Adventure Pannier Racks for a Modern Bonneville and Ortlieb QRL Bags
I'm probably like a lot of people; I have one modern street bike that I use for everything. In my case that's a Triumph Bonneville T100. I don't have the extra cash to lay out for an adventure bike if I want to do some adventure riding; I make do with my Bonneville. And, it turns out, the Bonnie is not a bad adventure bike. I've fitted mine with dual sport tires, a bash plate, relocated the rear vulnerable caliper to the top of the swingarm, and have found ways to store extra fuel onboard. With the dual sport tires the Bonnie is perfectly capable of tackling two track roads and gravel. I've not ridden extreme offroad tracks, but I don't recall ever bottoming out the shocks or fork.
I've always been an advocate of making due with what you have and getting out on the road. You don't have to have the newest and greatest equipment to adventure travel or just do a road trip, you just need the desire to get our there. All the modifications I have done and equipment I have added to my Bonnie I did slowly over time and didn't wait to have everything I wanted before I ventured out. Of course, really good equipment can make a trip a bit easier, so by all means get good equipment when you can. Over time you can acquire a very nice kit and not go into deep debt or put off trips just to get it.
I had my Bonnie just about how I wanted it, but recently my very useful Coretech saddle bags had worn out. These are throw-over types and I waited too long to build a small rod contraption to go on the bike and hold the bags off the moving shocks. Finally one ended up with a hole clear through it. It was time to think about replacing them. One thing I had not liked about the bags was that they were not waterproof. Yeah, they came with raincovers, but the covers could not protect the entire bags because of the mounting straps preventing them fron covering the back of the bags. In heavy downpours, unless I had ensconced all my clothes and electronics in dry boxes or zip lock bags, I ended up with my stuff wet. So that established my first requirement of a new bag—it needed to be a dry bag.
I travel a lot by motorcycle as editor of a vintage motorcycle magazine and often need to carry a laptop with me to work on the road. I did that for a couple years with a minuscule netbook that fit into the bottom of my smallish tailbag, but as the software I use evolved the little netbook was no longer cutting it and would not run many of the programs I use daily. So I recently bought a 15” laptop that was more capable. The problem was it would not fit into any of my current bike luggage, including the Cortech saddlebags. Second requirement—the new bags would would have to accommodate the new laptop.
Finally, I wanted something strong to mount new bags to, that would not just bend if the bike suffered a simple drop. The old pannier standoffs I had made were only 5/16” rod, and while they would hold the bags off the shocks, they would not withstand any more pressure than that. Tubular solidly-built racks were easy to find for adventure bikes, but not so for the Bonneville. There were a couple options, but none worked with the stock Triumph tailrack I have on my bike. Also, the cost of ready made racks, if I could find one, was high, running $350 to $500 and more. And I would still have to pay for bags on top of that. I'd have to build the racks. I'd made a short sissy bar for my old CB350 a while ago, using conduit and a bender, so that was the direction I would go.
The bag that I found that fit both my criteria was the Ortlieb QRL (Quick Release) bags. Ortlieb is known for their high quality, but they can be pricey. Luckily, the QRLs were sold separately, one side at a time, by Aerostich for $150 each. To build the rack I would need one of the bags to design around, so I placed my order for one bag. I would wait until a good month with extra income and then spring for the other side. These bags attach via a built-in latch system, rather than having a throw-over strap, so I could mount and use one by itself until it was convenient for me to buy the second.
While I was waiting for the bag to arrive, I was working out a rough plan on what I wanted for the rack and how to make it. Picturing the adventure racks I had seen on websites like Touratech, Twisted Throttle, etc. I imagined a rounded cornered rectangle, attached to the bike by three struts—one to the upper shock mount, one to the pillion footrest strut, and one to a hole already drilled in the bracket attaching the tailrack to the bike. It would need to be of round tubing as the Ortlieb bags' latched required that, plus I needed to be able to bend it. The bags also could fit tubing from 5/16” to 5/8”. 5/16” didn't seem strong enough to me, but 1/2” was pretty stout and easy to find locally and with thicker walls than simple conduit. I thought I might want to eventually powder coat the rack, and if I went with 5/8” then the thick powder coating finsih may make the tubing too thick for the bags; I also could not find a suitable bender for 5/8” tubing. A regular conduit bender made too wide a corner, so I looked for one that would do tighter bends. I found one on eBay that would bend 3/8” and 1/2” OD tubing, so I ordered it for just under $30 delivered.
