What is a realistic cost for exceptionally well-crafted, high-performance bicycle touring gear?

When people contact me about my gear they very often have two questions: how much does it cost and how long will it take to get it?  It is extraordinarily uncommon that I am asked about what is really important about the gear that I design and build.  I am not asked about why its performance and execution is so exceptional and why it has always been rated as being vastly superior to all other brands of gear. 

I know from the experience of having direct contact with many thousands of bicycle tourists through the years that an extraordinarily high percentage among them see bicycle touring panniers and racks as simple commodities with very little differences among them.  This could not be further from the truth.  In reality there are extreme contrasts, most importantly in their function and performance, but also in the quality of execution in their design and construction.  To understand this you'll have to learn, through information in this website, about a multitude of designs and details that develop craftsmanship and performance in racks and panniers. 

The most basic function of rack/pannier systems is to, through design, carry gear in a highly effective way so that it has as little impact on the handling quality of a touring bike as possible.  The better systems are designed, the better a touring bike will performs.  The better gear performs, and the higher its level of execution and craftsmanship is, the more it should cost.  Its that simple.

The easiest way to illustrate the differences among products is to make comparisons.  Putting products in direct, head-to-head comparisons will shed some truly amazing light on the subject of costs and price range.  The comparisons that I will make are between bikes and bikes, panniers and bikes and panniers and panniers.  It won't take much space to make the light shine very brightly on the differences among products.

To make a comparison among bicycles, I first wanted to find out what the low-end cost of a bicycle is in my community, so I went around to a variety stores to check out prices.  I went to quite a number of bicycle stores, and I also went to sporting goods box stores like REI and other types of box stores.  I found that the lowest cost of a fully equipped bicycle in my town is $68.  And that's not for a cruiser or fixed-gear bike, it's for one with a full compliment of bike components including a double-chainwheel crankset, nine-speed cassette, front and rear derailleurs and all other components in a normal range of parts. This type of bike is a good place to start in making an interesting, illuminating comparison.

The other end of a price range (covering about the bottom sixth of a full range of bicycle costs) can be illustrated by a bicycle which a customer brought by my shop recently when he was checking out my racks and panniers.  It was a custom-built bicycle equipped very similarly to the $68 bicycle in terms its component types.  It also had a steel TIG-welded frame like the $68 bike.  I asked the guy who owns the bike how much he had paid for it.  When he told me that had cost him $5400, I was truly astounded.  In terms of its design and the types components with which it was set up, it was almost a mirror image of the $68 bike.  To an untrained eye, the two bikes would appear to be extraordinarily similar, and yet one of the bikes cost about 80 times more than the other!

Remarkably, I have recently built touring bikes that cost $5400, in which the frames I built for such bikes easily take more than ten times longer to build than the simple, crudely welded frame my customer had on his bike.  In my $5400 bikes I also include more than $2000 worth of extremely well-executed fillet-brazed touring racks.   When I saw his bike, and learned of how much it had cost, I stopped including the price of racks in my touring bikes.

The other bike I want to include in a comparison of bicycles is a bike that is sitting in one of my shops.  It is a 1980s Nishiki mountain bike that I purchased for one of my daughters for $75.  I've converted it into a bicycle that performs very well by getting rid of its garbage-quality saddle and pedals and replacing them with inexpensive used alternatives that are of a high quality.  Most importantly, I replaced its tires and tubes with much lighter high-performance tires.

What all three of these bikes have in common is that they are of virtually the same design.  They all have the same types of components.  The $68 bike and the $75 bike are as complete in their design as the $5400 bike.  The quality of the workmanship on the $5400 custom bike is no better than that of the used, $75 factory-built Nishiki.  Both of them display the cheapest, crudest method of sticking bike frame tubing together: TIG-welding.  And most remarkably, the $5400 bike is far from the most efficient of the three.  For 70 or 80 times the price of the other two bicycles, it does not, in terms of speed, have a higher potential

One thing that I have known for decades is that there has been an epidemic failure in many areas of bicycling (an this is especially true in bicycle touring) to recognize quality and performance, or to even understand what they are.  And these three bicycles are a perfect example.  In terms of performance, the fastest, most efficient bike of the three is the Nishiki, which I converted.  Just by adding much lighter tires and tubes, it became easier and much more pleasurable to ride than the other two.  I could easily see just by comparing how the wheels were designed on the $5400 custom bike that it would be slower.  But to take the $75 Nishiki to an even higher level of speed, and to turn the $5400 bike into a true dud in performance, all I would have had to have done would have been to replace my daughter's wheels with a pair that I have hanging in my pannier-building shop.  Those wheels have very lightweight (about 380 grams) 650c rims (571mm BSD).  They are 32-hole rims that are 19mm wide.  On the rims are 160 gram training tires with 50 gram tubes.  They are lightweight, high-performance wheels.  Such wheels on a $75 bike would have made the custom bike seem like a total slug to ride.

