Saturday, 2 February 2013


"Tan Commuter". An unremarkable name for a quite remarkable bag. Okay, so the bag doesn't break new ground, either in basic design or aesthetics. But what makes it special is that, until Michaux Club came on the scene, no one was making a bag that looks like a normal shoulderbag that is nonetheless a fully-featured cycling-specific messenger bag.

Michaux Club is a new London-based brand of "bike-friendly bags & accessories" launched early last year. I am not the first person to review one of their bags but, from what I've seen so far though (see e.g. Vélo-City-Girl's review of the Weekender bag ), other reviewers have approached the products from the other end of the spectrum as I have. They are smitten (and justifiably so) with the fashion/style aspect:  "oh isn't this great? A beautiful handbag that's also a messenger bag!"

I, on the other hand, have a bit of a "fit for purpose" obsession. It's not enough for a handbag to be gorgeous. The most beautiful handbag in the world that behaves fairly well when worn across the body (as, to be fair, is the case with all of my Kipling crossbody bags) won't cut it for me on the bike, at least not for anything more than the short term. 

My take on the Commuter is: "Wow, a functional bag that is also beautiful!"  This is a remarkably well-designed cycling-specific bag in the messenger style that happens (albeit not by chance given the designer's personal aesthetic preferences) to be a nice shoulderbag, so nice in fact that I (wearing my trade mark/branding hat) would say aspires to being a luxury brand handbag. Here, appearance is undoubtedly important. It's crucial that a product designer gets the presentation right (both the aesthetics of the product itself and the appeal of any packaging or promotional materials) if she's to create a new market or exploit a gap in the existing market. And it's the look of this bag that drew me in first. I'd been window shopping for a messenger bag for years (harbouring some concerns about how practical they are and whether they're bad for the back/neck/shoulder!) But as long as the messenger bags on the market looked like this or this or this or even this, I was never going to give one a try. (And these are the least off-putting ones I'd found, the last one even having the appeal of matching the colours of my commuter Brompton!)

I first encountered the Tan Commuter (and the Michaux Club brand) at the Bermondsey Street Festival last summer. I was doing a stint on the Southwark Cyclists stall when one of my colleagues who'd been wandering around the event came back and said "there's a lady down at the other end of the street selling bags that are kind of different". His attempts to describe them were somewhat ambiguous -- "a kind of rucksack with straps that join at the front" -- and the hand gestures that accompanied them weren't much help either but, as it was a bit quiet at the time, a female colleague and I decided to go check it out.

There were a number of bags and various small accessories displayed on the Michaux Club stall but my eyes were immediately drawn to the tan leather one the designer, Rachel Bonney, was modelling herself. First impression:  wow, what gorgeous leather!  I had to touch it. It was like glove leather. Sensuously soft, almost warm to the touch. It promised to mould itself to me, go to the office with me, to the pub, meet my friends, chat with my bikes... in essence, share my life and grow old with me! Okay, that's a bit of poetic hyperbole, but somehow the bag spoke to me. So I chatted with Rachel to get the details. The bags are entirely her concept and creation. They are manufactured by a local garment factory right here in London. She provides the pattern parts and does the three-layered reflective-detailed trim around the front flap of the bag, the factory then sewes them up. Production is slow and in very small quantities. Rachel continually reviews the design and production quality, making occasional tweaks where needed.

My Southwark Cyclists colleague was put off by the price. I wasn't. This kind of hands-on workmanship doesn't come cheap (and shouldn't). While I couldn't afford to buy one there and then, I intended to at some point. Some point soon.

Fast forward to the end of November when I received an e-mail asking if I'd like to review one of Michaux Club's products and write about it. Would I? Gosh, yes! Rachel asked which bag I'd like to have for a week or so for doing the review. No hesitation there: the Tan Commuter please!

After using the Commuter extensively for a week and having a chat with Rachel about what I love about it and what, if it were up to me, I'd change (very little!), I batted my eyelashes at Adam my partner and he bought it for me. Just as well, as I wasn't about to part with it now!
As you can see, it's taken me a little while to get round to writing this. The delay isn't due to any doubts or reservations about the bag, but because, frankly, I quickly became Michaux Club's No. 1 Fan. But how to write a review when I have so much to say about it?!  So here goes...

The colour is described as tan. Rachel intended this to match (or at least co-ordinate) with Brooks England's "honey" coloured leather saddles, handlebar tape, etc.

As the owner of two honey-coloured Brooks saddles, in my opinion the Commuter bag is a more orangey-tan than Brooks. This isn't normally a colour I'd go for - orange just not being 'my thing' - but it's actually a quite trendy colour (my partner's fashionista daughter loves it!) So it's a matter of personal taste. I was willing to consider the bag in this colour because the quality of the leather and workmanship is so good.  (It's also available in BLACK.) 

That said, the colour does seem to very closely match the honey leather of the Velo Orange brand, which is what I have on my Brompton. (Handlebar grips match too!)

The soft leather and structure mean the bag is quite "slouchy". 

An open slip pocket extends the full width of the bag at the front.

