May 23, 2018
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Bike panniers aid daily commuting

By Levi Bridges, Special to the BDN

Life elicits few greater thrills than those experienced sitting on a bicycle. Speeding down a mountain pass or pedaling hard with the wind at your back can make you feel like you’re flying.

But these thrilling moments are not limited to exotic and expensive bicycle adventures. They arise just as frequently during a daily commute to work.

Every afternoon, rain or shine, I leave work, hop on my bicycle, and pedal back to my home in Portland’s East End. My workday commute brings me up several steep inclines culminating in Munjoy Hill, a long hillside offering wonderful views of Casco Bay. My ride home isn’t always direct. Because I don’t own a car, I often stop to run errands along the way.

Recently, a downpour started just as I pulled into the Whole Foods grocery parking lot. I locked my bike to the bike rack outside, unhooked the two large waterproof panniers and escaped the wet weather.

Panniers are saddlebags that hook onto a metal rack over the rear tire. The concept of hanging saddlebags over a bicycle originates from the similar system of strapping leather packs onto mules or other beasts of burden.

My bicycle is equipped to hold four panniers, two on the front, two on the back. Together they contain enough space to carry the camping equipment necessary to complete a long-term bicycle tour. When I’m not off adventuring, my two rear panniers become impromptu grocery bags on my workday commute.

My bike is the beast and I carry the burden.

Inside the grocery store, the familiar feeling that I’m dressed strangely overtakes me. Shopping next to businessmen just off work and mothers guiding children through the shopping aisles, I feel out of place in my Gore-Tex pants and rain jacket. I haven’t even taken off my bike helmet. Rain water drips off my coat onto the floor as I stuff my panniers with produce. I often wonder if, because of my appearance, other shoppers think that I’m homeless.

Standing in the check-out line, I’m unsure if the employees bagging my groceries will know what to do with my big, bright orange panniers. The tops of panniers roll down and hook together to create a watertight seal. Now, off the bicycle and opened up, the straps hang uselessly from the sides. A small hook on each pannier, used to secure the bag onto a bike, sticks out oddly like the protruding talon of a predatory bird trapped inside a potato sack. To a noncyclist, I often think that my oddly-shaped grocery bags must look strange.

“Hey, cool bags!” the young girl bagging groceries says when I hand her my panniers.

“They strap onto my bicycle,” I say, feeling compelled to explain what these contraptions are.

Standing in line, I suddenly realize how much I want others to know how easy it is to commute and do your shopping on a bicycle. The benefits of using a bicycle as a means for transportation in Maine seem infinite.

Several weeks ago, I found myself chatting with several acquaintances about cars.

“I’m car-free,” I said during the conversation. “I really don’t need one.”

“That’s a great way of putting it,” another, and I might add, car-less, friend responded. “The phrase ‘I don’t have a car’ makes it sound like there’s something wrong with you.”

After a long workday, the interior of a vehicle has always been a place where I tend to stew in a reverie of the day’s events while a radio bombards me with newscasts about the world’s woes. Bicycle commuting, on the other hand, is the ultimate post-work decompression. The thrill of breathing fresh air and losing yourself in the cadence of legs turning pedals quickly erases any vestiges of workday stress.

Turning your own bicycle into a commuting, grocery shopping beast of burden doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive.

“We sell panniers in our store and offer over 70 different models on our website,” says Davis Carver, owner of Bath Cycle and Ski in Woolwich. On Carver’s website,, a set of two Axiom Appalachian Rear Pannier Bags can be purchased for just $36.

I leave the grocery store carrying two panniers loaded with groceries. Outside the rain is still pouring. I strap the panniers on my bike, zip up my rain jacket, and push off into the storm.

My bike feels heavy, laden with two bags of groceries. A week’s worth of food weighs almost as much as the gear needed on a multimonth bicycle tour. Nevertheless, the added weight hardly slows me down. The most difficult part of cycling with two heavy panniers is learning how to balance your weight differently to keep the bicycle upright.

The rain intensifies as I ride home up the long slope of Munjoy Hill. The gray sky above spills torrents of rain down upon me. But despite the deluge, I’m certain that the food in my panniers isn’t wet.

Although many panniers are not waterproof, most are designed from water-repellent material to keep the inside relatively dry. Slightly more expensive panniers are waterproof, but as a cheaper alternative, you can purchase waterproof rain covers that slip over panniers. And, if you’re as thrifty as I am, you can just pull a small garbage bag over them.

Finally, I make it back home and carry my bicycle up the stairs to my apartment. Once inside, I take off my helmet and rain gear. Underneath I’m dry as a bone.

Exercise, free and clean transportation, and a refrigerator full of tasty food, this is the reality of being car free — the working man or woman’s greatest weekday adventure.

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