Photo: courtesy of Joe Kopera
"New Bag Design..." read the email subject line from Peter Weigle. The attached photo showed a curious cardboard silhouette standing tall on one his fine front racks.
“Would I be interested in making a bag something like this?” he inquired.
“Of course” I replied, already curious about this new direction. The next image showed a bottle of milk on the same lovely rack, and then another with a bottle of wine. I wasn't sure what this was about as my curiosity grew...
It was easy to see the elegance in his concept and I was immediately taken with the bold shape. And given that I always enjoy a challenge I wanted to know more. Intrigued, I let him know I was excited to be a part of this project.
Photo: courtesy of JP Weigle
“Could it be ready to test at D2R2?” came the next inquiry.
“Of course” I replied, casually ignoring the tight timeline with a previously-planned vacation smack dab in the middle of it. We agreed to have it ready for it’s inaugural shakedown at D2R2 a few weeks away.
Peter had a few ideas informing this design; his aim was to have a shape that lightened up the bag form visually and perhaps shaved a bit of weight in the process. Handlebar bags are commonly some variation of a rectangular box, and, when mounted, obscure the rack on which they sit. In contrast, the wedge shape allows the graceful lines of Peters racks to remain visible. The bag retains the area and usefulness of the map case found on a conventionally shaped handlebar bag. The shape informs function; lesser-used items such as the tool kit and spare tube sit at the bottom of the bag, keeping the weight low and centered in the small footprint. Jackets, food and other bulky, light objects go in the upper portion of the bag creating a self-organizing arrangement. The goal here was to pare down the form but not constrain the functionality. The bottle of milk would happily sit within the bag proving its usefulness for a quick run to the market. The design was soon referred to as the Sportif, reflecting its slimmed down sporty disposition.
Photo: courtesy of JP Weigle
Peter is widely acknowledged as one of the preeminent constructeurs of our day; an artist whose medium is steel, silver and brass. To witness one of his bikes is to see a form reduced to its essence; an alignment of shape and purpose distilled into supremely clean, functional beauty.
While he solicited my input and was open to suggestions, he’d already defined the profile that would become the new bag. Our job together was to refine the details. I translated the cardboard cut-out into a 3d SketchUp model which is handy to allow the customer and me the opportunity to look at the overall shape and proportionality while considering the relationship of the parts to make any changes when something looks amiss.
Questions were considered: Should we continue the tapered shape up to the very top (as seen above on the left) or bring the upper portion of the bag square where the leather edge band is located? What shape should the pocket cover be? Ought we try to make dimensional pockets on the sides? How deep should the bag be front-to-back? We had a productive back-and-forth with sketches, mock-ups and refinements. I experimented with creating a pattern for the tapered and pleated front pocket. To finalize the concept I sent Peter a mocked up front panel which provided a reasonable facsimile of the finished product without making the whole bag in case we decided to change anything. Peter hung the panel in place on his bike to give it a look.
Photo: courtesy of JP Weigle
With the design nearly complete Nancy and I went on vacation. Peter and I sorted out the last details via email as we enjoyed a tour along the St. Lawrence seaway in Quebec. We returned from vacation on Sunday, I made the bag on Monday and shipped it late that day, leaving Peter just enough time fit the bag and be ready to head to Deerfield, MA on Saturday.
D2R2 is famous in the cycling world for its demanding, rugged climbs (and descents) through the wild beauty of western Massachusetts. If there were ever an event to test a bag, this would be it, and the shakedown ride was a great success. After the challenging ride, Peter was pleased with how the bag handled the rigors of the event and stayed in place well. Shortly afterwards he made a couple of changes; he moved the hook for the elastic higher up on the center band (it is always a challenge to find the perfect location for this detail!) and added two magnetic buttons to the top flap to act as an automatic closure system with the decaleur bracket. Peter has long used a small pencil case inside his handlebar bag and so we made him one for this bag with tapered sides to fit appropriately inside the shape of the Sportif. It rests at the top of the back panel for quick access to small items while riding and is held in place by the decaleur mounting bracket mounting bolts. This little bag-within-a-bag is particularly useful with this design since there is limited exterior pocket storage.
