Published by Andrew on 14 January 2019
Bob Zeller reviews Arkel's Signature 4-litre handlebar bag, plus the 7.5-litre and 10-litre bags – it's a brand he's been putting through its paces since 2007.
Handlebar bags for touring have been around for a donkey’s age. But when I started touring in the 1970s, there weren’t too many makers. Today, there are dozens – but some are very much better than others.
Arkel, a Canadian company, have been making them since 2001 when they introduced their classic style bag. Since then, that bag has evolved into two bags, one has a 7.5L capacity and a newer one provides a whopping 10L of storage. And then, going in the other direction, they have just come out with a small 4-litre bag called the Signature BB, which is, by definition, still a bar bag I suppose. In reality I would call it something like a day bag because of its size and its off-the-bike convenience. (There is more on the 4-l Signature BB here).
Arkel products are good not only because of the build quality and the materials used, but because they are regularly modified and made better as a result of continual on-the-bike testing by their own staff, many of whom tour extensively. Some, in fact, have toured as far away as Cambodia, Nicaragua, New Zealand and the like. Field testing like that, by company employees who have a commitment to produce the best possible products, is surely the best way to get to the top of the pole.
The company was already an established bar bag maker when I bought mine in 2007. Living in London at the time, I had never heard of Arkel but when I asked Mike Barry, who made my bike, about bar bags, he immediately said that if I wanted the best, I should buy Arkel. I got the small one and I have never regretted it.
So when I was asked to review Arkel’s current bar bags, I was hoping they would be every bit as good. And indeed, they are still constructed to the highest standards and still use the best of materials. But having said that, mine is a very different bag from today’s model.
The changes include both design and materials. Today’s Arkel bags have domed tops. Mine is flat. But going to a dome top makes sense when you think about it. If you are caught in a rain storm, the water doesn’t build up on the bag’s lid, obscuring a map you might have in the map case. It rolls right off. To be honest, I seldom have water build up on the top of my bag, but if I do, it can sometimes make it difficult to see the map detail. A flick of my hand usually clears it, but not always, so the dome is a definite improvement. Of course, it adds enormous capacity as well.
Another new feature is the design change which now allows the lid to overlap and cradle the sides at the top of the bag. Now you don’t have to actually zip the bag up while underway, even when it;s raining. And if you want to get something out of the bag while riding, you can just lift the lid and get it.
The bag is constructed from Cordura material, as it always has been. Cordura is tough. So tough in fact that a swatch is attached to every bag challenging the buyer to rip it. I don’t suppose any one has – and most certainly when I tried, I couldn't. It’s also waterproof, so the bag – with the exception of the front and side the side pockets which are classified as water resistant – remains dry. So does the removable map case. But, if it is important that the front and side pockets are waterproof as well - and about half of the purchasers think that it is - Arkel sell a rain cover which will do just that, and because it has a transparent top, you can still use the map case underneath.
At first I thought the domed lid might make it more difficult to read a map than my flat top design. But no, it was different at first but I quickly adjusted to the new shape. Another improvement is that today’s map case is Velcro-hinged to the bag. Being removable, it is much easier to insert a map or a mobile phone inside the case. On mine, it isn’t removable and while I can get a mobile phone into it (although I never do) it is sometimes difficult to get the map, especially those with card covers, inserted without scrunching it.
The interior of the bag is covered with coated and waterproof nylon which is held in place with a zipper. Should you ever spill anything inside the bag, sun block for instance, as I did once, the lining is removable and you can scrub it clean.
Inside, the bag is a blank canvas. It is just a box. There are no internal pockets and for most people that is just the way it should be because everyone has different things in different shapes and sizes that they want to carry. When I am touring, I usually carry in my bar bag my passport, wallet, a pencil case with lots more than pencils in it, gloves, specs, phone, keys, travel tickets, notebook and other bits and pieces I have collected on the way. All of that fits into my small model bar bag quite easily yet the bag isn’t so deep that I can’t find anything immediately. But others may want to carry more and for them, the large 10L model should be more than sufficient.
For those who like to carry loads of camera equipment, Arkel provide detailed instructions as to how either bag’s interior can be divided with removable foam to provide well cushioned compartments for delicate items.
Often the last design element to be considered by those looking for a bar bag is method that is used to fasten the bag to the handlebars. And that’s a mistake because if a bag doesn’t attach to the bike securely, it will quickly become annoying. It will vibrate and rattle all the time, ut worse still, hit a pot hole and the entire bag and contents could fly off. But at the same time, however securely the bag is fastened, it must be easily removed. Arkel’s design manages to do all of that.
Arkel has made many changes to the original fastening system over the years and while many other manufacturers use the Raven & Kaul Klick Fix system, Arkel now uses stainless steel for the clip plates, and aluminium for the bar mounts. There’s not an ounce of plastic unlike many others. Importantly the system is adjustable in width, making for a very much more secure fit.
For those times that you have the bag off the bike and are carrying it somewhere, there's a shoulder strap and an exterior loop handle. And should you be using the large bag, there's a small slot behind the front pocket in which you can store the strap.
Altogether, these two bags are excellent. Mind you, they are not cheap. Many lesser bags are very much cheaper, but if you want a bar bag that will do what you want, for as long as you want, the build quality and design of these bags make them good value whether you are an expedition cyclist going around the world, or someone like me who wants to potter about France a couple of times a year. Importantly, Arkel backs their products with an unlimited lifetime guarantee in case something breaks. They will also do a full, no quibble refund if, after 30 days, you just don’t like them.
About our contributor
Bob Zeller, a now-retired UK-based Canadian journalist, spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for (Toronto) Globe & Mail, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and world championships. While he has enjoyed just about all types of cycling – sportives, audax and just riding his bike to the shops – it's touring that he has always loved the most. And it's touring in France that he enjoys the most.