Friday 5 May 2023

Kit review: Testing out Alpkit bike packing bags in Northern France and Flanders

As we move into the summer months I begin to think about trips that I will make with my bicycle, particularly as I now have some relatively new luggage carriers on my road bike.

Last year I invested in some bikepacking bags from Alpkit. A branch of the Peak District-based shop opened in Kingston, South London last summer so I made a trip over there and bought some gear.

In the past I have tended to go old school, using a rack and panniers. That still works for my old-style sturdy cyclocross bike which has a rack attached to the rear stays of the frame. But when it comes to the road bike that tends to be more of an issue. A seat-post rack has worked in the past, but you can't use it on a carbon-fibre seat post. On those seat posts where it is suitable there is still a risk of the rack working itself loose and the panniers move around and knock into the wheels.

The popularity of bikepacking has meant there are lots of different bags for use, particularly for long-distance touring on- and off-road.  

So I finally took the plunge and modernised my gear. For the saddle, I bought the Koala 13L saddle bag, as well as the Kuoka 13L handlebar bag, and Fuel Pod top tube bag. Although it's called a saddle bag, the Koala saddle bag doesn't attach directly onto the saddle, but slides onto the Alpkit Exo-rail, a dual rod that fixes onto the saddle. Attaching the rod requires a bit of jiggery pokery as you have to detach the saddle, loosen the nuts, fix the rods between the nuts that hold down the saddle and then tighten. A longish Allen key is needed for this, to be sure that the Exo-rail is firmly secured. The Alpkit shop assistant helped fit the Exo-rail, but it was a bit of struggle for him, as he only had a short Allen key.

Exo-rail fits under the saddle by attaching it to the nuts
Alpkit bikepacking system in practice

Once the rail was fitted, the Koala bag could just slide onto the rail very easily. The bag was great for carrying a couple of changes of clothes and my cosmetics for the weekend. Then to close the bag it was just a case of rolling it closed and tightening the side straps, before sliding the bag onto the Exo-rail and fastening the straps onto the seatpost. The system made for a secure fit. 

The Kuoka handlebar bag was a straightforward fit. That is more like a tube shape bag so for that, I just put in more clothes and some soft shoes then rolled closed both ends of the tube, before closing the clips that keep the folds tightly closed. As my bike is a small size, with slightly narrow handlebars it is important for me to fold the bag down small so that it can fit between the handlebars and doesn't block the movement of the gear levers and brakes. I guess I could have bought a smaller bag, but I want to be able to carry as much as possible!

As for the fuel pod, that fits snugly on the top tube, and I found really hand for carrying snacks. Having this carrying system really gave me piece of mind, and I looked forward to my first trip with them, which was to go abroad. Okay, I could have tried the bags out on a ride around South London, but I really wanted to feel like I was on a proper adventure. 

So I made good use of these items when I headed out to Northern France and Belgium for a long weekend. After driving down to Dover on a Saturday afternoon in early July, I parked up and boarded the evening ferry to Calais. The following day was spent cycling along the coast from Calais to De Panne (Belgium), via Dunkirk, then inland to Ypres, and onwards to Lille. 

Picking up the traffic-free Véloroute from Dunkerque to Bray-Dunes

The terrain was mainly on tarmacked surfaces, with lots of cycle paths. Part of the ride went along a disused railway line from Dunkirk to Bray-Dunes, close to the border with Belgium (known as La Vélomaritime: Eurovélo 4, or Véloroute du Littoral). Google map suggested that the path could take me right into De Panne via cycle path that passed through a camp site. On enquiring with the proprietor, he said that there was no cycle path. "There's constantly talk about a cycle path from here right into Belgium, but it is just talk," he said, with a thick Northern France accent. "It's pie in the sky! Your only way into De Panne is along the road." So I guess that was just Sat Nav fail - but not a terrible one, as the campsite looked quite pleasant. 

The road into De Panne was not very busy, and once on Belgian soil I was on a segregated cycle path when riding through De Panne, apart from a short section where I went onto a boardwalk to reach the seaside in this buzzing town. It looked a lot brighter and dynamic than what you see during the grey weather during the cyclocross or Classics season. It was quite sunny and even warm.

