I have recently bought an Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic bicycle pannier. Ortlieb only sells them in pairs, but my local bike shop helpfully sells singles for 65 EUR. My main need is carrying a 14″ laptop on about a 20-30 minute bicycle commute.

I have not had a pannier before. I’ve used backpacks and smaller shoulder bags (in particular an older model of MEC Pod Sling). Here’s some of my notes in case some other newbies are considering one.

The pannier is a lot better for cycling with, both in heat and in rain. In the heat, it greatly improves the sweaty back problem. In the rain, it helps your breathable rain jacket do its job. And of course, it’s quite literally a load off your back.

It mounts on a standard bike rack very easily, stays secure, and comes off easily when you want it. The mounting is very well thought through and executed, I was pleasantly surprised.

It makes a big difference in comfort for a weekend day trip. It’s no longer a question of “do I want to carry the weight of this bottle of water and this sketchbook on my back”, it’s now “does it fit in the pannier? then go ahead.”

A slightly technical observation: a pannier is unsprung weight (and, although secure enough, not a welded one). When I wear a backpack, the weight of the contents is sprung by me. In a pannier, the unsprung weight makes bumps a bit more noticeable. Most of the time it’s not a problem, but you’ll notice the bike shaking a bit more when riding off a curb, or trying to ride on cobblestone.

Having just one pannier rather than two symmetrical ones isn’t a problem in practice. About the only issue I’ve had is that when really heavily loaded, it needs to be put on the side away from the kickstand, as otherwise the bike might tip over. (Each pannier is symmetrical and can be used on either side.) With normal loads of laptop, charger, e-reader and lunch it’s no problem. (Well, maybe a tiny bit when pushing the bike by the seat, but not terrible. Cycling with no hands is also no problem.)

Out of the box, it comes with “standard” rack wire grabber for around 14-16 mm diameter. It comes with a series of spacers to shrink this to match 12, 10, and 8 mm rack wires. However, the size adjustment spacers are really tough to insert and remove, and I found that the default works well enough for my 8-10 mm rack too.

It really is quite waterproof, they are not kidding about that.

But, the long neck that helps make it waterproof makes casual loading and unloading a bit frustrating. It’s a big, deep bag. It’s not more than a bag. It has very limited compartmentalization. It definitely has no laptop pocket. It’s a bag for carrying things with a bike – it’s not really optimized for anything else.

Carrying the pannier itself is a bit awkward. It’s like an old-style businessman suitcase, except vertical and with a less convenient handle. Carrying other stuff is hard as you’re down one hand. If you want to carry just one more thing, you now have no hands left to open doors.

It comes with a shoulder strap, but the things that make it a good pannier (rigid back frame, low centre of gravity) make it a bad shoulder bag. Though pro tip: if you do use the shoulder strap, wear the bag with the mounts away from your body, it’s a bit more comfortable with the soft side to you.

When I want to stop at a shop on my way home, with a backpack I just get off my bike and maybe lock the bike. With the pannier, when the laptop is in, I have to take the pannier off and carry it. And then it’s fairly conspicuous: with a backpack, you get off your bike and you’re just another guy with a backpack. With a pannier, you get off your bike and you’re definitely still a cyclist carrying a pannier.

Unlike my backpack, it has no side pockets, so it prevents you from grabbing stuff and forces you to focus on riding more. There’s no phone pocket. Personally, I’m now a fan, and can unplug for my commute. Admittedly, I was somewhat less a fan for the weekend trip when I was looking at map on my mobile device quite often.

So, very good for carrying stuff while cycling, not as good for everything else. But maybe that’s worth it.

There are other models that look a bit less like you’re going on a multi-country camping tour, and Ortlieb even has some with laptop compartments. At double the price, I’m not entirely sure it it’s worth it — get a laptop sleeve and you’ll be ahead, and the pannier can be used for trips to the countryside. But shop for those if that’s important to you. I expect the briefcase-carrying handle on them is a bit more comfortable, though I’m not sure they’ll be a lot more comfortable with a shoulder strap.