Long the benchmark luggage choice for cycle-tourers, Ortlieb has been expanding its range and this year has added a number of new products aimed at the well-heeled cycle commuter. Gone are the hallmark primary-colour tarp construction and full roll-top closure seen on their touring range, replaced by smart design and fabrics that don't look out of place in a business meeting. We first saw the Commuter pannier at the Core Bike show back in January and asked Ortlieb to send one in to test.
There are no fewer than eight variations of the Commuter, with a choice of sizes (14 and 20 litres – we tested the latter), colours (Coffee brown or the Pepper grey you see here) and mounting systems (we tested the innovative new QL3 system – more on this below).
If you've used Ortlieb gear before, the construction quality won't come as a surprise; it's beautifully made, in Germany. The fabric used is a PU-laminated Cordura which manages the neat trick of being tough, waterproof and looking really good at the same time. It's not wipe-clean in the same way as tarpaulin, but I found that dried mud brushes off easily. The bottom is protected further with a rubberized outer layer.
Both sizes share the same width (40cm) and height (33cm), with the increased capacity of the larger version coming from a greater depth (15cm as opposed to 10cm). Our 20 litre version was big enough to accommodate my laptop, a change of clothes and lunch (plus a toolkit, tube and pump). 40cm is unusually wide for a pannier, with portrait being the more customary layout for all but a few. There's a good reason for this; wider bags can interfere with your heels when you're pedalling. With a bag as wide as this, it requires some careful positioning on the rack to avoid this problem.
Our test bag came with Ortlieb's latest fixing system, dubbed QL3, although it's also available with the more conventional QL2.1 system. The main advantage of the QL3 system is that the back of the pannier is flat, with no protruding hooks, so it's much better-suited for carrying off the bike than most panniers. This is possible as there's an extra bracket which stays fixed to the rack, and the sticky-out bits are on that bracket – two at the top and one below – fitting easily into matching slots on the back of the pannier.
This gives a much wider range of positioning options than for most panniers, which is a good thing as on my Tortec Velocity commuter rack I found I needed to fit it at a rather jaunty angle to avoid heel clash (so jaunty, in fact, that it would preclude putting anything on top of the rack). On a longer touring rack you could probably get away with less of an angle. On the QL2.1 version of the Commuter, the hooks are similarly angled to provide enough heel clearance.
Fitting the QL3 bracket to the rack is relatively simple, with solid plastic fittings and shims allowing it to be used on rack tubes between 8mm and 14mm in diameter. It took a few attempts to find a position where I could pedal unobstructed, but once it's on, putting the pannier on and taking it off is pretty simple. If it's fully loaded then it can be a bit more fiddly to get it lined up and at the right angle, but it only takes a moment. Loaded to the gills, it's probably not quite as rigidly held as a conventional hook system but it never looked like it was going to come adrift. If you have more than one bike with a rack, you can buy additional QL3 brackets.
Once at your destination, getting the pannier off is a doddle - you just grab the handle and it unclips the fixtures, coming away easily in your hand. I've been mostly using a Knog pannier with Rixen and Kaul Klickfix fittings for the last few years and here the Ortlieb is a huge improvement. Once off the bike, it's perfectly comfortable to carry by hand or over your shoulder – there's really no compromise in this respect. I've even used it as carry-on luggage when travelling without a bike, in fact - not something I've ever been remotely tempted to do with other panniers.
Without a full roll-top closure, access to the contents is nice and easy. There's a couple of smart metal clips to undo and that's it. The angled opening is reminiscent of a shark's mouth, with extra material at the sides helping to keep the elements at bay. With the bag properly closed, Ortlieb say it's rated to IP53, meaning that it can resist splashes of water at 60 degrees to the vertical. The lower edge of the opening has a stiffening plastic strip like a roll-top, and during testing I never detected any water ingress at all, despite commuting through some heavy rain with the bag mounted at an angle.
Inside, the storage is well thought-out and comprehensive. There's a padded laptop compartment at the back which will accommodate up to a 15-inch laptop. A padded tongue can be folded over the laptop to restrain it although there's no Velcro to fix it in place. However, it's not like there's anywhere for an unsecured laptop to go, and this does mean that you can stuff your best cashmere or lycra in there without fear of snagging.
