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At the beginning of 2010 I previewed this new pannier set that I would be riding around town.

bontrager interchange urban commuter panniers

I mounted them on my bike – multiple bikes – with zero hardware or tools required. Just snap and go – literally. Note: I do not have Bontrager brand racks on any of my bikes but these panniers still worked with my set-up. For comparison, I visited a local bike shop along my daily commuting route and compared my set-up to a true Bontrager set-up:

on my rack
(My racks just happen to be by Blackburn and I was able to mount these panniers using one of the down-sloping posts.)

On Bontrager Rack
close-up
(On the Bontrager rack the lower clip attaches to the diagonal tube)

on bike - rearview

The interchange mechanism is all plastic and I question its reliability over time. I’ve already lost the yellow rubber cushions that help fit the pannier clamp to the rack. In all the on and off, the yellow fittings just fell out. I noticed they were missing one morning when I went to mount them for the daily commute.

Over the past month of riding with these panniers, I’ve really come to appreciate multiple panniers and complete independence from a backpack. When I first started commuting several years ago, I always rode with a backpack. My bike back then did not have a rear rack and the backpack just travelled easier. When I finally installed a rack, I also invested in a waterproof pannier and was more attracted to its waterproofness and the additional cargo space it provided than to having it fully replace my backpack. At the end of last summer, however, I decided to ditch the backpack entirely and rely solely on my single pannier. My back appreciates not carrying the weight, but the single bucket style pannier wasn’t always adequate. Enter – the Bontrager Interchange Urban Commuter Pannier (sold as a set). I compare one of the Bontrager bags to my bag:

width comparison
compare from back
You can see how these panniers compare in size to my old pannier. They are a bit narrower but about what I’ve been used to. But they offer a bit more height. Also, this set has a symmetrical design and are both soft shell so they keep their shape but do compress if needed. As noted by the company,

One bag is compartmentalized for daily needs: keys, glasses, music, phone, etc
One bag contains a large open compartment for clothes, shoes, etc

I’m used to the large open “bucket” concept; little stuff often got buried in my single bag. With these, I can use the one bag for extra layers and tools, while the compartmentalized bag carries my daily trinkets – camera, book, lunch and other papers (and even my laptop on occasion). A laptop up to 15.4″ should fit in this bag without a problem; Bontrager makes a laptop sleeve (sold separately) designed to work with their bags, but I just used my own neoprene padded sleeve and was fine.

laptop

It would have been nice if the interior of the compartmentalized bag was more like a briefcase and/or had some better ability to organize the big compartment. Since I often am a pedestrian during the day, I would slide a bag with a handle into the pannier and be able to just lift it out and go later. But I noticed when I just wanted to slide a few files or papers directly into the pannier itself that they would get lost in the openness of the single compartment.

On the exterior, both bags have an external pocket on the body of the bag, but only the compartmentalized bag has a small external pocket on the lid of the bag. These pockets simply served for small items – a set of keys or some papers, and they did come in handy without having to access the interior of the bag for something small.
external pocket

Reflective material abounds on this set, including a separate bright yellow raincover that each pannier stows hidden away in a back bottom pocket. I used the raincover only a couple of times and it did its job, including providing added visibility. I really like that the reflective strips on these bags appear all around the exterior so as to increase their visibility in all directions.

reflective
raincover-reflective

Accessing these bags did provide me with a bit of a challenge, especially since I’ve been using them in the colder weather when I’m wearing gloves or mittens. The bags each have a flip-down lid that clamps shut with plastic cargo buckles on each side of the bag. But releasing the buckles with cold fingers to access the interior contents of the bags proved difficult and cumbersome, especially since both buckles had to be unsnapped in order to open the lid. The adjustable straps that allow cinching of the buckle closure would flap as I ride and for my first few commutes with these panniers my right foot kept knocking one of the straps with each pedal stroke. Luckily I realized I could mount the bags a bit further back on the rack and avoid future interference.

Each bag comes with a detachable shoulder strap for ease of carrying these bags off the bike. However, I was never able to figure out a great way to efficiently make use of these straps. For one, the straps attach to the bags on the sides of the “lid” (not to the pannier side itself) so the lid must be buckled closed in order to carry the bag with the strap. Once back on the bike, there is no set means of stowing the shoulder strap from flapping around or getting caught in the wheel. I tried slipping the excess strap into one of the exterior pockets but that was not reliable. I could detach the straps each time but in the cold that was cumbersome, too. I finally settled for cinching them a bit and laying them under the lid before closing the bags up. That way the straps would be right on top next time I needed them and ready to go. But I do wish they weren’t mounted on the lid and that I didn’t have to open and then securely close the lid whenever I wanted to use the shoulder strap.

I do like the hauling capacity that this pannier set offers. Rated to carry a volume of 1,975cu.in. (32,364cc), I was able to schlup not only my daily commuting needs (and then some) but also to stop at the market on the way home and grab some groceries. I evenly distributed my haul between the two bags and was still able to latch the bags shut without a problem.
grocery haul

The interchange mounting mechanism allowed me to use the handles to quickly mount/unmount these panniers and carry my load up to my apartment – usually just holding the bags by the handles.

I will say that it wasn’t always convenient having two bags to carry around with me (since I usually don’t trust leaving a pannier on the bike for fear of the pannier or its contents getting stolen). But in the end I enjoyed the increased organization these panniers offered me as an urban commuter. They live up to their namesake.

Bontrager makes several other bags/panniers to fit nearly any cyclist’s needs – for utility, fashion or performance – on and off the bike. At an MSRP of $179.99, I’m not sure the Urban Commuter is perfect for every budget. But these panniers have introduced me to a whole new line of bag functionality that I certainly appreciate.

Overview:
Pros:
* capacity
* reflectiveness
* easy mounting on the rack
* rain cover

Cons:
* cost
* plastic mounting parts – easily lost
* shoulder strap cumbersome to store/use

Please read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.