Imagine my wonder when I came upon this aged and worn bag in a remote North Carolina workshop. My mind swirled with a mix of admiration and curiosity. The bag evoked in me regard for the skill, design, and care in its creation, but also amazement in discovering it was made a couple towns away from our home in Vermont forty-five years ago. I had to know more! Making traditionally inspired bike bags isn’t exactly a common avocation, particularly on the quiet backroads of our rural state.
How I found myself holding this bag on a misty January in that workshop is a long story, but I am proud to say that you’ll be able to read the whole tale in the 2020 Summer issue of Bicycle Quarterly*. Two winters ago I had the honor of spending a day with noted framebuilder Roger Jansen, who did his work under the name RT Jansen. Roger’s story is a tale of a man who believed in active, engaged learning and was willing to go to great lengths to pursue his craft while forging a life and education for his family.
The Le Campeur offering from the RT Jansen catalogue
Most of the components and parts required for the bikes Roger made were imported from France, including bags, but at some juncture decided he would offer bags for his customers as well as the bikes, and he would make them himself. This would be a logical extension of his work since his bikes were envisioned as touring-ready machines complete with racks and decaleurs. In those pre-internet days, I imagine it would have been hard to even know where to find accessories like bags that would be appropriate for a bike like this. I suppose some general purpose nylon bike bags would have worked fine, but they wouldn't have, you know, made sense with a carefully conceived French-style touring bike. There’s no point in getting almost there with a concept and then diminishing it with the wrong bags.
So, the bag in my hands. Its small pannier in deep orange with brown leather trim. Having worked for years to refine my skills and improve my process, I could see that Roger had really thought through his approach and was able to produce an impressively well-done bag. Was he working from an example? How did he land on this design? Like any building process, you may have a design or pattern in hand, but it is the repetition that refines and improves the result. I think of making a Waxwing bag a bit like solving a puzzle. Sequence, shape, adjustment, intersections, shortcuts and technique all converge to produce a quality outcome. Decisions are made, avenues abandoned, and sometimes the solution to the puzzle take a while to figure out. Roger clearly had a mind for this.
Among Roger's collection from his bicycle days was the handlebar bag of his friend Sumner White. I suspect this was produced by Sologne or TA
I was moved to think of a craftsman intent on his effort, working outside the mainstream, maybe even a little against it, in pursuit of his vision. Seated in front of the sewing machine, making panniers to accompany his newly completed Routens-inspired touring bicycle. I feel inspired picturing Roger engaged in the same work decades ago. Since we no longer live in a world of guilds or traditional apprenticeships my avenue into this work has been solitary and at times hard-won and I’ve often daydreamed about where and how I might have learned from others--sometimes I still do. Roger may have had a similar feeling.
He did great work. It is one thing to master the myriad skills required to build a complete constructeur bicycle, and it's yet another to take it to making bags. Since we met Roger has consistently made a point of complimenting my bag-making work. Perhaps what he’s seeing is someone, like him, who has dedicated his life to craft, to making, to the work required to hone a skill, and who combines the production of goods with the deep satisfaction that comes with making as its own reward. I’m so glad Roger’s little-known story will be shared with the broader bicycle community.
*Bicycle Quarterly is available by subscription and at select bookstores and bike shops
I was delighted to receive a note from Roger's son Larry with this photo attached of a matching handlebar bag that went with the panniers. Larry said he snagged the bag from his dad in the 70's and has been using it ever since. He said he'd forgotten that it was once part of a full set his dad had made. I wonder if theres a picture somewhere of the whole set together on one of Roger's bikes? That'd be fun to see!
Cyclist and craftsman.