My point is that all three bikes have the same types of components (brakes, derailleurs, seat post, handlebar stem, handlebars, rims etc.)and extremely similar potential in their performance when each bike is set up wisely.  They are not the same, but in terms of design and quality of frame workmanship they are remarkably similar.  What is very important to be very clear about, as I move into a comparison of panniers and bikes, is that a $68-new, or $75-used bike is as complete and fundamental in its design as a $5400 custom bike, and that differences among bikes in that price range are very subtle, especially in overall performance and quality.  In extreme contrast, panniers within a very narrow price range, are extraordinarily different with respect to design, detail, craftsmanship and overall execution, and most remarkably, in their performance differences.

Today, you can spend $400 on a pair of panniers that have absolutely no elements of design that were developed beyond 1978.  In essence, you can spend $400 for panniers that are extraordinarily incomplete, design-wise, in a very basic, fundamental way and that perform at a very low level.  At $200, $300 and $400 you can find many brands and models of panniers that are not even remotely as complete in their design, when compared to my high-performance panniers, as a $68 bike is when it is compared to a $5400 bike.  How $68 bikes differ tremendously from $400 panniers is that $68 bikes not only look like fully functional bikes, they are.  $400 panniers may look like fully functional panniers from a distance, but they actually function poorly, and this will become more evident once you learn about the full potential of pannier design.  The way to find this out is to compare.  And by comparing you will be able to easily see how you, as a consumer, have been misled through the duplicitous marketing of retailers, manufacturers and by some elements in the cycling media, for decades with respect to the performance, and the quality of execution, of panniers.

As a designer of touring racks and panniers, my primary goal is to develop rack/pannier systems that enhance the overall performance of a touring bike.  This is accomplished through a dozen fundamental, complimentary pannier designs of which none are found in panniers that are commonly sold through retailers and that cost as much as $400 per pair.

A shortcut to gaining an understanding of what these designs are is to simply go to the table of designs and features in the Hummingbird Panniers and Discovery Panniers sections of this website and go through the “Performance: Fundamental Gear-Carrying Designs” table.  To find out a bit of how these designs work, there are descriptions of designs as they relate to performance in the “Critical Details” part of the “Racks” section of the site and in “Phase Three” of Advanced Touring Method.  I'm going to briefly explain the dozen designs shortly.

Rack/pannier systems are gear-carrying systems.  How well they are designed and how well they function, in precisely locating and controlling the touring gear that you carry on your bike, will play a huge part in how well your touring bicycle performs.  Its riding quality will be elevated significantly if your panniers and racks have the twelve fundamental designs I incorporate in all of my panniers, plus a number of rack designs that compliment the designs of the panniers.  I design gear very thoroughly to ensure that my systems control gear to avoid how one of my customers recently described his old panniers, “I never realized just how much my Ortliebs flopped around until I started using your panniers.”

I'd would like bicycle tourists to have the opportunity to travel smoothly and efficiently with well-designed gear.  So one of the things that I'm trying to get across in this website is the fact that touring gear, as sold through traditional bike stores and online retailers, is consistently designed as poorly, or as close to as poorly, as possible.  Really, when it gets down to it, poor design in bicycle racks and panniers is a decades-old tradition that has been developed and established through the commercialization of bicycle touring.  All panniers commonly sold through retailers are very limited, performance-wise, through their lack of fundamental design.

When I started designing panniers in the mid-1970s, I did so to improve some major flaws in designs that undermined the performance of panniers.  All of these fundamental flaws are still present in abundance in panniers sold today, even $400 ones.  The designs that I have implemented to correct flaws are listed in the in the designs and features tables of both the Hummingbird Panniers and Discovery Panniers section of this website.  I'll mention some of the key ones.

