Gear review: Viking AXE Saddlebags

Viking AXE Saddlebag
I've been a little sloppy about posting ever since Jenn and I returned from the United States, because the weather here in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been unusually fantastic. And we are desperate to make the most of it, hopping on the bike whenever we can. To that end, we both skipped out of work a little early recently to speed over to the Gower, a tiny peninsula on the southern coast of Wales that -- when the weather's nice -- is arguably one of the best places in the world.

For the past 34 years, Jenn's grandparents have made an annual pilgrimage to the Gower, trundling up from Devon in their camper van and spending two weeks at a camp site on the peninsula's southern coast. Every year, y'all. For 34 years. To the same place. The fact that this sort of behaviour is quite common in Britain is at the heart of why I will never really understand its people. But I digress.

To carry our clothing and sundries to see Jenn's grandparents, we stuffed everything into the saddlebags that the good folks at VikingBags.com had sent me a while ago for my trip to Scotland (a). The bags had been sent on the promise I would review them on this site. And I think it's a sign of just how cool the people at VikingBags.com are that they didn't pester me to write that review. So laid back are they that, uhm, I had kind of forgotten about my promise until I was in the Gower. Lounging beside the camper van, Jenn was digging through the bags for our swimsuits and remarked: "These bags really are OK. I don't see why you wrote such bad things about them."

But, in fact, I had not written bad things about the bags; I had not written about them at all. And in hindsight perhaps that's for the best. Because, as Jenn noted, my original impressions were negative. But with a little time to think about it, I realise my primary criticism was unfair. 

I struggled to express it, but essentially, when I first got the Viking AXE Saddlebags in the post, I was upset because they were soft, throw-over bags. Yes, that's exactly what I was expecting, but on an emotional level I guess that's not what I wanted. Subconsciously, I looked this gift horse right in the mouth and bemoaned the fact I had not been sent a set of lockable hard cases. I realise now that I'd kind of like a set of those -- so Jenn and I could go places and safely store our gear on the bike -- but initially that was not a thought I had managed to logically form in my tiny brain. So, instead I just badmouthed the things to Jenn. Because she doesn't read this blog, she assumed I had badmouthed them to you, as well.

I am glad now that I didn't. 

Throw-over saddlebags are not hard panniers. Whether that's good or bad depends on you. When thinking about motorcycle luggage, take the time to think about what you want the luggage to do and what you want out of it. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems. VikingBags.com, by the way, offers a range of hard side cases. Though, sadly, they are all intended for use on cruisers.

So, let's take a look at the Viking AXE Saddlebags and review them fairly. 

What's good:

My bike (and the bags) on the Scottish border.
+ Durably made. The bags are constructed of a thick Cordura-like material. I have put something approaching 1,500 miles on them thus far and the material still looks brand new. It has suffered rain, high winds and countless exploding insects at motorway speeds without rip, tear or fade. I have had a teeny tiny bit of stitching start to come loose on one of the side strap loops, but I think that is the result of my deliberately overloading the bags once by stuffing them with a week's shopping.

+ Simple, good look. If you've ever bought an Oxford product, no doubt one of your greatest complaints was that it was clearly designed by someone whose sense of style became frozen in time somewhere around 1986. Generally their stuff is pretty good, but it looks awful. It declares to the world: "I am a cheap bastard." This is not the case with the Viking AXE Saddlebags. All black, and decorated with little more than a VikingBags badge, they look good on any bike.

+ ExpandableAs is, each bag offers about 22 litres of storage space. They can be expanded to provide 26 litres, giving you a whopping 52 litres of space. When I went to Scotland, that was enough to hold all the clothes I needed for eight days (save two pairs of jeans I put in a different bag), as well as a pair of running shoes, a pair of hiking boots, and various small things for bike maintenance.

+ Relatively easy to put on. The first time you put these bags on your bike, you should allocate roughly 45 minutes for you to stand around swearing, contorting and trying to figure out the best way to ensure the damned things are on your bike securely and without causing damage to your bike. This is because there are no instructions. Once you work out a system, however, you'll find that getting the bags on or off the bike takes closer to 45 seconds.

+ Passenger friendly. As evidenced by Jenn's joining me on the 60-mile ride to the Gower, the straps that go over the passenger seat do not prevent you from carrying a passenger. Jenn says she cannot feel the strap when she sits on it. And on my Honda CBF 600 SA, at least, I am able to push the bags far enough back that they don't have any effect on how she places her feet on the pegs.

