Gear Review: Ortlieb Back Roller and Front Roller Classic

Ortlieb Classic panniers are legendary expedition bike bags… for a reason.

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Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Ortlieb in any way. I bought all four pairs of panniers used or new myself, and was not given anything at all before conducting this review.

Ortlieb Classic panniers are as ubiquitous to bicycle touring as a Brooks Saddle. They’re used by everyone from pan-american adventure tourists to world-trekking circumnavigators. These bags are tough, completely waterproof, UV-resistant, and reasonably lightweight and minimalist (my favorite word!). For this review, I’m going to outline the exact features and specs of two of the most popular Ortlieb models, the Ortlieb Back Roller Classic and the Ortlieb Front Roller Classic.

If it’s about Ortliebs, it’s here.

Bonus: Learn how to modify your Ortlieb panniers here.

The Review

Let’s start with the exact specs of each set of panniers.

Ortlieb Back Roller Classic (Pair)

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My new Ortlieb Back Roller, mounted in front for weight distribution.

Here’s a link to the PDF spec sheet from Ortlieb.

  • Weight: 4lb 3.1oz (1900g)
  • Volume: 40 liters (2441 cu. in.)
  • Height: 16.5in (42cm)
  • Width: 12.6in (32cm) tapered to 9.1in (23cm)
  • Depth: 6.7in (17cm)
  • Fabric: PVC-coated polyester; PD 620 nylon front panels, PS 490 nylon side panels.
  • Waterproofness: Standard IP64 when rolled 3 times (Dust=6, Complete protection against contact, Protection from infiltration of dust) (Water=4, Protection from splashed water in all directions).

Ortlieb Front Roller Classic (Pair)

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My Ortlieb Front Rollers, mounted in the rear.

Here’s a link to the PDF spec sheet from Ortlieb.

  • Weight: 3lb 8.1oz (1590g)
  • Volume: 25 liters (1526 cu. in.)
  • Height: 11.8in (30cm)
  • Width: 9.8in (25cm)
  • Depth: 5.5in (14cm)
  • Fabric: PVC-coated polyester; PD 620 nylon front panels, PS 490 nylon side panels.
  • Waterproofness: Standard IP64 when rolled 3 times (Dust=6, Complete protection against contact, Protection from infiltration of dust) (Water=4, Protection from splashed water in all directions).

Both the Ortlieb Back Roller Classic and Ortlieb Front Roller Classic also feature Ortlieb’s QL1 mounting system, which fits up to a 16mm rack, with insets for 8mm and 11mm racks. An included 75mm shoulder strap is multi-use (discussed below).

1. Usage

These panniers saw a lot of use, but at different times and in different circumstances. I’ve owned four pairs of Ortliebs in my life, and I’ll outline them here:

  • Set #1: Ortlieb Back Roller Classic (Yellow)

I used my first set of Ortlieb Back Roller Classics as commuter bags for exactly three weeks. They were then stolen with Bikeasaurus Rex in April of 2012. I recovered the bike, but the panniers were lost. Thieves!

  • Set #2: Ortlieb Back Roller Classic (Yellow)
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Removing the rigid framesheet was a critical mistake.

I heavily modified my second pair of Ortlieb Back Rollers and used them extensively. I removed the plastic framesheet, the internal organizer, and the shoulder straps.

In the Summer of 2012, I gave them to Jimmy Wetzel for our 1,500 mile bike tour. He used them for the entire trip. I removed the rigid plastic framesheet to save weight, which ended up being a huge mistake. Jim’s load was substantially heavier than the load I had tested the modified panniers with. With poor weight distribution, one of the QL1 mounts snapped after 1,200 miles, and Jim had to tie on wooden dowels to keep the pannier from falling into his rear wheel. We strapped the pannier on with plastic zip-ties and got home with no problems.

While on the 2012 tour, Jim used the panniers for all of his camping gear and clothing, as well as his food. We also used the Ortliebs as beer coolers in Burlington by filling them with ice and Magic Hat #9. By the end of the trip, we had crossed Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont.

I replaced the frame sheets after the tour, and received a new QL1 mount from Ortlieb. I then used the Ortliebs for commuting daily for all of Spring 2013.

I departed for Canada for the 2013 tour in August, and used the panniers across all of Vermont and up to Montreal, where I crashed with no damage to the panniers or mounts.

In October of 2013, I departed for Denver, CO and used the panniers as carry-on on an Amtrak train. Once I arrived in Denver, I rode several hundred miles on-road and off-road down the front range of the Rockies, and then headed east across the Great Plains. I crashed the bike violently at 25mph during a windstorm, sliding on the pannier for 15 feet before coming to a stop. The only damage to the pannier was an extremely scraped, but still functional strap hook near the base. The strap hook kept the fabric off of the ground, so no abrasion was done to the face fabric. Fantastic!

I continued to use these back rollers for several short tours, overnights, and commutes until Spring of 2014, when I sold them to a fellow tourist.

In all, they completed close to 3,000 miles, four crashes, several off-bike adventures, transport on trains, cars, boats, and several hikes up to camp spots and overlooks.

  • Set #3: Ortlieb Front Roller Classic (Black)

In Spring 2014, I picked up a set of Ortlieb Front Rollers secondhand, and I have been using them for several overnighters and off-road rides since. I now have them mounted on the back. They’ve seen a few hundred miles.

  • Set #4: Ortlieb Back Roller Classic (Yellow)

I just picked these up! They’re identical to my last two pairs.

2. Design

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The simple on-off of Ortlieb panniers is a welcome luxury.

The design for these panniers is  simple and minimalist. The QL1 mounting system is easy to adjust, even on the side of the road if necessary. Two simple hooks on a sliding rail and a third hook near the base provide a very secure attachment, while still allowing the pannier to be lifted off in a single pull.