There is also a small zipped pocket on the underside of the outer flap - perfect for a phone or keys or other small items you need easy and frequent access to. I use it for my train ticket and work pass.

The interior of both the main compartment and front slip pocket is lined with a lovely Liberty print. The two zip pockets (the one inside the outer flap another on the back wall of the main compartment) are also lined with this print fabric. I understand the prints vary from bag to bag. 

There is also a sprinkling of leather trim throughout the interior of the bag - something's that not strictly necessary but which does add to the luxurious feel of the bag overall.

As you can see from the photos, the top is open (i.e. no zipper or drawstring closure). This raised two concerns:
  • "Won't stuff fall out?"  So far, I haven't had anything fall out or come close to falling out, whether the bag is stuffed to the gills or almost empty or somewhere in between. And I do chuck things about a bit. So far I've had no reason to think security is an issue, short of someone actually putting their hand in your bag while you're stopped at a right light. (I'm fairly conscious of maintaining good road position and keeping space around me, so hopefully that's a very long shot.)
  • "Can't water get in?" The bag features inserts (a kind of curved skirting) on each end where outer flap joins main body. In use, these inserts tend to buckle outwards. Surely it would be better if they turned inwards?  I paid close attention to what happened during (and inspected the bag afterwards to confirm) wet rides, and found that the folding outwards is in factbetter: when I lean forward (even if only slightly), rain strikes me from the front. The flaps effectively divert any water (coming from the front) outwards and around the sides of the bag rather than allowing water to potentially collect inside the flaps, which may get dumped straight into the bag the first time you lift the flap. 
The bag simply closes by draping the outer flap over the top and clipping the D-ring on its underside through the swivel clip attached to the end of a strap coming up from the bottom of the bag. This effectively "cinches" the entire bag closed, with the strap fastener holding the outside slip pocket close to main body of bag, even when full, and also holding the outer flap so that it is aligned to the main body of the bag. I've found this still allows easy access to items at each end of the slip pocket (under each end of the flap) and even, to a limited extent, to contents in the main body of the bag (by reaching under the flap from the end.

I like the way the swivel clip can be situated facing outwards to allow this kind of fastening to be done easily and accurately even when in a hurry.

Now turning to what is undoubtedly the winning feature of this bag:  the anti-swing, or as I like to call it, stability strap. Messenger bags are, at their most basic, designed with one long strap that goes over your head and rests on one shoulder, with the bag hanging on the other side where it then is often swung around to rest against your back.  If the bag is a comfortable bag and you don't move around too vigorously (or bend forward suddenly!), the bag will for the most stay put against your back fairly well. However, bags intended to be worn during more physical activities -- e.g. running, cycling, hiking, climbing -- aren't so good at staying in one place as your body moves.

One option to deal with this is a second strap, connecting from the main strap where it crosses your chest, passing under that arm and attaching to the bag on the opposite side of it from where the main strap attaches to it. 

This basically completes a circle:  you have straps of one kind or another around your body. The main shoulder strap takes the bulk of the weight; the secondary strap simply prevents the bag from swinging from your back under your arm or even all the way to your front (which can be dangerous if it happens suddenly).

The stability strap has a snap/popper attachment at each end. So the entire strap can be removed from the bag if you wish. (It's mostly canvas so this is useful if you wish to sponge-wash it when it gets a little soiled.)  The strap can also be attached to the bag lying against the back of the bag itself, i.e. not around you, where it stays neatly out of the way. This works very well:  the strap does not catch on things.


Another useful feature, which I am not aware of other reviewers mentioning, is the facility to attach a rear light to the strap that "cinches" the bag. Depending on how you adjust this strap, the light can be placed on the part of the strap between the bottom of the bag and swivel clip, or on the end of the strap dangling below the swivel clap. Either way, it's possible to adjust the position so that the outer flap doesn't cover up the light when it is fastened down.

One final thought on the reflective features of the bag. This is highlighted by retailers and reviewers - indeed on the Michaux Club website - as being a key safety feature subtly integrated into the understated look of the bike. I won't argue with the last point - it is indeed tastefully done and quite decorative. But I wouldn't bank on this as a "safety feature". The degree of reflection thrown back isn't enough to be effective as part of an overall safety system. I have been followed by cyclists at night (who are therefore at a similar height and travelling much closer to me than the average motorist, and positioned directly behind me), who say the reflective bits are not caught by their bike's front lights at all - not even Hope or Exposure or similar high-power lights.

However, I'd think the angle that lights hit the bag make all the difference so it's possible that that there is a useful (if minimal) degree of reflectivity for riders on upright bicycles. My use of the bag has been on my road bike and my Brompton S-type, which both put me in a quite aggressive forward-leaning position. Possibly this means the reflective strips are facing skywards.

Owners of this bag may also be interested in matching accessories for it, which  include:

- purse in matching leather with decorative stitching (with reflective eyelet detail). This is about 14cm tall and 17cm wide. As with Commuter bag, the purse is lined with a Liberty print. The zip matches those used in the Commuter as well. I have been using small pouches of this type for years to keep small things together in a bigger bag - this prevents them from getting lost in the bottom of the bag (usually in the corners or between other objects where they aren't easily felt or spotted). So I knew I would find this useful and appreciate having something that matches my bag.  (The various puncture repair tools and supplies shown on the website are illustrative only and are not included with purchase of the purse!).