+ Affordable. Certainly one of the initial selling points of the Viking AXE Saddlebags is that they are incredibly affordable, usually cheaper than any comparable bags I have seen. As with a lot of Viking products, such as the Viking Cycle Hammer jacket, the quality is better than the price would suggest.

What's not so good:

In Lake District National Park
- Poor quality control. Having just said that overall quality is good, I have to admit there are some aspects of the bags that make me think their production is lacking a certain amount of oversight. Such as:
  • The side straps don't make sense. The bags are secured to your bike firstly via two large adjustable Velcro straps that go over the passenger seat, but also by four smaller straps. The smaller straps -- two on each bag -- have trident-style buckles that clip to buckles you've attached to the frame. That probably sounds a bit confusing, so take a look at this picture and note the strap running from the bottom of the bag toward the passenger foot peg. Note, too, that the strap is on the inside of the set up. As it should be. And as it is on one of the bags I have. But not the other. My left-side bag has the strap running away from the bike, so I have to twist it back and place stress on a cloth loop that's probably not designed to hold the bags in place at 80 mph.
  • Velcro patches to close the bag don't match up. Once the bag is zipped "shut" there is an additional little flap that, presumably, would help to keep water out -- if it worked. Sadly it does not. Where the tapered flap meets the bag is not where its corresponding Velcro patch is located, so you are left with a wee bit of material that flaps in the breeze.
  • Zipper design means bag does not fully close. You'll notice that in the preceding paragraph I put the word "shut" in quotation marks. This is because the bag doesn't really shut. When zipped fully there is still a gap large enough for my finger to poke through. It is a problem that probably would not be a problem if the aforementioned flaps worked correctly. 
  • Random strange bits. Mysteriously, there are two large buckles concealed in elastic on each bag. They do not connect to anything. This is either a design flaw or a feature that has not been fully realised.


- Expanded bags not as useful as you'd like. Although the expanded bags hold a lot of stuff, getting that stuff in there is something of a challenge. This is because the size of the bag's opening does not change. So, for example, an expanded bag could easily hold a full-size helmet but you will never get one in there because the bag's opening is only about 4-5 inches wide. When packing and unpacking the bags on my Scotland trip, I suffered a fair few cut knuckles scraping my hand on the zipper when stuffing things in.

- Rough "anti-slip" coating scratches paint. The back of the bag (i.e., the side that faces your bike) has a lining that is supposed to help prevent it from slipping around. The problem is that this lining will scratch the living hell out of your paint. I learned this the hard way, which was one of the reasons Jenn heard me badmouth the bags so vociferously. My workaround was to cut up an Oxford Blanket (it's kind of like a thin yoga mat) and glue it to the bags. This protects my paint and keeps the bags from slipping.

The bags have held up well in all weather.
- The bags are not waterproof. This is an issue exacerbated by the problems in keeping the bags fully closed. I dealt with this by making sure that everything within them was wrapped in at least two plastic bags.

- Rain covers are useless. The bags come with rain covers that are supposed to slip over the outside of the bags and cinch shut via elastic cord. The problem with this system is that it offers no protection on the back (the side facing the bike), and, more problematically, does not account for the straps that are securing the bag to the bike. The rain covers really only fit the bags if they are not attached to your motorcycle. So, I just used them as extra cover for things I had on my passenger seat and rack.

- Cumbersome to carry. The bags pictured on the VikingBags.com website have handles. The bags I received do not. This means that when you are transporting them to and from your hotel room it can be a little awkward. Eventually I settled on a method of slinging the bags over my shoulder, pack mule style.

The final verdict

All in all, I'd say the bags are value for money. Especially if what you're really looking for are soft bags. And certainly there are advantages to such things: they are lighter, easier to throw around, and you don't need to permanently affect the aesthetic of your bike with mounting hardware. Additionally, their being made of fabric allows a little more wiggle room in terms of the shape of things you put in them (though, as I mentioned above, not as much as I'd like).

And certainly when you start to do price comparisons, the Viking AXE Saddlebags become quite appealing. They're not perfect, but for the money you save you might find yourself happy to put up with a few foibles.

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(a) I wrote about that adventure in four parts: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4

Comments

  1. These bags sound a lot like the first pair of soft panniers I bought back when money and getting something quick were my prime concerns. Later on I saved up some money and bought a pair of soft panniers from Ortleib which were in a league of their own. They're 100% waterproof, cleverly designed and seem to be made from a material that could deflect bullets. Can definitely recommend them. http://www.ortlieb.co.uk/motorcycle-saddlebags.html

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