The interior of the pannier is cavernous, and comes stock with a mesh organizer along the inside wall. I always remove this organizer, as I find it’s heavy for what it holds.

The included shoulder strap is a great addition. I ended up leaving mine off for most of 2013, but on a whim, I added them back for the two tours I did that fall. When I lost the straps that held my dry-bag in place on my front rack, these straps were great replacements, and allowed me to continue my tour uninterrupted. I now carry them always, since they’ll do double-duty at tying down unexpected loads.

In October 2013, I used the shoulder straps to trek with all my gear 8 miles across Denver without a bike, since Amtrak forgot my ride at a layover in Chicago. With no bike, the straps were invaluable, since I managed to carry everything I own on and off city buses and through miles of walking to get to the Warmshowers host I was staying with.

3. Durability

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You can order another set of mounts from Ortlieb.

The QL1 mounting system is made from plastic, but under normal loads, it’s resilient enough to withstand the abuse from thousands of miles. I saw one of these break; the screw managed to wear it’s way through the plastic of the mount until the plastic hook broke away from the metal slider underneath the rail. This was due to overtightening and improper load distribution without the plastic framesheet.

Under appropriate loads, no overtightening, and with the plastic framesheet intact, I never had this hardware fail on me in close to 4,500 miles of total riding, 3,500 of which was on the same mounting bracket.

The colors are bold and don’t fade, and the PVC coating over the nylon cordura is so thick, it feels like plastic. These are not fully submergeable, but they’re close, and withstand just about the hardest rain and prolonged exposure to water as any waterproof drybag I’ve had, without failure.

I’ve crashed with Ortliebs mounted several times. During no crash did the mounting hardwear ever bend or break.

My worst crash was in November of 2013. During a wind event in Colorado, a furious tailwind propelled me over 25mph into a pothole that wrecked my front wheel and sent me skidding 15 feet across rough, sandy pavement. I lost skin on my thigh, hip, torso, elbow, and hands, and I still have sand embedded in my hip to this day. The scars are awesome.

The pannier on my starboard side, however, survived with even less scarring. The plastic mount for the shoulder strap, shown below, took 100% of the damage, leaving the face fabric unscathed. Coupled with plastic protection across the bottom, the pannier seems impervious to damage while mounted to the bike. I am grateful for this durability, as I tend to… well, crash.

For

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This is obviously a new pannier. On the old one, the mount left the crash incredibly scratched and melted, but still functional.

For extra-long expeditions away from overnight shipping, you can double up on your QL1 mounting hardware. Having four hooks per pannier instead of two reduces the stress on the hook system, and gives you backup hooks in case of an unlikely break. These extra hooks are available special-order from Ortlieb.

4. Usability

These panniers offer a couple of advantages over the competitors.

First, the coated fabric absorbs no water. With similar panniers, the fabric soaks up rain like a sponge, leaving you with an extra 2-3lbs worth of water on the outside of your pannier, and the added weight of a waterproof liner for the contents inside, whether separate or integrated. Ortlieb simplifies things by being waterproof through-and-through.

Second, the visibility on these panniers is very high. Bright colors, coupled with front and rear facing reflective panels, make you very noticeable to other vehicles. I feel like a billboard that says “Give Me Space!” when I’m using the yellow panniers.

The top of the pannier mounts flat, and the opening runs parallel to the bike. This means it’s very easy to lay another bag over the top of the rear or front rack and strap it into place using the shoulder straps. Ortlieb makes trunk bags specifically sized for this purpose; in Colorado in 2013, I used my ILE Default.

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My ILE Default makes a great trunk bag.

Final Verdict

Sometimes, it’s okay to obey the hivemind. These panniers are sturdy, reliable, and simple. I trust them with all of my equipment, and I call them home for several months out of the year. I can’t imagine any other bag dethroning Ortlieb as long as the craftsmanship and attention to detail remains the same.

10 thoughts on “Gear Review: Ortlieb Back Roller and Front Roller Classic

  1. Thanks for sharing your review. It is great to see more reviews coming along on the Ortlieb panniers and touring gear in particular. Personally I more of a fan of the Ortlieb Bike-Packer Plus and its front mate but each to their own🙂

  2. How do you find the Axiom Streamliner rack to work on the Karate Monkey? I just bought a KM and am looking for a rear rack for a short tour. Also what front fork are you using?

    1. I haven’t mounted the Axiom Streamliner to the KM yet (here, it’s on a Raleigh Port Townsend). I suspect it might be too narrow for 3.4-inch knobby tires. On the Raleigh Port Townsend, I’m using the Surly LHT fork, but on the Karate Monkey, I’m using what I believe is an older model Ogre fork (but I’m not 100% sure).

      1. Ah thanks. Jumping around too much on the site. It looks like there is an Axiom Streamliner rack just for 29ers so that should be the ticket.

  3. I found your website when searching for panniers that could be used with the Racktime Topit front rack (which is installed on my Salsa Fargo). In your opinion, do you think the Ortlieb Front Rollers would work fine (i.e. – stay attached) off-road provided that the terrain was limited to unpaved rail trails and forest service roads (no single track)? (Nice job on the site and your content, by the way!).

    1. They work great. I use them that way myself. The connections all stay put even when the terrain gets really rough, and it doesn’t feel like anything could come loose over time (I have a few hundred miles with this setup over a few trips).

    1. Hello!

      Yes, it works fine! A few things to consider:

      1. If you’re using a low rider rack, make sure your panniers won’t scrape the ground!

      2. It’s best to have the hooks spaced out, so use a front rack with long rails!

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