Ed – This is a review done by guest writer Chris Godsey. Check out his website.
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A 36-year-old, 6′ 2″, 220-lb., teacher and freelance writer.
Commuting on an aluminum Kona single speed mountain bike set up for pavement riding–to and from the college where I teach (about a mile and a half one way), and to and from the various coffee shops and restaurants around town (anywhere from four blocks to five miles straight up or down hills) where I write.
In Duluth, Minnesota, a small city that feels like a small town on the side of a hill rising steeply from the point where Lake Superior’s north and south shores meet.
Almost every day during the school year; not so much during the summer, when construction work might take me 120 miles away.
Because I love bicycles, especially single speeds; because I live close enough to most jobs that driving is stupid; because I’m too lazy to walk.
For six years, I carried an awkward, overstuffed, large Timbuk2 messenger bag. For the last several weeks, I’ve used a Banjo Brothers Waterproof Commuter Backpack that’s not perfect, but is much better than the bag was.
Banjo Brothers’ comfortable, functional backpack is well worth $80. It could used a design tweak here and there, and a larger version might be nice, but overall it’s solid, not flashy, and just right.
SOME RELEVANT DETAILS AND OBSERVATIONS
I used my messenger bag for far too long–till way after its nefarious effects on my back were obvious, chronic, and painful. Almost every day, I pack a MacBook, its power cord, and a USB mouse, three or folders for keeping track of writing projects and lesson plans, a lunch and a snack, headphones, iPod, BlackBerry, and whatever else I need for the day. I also drape a home-made lock (an inferior imitation of a Kryptonite New York Chai.®) over my chest. I probably carry more than I need. And for the last three school years, by the end of March, I’ve felt like slinging that bag over one shoulder was compressing my spine in weird ways.
This year, I emptied the Timbuk2 into a Lowe Alpine Contour Runner 30 backpack, then started shopping for cycling-specific packs. My back felt better almost immediately, even though the pack felt a little strange, and would obviously be very hot with much exertion.
After the conversation with Mike from BB, I was curious to see how his company’s pack would compare to the Contour 30; I was actually pretty skeptical that any one small backpack without a frame could be much different from another. I was, of course, wrong.
As much as I ridicule people who think they need a different piece of gear for every subtly different condition or activity, I have to admit that sometimes the best tool is the one made specifically for the job. The BB Backpack’s shoulder straps, shape, and position actually felt good the first time I wore the pack–it’s not that they didn’t feel bad, it’s that the whole thing actually felt like a…like a hug. It comes with one-inch sternum and waist straps made from tough webbing, to keep the pack from shifting, but I honestly unclipped the waist strap and threw it in a drawer almost immediately. It’s overkill for my ride. It also looks a bit to narrow to be comfortable, especially while wearing only one or two layers. Here’s what surprised me the most: with the exact same collection of stuff in it, the BB pack felt lighter than the Lowe Alpine pack. That’s much more of a compliment to the BB pack than a dig against the Lowe pack, which had been called into duty beyond its intended design.
Messenger bags can be frustrating for the type of stuff I carry. I just never found a way to arrange my computer and folders and other stuff with consistent comfort. I developed an arrangement strategy, but if I hurried while packing, or if something shifted while swing the bag on, I’d wind up riding with a laptop in my ribs. Because the stuff I’m usually carrying fits into the 1,500 ci BB backpack efficiently, it takes everything I carried in the 2,150 ci Timbuk2, and with room left over. If I carried clothes and shoes (my size 12 shoes are always an annoying, awkward packing problem for me) and wanted to keep them dry, I might have to carry fewer other things; then again, I haven’t tried to really cram the backpack full, which seems possible without discomfort because of its roll-top waterproof design, and an easily extendible strap that clips to keep its flap closed.
I seldom conscious of the backpack while it’s on. It’s nicely centered and balanced, its light harness system is comfortable, and even without the sternum strap clipped, it stays where it’s supposed to.
BB’s Commuter backpack goes for about 80 bucks, which is more expensive than lots of lesser bags and packs, and about half the cost of others that are undoubtedly well-made and durable, but are also priced on cache as much as quality.
It’s tough to know how long it will last. I unintentionally abuse everything I own. A couple spots on the backpack’s twin reflective strips are already scuffed. I’ve carried it by just the flap, by one strap, and in other awkward, potentially damaging ways. So far it’s holding up. The waterproof lining in my four-year-old Timbuk2 had started to erode, and I don’t see that being a problem with the BB pack, since a separate waterproof liner slides inside its thick cordura shell–if the liner wears out, replace it.
In addition to the excellent harness system, decent sternum and waist straps, reflective stripes, and waterproof function, the pack holds a simple outside U-lock pocket (which I use for a flask-shaped water bottle), a checkbook-sized zipper pocket, an iPod sized velcro flap pocket, and four pen or pencil holders, which all get covered by its main flap. Since I don’t have a desk, I immediately wanted places for more small stuff (headphones, more pens, tools, pack of gum, etc). I solved that problem with an old shaving kit bag; odds are a laptop sleeve would serve the same function. The small zipper pocket is nice, if a bit tight. The small flap pocket might work better as a bellows design, instead of just being flat. It fits my BlackBerry perfectly–tightly enough that sliding it out when I get a call can be a bit awkward.
I’m embarrassed to admit that at 36, I still care about appearing to be cool. My main reason for not ditching my messenger bag sooner is that I didn’t want to look like a geek. Stupid–beyond stupid–I know, but I was so swayed by my romanticized, misguided appropriation of bike messenger style that I completely missed the point: coolness, like beauty, comes from melding form and function, not from valuing superficiality over substance. For some people, messenger bags work quite well. I won’t use one again. I have a new backpack, and I wear it with pride.
I got my Banjo Brothers (BB) backpack free, and here’s how: after a couple-three weeks of especially bad middle-to-upper back pain, I started shopping for a two-shoulder pack to replace my bandolier-style Timbuk2 bag; I e-mailed BB to see if they planned a larger bag (their current one is 1,500 cubic inches, and my messenger bag is about 2,150 ci); BB co-founder Mike Vanderscheuren responded and said, “Why in the world do you need such a big bag?”; I told him that I’m an adjunct college instructor and a freelancer, I have no office, I don’t like to work at home, and I carry my work life on my back; he said, “Oh. You’re our target audience. How ’bout we send you a backpack, and you can write a review of it?” I said, “Cool.” Only in later e-mails did it become known that Mike and my wife are from the same iron ore mining town in northern Minnesota. I should also say that I actually do play clawhammer banjo, but neither Mike nor his business partner, who’s not his brother, do.