The choice is yours with soft luggage
Arr, Jim lad, when I were young roider we were loocky — loocky! — if we ’ad old ammo baggs to strap to back o’ boike, arr, so we were lad. More loik’ly we’d ’ave ex-army duffle bag toid on wi’ string, that we would. Used to dream o’ ammo bags … moostly we’d ’ave ter make looggage urrselves, aye, we did an’ aall.
All right, got that out of the way. It’s true, by the way. The army, by way of Disposal Stores, kept motorcyclists supplied with soft luggage for decades. Among the shops proliferating all over Australia, my personal favourite was Stoliar Brothers in George Street, Sydney. They sold bungy cords, too, a marvellous innovation at the time which made it less likely that you’d arrive somewhere without the luggage you’d tied on so carefully when you left home.
Stoliars was also where I bought my first full-face helmet, which weighed half as much as my bike and provided a field of view not unlike that available when looking through the mailing slot in a post box. Bike shops didn’t really sell full-face helmets then … probably thought they’d never catch on.
Right, we can move on to the present day now and the joys of having a replacement for bungy cords and specifically designed and made soft luggage for our motorcycles — convenient, weather-resistant and good-looking. Not to mention lightweight helmets.
When I say “specifically designed” I mean designed for bikes, not so much for particular models. One of the pleasant things about soft luggage is that it will almost always fit just about any bike, and that’s particularly important with cruisers because we don’t necessarily want the look of our carefully accessorised and personalised bike, err, “modified” by permanently installed hard or soft luggage. It’s great to be able to strap on whatever you have handy at the time or pull it off as you like.
I found this particularly useful recently when I spent two weeks riding a Honda Fury (VT1300X in Oz?) around California. Soft luggage was all I could fit, and not much of that!
One of the standbys of soft motorcycling gear is not usually suitable for cruisers, and that is the tank bag. Because of the shape and location of cruiser tanks, bags either hide the instruments or just plain don’t fit. If you put one on anyway, chances are it will look out of place and slide around. It may even scuff the paint. There is one exception to this, and that is those small bags that are part of the tank strap (the leather aftermarket strap running down the middle of the top of the fuel tank). These look right because they have been designed to go with the strap, but they are usually so small that they will hold little more than a mobile phone.
But some of the other gear is great. Apart from accessories like Andy Strapz’s Strapz, it falls into three general categories: panniers, seat bags and sissy bar bags. I’m not going to go on and on about these but I thought I’d better just mention a few basic considerations to make your life easier (partly I will just be warning you about mistakes I have made …).
The (generally) cheap way is to use throwovers. These range from the really basic — just a couple of box-shaped fabric bags joined by another strip of fabric — to the highly sophisticated with adjustable straps and tie-down points. But in the end they’re all the same: you simply throw them over or slip them under the pannier seat. If they can be fitted under the seat they’re more secure both from theft and accidental loss, but they’re also more difficult to take with you when you leave the bike. A few manufacturers have tried to overcome this problem by providing a pad which is strapped to the bike and which stays on the bike, while the panniers themselves just clip to it.
Which of these is best for you depends on your bike, and on the way you’re going to travel. On some bikes, for example, it’s a major pain to get the pillion seat off — so you’re less likely to want to slip your pannier straps or pad under it. On other bikes, the seat is shaped so nothing will stay settled on top of it (sometimes not even the pillion). And so on. Check before you buy anything that it will actually work with your bike, and check that it will not make the pillion uncomfortable.
Dangers for new players include scuffing your bike’s paint and setting the bags on fire if they slip low enough to make contact with the exhaust pipe. I’ve seen it, and while it’s very funny for anyone watching, it is not at all amusing if you’re the burning biker. It’s also possible to get the bags caught up in, and chewed up by, the rear suspension. No, not on monoshock bikes, but with twin shocks it’s not uncommon.
Many throwovers come with rain covers and these can be good … on the other hand they can be useless if they fly off at speed. I’ve seen that happen, too — well, to be honest I’ve had it happen to me and it’s seriously annoying. Not only because you’ve lost the cover (and they’re usually impossible to replace) but because your clothes are now wet …
Despite that, throwovers are a good option if you’re only going to use your bike for occasional touring.