FOUR-POINT MOUNTING SYSTEMS- The first major flaw to be addressed was the fact that panniers loosely hung from racks from two hooks (a two-point system) and were barely secured at the bottom by a bungee cord or spring.  No serious pannier designer would ever think of developing panniers that are not mounted very rigidly at the top and the bottom of panniers.  A four-point system traditionally (they've been around in many brands of panniers since the late 1970s) implements four widely-spaced hooks or fasteners (two at the top of panniers and two at or near the bottom) to rigidly secure panniers to a rack.  The Ortlieb panniers that “flopped around” has a two-point system.  Such insecure systems, which do not develop a solid, secure foundation for carrying gear on a bike, have been found in the design of Arkel, Jandd panniers, Ortleib and virtually every other brand of panniers sold through retailers.

REAR STIFFENING PLATES OF 100% SUPPORT DESIGN-  Traditionally, panniers are “designed” with a large, primary compartment to which pockets are stuck on the outside in kind of a willy-nilly fashion.  This is just flat-out poor design as the pockets are never controlled by a combination of dual or triple compression straps, perimetric stiffeners or the rear stiffening plate of the panniers.  The worst of such pockets has always been the one that is located vertically at the tail end of rear panniers.  Such pockets have often been described as a great place to store tents and tent poles as well as fuel bottles.  The opposite is true.  This is really a bad idea and a very bad design as gear carried in these pockets, when it moves, significantly adds to the instability of panniers and a touring bike.  It is essentially heavy, dense gear that is placed in the worst spot on a bicycle to carry gear and it is left unsupported and controlled.  So one of the first things I did when I began designing panniers was to make sure that the rear stiffening plate of the pannier supported 100% of the pannier's shape, from the rack outward.  I wanted to make sure that every pocket and compartment of the panniers could be fully controlled by 360º perimetric stiffeners, compression straps and the rear stiffening plate of the panniers.   

360º PERIMETRIC STIFFENERS-  A mounting system only stabilizes the stiffening plate of a pannier, but none of the gear in the body of the pannier itself.  360º rigid-HDPE plastic perimetric stiffeners, at right angles to the rear stiffening plate of the panniers, in conjunction with compression straps, rigidly secures gear inside panniers.  In 1976, when I first developed such a mechanism, it radically changed the gear-carrying performance of panniers.  Adding the the thin (.030”) plastic stiffeners to pannier design takes a lot of work, so they have only been included of the designs of independent builders (builders that sell consumer-direct).

TRIPLECOMPRESSION/STABILIZING SYSTEMS-  The first three designs I've mentioned radically changed the performance of panniers in doing what they must do: carry touring gear well.  But without a highly effective compression system, the three complimentary designs can't fully control gear.  Being able to tightly cinch gear against the rear stiffening plate and perimetric stiffeners generates a whole other level of stability.  Consumers don't realize it, but when compression systems are well designed they are complicated and take a tremendous amount of work and materials.  In the triple systems of my Discovery Panniers there are about 100 different material pieces, 48 fasteners and over 300 production steps to put the systems together on the panniers and reinforce them (especially in lightweight panniers).  They are far too much work for anyone to include in their designs unless they are independent builders who are willing to take the time and effort.

33/67 OR 50/50 ZIP-OUT PRIMARY COMARTMENT DIVIDERS-  The first four designs that I've shortly described all relate to controlling and stabilizing gear.  None of these design are found in any panniers that I didn't design.  They are all crucial to developing a touring bike that handles well.  Also critical are the next four designs that all work together to locate the weight of touring gear extremely well in very precise locations within the panniers, and subsequently on a touring bicycle.  What I try to do in these complimentary designs is to put the heaviest, most dense touring gear as close to the aluminum plate stiffeners as possible, in the forward third of the panniers, and to make panniers, overall, as skinny as possible.  I make the inner, primary compartment of panniers, and the overall width (from the rack outward) as skinny as 2”.  Dense gear located this close to a rack, in the forward 1/3rd of the panniers, keeps its impact on the handling of bikes as low as possible by greatly reducing the leverage of gear, and its effect (in rear panniers).  The overall effectiveness of this approach is light years ahead of the willy-nilly way that pannier compartments and pockets are traditionally “designed.”

