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The Back-Roller from Ortlieb is a venerable design, beloved of hardy tourers because it lasts almost forever and is thoroughly resistant to just about anything your environment can throw at it, and the Back-Roller Urban continues in the same vein.
With an admirable attitude of not fixing what ain't broke, Ortlieb have left the design pretty much unchanged. You can get the Classic in various primary colours, and there are some jazzy 'Design' versions too, but for the business-minded commuter, the Urban uses the same PU-laminated Cordura that we saw in the excellent Commuter bag, giving a smart-looking finish that's a bit more discreet than yellow tarp. There aren't any other modifications to make it more suitable for commuters, though, so it's really just a touring bag in drag.
Construction quality is faultless, as we've come to expect from Ortlieb. There's a semi-rigid back – stiff enough to stop it flapping around, but lighter than a fully-rigid back. The QL2.1 mounting system is the only option on this pannier – it uses tough plastic hardware to hook onto the top of the rack, with a lower hook that can be positioned to suit the rack shape. Setting up the hooks is entirely tool-free and impressively simple to do, and unlike some tool-free pannier systems I've used, the hooks stay locked firmly in place once you've positioned them.
Ortlieb supply shims for the top hooks to suit different rack tubing sizes, making the pannier suitable for tubing between 5mm and 16mm. The top hooks are connected via a handle which also releases the catches that lock onto the rack. The idea is that you just grab this handle and the pannier comes away easily, but I found that the catches were sometimes a little reluctant to release. You also need to be holding the pannier by this handle in order to be able to put it on the rack as the catches need to be held open.
The Back-Roller has a roll top closure and high-frequency welded joins, and together they give utterly dependable waterproofing – I never had an issue in this regard, even in heavy downpours. The roll top can clip to the shoulder strap, which is then secured with a clip to the bottom of the bag (as shown in the pictures). If you need a shoulder strap for off-bike use then this makes sense, but if not it's easier to clip the two ends of the roll top together and leave the strap at home. A further short strap keeps the roll top rolled up tight.
Large reflective patches on each side are very welcome too.
With a 20 litre capacity, the Back-Roller is comfortably big enough to swallow all that I ever need to take to work. Internal storage is fairly minimal – there's an open sleeve pocket and a zipped mesh pocket inside, both relatively slim. They're big enough to take some papers or maybe the means to sort a puncture, but you'd only fit a very slim laptop in there (vertically) and there's no padding to protect it. Ortlieb offer an optional padded laptop sleeve, but for commuting I'd want to see this included already.
My commuting cargo is normally a change of clothes and my lunch, and that only half filled the Back-Roller – it seems somehow a lot roomier than the Commuter bag, even though they're both notionally the same 20-litre capacity.
And this is my only real reservation about the Back-Roller design for commuting: when it's only half full it looks rather baggy and shapeless and you can't really cinch it up. For touring, it would normally be fairly full, so this isn't an issue, but whereas the Ortlieb Commuter bag looks really smart whether it's a quarter full or stuffed, the Back-Roller really only looks at its best when it's full right up, and that wasn't the case with what I needed to carry to work.
The Commuter bag also has much better internal storage, with a padded laptop sleeve and a useful range of pockets. Mind you, it is double the price of the Back-Roller, so you're paying handsomely for these refinements (as well as for the clever QL3 system).
The Back-Roller Urban is pretty reasonably priced given that you're getting Ortlieb quality, and the Cordura fabric gives it a suitably business vibe. If you're happy with the conventional pannier format for commuting and you don't need protection for a laptop then it's a decent option.
Having used other more commuter-specific bike luggage, I'm of the opinion that this classic pannier design is brilliant for touring but translates a bit less well for going to work. I'm also rather taken with the Ortlieb QL3 system (as seen on the Commuter) and I'd opt for that over the QL2.1 used here. The Back-Roller isn't available with QL3 mounts.
Quality pannier now available with smart fabric – but could be more commuter friendly
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Make and model: Ortlieb Single Back-Roller Urban Pannier
Size tested: 20L - Brown
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?
Ortlieb say: 'The multifunctional Urban Back-Roller is an ideal single bag for bike riders who are looking for a spacious, waterproof bike bag to accompany them on their way to work or school. Made of a special blend of cotton and Cordura fabrics, the bag has a textile appearance that is a perfect match for both casual and business attire. Thanks to a polyurethane coating on the inside, it is nonetheless absolutely waterproof. The practical QL2.1 mounting system enables you to quickly and conveniently attach the bag to your bike rack. The bag's internal pocket, consisting of a main compartment and a zippered mesh compartment helps you to keep things orderly and immediately accessible. A detachable shoulder strap allows you to comfortably carry the Urban Back-Roller once you set off on foot.'
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Weight: 1900 g
Volume: 20 Ltrs
Perfect weather-proofing. I'd like to see more storage options to make it more commuter friendly; looks a bit saggy when half-filled.
No issues during testing – Ortlieb stuff normally lasts for ages.
Decent weight for its size.
Reasonable price for the quality. It's a bit more than the classic tarp version but not too much more.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
For commuting it works reasonably well, keeping everything inside dry, but there's no laptop sleeve and the internal pockets are pretty limited, so it's really just a touring bag in drag.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Spacious, very well made, fully waterproof. Really impressive tool-free setup of QL2.1 hooks – straightforward to do and it stays locked in place once done.
I'd definitely use this for touring, but probably not for commuting.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Limited storage options inside. QL2.1 system wasn't quite as easy to attach and detach from the rack as some I've used. No laptop sleeve. Looks a bit baggy when not full up.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes, although I'd be more likely to use it for touring than commuting.
Would you consider buying the product? Probably not – I'd save a few ££ and buy the tarp version for touring.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Maybe
Use this box to explain your score
A very good, smart-looking pannier, but not as well-adapted for daily commuting as some alternatives
Age: 37 Height: 190cm Weight: 78kg
I usually ride: My best bike is:
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, mountain biking
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.