I painstakingly used an adjustable wrench and eventually got the job done. However, I vowed to re-purchase a new wrench set that very day. With bike maintenance behind me and conversation exhausted, my son eventually retreated inside and I was free to go.

I mentioned to my husband that I planned on stopping by a hardware store and he put in his request for a door closure; our front storm door had refused to swing fully shut lately and needed attention.

As I pedaled, cruising towards the waterfront trail, I mused about how often bike rides involve a visit to a hardware store. Sometimes that's the sole reason for a ride!

Five miles later I cruised the Ace Hardware aisles and found a nice Craftsman wrench set, complete with cloth storage wrap - and better quality than my previous one - plus door closure, and I couldn't resist grabbing the store's iconic salty, and tasty paper bag of popcorn this store always has available for free.

Tickled to have that satisfying task behind me, I continued on, bouyed by more expansive lake views, finally arriving at Mallett's Bay Bicycles late afternoon for their grand opening day. There hasn't been a bike shop in this neighboring community for many years, but with renewed interest in cycling, their proximity to the Causeway Trail, smack on Lake Champlain Bikeways route, and location on Colchester's Mallett's Bay, this shop should fill a much needed niche in the community. Indeed, Charlie, the owner has been welcomed by residents and neighboring store owners, returning to his hometown after many years away. His shop will rent bikes, sell new ones, and provide service, plus the owner has years of experience around the country working in bicycle shops. I chatted with Charlie and his girlfriend for a while, assured they connected with the appropriate resources for support. Open for one day and already they had several bikes in for repair and maintenance. I wish you much luck, Charlie!

With that wonderful experience still in my mind I pedaled the remaining circuit homeward, tired and fulfilled with family connections, bike maintenance, a pleasure and errand ride - an all-around industrious day.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

April Snow Showers

 A surprise snow squall greeted me as I left work. But there was nothing to do but unlock my bike, dust off my seat, and set off homeward. Snow was accumulating fast and for a moment I was scared, worried the path would become slippery, especially during a long descent mid-way through my ride.

But then I opened my mouth, tasted the snowflakes, and smiled. Without eye protection, the horizontal snow plastered my face and melted. leaving me dripping wet. as rivulets soaked the edges of my balaclava. It's been a long time since I've been caught out in a blizzard, even longer since I've embraced the snow in such a visceral manner. April weather is often fickle, yet I began to relax after a time, winter nostalgia wrapping around me like a blanket of comfort.

I reminded myself that there is a reason why I ride a fat tire bicycle. For stability, for comfort, and with lower than normal tire pressure, it's fairly safe at slow speeds in light snowfall. April snow showers will be fleeting. Might as well enjoy what's left of winter.