Short of a full handlebar bag the sportif is perfectly suited to many (if not most) daily excursions. I’ve since made this bag in three different heights, the same as my regular handlebar bags, 8”, 9.5”, and 11”. I was curious to see if the shape maintained its attractiveness in shortened versions (Peter’s design is 11” tall) and I am glad that it translates well. Versions have included ones made of Dyneema and xPac, and one requiring a special sleeve to work with the unusual backstop found on Jack Taylor racks. You can order a Sportif here. The 8" version can also be configured to mount rackless--attached to the bars and supported by adjustable cord to the hoods. A few variations are shown below.
Photo: courtesy of JP Weigle
Peter periodically posts pictures of rides around his rural Connecticut home. I’m always proud to see the bag we came up with, it looks elegant and at home on his bike; both familiar with its traditional styling and yet strikingly uncommon. It was an honor to get to work with him on this project.
This is a story of unexpected confluences.
I read in the most recent issue of Bicycle Quarterly that esteemed Japanese bag makers Shoichi and Tomoko Watanabe planned to retire at the end of July, marking the end of many years making traditionally styled bicycle luggage in their Tokyo shop. Having long been enamored with their work I was filled with a feeling of gratitude for their craftsmanship and creativity. No sooner had I read this, than two different customers came to me with circumstances that a Guu Watanabe style bag would be just the solution for.
Shoichi Watanabe at work (photo credit: guu-watanabe)
Years ago, as I began making bags I scoured the Guu Watanabe Flickr photostream. Their process was a source of wonder; to see their endless variety of bags, what tools they used, their templates, colors and configurations. I tried to pick out their techniques--did they use edge binders? How did they cut their leather? Their work became an example to me, even if I had far far to go in developing my skills. Doing my best to learn however I could I found myself pouring over images of these Japanese masters on the Internet. If that's what you have to do, then you do it. I gleaned all I could from peering into their shop from half a world away.
Peering over Shoichi's shoulder (photo credit: guu-watanabe)
Here's where a bit of confluence comes into the picture.
Shortly after reading that Guu Watanabe would close, I had two different customers come to me with set-up constraints that would be well addressed by using a Guu Watanabe design. In both cases the projection of the stem reaches out farther than the connection point of the backstop on the rack. This offset means a conventional rectangular bag shape would be contorted between these two points since the stem/decaleur would force the top of the bag forward of the backstop where it is connected to the rack at the backstop sleeve. A little tension here is okay, but not too much.
Shoichi had a solution for this scenario and I passed on a sketch to both of these customers suggesting his design as a means of accommodating the constraints of their set-up.
See how the side panel expands rearward in the bottom half of the bag? This is a feature of many Guu Watanabe bags; not only does the bag shape solve the offset issues presented by the stem-rack alignment issue shown above, but it also adds some capacity within the bag while tilting the rear pockets a bit outwards towards the rider. Both features are potential benefits, depending on the needs of the rider. I look forward to implementing this design when the opportunity presents itself.
As chance would have it, a recent customer took note of my Instagram post about this bag design being a useful solution in certain circumstances and offered to send his Guu Watanabe front bag for me to take a look at it. How about that? I’m a bag geek through and through and always welcome the opportunity to examine, evaluate and understand the designs and work of others, so I was so excited to receive this bag in the mail.
The bag is a wonder to behold. What strikes me first and foremost is the overall shape: it's so bold and distinct! The canvas is super stout and the details are highly specific to Shoichi’s work. The stitching is flawless and the leather is rugged. I took note that he sews a fabric cover to his internal stiffener, a detail I’ve never seen before. He also constructs the bag cover with side gussets that limit how far the top opens and also potentially keeps any water out that might come in from the sides. Somewhat curious to my eye is the snapped down map case; it’s not removable but it can be unsnapped and stood up. I’m not sure what this feature achieves, but it’s interesting to see nonetheless. I count myself lucky to see this bag up close.
I am sorry that I did not get the chance to meet Shoichi and Tomoko at their workshop when we toured in Japan in 2017, but I am grateful to have had the recent opportunity to see a small bit of their work in detail. Before returning the bag, I plan to make a template for future reference and might just have to make one for myself, if a customer doesn’t ask for one first.
There’s always more to see and learn within this work.
Cyclist and craftsman.