Bicycle saddle bags are the epitome of bike counterculture. They are charmingly dorky, functional, weird, and a bit of a merit badge that distinguishes the true bike wizard from the common commuter riffraff (I keed). But there’s a problem …
None of the existing options for mounting up a saddle bag are perfect:
- Saddle bag with no support. I think this an okay option for smaller bags, but it does have some downsides, primarily the tendency for the bag to wag around and sag down onto the tire.
- Bagman Saddle Support. This support clamps on to your saddle rails and, from a distance, looks similar to the Erlen. In practice, they tend to loosen (or break) over time and they don’t offer much improvement in terms of stability. There’s no way I would trust these when out bikepacking.
- Frame-mounted Rack. These range from full-on racks that can mount panniers to hybrid seatpost and frame racks like the Nitto R10. I think these are a good option for heavy-duty uses, but I don’t like the idea conceptually because I feel like full racks can affect the compliance of a frame (this is probably bullshit). Anyway, they’re ugly and uncool and there’s no f’ing way I’m putting p-clamps on my bike.
The Erlen saddle bag support rack from Ocean Air Cycles adds a fourth option to the above, combining the best of the Bagman concept with the security of a semi-permanent rack, all accomplished with a minimalist stainless steel design that just works (minus a few compatibility issues). And the Erlen is entirely designed and fabricated in the USA by fellow bike nerds.
Installing the Erlen
In theory, the Erlen concept is delightfully simple. There are no moving parts. Just swap out your saddle clamp bolts with the longer included bolts, slip the Erlen between your saddle rails and clamp, and tighten it up. Drop your seatpost a bit to account for the raised height and check your saddle setback if needed. Done.
As luck would have it, I hit a few roadblocks here. The first is that my favorite Nitto S83 seatpost has a protrusion on the back that interferes with the “OAC” logo plate, preventing the rack from sliding into place. This could probably be remedied by just sawing off the plate, but that seems a shame for such a nice piece of craftsmanship. Rob at OAC is aware of the incompatibility so fingers are crossed that we might see a design change to improve compatibility in the future. I sure hope so because the Nitto is a great seatpost and I’d run it on all my bikes if I could.
The next issue I ran in to has to do with the Thomson setback seatpost. The Thomson seatpost has an unusual way of providing setback by effectively putting a kink in the seat tube rather than sliding back the clamp. This has the effect of requiring the clamp to rotate forward quite a bit just to get the nose end of the saddle down to a reasonable level. This, in turn, puts the seatpost bolts at an angle. Thomson compensates for this by including self-leveling bolts and washers that mate together and provide solid contact all around the washer and bolt head. However the bolts included by OAC are not the ideal shape for mating with the radiused washer. Rob at OAC assured me that this shouldn’t be an issue, but this is me we’re talking about. I put the ANAL in design ANALysis.
After giving this some though, I worked around the issue by throwing the OAC bolts into my poor-man’s lathe: a drill driver to turn the bolt and a Dremel to grind down the inner face of the bold head. It just took a few minutes to get the bolts to have a radius that fits the Thomson washers and this tweak makes me feel much more confident in the whole setup.
But after snugging everything up, I noticed another issue. The extreme angle of the Thomson seatpost combined with the taller stack of the Erlen forces the front bolt to have to bend beyond the range of motion allowed by the bolt hole in the seatpost. I’ve been using the Erlen with this less-than-ideal configuration for a few weeks and it hasn’t presented any noticeable problems, but I have to wonder if the bending of that bolt is a potential point of failure. Stay tuned on this one.
It’s worth considering that the Erlen probably isn’t something you’ll want to be installing and removing frequently since it requires some adjustment to the seatpost and saddle position. This could be problematic if the Erlen interferes with other bikes while being transported by car (no issues on my 1UP rack) or if you plan to swap the Erlen between bikes.
Fitting the Saddle Bag
The Erlen comes in two sizes and I went for the deep version with 7″ of drop since I have a range of bags and the Cambium saddle loops are a bit lower than on classic leather saddles. OAC recommends this for “really big bags” but I find that it works great for everything from smaller bags like the Swift Zeitgeist and Carradice Lowsaddle to the massive Carradice Camper.
This is largely a matter of preference, but if you are unsure if you should get the regular or deep drop, I recommend going the deep route. It lets the bag sit down a bit lower and at a bit of an angle, which is nice if you plan to overstuff your bag.
The Erlen in Use
After all the excitement of getting the Erlen set up, my assessment of it in daily use is a bit anticlimactic: I don’t even notice its there. Well, let me qualify that- I have realized that there were some annoyances with going the rackless route that have since disappeared:
- Strapping on a loaded bag is much easier when it can rest on the rack first. No more having to do an awkward balancing act and close finicky buckles with once hand.
- Not having to worry about tire rub means I can just toss things into the bag rather than play Tetris trying to get the bag to keep a shape that minimizes sag.
- The bag sitting a bit more upright means no worries about things falling out of the pockets. Now I typically just pull the inner drawcord and let the flap stay unbuckled.
- The bag doesn’t rub on my legs and it stays out of the way when scooting back over the saddle on descents.
I’ve been using the Erlen for several weeks with weights ranging from 10-15 lbs on mixed terrain including some singletrack and I think that OAC’s recommendations for weight limits are reasonable (<10 lbs for mountain biking, <15 lbs ideally for roads/trails, 15-20 and you might feel some flex). I haven’t had any trouble with the rack shifting or the saddle clamp needing to be retightened. Everything seems to be as solid as can be and the rack just sort of disappears when the bag is installed.
A surprise addition to the first batch of Erlens to ship out is a “multitool” on the corner of the rack that can be used as a bottle opener. Unfortunately, it seems that the positioning of my rack relative to my fat 27.5+ wheels renders the opener useless since I can’t get a bottle in at the right angle to engage the cap. It’s not worth getting upset about since this feature was not shown at the time I preordered my Erlen, but future buyers should be aware.
The Bottom Line
Despite encountering a few compatibility issues with my setup, I really like the Erlen and recommend it for those looking for light to medium-duty saddle support that gets the job done in an unobtrusive way. It’s a great showcase for small-batch USA craftsmanship and at the current price of $145, it’s competitively priced to other quality stainless steel racks. To find out more, visit Ocean Air Cycles’ web store.