I picked up three 36” lengths of 1/2” steel tubing from the local big box hardware store for $25. The only other things I bought for this project were three grinding wheel; two for my drill, one cylindrical and one cone-shaped; and one cone-shaped one for my Rotozip. Those cost a total of about $15.
A friend had given me a small electric stick welder a few years ago. I figured it may work for sticking all the parts of the rack together. In the end, it proved to be too under powered for the materials I was using, although it did work well for welding the ends together of the rectangle. Later, I sought the help of a local welder I know, Wayne Anderson, who did the rest of the welding for me for a total of $20. Wayne was very accommodating and would tack one piece together for me, which I would take home to the bike, where I'd measure the next strut and its parts, make them, then return to have those tacked up, then back to the house for the next bit, etc. until the rack was complete, after which he finished welding all the pieces permanently. I rode the bike to Wayne's each time, so we could precisely locate the pieces in relationship to the bike before tacking them up. Luckily, Wayne only lived a few blocks from me so this process was pretty easy. I ended up visiting Wayne three times for welding sessions. For those of you with decent welders and skills to use them, all the welding could easily be done by yourself. Nothing was too fancy or hard to get to.
The old Cortech bags.
And the pathetic 5/16" rod standoffs I had previously built.
Here's the hole worn though the back of the left Cortech bag. I can't really fault these bags, as they were used before I had built the standoffs for quite a while and had the shock spring rubbing up and down in this location. I have used them for many, many miles and have gotten my money out of them.
Here is the new Ortleib QRL bag—very well made with heavy vinyl and much more interior volume than my old bags.
Here is the back of the bag. Inside of the back of the bag is reinforced and very stiff. There is also a stiffener which you need to install that wraps around the perimeter of the bag to keep its shape. Five minutes to install—very easy and everything you need is included except for a small metric allen wrench. The "buttons" you can see in the end view above is where the stiffener connects thourgh pre-punched holes. On the back the latches are on the top rail and can be adjusted in either direction. The latches close around the top tube of the rectangular frame of the pannier rack and are released by pulling up on the strap. The "hooks" on the diagonal track can be moved to whatever position you need and can be rotated in 90 degree intervals. I set mine at the top position on both tracks and left the hooks as shown so they would catch behind the bottom rail and side rails.
To bend 1/2" (or 3/8") tubing with tight radius corners you will need a tool like this—$30 on eBay. You insert the tubing to where you want the bend to start lined up at 0 and then bend until just a hair past 90 (the tubing will spring back a little). The little adjustable stop at the far left bottom of the tool I ended up breaking. I made a jig and used my woodworking benchtop so I could keep on using the tool (see the photos below).
Here you can see my drawing of my bending plan. The circle "arrows" are the start and end points of each corner radius. I started on the lower left corner then worked my way around. I cut the final tubing so the seam was at the bottom center.
Here is the start of the bend. You have to be careful that each bend aligns with the next so you don't end up with a funky rectangular spiral.
Working on the second bend. For more leverage you can slip a section of pipe over the handles of the tool if need be.
Getting ready to do the third corner. I marked the start point of each bend on the pipe then aligned that with the 0 mark on the tool.
Finished bending and cutting extra off each rectangle. The rod above the joint fit the interior of the tubing and was inserted to span the gap for more strength. (The rod was scrap I had on hand and required a little grinding to get a fairly tight fit to the interior of the tubing.)
Here you can see the rod inserted in the joint.
Before welding I filed a groove around the joint with a triangular file so that the heat of the welding would make it to the rod and join it to the tube solidly.
Welding the joint. This is the one joint I was able to succesfully weld myself. All the others required the help of Wayne and his MIG welder.
Next I had to make a bracket to mount to the upper shock mount. I used the old one to roughly lay out the new one in sheet steel. (I had this laying around the shop so it cost me nothing.) The sheet steel was 3/16" thick.
The bracket marked and ready for drilling. I rounded all corners of each bracket to make sure there woud be no sharp corners.
The bracket is about 1" wide and 2 1/4" long. The strut for connecting to the shock mount had to be 3" from the bolt center to the outside of the bend (Making it 4" overall with the bracket attached), then 2" out to join the rectangle. (After installing the racks, I found that the top of the shock when it moved, contacted the bottom side of the bracket ever so slightly, so I ground that part narrower, touched it up with paint, and reinstalled.)
