September 11, 2009

Axiom Monsoon & Typhoon Storm-Front panniers: 1-Year review

Since the first nomads packed up their things and moved from one place to another, portage has been important. Bags, sacks, duffels, panniers, trunks, steamers, suitcases, etc. I love bags. I love the functionality, the versatility, and the variety. For just about ANY activity imaginable there is an associated "bag" of some kind. Bicycling is certainly no exception, and certainly commuting by bicycle creates the widest array of bicycle portage options. I've tried many over the years, and this most recent set of bags is coming upon its first birthday, so it's time to assess their condition and make note of a few items.

My last set of bags had to do a few things: Be tough, carry everything I needed to handle a two-job commute, be waterproof, and be out-of-the-box visible without resorting to my usual additions of reflective modifications. Ortlieb was certainly on the short list, as was Arkel and my old favorite Carradice - but they were each out of the budget. Further searching found me looking at Axiom's website. A Canadian company, Axiom has been in the business for a while, and seemed to make solid stuff. Their Storm-Front line of bags seemed to hit the same marks as the Ortlieb bags, and were more economical. The panniers in the Storm-Front line up come in two sizes: the Typhoon, at 2032 per pair, and the smaller Monsoon at 1510 per pair.

My criteria resulted in the purchase of the Axiom Typhoon panniers in bright red. My bike is not a true touring geometry, however, and I quickly found heel clearance to be a daily problem with these monsters. I passed these on to a friend, and opted for the smaller Monsoon bags. The storage capacity proved more than adequate for my commuting needs, and the heel clearance issue was eliminated. For the purposes of this review, the only difference between the two bags are their sizes - so I have no doubt that had I owned the larger bags for this same time period with the same usage, the results would have been the same. To be clear, the comments that follow are specifically about the Monsoon panniers.

Waterproofness sometimes comes with compromise, and this is clear with most dry bags and the like in the marketplace. Seams are the enemy, unless specific (and expensive) materials are employed, like I've seen used in the Carradice bags. Axiom uses a roll-top design for their main compartment, which is a proven method for keeping water out. Combined with their use of ultrasoncially welded and lined tarpaulin, the main compartments of the bags operate as-advertised: completely waterproof when closed. After riding through snow, and nearly every gradient of rainfall from sprinkles and mist to all-out downpours and thunderstorms, I have yet to find a single droplet of water inside these bags, or absorbed into anything I've carried inside them. Even on the stormiest mornings I've arrived at work with dry clothes. The trade-off for this kind of all-weather performance is a lack of versatility with regards to storage options in the main compartment. Many bags have inserts of some kind, zippered pouches and pockets along the outside, or similar, and these bags do not. You essentially have one, big pocket on each side of the bike. I was more than willing to trade these features, however, to be able to ride regardless of the conditions without changing anything about my routine. No fumbling with rain covers, seam sealants, plastic bags for the clothing, or rushing to re-pack when storms move in. Granted, many a commuter has had success with non-waterproof bags and combinations of internal protection and covers over the years - but I definitely wanted a no-compromises, weather-proof FIRST bag - and these have met that mark nicely. I'm so routine-based in the mornings on my rides to work, the less I have to fumble with simply because it's pouring rain, the better.

Aside from the main compartment mentioned above, part of the design of the bag involves a large flap that covers over the roll-top closure, offering even further protection to the primary contents of the bag. This flap "completes" the closure of the bag with a large quick-fasten buckle, and is trimmed with a molded-in zipper pocket on the outside, and a sewn-in mesh pocket on the inside.

The inside mesh pocket is handy for storing items that don't mind moisture. Contents are protected, largely, simply because they are on the underside of the flap - but tire spray and simply moving through the air might invite moisture in, so pack accordingly. I use this large pocket for documents (inside a plastic baggie) if I happen to be carrying any, like letters or mail. In one of the bags, I use this mesh pocket for storage of my rain jacket in cooler months, and it's perfect for that. I can stop, undo the flap, and retrieve my jacket without putting the contents of the main compartment at risk, which is really handy.

The outside zipper pocket is smaller, but easy to get to. I use this for smaller, thinner items that I need quick access to once I arrive at the office - things like my ID badge, maybe wallet and phone. That's about all that fits, however, and highlights my first of two complaints about this outside pocket. It is nice to have a pocket of any kind on this kind of waterproof bag, but it's molded into the flap in such a way that only thin items will fit into it. It's not gusseted, doesn't have it's own shape - so anything you try to stuff into it tends to budge the tarp fabric, and then deforms the line of the zipper, making it hard to close. Even if you successfully get something into these outer pockets, it can make final closure of the flap itself difficult.