The photo of our C109R Suzuki project bike, on the other hand, shows you the full deal, proper “badged” panniers fitted to factory frames. You don’t necessarily need to buy this kind of setup from the manufacturer of the bike, but that’s usually who offers it. This has several drawbacks and one huge advantage, which apply no matter from whom you buy the equipment.
The drawbacks include cost, not only for the panniers but also for the frames you’ll need to buy and fit. The panniers are then installed pretty much permanently, which may not be what you want because they’ll change the looks of the bike. Even if you take the bags off, the frames remain to spoil the lines of the bike. Incidentally, the bike may also be wider than before, which can be a pain when, err, parking.
The advantage, on the other hand, is that the panniers and frames will be made for your bike and will therefore fit, stay on and work well. Usually that includes being relatively rainproof and solid. Many of these panniers are made of material that imitates leather — we’re inclined to think that if it’s a quality product this is actually better than real leather, which may show a tendency to sag after it’s been exposed to the weather on a few rides.
The choice is yours and for us at least it’s a simple one: if the bike is going to be a tourer, fit factory or aftermarket bags designed for that bike. If it’s only going on occasional trips, use throwovers.
Seat bags are a little like sissy bar bags but without the need to have a frame or rack. We like these, not least because there are so many good ones on the market these days. They range from the highly sophisticated Kriega bags to Andy Strapz’s deceptively simple Topsackz, and because they sit on the seat they don’t easily affect the behaviour of the bike. After all, the bike has been designed to have weight on the pillion seat — namely a pillion!
I used one of Andy’s AA Bagz when I took the Honda Fury for a 2000-mile ride in the US and found it ideal — if a bit small. Andy now produces extension packs for these, so that will help.
The problem with seat bags has always been getting them to, err, sit properly and to stay on — but that has been solved in a variety of effective ways. Kriega has straps which simultaneously hold the bag on and compress it, while the Topsackz’s straps seem able to hold it upright on just about any bike. Some manufacturers have a separate pad that stays on the bike, while others just provide straps. We have used a neat little tail bag from Ventura which looks more like a tank bag, but sits securely on the bike.
It can be tempting to just strap anything that’s handy on the back, but do take care — more than once I’ve seen bags that have slipped to one side and either encountered the spokes or the muffler. On one spectacular occasion, one of our photographers bungeed her bag to the rear of her little Kawasaki so tightly that the rear guard rubbed on the tyre. The guard’s plastic actually caught fire, wreathing the bike’s rear in flames. No, I’m not sure how she managed that, either.
PacSafe has taken this category really seriously and has produced a seat bag that will not only stay on, but will resist attempts at theft as well. If you don’t believe that a fabric bag can be secure, take a look at one of these. They are quite remarkable. PacSafe’s bag, called a Tailsafe, can be used with or without a rack or sissy bar. Unfortunately PacSafe’s Australian distribution is rather patchy, but I think Andy Strapz sells them by mail order.
If all this sounds like a bit of a plug for Andy, why not? He does the job.
Sissy bar bags
These are bags which attach to the bike’s sissy bar (the backrest that sticks up behind the pillion seat), or which come with their own rack that has to be fitted to the bike. We like these, too, especially brands like the Ventura which also offer adaptable frames. But we also worry about them.
Why do we like them? Because they look neat and they sit pretty securely on the bike without any fuss. If you turn them around and place them on the pillion seat (always assuming that your life partner has a bike of his/her own and won’t miss the space behind you) they are pretty much the perfect way to carry loads on bikes. They mimic a pillion quite effectively.
Why do we worry? Well, unfortunately we’ve never had the presence of mind to get a photo but we have often seen bikes so ludicrously overloaded with sissy bar bags that they really should have been doing permanent wheelstands.
It is unsafe to put a load behind the rear axle of your bike, and it is extremely unsafe to put a high, heavy load there. The problem is that sissy bar bags are so tempting — they are usually quite large and you can always strap another one to the top. They even come set up for that! Beware.
If you want to strap something else onto your bike, we recommend Andy Strapz, which hold stuff securely and won’t take out your eye if they slip. Yes, it has happened with ocky straps. There is one product, though, that has ocky strap-type hooks that we’ll recommend anyway and that’s the cargo net. Useful if you’re likely to acquire some additional possessions on the road, or if you just want to carry something like a spare helmet. Take a net with you on your travels.
And whatever you do, and however you pack, have a good time.