Attached to the laptop compartment, there are a further four internal pockets of varying sizes, one of which has a zip, plus a couple of pen holders. Finally, there's a key strap - a 22-inch long fabric strap with a plastic clip on the end, which could be useful for putting your bike lock key on, although I didn't use it.
There's one external zipped pocket – Ortlieb say it isn't waterproof but the zipped opening is covered by the main flap unless you've really packed the bag to its limits, so it is reasonably well-protected. It's big enough for an iPad or a book, with padding between it and the main storage volume.
For off-bike use, the main handle is padded and pretty comfortable; the secondary strap which releases the bag from the rack runs neatly through the same padded sleeve. There's an adjustable shoulder strap with a further padded sleeve, attaching to a couple of metal rings on the rear of the pannier. Ortlieb say this strap should be removed when the bag is fixed to a rack to avoid it catching on something while you ride. I think they missed a trick by not including a means of quickly gathering it up like on the Altura Meta, rather than having to remove it each time you jump on the bike.
Year-round cycle-commuters will appreciate the fact that there are decent reflectives included here: a 3M Scotchlite slash on each end, aiding rear visibility whichever side of the rack you mount it, plus the handle has eye-catching reflective trim too.
In summary, the Commuter is a really well-designed bag for those who ride to work. The QL3 system suits this bag brilliantly – easy to use on a bike and with no real compromises once you arrive. Both sizes are big enough to accommodate a 15-inch laptop and A4 files, and it is genuinely a pannier that you can take straight into a meeting without arousing comment. Having been accustomed to using panniers with roll-top closures, I was initially hesitant to entrust my laptop to it, but the waterproofing is more than adequately effective. The wide shape means that you'll need to get the positioning right to avoid heel-clash but I had no problems having mounted it at an angle. Ortlieb gear isn't generally cheap, and the price tag puts this towards the upper end of the market but if you can afford it, it's money well spent – this is the best commuter pannier I've used.
Business-class pannier with excellent storage and smart looks; lack of protruding hooks makes it a joy to carry off the bike
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Make and model: Ortlieb Commuter Bag 20 Litre
Size tested: 20L - Blue
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
The waterproof Commuter-Bag for bicycle commuters is an organizational talent whose well-conceived space management system includes a separate laptop compartment, a pen holder and a key strap. The bag's snap buckles make it easier for you to quickly access the main compartment. The durable handle and the detachable shoulder strap make for comfortable carrying, while the side reflectors enhance your safety. The Commuter-Bag is available with the QL2.1 or the QL3 rack mounting system.
outer pocket (not waterproof)
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
* Modern bike briefcase in two sizes with flap
* Sturdy soft-touch PU-laminated Cordura cotton blend
* Reinforced base
* With QL3 mounting systsem
* Single handed mounting and release of bag
* Mounting components are fixed to rack
* Flat mounting elements ensure smooth uncluttered back of bag
* Height and inclination of bag can be adjusted individually
* Lower hook rotatable
* Main compartment is closed with buckles
* Zippered outer pocket (not waterproof)
* Removable shoulder strap with snap hook
* Carrying handle
* Two highly reflective 3M Scotchlite reflectors
* Zippered outer pocket (not waterproof)
* Organizer with notebook sleeve, pen holder and key chain
Optional accessories: QL3 mounting brakets for racks with diameter 12 to 14 mm
Note: For reaching protection standard IP53 (5=dust protected, 3=protected against splash water coming 60° to the vertical)
Takes a bit of effort to find the optimal position because of its width, but once you've done that it's a joy to use.
Ortlieb have a terrific reputation in this area - I'd expect it last for ages.
The nicest pannier to carry over your shoulder I've yet to use.
It's an expensive pannier but you're getting a great quality and very well-designed product for your money, and it should last for a long time.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Very well - I've been using it on and off the bike almost constantly.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Smart design, good protection combined with easy access, how you can carry it without hooks digging into you.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Just the faff of setting it up on the rack for the first time, but once you've done that it's really hard to fault
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Age: 36 Height: 190cm Weight: 78kg
I usually ride: Boardman CX team for the daily commute My best bike is: Rose Xeon CRS
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo cross, commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, mtb,
Jez spends his days making robots that drive cars but is happiest when on two wheels. His roots are in mountain biking but he spends more time nowadays on the road, occasionally racing but more often just riding.