- keyfob with leather tassels. Each tassel has had reflective paint applied to one side of the lower half of it - this is pretty but purely decorative.  The useful aspect of having this keyfob (or something similar if you're not too fussed about having it match the bag) is that, if you attach it to a zip pull, you'll have something larger to grasp, making getting in and out of a zipped pocket much quicker and "sure footed". (I found adding this keyfob definitely improved use of the zippers.)

The bottom line:  the Magic of this bag is how comfortable and practical it is in use. (The less-expensive, more casual-looking Weekender bag is certain to be just as good in this regard.)  The weight of the bag and all its contents just disappear when I get on my bike. This is the opposite of what my experience has been with the average (non-cycling-specific) cross-body bag, which work well when slung over my body or over my shoulder but which feel ungainly, off balance and even somehow heavier when I'm on my bike. In contrast, the Commuter is comfortable enough as a fully-loaded handbag but the minute I get on my bike, it just disappears. This week I've had it so full I'm sometimes not sure I can manage it getting out of the house.. and then I get on my bike and it all melts away. Amazing. 

The size and shape is perfect for me. And the pockets are all just the right size, shape and angled "just so", so that everything is easily and quickly accessible. I don't get into the pockets while actually riding, but I am in and out of this bag constantly, often while walking with one hand on the handlebar or stem of a bike. Whether the item I need is in the pocket in the outer flap, in the front slip pocket or in the main compartment, I can reach in, unerringly retrieve exactly what I want, use it and put it away again without missing a beat.

And look quite stylish while doing it.

P.S. These photos were taken this week. The bag has been in almost daily use in all weather for nearly two months. I didn't clean it - not even to wipe it down - for the photoshoot. It's no longer pristine. It's getting that nice "lived in" look that is one of the hallmarks of well-loved leather goods that last a lifetime. Is this called patina in the context of leather? Anyway, I love it.

VERDICT  [ added 10 March 2013 ]

Cycling-specific design features: 9 / 10
  [Incredibly well thought-out -- the shoulder and stability straps in particular. The more I see other messenger bags, the more impressed I am at the way the straps attach to the bag (swivel clips) and are easily adjustable even on the bike.]
Usefulness e.g. accessibility and comfort: 9 / 10 
  [My only slight reservation is the open top under the flap. Nothing has come out yet, but I am mindful and careful of the risk something could, even if that risk is slight. Otherwise, the bag is superbly practical and comfortable.]
Durability:  8 / 10
   [A point or two off for leather care, if you're a careful owner.] 
Attractiveness:  9 / 10 
   [Assuming this is your cup of tea"]
Value for money: 8 / 10 
   [Initial outlay is £290.  But this bag should last a lifetime.]

Overall:  43 / 50


11 February 2013

Since buying my Tan Commuter and writing the review above, I've found a few other messenger bags that, like Michaux Club's bags, are not quite as in-your-face-SPORTS-bag in style as the Chrome, dhb, Ortlieb etc bags I'd considered but couldn't warm to. Hooray, there ARE other aesthetics out there, so if all-leather doesn't float your boat, have a look at alternates like these: 

The Trakke Bairn - shown in Harris Tweed. Other colourways are available. Trakke make other styles, including the Wee Lug, which is very similar to this but quite a lot larger and which was reviewed here (a very nice blog, by the way)
Carradice's Kelbrook satchell - shown in green with brown leather trim.
Also available in all black. Part of Carradice's City Classics range.

I wish I could see both of these in person!  Do YOU have one? Please let me know what you think of it.


My reviews of other messenger bags can be found: 
  • Ortlieb Zip City S here and here
  • Timbuk2 Classic Messenger XS (custom) here
  • Knog Big Dog here
  • Trakke Bairn here and here


  1. That looks so beautiful, hanging off the Brompton.

  2. Fantastic review, can I ask how you found the size? Considering one but I could do with it fitting my laptop in and I'm not sure whether a Weekender would fit or I'd have to go with a Commuter? Thank you!

    1. Hi Sarah. According to the website, the Commuter and the medium-size Weekender are the same dimensions: 33cm x 23cm 9cm, which Rachel says fits a 13" laptop plus everyday items. The large-size Weekender will fit a 17" laptop. You might want to contact Rachel and ask her if you're unsure, as I believe some of the bags are being slightly re-styled soon and it's possible the dimensions might change slightly also.

      I have found the Commuter carries all my everyday stuff: medium-size purse, phone, Moleskine diary, my Lumix camera, a chunky MP3 player, pens, tissues, the matching Michaux purse, spectacles case (sometimes 2), my Kindle Fire... plus at various times extra things like spare socks or mini umbrella, with room to stuff my woolly hat and gloves on top. I'd be scared if the bag were any larger - I'd only be tempted to carry more!


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