walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chrome Backbone: Week One

Disclosures: Because I work for a shop that carries Chrome products, I *was* able to buy my Backbone at a discount ($114 and change versus $180).  However, I don't feel obligated to say nice things about Chrome as a result.  About my shop, maybe, but I happen to be pretty fond of my shop anyway :)

Moreover, while this is a review of my first week with this Backbone, I did borrow a co-worker's Backbone several times in the past.  It was a slightly older model, but performance-wise was about the same.

In other news, it feels really weird to say 'I borrowed a co-worker's backbone.' Like, 'Yeah, you know. I had to wait a week to get in to see my chiropractor, so I just borrowed Jim's backbone, since mine wasn't working...'

Without further ado, I present:

My Backbone

Chrome Backbone
(This picture was actually taken on the 19th; I dated it incorrectly.  Um.  Oops.)

... Carrying about a hundred pounds of mail.

Dimensions: 20.5" wide x 24" high x 7" deep
Weight: 3.9 lbs
Made in Chico, CA, USA - full specs available here

Every morning, one of our couriers picks up mail for four different firms and delivers it.  The sheer volume of mail involved sometimes borders on the surreal, and Wednesday's load -- which included both Monday's and Tuesday's as well -- probably did weigh in at somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred pounds.  I am still surprised I didn't actually kill myself trying to deliver it.  A rack and panniers would also do the job nicely, but I couldn't add a rack to QuickSilver without some jerry-rigging, and -- quite frankly -- I find the idea of carrying most of my own weight in mail on a jerry-rigged rack more than a little terrifying.  Also, it's possible that I just can't bring myself* to mount a rack on my classic racing frame.  Yes, I am pathetic, thanks.

Enter the Chrome Backbone: I purchased one specifically for the mail run, though it also helps tremendously with pharmacy deliveries.

I did put some thought into whether the Backbone or its slightly-smaller brother, the Ranchero; ultimately, I decided that the mail needed as much carrying-capacity as I could find.  The Backbone is the biggest bag Chrome makes, and thus the biggest one that we stock.  Decision made.

Upon purchasing my Backbone, I noticed that it came equipped with an array of handy pockets, all of them waterproof. One in particular — a horizontal job near the bottom of and spanning the entire width of the bag — has turned into a sort of bicycle 'glovebox' which holds (oddly enough) my gloves, when I'm not using them, among other things.

The Backbone also possessed a mysterious zipper — later revealed to be the zipper that allows one to remove its waterproof, military-grade, truck-tarp liner — into which I tucked my frame pump and some other bike-fixing gewgaw, both of which immediately disappeared into the dark recesses of the bag. That's fine with me; they're emergency goods. I don't need them cluttering up my 'glovebox.'

Having transferred my worldly goods to the pack's capacious pockets, I headed out to retrieve the mail. I figured this would make a good test of the bag's carrying capacity: it was Wednesday, and the mail hadn't been picked up on Monday or Tuesday due to a holiday and a call-in. It was time for the Backbone to sink or swim.

Suffice it to say that, upon my arrival at the Post Office, I was a little dismayed. The sheer volume of mail was almost frightening: four of those white plastic tubs for which the Post Office will have your hide if you don't return one. To my amazement, however, almost all of the mail made it into the Backbone's gaping maw — a testament to the sheer size of the thing. That which didn't make it into the backbone was crammed into my handy 'magic bag' from CVS (one of those little nylon bags that stuffs into a 3-inch square pouch, but holds up to fifty pounds of ... well, whatever you can think of to stuff in it).

I then cinched the 'magic bag' on to the Backbone, using the Backbone's conveniently-located tie-down points, some carabiners (though I did vaguely consider whether carabiners labeled NOT FOR CLIMBING should be used for hauling enormous amounts of mail), and a trusty bungee cord from my last backpack (I plan to acquire a 'cargo net' in the future; I think it will work better than the bungee). After my second stop, I also used the adjustable compression strap to fudge the flap shut over the remaining mail — though even with a main compartment that could only be described as 'epic,' there was so much mail that I couldn't actually close it.

At this point, the whole thing weighed ... well, as best I could tell, roughly as much as I do, but in fact it probably wasn't that heavy (I weigh somewhere between 160 and 170 pounds these days). Fearing that my faithful Quicksilver was about to experience immediate and total frame failure under the combined load of mail and rider, I mounted up and headed out.

Immediately, I discovered two defining traits of the Backbone:
  1. It's extremely well-balanced. With the sternum strap latched, I probably could carry about my own weight pretty comfortably. The fit and balance proved far more comfortable than my previous (tiny) backpack, which wouldn't have had room for more than one-quarter of the aforementioned mail and which probably would've exploded mid-ride.

  2. It really is that big. Stuffed to its gills, with the compression strap extended as far as it can go and the top flap just folded over enough to let it clip shut, it was so long that it interfered with both my helmet and my saddle. Now, I am not the world's tallest guy by any stretch of the imagination, and I have a short torso — but, seriously, this thing is ENORMOUS.