The bent strut and the end that will be welded to the bracket. I cut the L out of the end, then flattened the end so it woud provide plnety of welding surface to be joined to the bracket.
The bracket tacked to the strut.
And the strut tacked to the rectangle. Where the tubing contacted the rectangular frame I used a cylindrical grinder on my drill followed by a round file to make the end fit the contour of the tubing closely. Where the shock to rectangle strut attached to the rectangle was determined by placing the bag on the rectangular frame and marking it so that the bottom of the bag would be well clear of the upswept exhuast. That made the top rail of the rectangle about an 1 1/2" above the bottom edge of the seat. With the rectangle now if position I could measure for the strut up from the pillion peg.
First I made a bracket to attach to the strut.
Then notched one end of the tubing to fit over the bracket. (I also flattened these on each side of the bracket like I did the one side of the strut to the shock bracket.)
I wanted the strut to connect about in the middle of the bottom rail. I held it in place to determine length.
Then held it there with a pair of vice grips and marked where it would join with a marker.
Then I cut it to length and ground and filed it to fit the rail profile. I rode to Wayne's to have him tack this strut up to the rectangle and its pillion footrest bracket. No bending required for this strut.
With the first two struts tacked to the rectangular frame it was time to do the rear struts. This was going to require more bending, but I had broken the end stop on the tool previously. I made up a jig from scrap wood laying aorund the woodshop, and with it and using my woodworking bench, was able to make the tool work again. This was actually easier than using the tool as it was designed. Above, I have a pipe slipped over the handle of the tool to give me much more leverage when doing the bend. The end of the tube exits the tool and goes into a dog hole on the bench which does the job previously done by the stop. The jig assembly is clamped to the bench by clamps at each end of the 2x4 on top and a bench dog.
Here's the bottom of the jig. The tool handle rests in the groove and a short piece of wood at the end of the handle and between the 2x4s is loose and can be replaced with a longer one so I can do 3/8" tubing in the future if I choose to.
The lower strut tacked on, it was then time to layout and make the rear strut. I used a piece of flat stock to attach to the tailrack frame hole and extend back to where the tubing could be connected. The angle it laid was determined by the tailrack connection. To get the bracket to line up with the tubing, so the strut would connect where I wanted it to on the rectangular frame, I put the flat bracket in a vise and with a 12" Crescent wrench on one end I twisted the bar so the angle would be in alignment. You can also just see a little blue sticking out from under the tailrack bracket. That is an old printer's blanket cut to fit the bracket and to go between the rack and the top frame to prevent the new rack from scratching the chrome on the tailrack. (Printer's blankets are great to have around the shop; I have found many uses for them and they are usually free from print shops who would otherwise simple discard them.)
I had made the rectangle just big enough to accommodate the bags with the lower hooks in each lower corner. Because they hooked around the frame this strut had to be attached to the back side so the "ear" of the hook could slide down past it. This way you tilt the bag and get one hook into the lower front corner of the frame, then insert the other hook into the opening at the upper rear and drop it down into position in its lower rear corner. If the strut had gone straight off the back side of the tubing, the ear could not have slid down into its corner.
I made the rectangle the bare minimum size (partly so it could accomodate other smaller bags if need be) and the hooks had to be positioned at the extreme inside positions on their tracks. Making the rectangle a bit bigger would have made things a little bit easier. I could have also rotated the rear ear on the bag so it pointed 90 degrees from the normal position, and it would have cleared a strut connected to the back side of the tubing. On the other hand, the way I did it, it not only hooks the ear over the bottom rail, it also hooks it over the rear upright, making the bag more secure.
Here is the other side, with everything iin place and marked so I could get it tacked up.
The rear pegs have two small protrustions that are inserted into shallow holes in the strut fitting. Circled, you can just see the protrustions. Because the bracket would be covering up those holes, I would need to drill holes into the bracket to keep the pegs from rotating.
I rubbed chalk on the protrusions, then inserted the footepg in its hole, making sure it was vertical, then tapped the footrest against the bracket to transfer the locations for the holes.
Here you can see the bracket with the corresponding holes drilled in it.
It was once again off to Wayne's for the final work. Once the rear brackets were tacked, Wayne went ahead and welded the whole asembly up permanently. Back home, I ground any extra welding lumps and bumps and hung each rack from the shop ceiling, giving them a couple coats of black enamel. I may have them powdercoated later, when there is more money in the till, but for now, paint will work just fine, even if I will need to touch it up from time to time.
The finished rack on the bike's right side.