The eight complimentary designs that I have mentioned are the primary ones which I use to make panniers function well, but there are many, many more.  All of the designs are executed in a way so that, even though my panniers are very complex in their overall design and detailing, they weigh very, very little.  Low pannier weight, especially as panniers are mounted at the very ends of touring bicycles, where their weight impacts the performance of a touring bike, weight-wise, in the most extreme ways, is a very critical part of touring bike design.  So the ninth element of design that I place a lot of focus upon is the performance-to-weight ratio of panniers.

PERFORMANCE-TO-WEIGHT RATIOS-  All together, when including rack designs in a rack/pannier system, there are more than 20 different designs that I incorporate to enhance the handling performance of touring bikes.  None of these designs are included in the designs of any pannier manufacturers that sell their products through bicycle stores or through online retailers. There is a lot of design and a lot of very, very elaborate and expensive, time-consuming detail in my panniers.  But that is all added up, and still my panniers are extraordinarily lightweight compared to any other products.  The $400 panniers that I've mentioned are listed in their advertising as weighing 6.6 pounds, or about 106 ounces.

The largest, most complex and heaviest panniers that I build are the Northern Lights Modular panniers.  They are very large (3600 cu. in. capacity per pair) tandem panniers.  I pulled a pair of the panniers off the shelf this morning to see how much they weigh in a lightweight, hybridized version of the model.  They tipped the scale at 58 ounces.  In my Hummingbird IFT line, a similarly sized tandem pannier is the Modular Transit model, it weighs 34 ounces per pair.  It is the heaviest ultra-lightweight model that I have ever built.

In terms of gear-carrying performance, the $400 panniers, to which I have alluded, have absolutely no design to lift them above the very lowest possible levels of performance, yet they weigh two to three times what my high-performance panniers weigh.  This means, at $400, they have a horrific performance-to-weight ratio and horrible overall gear-carrying performance.

All this brings me to the question: how much should my panniers cost?  What is a fair price?

As I previously mentioned, it has been my experience that an extremely high number of bicycle tourists, as consumers, have often thought of bicycle panniers as simple commodities, with very little difference from brand to brand.  This could not be further from reality, especially when the products of independent builders are brought into comparisons.  There is a vast gap between what I build, in terms of design, the quality of their execution and their completely different dimension of performance, compared with what is available through other builders and manufacturers.  The wide differences have never been reflected in the prices of my panniers.  It is also my experience, that the manufacturers and retailers who sell bicycle panniers, very falsely represent the products that they sell.  Their products, without exception, are grossly incomplete in their designs relative to performance.  They simply provide the barest means to carry gear on a touring bicycle.

In a comparative sense in considering panniers relative to bicycles, the $200, $300 and $400 bicycle panniers available through stores and online retailers, and which are sold as top-flight products, don't even begin to approach the level of design of bottom-of-the-line bicycles that cost $68.  Even $68 bicycles are complete in their design, and are fully functional.  The top-end panniers commonly sold through stores are not fundamentally sound, are highly incomplete in their design and reflect very marginal performance compared to any of the panniers that I build.  So this begs a number of questions.  What should exceptionally well-designed bicycle panniers cost if totally uninspired mediocrity, at best, has reached the $400 level?  What is a realistic, commensurate cost for vastly superior design, execution and performance?  Realistically, if a $5400 bicycle doesn't have the design to function significantly better than a $68 one and yet costs 80 times more, then how do panniers that reflect vastly superior performance measure-up to panniers, cost-wise, that function poorly but still cost $300 or $400? 

Objectively and comparatively, design- and performance-wise, my panniers are in the realm that is way beyond the level of $5400 bicycles which have frames made of steel tubing and which are TIG-welded.  Quality-wise, they are also in a totally different dimension.  Using the type of price structure and range that is found in bicycles, what is a realistic for my bicycle panniers?  What should it be?  Be real.  There are many, many reasons that my panniers have been called the “Rolls Royce” of bike packs.  The “Rolls Royce” is simply not reflected in their price in any way, if it were the panniers would be well over $10,000 per pair. 

I'll finish by adding that high levels of quality and performance are the expression of real substance that can only be measured by craftsmanship, innovative design, attention to a wide range of details and through a dedication to excellence.  True substance is never fulfilled by proclamation (as it is in advertising), but only through the fulfillment of a multitude of actions that are combined to form substance.  And lastly, quality and performance are never fulfilled by opinion.  People may express that they think very highly of, or that they love their panniers, including even those that reflect very poor execution and performance.  But without a higher knowledge of, and a wide range of experience with vastly superior products, their opinions are completely ungrounded.