I was able to successfully deliver the mail to its various recipients, and as an added bonus, by the time I got done, I felt like I weighed nothing (I should employ this as a pre-race strategy, if I race this year).
For its part, he bag showed no sign of distress — indeed, it seemed to beg for more and greater trials. That was good, because on Thursday, the weather took a nasty turn. Low visibility coupled with slushy, icy, slippery road conditions created an absolutely harrowing work environment for Louisville's bike couriers (the few, the proud, the ... hiring, if you know anyone?) and potentially deadly conditions for the contents of a lesser bag.

I am happy to state, however, that the Backbone handled the slush, mush, ice, and snow with aplomb — nary a leak, not a single damp prescription sack. At least once, I inadvertently set it down in a pile of slushy snow-like stuff to dig for something, and still the contents remained dry.

Moreover, the Backbone's exceptional balance and fit meant riding on the horrible roads while carrying a pretty good load (though nowhere near as overwhelming as the morning mail run) of afternoon mail and court reports was actually no more terror-inducing than it would have been without the pack (note: Thursday of last week is probably the most afraid I have ever been while on a bike, and the only time I can remember thinking to myself, "I think I must've crossed the line between 'dedicated' and 'crazy' a while back").

This does not, of course, mean that the Backbone is absolutely perfect. As many users of Chrome's backpacks have noted, a waist strap would come in really handy. So would a few more tie-down points, though there are some giant, mysterious strips of velcro backed with seatbelt fabric that might be intended for just such a purpose.

Likewise, compared to many packs, the Backbone is relatively heavy, at 3.9 pounds, though its excellent weight-distribution makes it feel lighter than my old pack, which weighed about two pounds. In other words, you don't want to carry this baby around while you're actually racing ... but, last I checked, excepting possibly alley-cats, most forms of bike racing don't involve carrying packs anyway (though the notion of a 'loaded crit' seems potentially hilarious beyond measure, and I think it may become necessary to implement just such a beast).

Casual users might want more compartments. The Backbone is designed very specifically with messengers in mind: besides the 'glovebox,' it's got an array of small pockets for pens and things; a largish zippered pocket (where my wallet now lives), and one deep pocket large enough for a medium-sized notebook, a 3-ounce 'airplane approved' tube of cocoa-butter hand lotion, a pair of knit gloves, and some other random stuff, but not scaled for a full-size 8.5" x 11" notebook; and, of course, the compartment I affectionately call its 'gaping maw.'

Chrome describes the interior of this bag as a 'big waterproof bucket.' They're not kidding. Everything that goes into the 'gaping maw' just jumbles together, though straps on the sides of the back allow you to adjust its depth, which can help keep things in place if you layer them carefully.

Likewise, there's no 'laptop sleeve,' though one could easily simply purchase a laptop sleeve to protect one's machine from bumps if one is worried about such things. That, or else, one could simply purchase Chrome's Marathon instead. I suspect this bad-boy could get pretty toasty in the summer, being constructed, as best I can tell, of elephant hide (okay, maybe not really) and truck tarp. However, it does have an airflow-channeled back pad and something called 'air mesh' on the straps, so we'll see how that pans out.

The straps are of a comfortable width and well-placed for someone of my build. I am built on a small frame, but with fairly broad (read: probably average, for a guy) shoulders: someone with narrower shoulders might be happier with the Ranchero or the Dually, respectively the 'medium' and 'small' versions of this bag (please note: even the Dually is large enough to eat your average school backpack for breakfast, then swallow your laptop case for elevenses).

One cheeky reviewer on Chrome's website notes that the velcro which keeps the flap closed is too loud for a 'full time ninja,' which is, I must admit, true (this has really put a damper on my part-time ninja-ing sideline, I must say). However, it does a seriously awesome job keeping the flap closed when the user of the bag is too lazy to buckle it — which, for me, is almost all the time. It's also, um, a handy way to prevent the loss of your knit hat and gloves, though you may never succeed in separating them from the bag once they've attached themselves.

To sum things up, if you're planning on actually working as a courier/messenger/whatever you want to call it, there is only One True Way, and that way is the Backbone (okay, maybe the Backbone and a rack of some sort, for overflow, if you need to carry a million pounds of mail around every morning).

Likewise, if you're going to be grocery-shopping or doing your laundry at a laundromat via bike, and you don't want to go twice a week, the Backbone is 'where it's at.' Same goes for five-week solo wilderness survival treks by bike: if you're doing that, for God's sake, just buy the Backbone already so we don't have to later watch a movie called 'Into the Wild II' about your tragic demise.

In other words, you can fit everything — everything — you need in the Backbone, and you'll feel pretty happy carrying it. For sheer ease of use, ergonomic functionality, and scale, you can't beat it. Seriously. People keep asking me where the parachute ripcord is located.

If you're not planning on working as a courier/messenger/etc, and you don't tend to undertake five-week solo survival trips on your bike, you'd probably be just as happy with one of its little brothers.

I can't speak to durability yet, but if my co-workers' bags (some of which are upwards of two years old, with constant courier-style abuse) are any indication, my new Backbone will be with me for a long time. Which is good because, quite frankly, I can't afford a chiropractor, and it's really annoying to have to extract someone else's backbone all the time.

*Actually, after this morning's mail run, I'm seriously thinking about adding a rack.
Also, this is a minor consideration, but I really wish this bag came in red.  I have no logical argument, here -- it's not about visibility or anything.  I just really like red.  Where visibility is concerned, though, the ridiculously-reflective 3M strip on the compression strap is definitely a plus.

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