Homegrown Panniers

It's not that I couldn't afford a set of panniers; what the heck, I already have three or four sets now, it's just that they were all too big for what I wanted. You know how that goes, if you have the space, you will find something to fill it. I even looked at some handlebar bags with the idea of turning them into small panniers but finally gravitated to one of my favorite places to waste time, a Military Surplus store. Mostly I go there for those wonderful smells of new canvas and cosmoline.

They have such neat things there too, stuff that only the military would order (or could afford). When you are spending OPM (Other People's Money), nothing is impossible or too expensive. The other thing is that no matter what the military orders, whether it be a blasting cap crimper or an M-60 Tank, they also want a carrying case for it. I suppose that under the theory that when a soldier pulls something from the case, they drop the case and when they've finished using it, they need another carrying case to put it back in. That results in them ordering at least ten times as many carrying cases as what they will carry. So, in the times between various international differences of opinion, vast numbers and types of canvas carrying cases come on the surplus market. I use the word "canvas" loosely because they haven't used actual canvas since I was in a laughing contest called the Korean Police Action. Actually, they now make everything from Nylon and other expensive stuff. I'll admit that it's a far cry better than cotton canvas.

I dug through mounts of ugly green bags, big bags, little bags, funny shaped bags and some that weren't so funny until I came across a pile of gas mask, or in Army-speak, "Respirator Anti-Gas Mk II" bags. Like Goldielocks and the three bears, they were just right and only two bucks each. They had all sorts of straps, buckles, strings and pockets of unknown purpose but after some minor surgery with a pocket knife, I had them trimmed them down to a pannier-like fashion. One pocket on the outside exactly holds a folded spare tube, patch kit and tire levers. They will also hold a cell phone or my Olympus XA camera. Inside is a pocket that just fits my do-everything combination bike tool and beer opener. There are several other loops and pockets of unknown purpose but, given time, I will probably find some use for them.

They are roughly shoe box size, about 9" wide, 4" deep and 11" high which comes out to about 400 cu/in, or in more useful terms, each one will hold two six-packs. They are more than adequate for carrying rain gear, off-bike clothing for a credit card tour or cooking equipment and food for a weekend camping trip. I can also see that they are just right for a book, bottle of wine and a picnic lunch.

 The original cost of them was probably far more than anyone with stars on their shoulders would admit, even if they knew. While they might have been designed for a throw-away war, they certainly weren't throw-away quality construction. Only the highest quality panniers come close to their quality of construction. That's the difference when dipping in a bottomless money pit without having to look at the bottom line. Considering hammers at $600 a pop, these bags probably cost as much as the bike they are on.

I left the shoulder straps attached figuring that I could swing them over my shoulders, leaving my hands free for things like dragging a boxed bike through an airport terminal or removing my shoes when going through airport security. When on the bike, the shoulder straps fold neatly under the rain resistant lids that are held closed by both Velcro and snaps.

I had the bags and now for some way to hang them on the bike. I suppose I could have made mounting hooks; after all, as my wife has put it far too many times, "Anyone who can build and airplane" can build a shelf, hang a door, fix a faucet or whatever job she had in mind. I decided to let someone else make the mistakes and ordered a $15 pannier mounting kit from Arkel.

Once I had established the location of the hooks and locks, the next task was to make the holes to mount them. My experience as a parachute rigger had taught me that you can't drill holes in Nylon so I heated a gutter spike (big long nail) red hot with a propane plumber's torch and used it to melt the holes. It made nice, smooth holes while giving off a cloud of smoke that smelled like a Tupperwear bowl left in the oven.

The final step was a backing of some sort to keep them from assuming the shape of a sock hanging over a chair. There are lots of materials which would be suitable for this but since there is a glass shop right down the street with it in stock, I decided to use Lexan, which is tough stuff used in bullet proof windows. Don't use Plexiglas because it will crack and break very easily.

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Copyright 2003 by Jim Foreman