The second complaint about the outside pocket is the zipper itself. If there was one design flaw, this is it. Designs of water-resistant zippers has indeed come a long way over time, but it's still not a high-cycle device. For the first six months, the zipper worked perfectly, as designed: water never entered the pocket, even fully exposed to thunderstorm-level rainfall. However, water-resistant zippers' tragic flaw is the PVC-coating that is layered onto what is essentially a normal zipper. If you only enter the pocket on occasion, it's fine - but continued open-and-close cycles requires - as is the case for all zippers - the carrier/closure/slider to pass, rather abrasively, over the PVC coating. Over time, this material weakens, a gap is created, and eventually it begins to peel away. This makes the once water-resistant zipper a plain-old zipper, and water seeps in quite easily. I remedied this by taking a scissors to an old PVC rain jacket and making "storm flaps" to cover over the pocket openings. Sure, I could have simply loaded everything into a zip-top baggie, and put it inside the pocket for protection of my items, but the real concern was water getting in, and not drying out. Additionally, it flew in the face of my simplicity plan and routine: having a bag that allowed me to treat my items the same as if I was putting them into the pocket of my jeans was the goal. The added storm-flaps solved the problem, and are the only "repair" I've had to make to the bags since purchase. (I'll qualify that in a moment.) From a design perspective, I don't think a "better" water-resistant zipper is the answer for Axiom, should they choose to address the issue. A factory storm flap would be a good addition, but what might be better is simply an open pocket, slightly gusseted to allow for easier storage access, with a covering flap and quick-snap "Fastex"-style closure. In any case, this would make the pocket more usable, and it would live up to the "Water-Proof" moniker of the bag line. To be plain, however, this is a minor concern - as it should be: this tiny outside pocket is not the main selling feature of the bag, and this issue doesn't detract from the rest of the bag's performance.

Visibility is usually an afterthought for most cycling items, unfortunately, which has always struck me as odd. Granted, some reflective piping here and there is really secondary to a good vest, and proper lighting on the bicycle - so why load up accessory and bag manufacturers with requirements for reflective accents? Thankfully, many companies simply consider it a good idea - Axiom being one of them. They incorporated their logo into the accents, which is a good touch considering branding of a product is something they'd have done anyhow. Since these are waterproof, Axiom was mindful enough to consider that these bags might encounter some rainy rides, so they've been trimmed them on all three exposed sides with healthy doses of reflective material that proves quite effective, even when wet. So reflective, it made taking a photo of it quite difficult. You will notice in these photos my aforementioned "need" to slather just a little bit more visibility gear on whatever I purchase: the hi-vis orange netting that I placed on the "traffic-side" bag is my own addition, sewn into the edging seam on the bottom edge of the main flap. This is not included on Axiom bags, nor are the stickers that I've placed on the outside flaps, which I've blurred out in these pictures. I can't help myself sometimes - must... personalize.... bags!!

The durability of these bags is quite good. After a solid year of nearly daily use, there are few indicators of anything I'd consider to be "toward-failure" wear. The one "scare" I had was when a tiny corner of fabric seemed to peel backwards, but it turned out to be part of the overlap of tarpaulin and PVC-coating, and wasn't really a seam failure like I'd thought. I applied a little silicone sealant, pressed it in place overnight, and everything is fine. The actual ultrasonically welded seam will take a LOT more beatings before separating - it's a terribly strong bond, really, and a good construction choice for this kind of bag. A year of bumps, pot-holes, pavement joints, bike trail maladies, curbs and median jumps, bunny hops, railroad tracks and even occasional off-road and gravel commute detours - with daily commute loads, light errands, six-packs of beverages, wet tents and bike camping gear, and other countless items of odd-ball cargo, these bags have yet to wince. There is mild "staining" from open-close cycles on the grey PVC material - probably from when I entered the bag after a shift at the bike store with greasy hands - and little indicators of where the bag's roll-top feature pinches the PVC tarp, but little else. There are small areas of nylon "fray" here and there, but again - all very, very minor. The only signs of wear that I'm mildly concerned with involve the rubber coating of the pannier's rack hooks - and even that isn't 100% necessary for continued operation of the bags.

The back-side of each bag is the story of what they are exposed to from a year of all-weather commuting. The hardware is solid, but shows a bit of surface rust. There is clear marking from the rotation of the "rack-lock" blocks that help hold the bags in place, and you can tell where the bungee cords have been. All of this is normal wear, however, and nothing shows any signs of wearing thin, or wearing through. Further, Axiom includes a small replacement hardware kit in each bag at purchase, in case anything does become necessary. So far, I haven't been compelled to replace anything. The bottom side of each bag is also holding up quite well, with nothing to raise an eyebrow about. While no pannier is designed to be dragged along the ground, Axiom still chose to employ very sturdy rear corner protectors, just in case.

On my completely off-the-cuff, random, found-less scale of one to ten, I give these a solid 9-point rating - the only sour mark being the failure of the water-proof zippers and associated repair for the outside pockets, and the fact those same pockets aren't terribly useful for anything larger than a deck of cards. All in all, I've gotten my money's worth from these bags, and I fully expect to be writing about them again, this time next year. Highly recommended, a good price, durable, visible, and water-proof. A pair of these and their larger cousins, the Typhoon panniers, would make for a worry-free fall tour in questionable weather, no doubt.


justin johnsen said...


Great review! Very thorough and very appreciated. It's hard to find decent user reviews and especially after an entire year of actual daily use. Thanks.

331 Miles said...

Excellent review. I ordered a pair of these BEFORE I read your review, then was looking around a bit more and found your review. It confirms what I had hoped -- that these are an excellent bag for the $$$. Can't wait to get them and gather some empirical evidence myself!

Anonymous said...

Really appreciate the thorough review. Very descriptive. Was going to get the Typhoon model 'til I read they were on the large size. Keep on' writing ... and riding!

Anonymous said...

Great comments! I will buy a pair for my daily commute in DC. The only discussion I was looking for was some information on the ease (or difficulty) in racking and unracking the bags and how solid they are with a load. I will go with the adage that no news is good news. Thanks again for the review. I will visit again.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this review. Finding this level of detail in a review from someone that's put the gear through the wringer is always precious. Appreciated. Thanks!