De Panne beach
Riding through Belgium I was frequently on segregated cycle paths. There was no choice but to be on the cycle paths as it's illegal to go on the road if there is a cycle path available for use. To get to Ypres (Ieper, in Flemish), after passing through some back streets not far from Koksijde, my route then took me onto a long canal towpath, interspered with bridges and beer gardens, to the Lo-Reninge area. It was pleasant to have these little areas for a break as the path was very long, very straight and very flat, with a slight breeze. It wasn't the most exciting bit of riding, but it was perfectly safe and there were quite a few families and groups of friends out on Sunday bike rides along this path. 

The path was generally smooth, but there were a few rough sections, as well as cobbles on some of the roads, which made me imagine taking part in a Spring Classic.    

Although everything on the bike was jolting around, I felt confident that the bags were in place and nothing would be falling off.

Onwards to Ypres, which was a very stylish looking town. I had picked a good day to go there as there was a mini fairground and a music festival taking place. 

So in the main square where I took my snack, visitors were serenaded with alternate world music and techno music from a nearby stage - quite an eclectic mix - especially when sung in Flemish.

Up to this point my ride had been on flat terrain through the Nord region of France, and West Flanders region of Belgium. When heading back into France, my route took me into the French-speaking Wallonia area where the terrain became undulating, with more varied flora and a feeling of familiarity as people spoke a language I could understand.

My re-entry back into France was somewhat unceremonious, as I rode along a small residential back-street in the back of beyond, near a Armentières, famous for its World War I war graves. This rough road, which was in fact not much more than a bumpy dirt track was signalled as a cul-de-sac, though there was access with a bicycle over a mini bridge. It was on the other side of this, and near a motorway, that a small sign showed that I was in France, and I noted that the registration number of the cars changed to the French format.

Ypres main square

Around an hour later, after riding along some quiet secondary roads, I was in the northern Metropole of Lille. Again, there was a buzzing atmosphere, partly because it had been a glorious summer's day, and I also imagine the buzz of welcoming the Tour de France in a few days' time.

My day-long ride from Calais to Lille, via Belgium had been very straightforward and pleasant. The bikepacking bags had survived - or at least I think I did. The final part of my journey on that Sunday was a local train from Lille to the picturesque old town of Saint-Omer, where I had a hotel booking. Bear in mind that old town means lots of cobbles. And in Saint-Omer there was no shortage of that. So once I had crossed the bridge over the canal, the bike bounced along the pave practically all the way up to the main square. As the hotel receptionist showed me to the store room where I could leave my bicycle, I heard some rattling in the saddle area. I removed the Koala saddlebag to see what was going on. To my shock the Exo-rail came off the saddle at the same time, and the saddle came loose! Oh dear. I guess, that's what happens when you don't use the right Allen Key to secure the saddle.

Luckily the following day I managed to ride the bike (albeit out of the saddle as there wasn't one to sit on!) down to the local Decathlon sports shop. The bike mechanic very helpfully put it back together using a heavy duty Allen Key and his own strength. It was a two-man job as I had to hold the saddle in place as he tightened the nuts. 

Saint-Omer, cathedral square

He hadn't heard of Alpkit and hadn't seen such an elaborate bikepacking system like this before as the Decathlon bike packing bags don't include any rails for the bag. He still believed that the Alpkit was a good system, but it was just a case of making sure that the screws in the saddle were properly tightened. So luckily, I was able to continue my planned cycle ride along Stage 3 of the Tour de France, back to Calais, where I could pick up the homeward ferry.

It was a fun weekend.

Once back home in London, I raised the issue with Alpkit customer services, and they very helpfully sent me a new rail and screw in case there was any further problem with the Exo-rail. I have since used it on other trips - for a ride to Paris, and in my local area in London and I haven't had any problem. So I look forward to doing more rides this year with the Alpkit bikepacking system. 


Weatherproof - kit stays dry in light rain

Easy to close and seal the bags

Fits tightly to the bike with little lateral movement of the bags

Exo-rail makes it easy to fit the Koala saddle bag onto the bike

Fuel pod is easy to reach while riding along


Exo-rail is quite fiddly to fit; ensure that it is tightened properly with a firm and a good length Allen Key

Kuoka handlebar bag may be obstruct the brake/gear levers on small-sized handlebars; ensure that the bag is folded down small

Overall score for all items: 8/10

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