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A Product Review of Arkel EX-56 Rear Panniers

By Theresa Russell

Seasoned writer and youth cycling tour operator puts new panniers to the real test: a 1500-mile, 30-day tour of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The day the Arkel EX-56 rear panniers arrived, I ripped open the package like a young child receiving a much-anticipated gift.

Immediately, I put these 56-liter (3400 cu. inch) beauties to the test, giving them high marks on drool resistance. My thorough inspection revealed the many features that I immediately appreciated, not only for their practical applications, but because I sensed that the designer had actually toured with a fully laden bicycle and then incorporated his wishes into this optimal pannier. So intent on
discovering everything about the XRs, as possible, I performed a rare task and
read the brochure.

Although I have used many panniers before and certainly knew how they worked, I felt compelled to know everything about these that I could because my quick initial inspection hinted at the hidden assets. 1000 denier Cordura, a tent pole pouch, strong zippers that expose nearly the entire inside space of the pannier, sturdy locking mechanisms… and the mysterious spare parts. I searched for these, my husband searched for these.

I finally called Serge at Arkel for specific guidance to their whereabouts and found them. This emergency packet contains essential parts in case of breakdown. And as if that weren’t enough, there are emergency zippers right alongside the zipper track. Well, in spite of the great appearance and the clever additions to this pannier, the only real way to test it was to test it on the road. This little road test would be a 1500 mile month long tour of the Yucatan Peninsula. Not necessarily the most rugged terrain, but it would certainly be a good test of the quality and practicality of these gargantuan packs.

My enthusiasm for the Arkels momentarily waned, when the bottom attachment hook for the rear rack flew across the baggage claim area in the airport when I tried to engage it. Being near midnight and responsible for a crew of 19 teen-aged first time cycle-tourists, I wasn’t in the mood for repairs.

Fortunately, this initial problem was not the harbinger of problems to come. The Arkels performed flawlessly throughout the month of not so delicate treatment. Serge did confirm that a heavier metal would be used for this clip on the 2000 models. Even though Arkel produces an even larger pannier for tandems (that is what we used), I knew that something so huge would be a license to seriously over pack. As it were, the Arkels were stuffed to the gills. For 30 days the zippers and seams had ample opportunity to split, fail, or break. Never once did they come close.

One wonderful advantage of the large zipper opening is that one can see the contents of the panniers. Formerly, I used the reach, feel and grab method to find anything packed in the main compartment. The outside compartments offer equal access as they have ingeniously designed zippers that open on a tangent, thus providing a full view of and access to the contents.

Although I carried a tent, its poles are an integral part of the tent, which meant the large bundle wouldn’t fit into the pocket. But, I stuffed this pocket with rigid objects such as a drinking glass, extra batteries, travel alarm and an array of odd shaped items. No problems with the tent pocket swaying. And what a boon for carrying tent poles. I am prejudiced, because, when planning my own perfect pannier, I envisioned just this feature and anybody else who arrived at this same concept must be good. No more worrying about tent poles creeping up or back on the rack.

Now, you know how extremely comfortable it is to lug the fully laden panniers around when you remove them from the bicycle. Well, Arkel even helps here, with a nicely padded carrying strap that decreases the amount of indent into your palms – or at least into mine. The locking mechanism holds securely to the rack and a compression strap holds the load steady. The system works so well, that when the tandem hit a serious rut in the road, the stoker went flying, but the Arkels didn’t budge!

One feature that some may find important is the waterproofness of panniers. In all my years of cycle touring, I have lined the panniers with garbage bags and always had dry inner bags. Perhaps this sounds anal retentive or redundant but why risk wetness when a thin, lightweight and inexpensive addition to the inside of any pannier should make it waterproof.

I could ramble on about all the other great features of the Arkels, but the best way to learn the technical details is to visit the Arkel web site at: www.arkel-od.com. You’ll find out even more than you probably wanted to know.

But, you’ll be pleased with the quality that goes into the production of the Arkels and then you’ll realize why these workhorses perform so well. Such quality doesn’t come cheap (XR-56 - $356 pr.), but when you consider what you would pay for “regular” luggage or remember how you nursed your poorly made and inexpensive panniers along on your dream tour, you’ll realize that the Arkels constitute great value. Having worn out a couple sets of other panniers, I feel that the Arkels may be a better investment, especially since they carry a lifetime guarantee.

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