Cars are so easy, aren’t they?
Open the trunk, toss in your gear, shut the trunk. Cupholders. Satellite radio. Air conditioning. Too bad driving a car is a soul-crushing, mind-numbing experience. No wonder drinking and driving is such a widespread phenomenon.
So we’re stuck with a motorcycle when we travel, but how do we carry our stuff? Locking hard luggage is nice, sure, but most motorcycles either don’t come with it installed or look like Professor Wiggly’s Fantastic Fun Machine when you install aftermarket hard cases on them. Hard luggage is also expensive, heavy, and here in Lotus Land, reduces your lane-splitting ability. What we like is the flexibility, low cost and slick looks of soft luggage.
Like most textile goods in our post-post-industrial world, soft luggage tends to be made in certain Asian countries where hourly labor is cheaper than metered parking. The resulting fat profit margins are great for manufacturers and retailers, but often the consumer gets stuck with products that don’t last as long and don’t work as well out on the open road.
Richard and Kathy Battles are a couple of San Francisco Bay Area motorcyclists who back in the ‘80s decided to use Kathy’s expertise in sewing and fabrics (she had a business making jockey “silks”) to design and sell motorcycle luggage and other accessories. Twenty years later, while they haven’t exactly achieved total world domination, they are still in business, with wide name recognition and a reputation for making solid, well-designed and useable products.
We’ve always admired RKA gear, and that’s where we headed when we needed some sport-touring gear for our sport-touring test. Not only did Richard turn out to be a fan of Motorcycle.com, he also was a proud survivor of me singing the national anthem before an AFM roadrace at Infineon Raceway shortly after 9/11. So he was happy to help out, sending us a nice sampling of his products to try out.
8.5-liter 3 Point "MiniX" Expandable Tankbag $80
If you’re more on the Pete side of this debate, the MiniX is a great piece of gear. It utilizes special “slip-not” rubberized backing material and a simple yet effective three-point harness to hold the bag securely to the bike. The interior compartment is padded, with an organizer (complete with key hook) in the lid, which is expandable to the full 8.5-liter capacity. A clear map pocket secures with hook-and-loop to the top, and for 2007, reflective piping is added to the top and bottom.
We liked the MiniX. I thought it was a good size for a tankbag, and although I prefer the convenience of a magnetic bag, steel tanks are getting rarer these days, so having the ability to strap this onto any bike is nice. You also get the bonus feature of being able to make lots of “strap-on” jokes (not counting that one). It’s well-made, clearly designed by someone who rides. I complained about the expanding portion being on top of the main compartment instead of being part of the main compartment itself as it is on most expanding tankbags, but Richard prefers the way the bag looks with the expanding portion being in the lid. After all, when we use the expansion on our tankbags, it’s usually to hold bulky but light items like a fleece or rainsuit, while leaving the heavier items underneath.
I appreciated the smaller size, especially for sportbikes with clip-on handlebars. It makes it easier to tuck in and even hang off the bike, where a bigger bag only gets in the way.
However, it’s almost too small for a bottle of water, and getting a helmet visor in there without expanding it is not an option. Still, if something this size will fit your needs (especially if you have other luggage to hold bigger yet less-used items) the item’s quality and versatility is impressive.
16-liter Magnetic "SuperSport" Expandable Tankbag $125
I’m a sucker for magnetic tankbags; they are convenient when you have to switch between bikes, and there is no slipping or moving around to worry about unless the laws of magnetism change abruptly (in which case we’re all screwed). This 16-liter job from RKA fulfills all my tankbag needs.
The bag is wide and long -- like the tanks of many modern sportbikes and standards -- measuring 9.5 inches wide, 13 inches long and just three inches high. It’s made of 600/300-denier (this means it has the flexibility of 300-denier fabric but the strength of 600-denier. “Denier” refers to how heavy the thread that’s used to make the fabric is) nylon with the same “Slip-not” base, foam interior padding and hard plastic interior walls front and back. The lid has dual zippers and expands another five inches to give you another 10 liters of storage in addition to the 6 liters the main compartment offers. The same complaints I have about the MiniX I hold for the 16-liter, but again, Richard is the voice of reason; how much stuff do you really want in your tankbag, bubba?
The best part of this bag, aside from its durability, quality and good design, is how it looks like it was meant to go on your bike. RKA sells the “Supersport” tankbags in three sizes, strap-on and magnetic, and also has the “Shiloh Road” and “Pine Flat” series of bags designed to fit on dual-sport motorcycles and other bikes with sloping tanks. If that’s not enough customizing for you, Cher, then you can also order custom fabric colors and other features for an additional charge.
33-Liter Expandable Saddlebags $175
50-Liter Expandable Saddlebags $200
If you don’t want to spend $1,000 -- or make your bike look like something out of the movie Mad Max by bolting some crazy steel contraption to it -- soft saddlebags are the way to go. But they always look so cheap and sad, all droopy and hanging off your bike. Sometimes they get so depressed they kill themselves, hurling themselves off your bike and spilling their sock-and-underwear entrails all over the freeway.
