Among serious tourists, Ortlieb and Arkel have what are probably the most spotless reputations for producing highly functional and durable bags and panniers that can withstand the rigors of day-in and day-out use on the road. The needs of commuters may differ somewhat from those of tourists, but they subject their equipment to nearly as much abuse. Fortunately, both Ortlieb and Arkel are now producing a number of beautiful bags specifically designed for the city cyclist. Having these top touring outfitters developing products for the commuter market is a real boon to consumers.
I’ve been an Arkel user for many years, but somehow I’ve never had the opportunity to own an Ortlieb bag. Somewhere along the way I got started with Arkel, and I loved their bags so much that I just stuck with them. So when Ortlieb contacted me to take a look at their new “Downtown” bike briefcase, I jumped at the chance.
In contrast to Arkel bags that are known for having individual pockets for just about everything, most Ortlieb bags are fairly simply. These two design philosophies are a reflection of two different approaches to packing: one school prefers a specialized pocket for every item, while the other prefers one or two large compartments in which to place smaller bags or loose items. The former makes it easier to find things, the latter provides more flexibility; neither is right or wrong.
In their Downtown briefcase, Ortlieb took a move out of Arkel’s playbook and loaded it with pockets and details. I think this is totally appropriate for a briefcase/city bag where a person is likely to be carrying a computer, iPod, various phones and chargers, lunch, papers and reports, and so on. Details include a 4 pocket organizer (2 zippered pockets, 2 internal pockets); pen holder; snap hook for keys; and suspended laptop pouch. I found the number of pockets just about perfect for a briefcase. The internal pockets are a good size for chargers and small electronic devices. The larger zippered pocket will easily hold multiple magazines or reports. The laptop pocket will accept up to a 15.4″ notebook (my 13″ MacBook Pro in an InCase neoprene sleeve fits perfectly) and suspends the computer nicely above the bottom of the bag. The main compartment has plenty of room for an extra shirt or a small lunch container. The pen holder and key hook are nice touches.
As with all of their bags, the Downtown is constructed with heavy-duty waterproof materials. Ortlieb applies their waterproof coatings to the inside of pockets to prevent breakdown due to abrasion. The external materials are high-frequency welded for waterproofness and long-term durability. Unlike some of their touring panniers that are waterproof even when submersed, the Downtown is rated at what Ortlieb calls call IP53 for dust and water spray resistance (click here for more on their rating system).
The front buckles are clever. They’re made from a single piece of stainless steel and they slip into one of three slots depending upon the size of your load. Feet and corner guards on the underside of the bag protect it from abrasion and snags. The shoulder strap is well-padded and quite comfortable, even with a laptop in the bag. The top handle is heavy-duty and generously padded as well. The overall quality is exceptionally good, probably the best I’ve seen.
This is the first time I’ve used the Ortlieb QL2 mounting system for an extended period. Having been an Arkel guy for many years, I was skeptical that anyone could outdo their mounting system. I have to say, after using it for a few weeks, I’m totally sold on the Ortlieb system; I wouldn’t say it’s better than Arkel’s, but it’s certainly on par.
The QL2 upper clamps are released by lifting a secondary pannier handle. It’s a clever mechanism that’s quick and easy to use, while also being 100% secure. For the lower connection, the QL2 uses a hook on a sliding rail that can be easily adjusted without tools for quickly moving from one bike to another. It took a while to understand where best to place the hook, but once I adapted to the new system, I was sold.
As you can see in the photos above, the Downtown is designed to ride at an angle to provide heel clearance even on bicycles with short-ish chainstays. It comes set-up from the factory to ride on the left side of the bike, but the bracket can be reversed for right side mounting if preferred.
If you’re interested in a office-friendly briefcase for commuting through all types of weather, the Ortlieb Downtown is your bag. It’s stylish, functional, and the quality is beyond compare. Highly recommended.
Volume: 732 cu. in.
Weight: 53 oz.
Available Colors: Black, White, Green, Burgandy
Made in Germany
Disclosure: Ortlieb supplied the bag for this review. You can view our review policy here.
As an aside, I wanted to mention Ortlieb’s involvement in the German “Biking to Work 2010″ festivities. Like our Bike Month festivities here in the U.S., the German Biking to Work program encourages people to use their bicycles for transportation to-and-from work. Ortlieb is producing several hundred special edition Downtown bags printed with the Biking to Work logo to be given away at various events throughout the summer. The special edition bags will also be available in limited supplies through dealers. More information is available at the Biking to Work website.