The Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter pannier exhibits itself as a hip urban bag capable of getting you through your city pursuits, whilst keeping your cargo safely out of the elements. Here in Portland, we put a lot of wear and tear on our equipment, and in case you didn’t know, it also rains every now and then. I took the Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter pannier for a two month test ride, using it daily through everything Portland could throw at me. Was this stylish pannier up to the task?
Sporting a capacity of around 17l, the Commuter punches in much smaller than other panniers I’ve tried to date. For my usual day-to-day I’ve grown accustomed to Ortlieb’s spacious 40l back-roller Classic. At less than half my normal size, it definitely took some getting used to. One thing I really liked was that though it *technically* only supports up to 15in notebooks, I was able to fully insert my 17in Macbook into the laptop sleeve without an issue – this is something I cannot say about my regular Ortliebs. This is likely due to the Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter having a rectangular bottom, wheras the Ortliebs are tapered. This gives it a less “dorky” look, and really gels with the aesthetics and design of the rest of the bag. When I initially started riding, I was concerned the rectangular dimensions would lead to heel strike issues (I ride a 26in Surly Long Haul Trucker). I found that on my rack I could space the pannier back enough that it wasn’t an issue, however I could definitely see this being problematic on a bike that was smaller than 54cm, or has short chainstays – check first to make sure.
Though Thule is relatively new at making panniers, you can tell they put a lot of thought into their “Urban” design. Some neat features include a hidden exterior pocket for cellphone/wallet, and 1-way fabric on the exterior that lets you stash a light that can be visible when on, and hidden when off so that your lights don’t get nicked. (though I’d advocate that if you were depending on this feature to keep your light safe, you should really be worried about them running off with your whole bag.) This brings me to what I consider to be the most problematic part of the Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter – It’s attachment system.
Thinking outside of the norm, Thule tackled a problem that almost all panniers suffer from – getting poked in the back by the attachment system when using the bag over the shoulder, or as a backpack. Thule’s flip-panel solves this solution nicely by having one side that is smooth metal, and one side containing the attachments. This solution does suffer a weight penalty as it puts more “bulk” into the bag, and as a trade-off requires you to use an attachment system that I’m not a big fan of.
Horizontal slots, while neat in theory, have been executed poorly in this iteration of Thule’s Commuter. If you’re used to simply placing your pannier at the side of your rack, letting it slide down to the tune of two satisfying “clicks” as it locks into place, you can think again. The first week I used the bag found me grumbling as I struggled to align both attachments in the dark, rainy night, only to have one of them “connect” and then have to reset the whole bag to get the other. I did get better at judging the angle over time, however this system is on the whole less functional than vertical hook type attachments such as the Ortliebs. After about a month, I started to feel like the bag was feeling “loose” while on the bike, so when I got to the shop, I turned it over only to find that one of the screws holding the hook had started to unthread. If it had unthreaded en-route, My laptop, and camera may have ended up in the road. It was not confidence inspiring. When I threaded the screw back in, I found that I could not find that perfect harmony between “to tight so hooks won’t work” and “loose enough the hooks work, but bolt doesn’t un-thread”. Whatever tension setting Thule used from the factory makes the hooks swivel perfectly, if they could add some blue loctite to the screw threads, to stop them from de-threading, I think this would go a long way. As for me, I never could find that “like new” action, and have resorted to forcefully “coaxing” the bag onto my rack since then.
My final gripe about the attachment system is that they did not include a very well thought out “wear-bar”. Almost all of the bags that I know of include a plastic bar/hook combo at the bottom that hooks into the rack. This allows the bar, instead of the fabric to take the constant beating from rubbing back and forth. The Thule has a small magnet attachment which connects straight to the bag, and thus wear-and-tear is inflicted onto the fabric itself. Over the course of two months, a significant wear pattern exhibited itself on the bag. Nothing broke through, but I wonder about the longevity of the fabric in this configuration. (My guess is that Thule didn’t include a plastic wear bar so that the bag was more comfortable in “backpack/shoulder bag mode” with the included strap.)
According to Thule, the Commuter “Fits best on Thule racks, but will work on virtually any bike rack.” I have not had the opportunity to test this bag with Thule’s proprietary racks, but have seen them demonstrated. I feel that including a 1″ by 6″ plastic strip with magnet embedded at the bottom of the bag would make this bag last a lot longer.
If you use this primarily in shoulder pack configuration, you’re probably not going to have this problem, but for anyone that attaches this to their normal rack, Thule really needs to fix this. According to Thule, the Commuter “Fits best on Thule racks, but will work on virtually any bike rack.” I have not had the opportunity to test this bag with Thule’s proprietary racks, but have seen them demonstrated. This appears to be true, however, it is my opinion that Thule is limiting themselves by designing towards optimization of a proprietary system. If they designed their pannier to be excellent in universal compatibility, and then made a rack that took advantage of those design choices instead of the other way around, I feel that they could see much larger market adoption with this pannier.
The fabric that the Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter pannier uses is is actually pretty neat. On the sides, gunmetal grey gives it an industrial look, and the cuts of the side pockets are very stylish. It has more of a fabric, than plastic feel, which is quite nice to touch, and doesn’t smell like PVC when new. This pannier does get it right in the looks department. I also found no issue with the waterproofness of the material. I do wish they used a similar/more durable Cordura type material on the bottom, as the current material already scratched/punctured on my bag. The bottom fabric appears to be a rubber laminate, but it’s not bonded very well and is prone to scuffing off under normal conditions.
Overall, 17 liters is a respectable city size. I feel the Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter pannier could benefit from keeping the same shape, and expanding a bit in the capacity department. I don’t think it needs to be as big as the monstrous 40l Ortlieb Backroller, however upping it to 25-28l would allow me to carry all of my regular items, and a bit home from the grocery as well. If I were to make it, I’d expand the top fabric by two inches, and make the strap 3-5 inches longer. If this bag is really crammed, you can’t actually get the buckle to thread, and latch, leaving you with an open-ended pannier, lengthening the strap would solve that.
If you routinely carry a laptop, gloves, rain jacket, camera, repair kit, and want to do it in style, the Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter is the pannier you’ve been looking for. If you want to carry that, plus say, a 6-pack, a bag of salad, or something else measuring solid larger than 4″x6″ – you may want to look into something a bit bigger.