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In the Bag
MO Explores the History, Utility and Gestalt of Messenger Bags
The shoulder strap on the Chrome bag is a hell of a thing. The Chrome bags can be purchased in either right-handed or left handed versions. The strap joins the right (or left) shoulder in a thickly-padded triangle that sits very naturally and comfortably on your shoulder. The quick-release strap easily adjusts with one hand, securing the bag snugly even without a stabilizer strap, although the bag has one anyway. Once the strap is adjusted, the big metal buckle can be used to take the bag on and off with incredible ease. You just push the center button and it comes off, like the center lapbelt buckle in an old GM car. If that's not enough, the wide and nicely-padded strap also has a nice Velcro-secured panel to hold accessories like cell phone or radio holsters.
Wearing the bag is very comfortable, and it has plenty of features to keep you happy. There's a big front compartment secured by a heavy-duty zipper with a bigger pocket behind it. There's a slot for pens and other small objects in front. Under the large flap, there are extra clips and extra-long securing straps to secure a mailing tube, the better to get those blueprints across town by 5:30. Reflective threads are built into the small straps to make you more visible at night. There's even a small, secret "stash" compartment hidden in one of the seams that is very hard to find. Bicycle messengers like this feature, a lot. If you know any bicycle messengers you will know why.
I've worn this bag a lot, both around town and on some hour-plus trips, trips I usually wouldn't use a messenger bag on. It's incredibly practical and comfortable for a messenger bag. I didn't have a chance to test its waterproofing, but with the oversized, gap-free flap and heavy, separate liner, it seems like it would be pretty good, even in a heavy rain. It is a bit heavy, even when empty, and the size was a bit large for me. If I had to do it again, I probably would try a smaller bag, although having that much room is alluring. Also, the yellow vinyl liner and accent on the outside of the flap became scuffed and dirty very easily in everyday usage. But the Chrome bag is a distinctive, well-made and feature packed product that will last you approximately forever. The purchase price is a bit steep at $96 (add $15 for the laptop sleeve), but quality is expensive. And worth it.
I was eager to see how a company as commited to quality as Aerostich would do with a simple piece of gear like a messenger bag. I was not disappointed.
Next, I emailed Andy Goldfine at Aerostich, inventor and maker of the most excellent Roadcrafter one-piece riding suit. Andy sent me one of his Courier bags to check out, along with a shoulder pad ($17), stabilizing strap ($7) and an "Elastacord Spider"($18) doo-dad to go with it. I was eager to see how a company as commited to quality as Aerostich would do with a simple piece of gear like a messenger bag. I was not disappointed.
When I received the bag via FedEx, (Aerostich products are only available by mail-order), I was struck by both its simplicity and high-quality construction. Measuring 18" by 12" by 7", the Courier is similar in size and shape to the original DeMartini Messenger. But the construction seems a little more serious. For instance, the Cordura feels heavier and stiffer than what the other companies use. The seams are incredibly over-constructed, with the edges of the flap double-stitched, or "edge stitched", where the flap is turned inside-out, stitched, and then turned right-side out, much the same way the collars of men's dress shirts are made. It looks nicer than the binding strip the other bags use on their hems. It's also more labor-intensive, but it "looks nicer", according to Andy. He doesn't design them so they'll be cheap and easy to construct, but so they'll look "how I want them."
For just $87, Andy sells you a pretty remarkable bag. It's not exactly loaded with features, but if you appreciate simple, well-made things you should enjoy it. It only has a few interior pockets and no exterior ones (although a detachable interior pocket accessory will be available by Christmas), but the Velcro area is huge, there is a nice overlap between the flap and bag, and the waterproof liner is very thick. Andy based the design on the original De Martini messenger bag, except he added reflective tape, Velcro and plastic hardware. The result is classic, a purist's design that should survive just about any kind of abuse.
Andy designs the Courier to be worn a little differently than the other bags. He includes a tip sheet on wearing the bag, and it instructs you to wear the bag loosely, resting it on the seat behind you. When I try to wear the bag tightly, like the other bags, it was a bit too long and stiff to be comfortable at first. Pete Brissette, Managing Editor, agreed. "The bag, as new, is too cumbersome... perhaps when and if it softens it may become more pliable and therefore easier to work with. As for everyday use I'd have to say it's a little bulky and large for my tastes. Something a little smaller would be more practical. Nevertheless, I like quality products that give you more than what you need or expect for your money. I'd say the Aerostich Courier bag fits that description, so ultimately I like it." After a few weeks of wear, the Aerostich bag has loosened, and I like it a lot more than I did when it was new.
For carrying a laptop, Andy also recommended using one of his laptop sleeves inside the bag. It was almost identical to the one Rob at Chrome gave me, so I used that one. Using the sleeve isn't such a huge inconvenience and leaves much more room inside the bag when you don't need to carry the laptop. Sewing some kind of Velcro retaining system inside the bag would give you the best of both worlds. With the increasing ubiquity of these "devil boxes", as Andy calls them, a neat way to carry laptops should be standard with every messenger bag. Even if you don't have a laptop, the padded slot is still handy for loose papers and files. Buy from a small, local maker and don't be afraid to be a bit extravagant; you'll have this piece of gear forever, and you might find it's your favorite.
