THERMALS ARE BACK

Where do you put your keys and lunch money if your transport is two-wheeled? Our panel tests bike panniers
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The Independent Culture
Even as an occasional cyclist, you soon learn that users of pedal power fall into one of two groups when it comes to carrying things. The first comprises serious, mountain or racing-bike athletes of the "my-bicycle- is-like-a-precious-watch" variety; they can hardly bare to rest anything on their own Lycra-clad bottoms. The second encompasses everyone from the cycling commuter to the cheerful shopper, who regard a bicycle as the modern equivalent of a donkey.

THE PANEL

Our testers included members of both these groups, with some shades of compromise in between. They included Matt Seaton, editor of London Cyclist magazine; rugged mountain bikers Tony Fuller and Pete Davis; and town cyclists Alex Duncan and myself.

THE TEST

Our criteria took into account different kinds of bicycle usage: touring, shopping, racing and so on. We failed to agree about which was more important - practicality or aesthetics. We did, however, hold similar views on cost and quality and were impressed with the wide range of mostly excellent products available.

***FREEDOM LIMPET FRONT PANNIERS

pounds 59.99 per pair including hoop

These sturdy, low-rider front wheel panniers are hand-made in the West Country by a small family firm that offers a five-year guarantee and rarely charges for repairs. The concept of front wheel panniers (which are attached to the hub by your own wheel nuts or quick-release levers) soon sorted the men from the girls in terms of usage. Alex Duncan and I thought it would be "very nice to see the bags in front of you as a security measure", whereas Matt Seaton said it would be "quite eccentric" to carry bags at the front rather than the back of the bike if you didn't already have rear panniers. In other word, the Limpet panniers are intended for touring, though the trial proved them remarkably stable ("the closer to the ground they are, the better generally," commented Matt Seaton).

Pete Davis liked the panniers' quick- release hoop system, which allowed him to take them off in seconds once he was clamped up "and just enjoy riding without any attachments on the bike." A word of warning: watch out for potholes with the extra weight on the front wheel.

****BIKE HOD CARRYALL

pounds 145.95

This extremely well designed and manufactured, lightweight (5.5kg) trailer certainly scored highest on the "wow" factor. It would have been declared our outright winner, had we not had to admit that, for town use, the Bike Hod is a little encumbering, preventing the rider from zipping through traffic.

The product is available on its own, or with a range of bags. The cheapest (pounds 20) looks like a ghastly shopping trolley; the most popular is a smart canvas and leather holdall (pounds 49.95); but for aesthetic purposes, the Suffolk- made wicker pet basket is the business. "It's like owning a vintage car," said Alex Duncan. "People stand and stare, and ask you where you got it."

Pete Davis was a particularly brutal ("rigorous," he said) tester, riding up and down kerbs to prove that the Bike Hod really is for "all terrains". It never tips, and the canny rubberised hitch to attach it under your saddle prevents it from swinging out round corners. When you leave the bike, you unhitch the trolley with a simple pin and lock it to the frame; you do, however, need a two-legged stand for your bike, which, we soon discovered, you can no longer lean against a wall. The wicker pet pannier is available to order at pounds 115.

***KARRIMOR ELITE SEATPACK ZOOM

pounds 15

Matt Seaton, who thinks "racks are a bit uncool," enthused about this small seatpack, which would carry "a spare inner tube, a repair kit, a windcheater and your lunch money", since it is unobtrusive below the saddle of your bike. It "zooms" out by zipper from 1.5 to 2 litres in capacity and both Tony Fuller and Pete Davis found it "nicely made" and "perfectly adequate for a leisure cyclist", even if none of them would entrust their keys to the special mesh key pocket. ("It would be all right for something you didn't mind losing.") I don't know how to use a repair kit and thought it a fiddle to have to take such a small bag off the bike when parked, but gave it points for being a neat little thing.

*****KARRIMOR KALAHARI EXECUTIVE PANNIER-BRIEFCASE

pounds 50

Karrimor are the acknowledged market leaders in quality cycle bags, so we thought it reasonable to test two items from their range. This clever canvas briefcase has a secure hook system on one side to attach it to a rack, a waterproof covering with dayglo sides to protect it whilst in transit, and a flap which zips all these features (including the potentially oily side) out of sight when you carry it away from the bike. Inside are pockets for calculators, pens etc. Matt Seaton wasn't "utterly convinced by it" saying, "It isn't big enough to take shopping and isn't smart enough to pass for an executive's briefcase," but the rest of us overruled him to vote it absolute favourite. "It's brilliant," said Alex Duncan and Pete Davies. "This is exactly what you need when you cycle to work." "It will last for years," declared Tony Fuller on his report, as if briefed by Karrimor themselves, who offer a lifetime guarantee. I thought it was chic and black and had no problem putting my excess shopping on top of the same rack. Karrimor are known to be expensive, but this dual-purpose product seemed fairly priced.

**D-SHAPED WICKER HANDLEBAR BASKET

pounds 17

This Madeiran-made, anonymous wicker basket of the sort available in every cycle shop was not an especially robust version, but served to illustrate the traditionalist's preferred accessory, buckled to the handlebars with leather straps. Tony Fuller and Pete Davies refused point blank to carry it on their mountain bikes, saying they would be "laughing stocks". Matt Seaton gamely used it for a day, commenting that it wasn't as susceptible to wind drag as a bigger basket, but that he was annoyed to return to his bike and find it "full of crisp wrappers and old tissues." Alex Duncan declared it suitable for "cycling on the flat, very slowly, around Oxford or Cambridge, or possibly Sloane Square", though she did find it useful for her handbag. I was surprised to find it hardly affected the steering even when full. Friends thought it was "cute", but I was worried it would be stolen and ended up carrying it about with me, which made me feel pretty silly.

STOCKISTS

Karrimor, 01254 385911; Bike Hod Carryall, 01273 480479; Freedom Limpet front panniers, mail order/ stockists info, 01392 877531. !

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