I’m guessing Richard and Kathy have picked up their underwear off the pavement once or twice, because their saddlebags are very well-designed. We tested two sets, and the fact that Richard made me come to his factory to show me how to properly install and operate the bags made me realize they were something special.
These bags are ovoid affairs, measuring 6.5 inches wide (8.5 inches expanded), 16 inches long and 11 inches high (6 inches in the back). They’re built of that ubiquitous black 600/300-denier nylon, with Slip-Not fabric backs and plastic internal stiffeners. They have a wide strap attaching them together, adjustable with wide hook-and-loop strips.
They secure to the sides of the bike with adjustable cam buckles, so attaching them to your ride is a pretty quick job. You need three hard points (usually footpeg brackets and the license plate work) to attach them to, so if you’ve “cleaned up” your rear fender and plate bracket with the ol’ hacksaw, you might have a hard time with the rear straps. However, if you have something to use for a bracket, the bags will sit nice and tight back there.
Contributing to the clean look of RKA bags is the internal bracing system. Not only are there internal plastic cards to give the bags a square, solid appearance and keep them from flapping and moving around, but there are also straps inside designed to hold your cargo up against the top of the bag, so the bags don’t sag down and inwards. It even works when the big bag is expanded (there are extra supports in the bag so it all stays rigid, even when expanded), and it’s pretty amazing how much stuff 50-liter bags will absorb. I was even able to carry an extra helmet home from a press intro, just by expanding the bags.
36-Liter Expandable Rack Bag $135
When I first laid eyes on this giant rack bag, I thought of photographer Fonzie. It’s made of the same tough nylon fabric and has many of the same features of RKA’s other products—like the organizer under the lid and closed-cell foam in the walls so the item holds its shape even while empty—but it also is designed to fit neatly and securely onto the luggage racks that many tourers, adventure bikes and sport-tourers now have.
It does this with two hook-and-loop-adjustable sleeves under the bag and a pair of Fastex quick-release buckle-equipped straps (intended to go under the seat or around a passenger grabrail) in front. This means the bag will be perfectly secured on your bike, and is removable in seconds. It stays steady and flop-free back there, regardless of how full it is or how fast you’re going. As with the tankbags, the expandable part is on the lid, not the main compartment, which limits how much extra stuff you can pack; it’s more suited to stowing your extra insulating layers as the day warms up.
It’s a very nice piece of equipment. The three external pockets are immense and very handy, and when this was installed on our K1200GT testbike it looked like a factory accessory. Like everything RKA makes, it’s a well-made, well-designed piece of gear that works as promised and will last for a long time.
BMW K1200GT, R1200RT R1200ST, R1200R Hardbag Liner Set $95
If you have hard cases on your tourer or sports tourer, you might have a dilemma: take the whole hardcase off your bike or try to cram odd-shaped soft luggage like gym bags or briefcases into them. BMW and other manufacturers offer correctly-shaped soft cases that go inside the hard bags, but they are, like most things stamped with that blue-and-white logo, pricey.
So RKA offers these nice liners. You get two of these bags, and they are a perfect fit for the above-mentioned BMW models. They are constructed out of the same tough (yet pliant) material that RKA uses by the mile and come with reflective piping (in case a car needs to see inside your bag) and a very handy shoulder strap, which makes the bag a nice carry-on item or just easier to carry up to your hotel room at the end of the day.
Like everything else, you can choose many different colors to customize your bags for some extra cash, and there are liners available for many other BMW hard cases, including bags sized to fit top cases and a monumental bag designed to strap to the trunk lid of the K1200LT that holds over 17 liters when expanded. There is even a set of bags designed for the R1200GS that expand to match the expanding lids of the GS’s bags. Very cool.
In use, they’re just what you expect, have a lifetime warranty and work very well. Being able to take your luggage out of the bike’s cases, lock up your helmet and riding gear in the cases and then walk up to your hotel room or campsite like a civilized human being rather than being festooned with helmets, jackets, luggage and other odds and ends isn’t exactly the crowning achievement of Western Civilization -- I’d reserve that distinction for Scotch or TiVo -- but it’s a very nice thing to have.
Map Organizer $10
Last but not least -- OK, maybe it is least -- on our list of goodies is this slick map/document/tool organizer. It’s constructed out of that heavyweight nylon and has room for all kinds of maps, notebooks, tools, menus, whatever. It’s a good way to keep maps and other papers organized in your tankbag, briefcase, glove compartment, boat, space station or wherever. Even if you don’t have an immediate use for one, what other hand-crafted American-made products can you get for the price of a burger and a beer at the ballpark?
RKA doesn’t have the cheapest tankbags, nor the most flashy or feature-packed. But there is something very satisfying about their high-quality, high-function designs that make their products very appealing. They are expensive compared to mass-produced tankbags, and they lack some of the flashy features designed to wow consumers in the bike shops. And adding custom touches like custom colors, Powerlet accessories and portals for electric cords and cables can boost the price of a tankbag into used dirtbike territory.
But the quality of these products is immediately apparent, and from our testing, they’ll last for many years and function just as they were intended.