Of the four bags I tested, I liked the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger the best. It was the perfect size for me and felt the most comfortable and unobtrusive when riding around. It's simple but not too simple; there are enough pockets and features to keep me happy, but not so many I was losing stuff or felt it was too busy. I know the hardware will last for years, as my old Timbuk2 bag basically shows no signs of wear after many thousands of miles, other than worn Velcro¨ and some slight "pilling" around the edge of the straps. The Aerostich gets a close second place, and as Timbuk2 made me return their bag, Andy's Courier bag has become my new daily sack. I've added an accessory interior organizer pocket (available from Aerostich, $24) that has brought the bag up to 21st century standards, and I might even have the folks in Duluth "stich" the Velcro in to hold the sleeve.
Like most comparison tests, this one was designed to give you a taste of some different messenger bag products out there and tell you about some of the features and details you might need or want in a messenger bag, and how those work in the real world. If you think you want to give a messenger bag a try, do some research and browsing; find the bag that will really work for your needs, and spend a few extra bucks customizing it so it's perfect. Buy from a small, local maker and don't be afraid to be a bit extravagant; you'll have this piece of gear forever, and you might find it's your favorite.What is Cordura ? And Who is This Denier Person?
Better living through chemistry. We motorcyclists probably should embrace this mantra more than anybody. We couldn't live without that strong and useful stuff called "ballistic nylon" and Cordura , but where did it come from, anyway? And what is "denier"? I'm pretty sure that when I read "1000-denier fabric", it isn't referring to clothes worn by a conference room full of people who claim the Holocaust didn't happen.
In 1929, chemical giant DuPont's busy engineers figured out how to twist Rayon fibers into a super-strong fabric suitable for sewing thread and tire cords. Get it? "Cord-dura"? Engineers can be funny. After WWII, nylon took over as the tire cord material of choice, and Cordura was sent to the showers until 1977, when those engineers figured out how to dye the stuff different colors. Now it could be used as a tough and durable commercial fabric with abrasion resistance many times that of canvas. In just two years Cordura luggage dominated the entire luggage industry, with 40% of luggage sold being made with the fabric.
Ballistic Nylon and Cordura are actually different fabrics, although they are both used in similar applications and were both invented by DuPont. The ballistic stuff is a slightly different weave. It has slightly different properties but is still just as tough. Using such a fabric for motorcycle equipment and apparel is a no-brainer, as our stuff gets rubbed to death even if it never slides down the road. The long polymer chains of synthetic fabrics ensure a long, long life, as well as consistent weight, texture and density of the material. These factors are measured as "denier".
Denier is not how many threads the fabric contains per square inch, like I thought. That's thread count, which any man unfortunate enough to have had to trudge through the bridal registry process will know about.
No, denier is how much a single 9,000 meter-long filament of Cordura (or any other fabric) would weigh in grams. It's a useful measurement if you are comparing like fabrics, but it doesn't really tell you that much about the material. Is 500 denier Cordura half as protective as 1000 denier Cordura? No, it doesn't work that way, just as the thickness of cowhide tells you only a little bit about how much abrasion resistance that piece of leather has. In fact, Jandd Engineering claims on their website that 500-denier Cordura has 81% of the abrasion resistance that 1000-denier does. But it does give you a rough idea of how heavy and pliable an item might be.
This could possibly be the most trivial piece of information ever imparted on MO readers. Enjoy.
What's In the Bag, Dad?
A messenger bag is a serious piece of equipment for a working messenger or a rider who spends a lot of time on a motorcycle. Here's a list of features I think are must-haves on a bag:
2" or wider shoulder strap with padding and a one-handed adjuster:
A narrower strap will cut into your shoulder, even with a pad. The strap should be very solidly attached to the bag and have a strong, simple buckle that allows one-handed operation and that doesn't have any small or delicate parts. A retention strap - a smaller strap designed to circle your chest under your arm and keep the bag from sliding - is very handy, especially if you have narrower shoulders or are carrying something very bulky or heavy. The pad should be adjustable, if not completely removable, so it can be perfectly positioned for the load you're carrying, as the strap length changes with the size of your cargo.
Large, waterproof flap with Velcro and quick-release fasteners:
Waterproofing doesn't just mean vinyl: you also should make sure there is enough material on the sides to keep water from getting through gaps when the bag is overstuffed. The Velcro should be long enough to allow the flap to adjust for different loads.
There should be plenty of them, and in a lot of different sizes to keep your stuff organized. Nothing sucks quite like missing a phone call because your stupid phone is ringing away in the depths of your bag while you frantically grope for it. If you have a laptop, the compartment should be lined with a soft material and be padded. Outside pockets are handy, too.
Cordura is really great stuff. At the risk of sounding like a DuPont salesman, there are plenty of materials that look like Cordura , but they won't last like the DuPont product will. I don't know how hard you use your gear, but daily use of a cheaper bag or backpack will tear it up very quickly. The Cordura used in high-end bags will pretty much last forever, as it has many times the abrasion and wear resistance of nylon or cotton.
Country of origin:
I like a deal as much as the next guy, but to get the features, craftsmanship and high-quality materials of a decent messenger bag means it will probably be made in the USA or Canada. That's where you find the low-volume, post-industrial craftsmen who will make gear like this. Having a local company make your bag is very good, as you can easily go back to the factory for repairs or to purchase accessories. Plus, you're helping to keep jobs and money in your local economy, and it's not from drugs or hookers. Not that those are bad things.