Ortlieb Back Roller Free pannier review - all the ingredients of the Classic minus the PVC

Offers everything that a decent touring pannier should without the use of harmful PVC - hence 'free'

Ortlieb Back Roller Free panniers on a bike against a wooden garage door
(Image credit: Emma Silversides)
Cycling Weekly Verdict

Ortlieb's Back Roller Classic is hugely popular among tourers with good reason - it does exactly what a pannier should and stands the test of time. The latest addition to the range, the Back Roller Free, boasts exactly the same functional, practical design with eco-credentials to boot. Without the double coating of PVC, the material is a little more malleable and prone to abrasions but overall it does exactly what it should without the use of one of the most harmful plastics out there.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Functional

  • +

    100% waterproof

  • +

    PVC-free

  • +

    Well made

  • +

    5 year warranty

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Potentially more prone to aesthetic wear than the Classic pannier

If something works well, why change it? Ortlieb’s Back Roller panniers are a superb example of this. The rugged design does exactly what a pannier should, protecting hefty loads from the elements and offering a stable and secure attachment to a variety of racks. 

Ortlieb isn't a company to sit back and be complacent where innovation and new technologies are concerned though; its latest Back Roller Free means those upgrading or investing for the first time have a more environmentally friendly choice.

I got my hands on a pair of Ortlieb Back Roller Free panniers just in time for a three-week tour to the UK from northern Spain. I’ve certainly given them a rigorous test. Read on to find out how they fared…

CONSTRUCTION

The overall design of the Back Roller Free is identical to the Back Roller Classic (opens in new tab). Once you’ve stuffed it full with (up to) 20 litres of cargo, a hard strip of plastic makes a few rolls of the pannier a breeze. There are options for securing with or without the shoulder strap. How you choose to close it will depend of the just how much you’ve stuffed in and whether or not you want the convenience of the shoulder strap permanently attached.

The Quick-Lock 2.1 system is easy to operate: lift the handle to open the hooks, release it to clamp them to the tubing. 8, 10 and 12mm anti-scratch adapters are included to ensure a snug fit on any rack. Adjustment is tool-free, a refinement that occurred several years ago; previous versions required an Allen key to adjust the positions of the hook and clamps.

Quick-Lock 2.1 system on the rear of a pannier

(Image credit: Emma Silversides)

The lower hook can slide and rotate to accommodate various rail arrangements, again this is tool-free.

A rigid moulded strip of plastic protects the base of the pannier, and ensures it holds it’s shape when loaded.

Inside there’s a zipped mesh pouch and a deeper sleeve that conveniently sits against the reinforced rear.

Interior

(Image credit: Emma Silversides)

Finally, and most significantly, the Back Roller Free panniers are completely PVC-free. Unlike the Back Roller Classic's double coating of PVC, the Free is made with a PU-laminated polyester fabric. Ortlieb claim that the Free is just as robust and perfect for touring, indeed it carries the same IP64 rating as all other Back Roller Panniers.

Each pannier weighs 925g (the Classic weighs 950g). Ortlieb offers three different colours: Black, Lagoon and Rust, each features the bold 3M Scotchlite reflectors associated with Ortlieb. 

The Free comes with Ortlieb's standard five-year warranty.

PERFORMANCE

The material was the first thing that struck me about the Free panniers - it feels more malleable than the Classic, a property that will likely appeal to most; it makes packing out the panniers easier. The seams are brilliantly manufactured and finishing is second to none. Overall there are no flaws or weak points to note.

Throughout the entire tour pannier my kit was reliably protected from dust, rain, hail and heavy dews. The roll-top closure and durable fabric work exactly as they should.

Kit protected from dust

(Image credit: Emma Silversides)

The interior pockets are super for maps, documents or smaller objects; you don’t need to rummage around to locate them and the former are kept in good shape.

The tapered body of the pannier lends itself well to strategic packing; heavier, smaller objects like a gas cannister and cooking equipment fit neatly at the bottom and bulkier, lighter things (like a sleeping bag) fit well in the upper half.

Interior

(Image credit: Emma Silversides)

Attachment to the Ortlieb Quick Rack (opens in new tab) (that I was testing at the same time) was stable and secure. Using the panniers on other racks has been a breeze too; the tool-free adjustment is as good as it gets.

I personally kept the shoulder strap attached at all times. The moveable shoulder ‘pad’ makes carrying the panniers comfortable as well as convenient, particularly if you are carrying other kit at the same time.

Over the last 20 years I’ve done 90% of my touring with a pair of Ortlieb Back Roller Classic panniers and I am utterly convinced that they are built to last; they still work as well as they did when new and show very little sign of wear. After three weeks of being treated rather roughly (in the name of testing) the Free panniers are looking well used. 

I'm inclined to think that the outer surface is more prone to scuffs than the PVC version. That said, a jet black material tends to show abrasions more easily (my Classic panniers are grey). Either way, performance of the Free panniers is completely unaffected and undoubtedly a PVC-free option is better for both consumers and the environment.

VALUE

The Back Roller Free panniers have an RRP of £140/$210, £5/$10 more than the Back Roller Classic. Investing in a single pannier is possible (if you don't want a pair), though much more expensive at £90/$120. 

Considering the five-year warranty, functionality and responsible manufacturing, I’d say £140/$210 is excellent value for money. If they last as long as the Classic panniers I’ve mentioned, it’s outstanding. A comparable option would be Vaude’s Aqua Back (opens in new tab) rear panniers for £130/$135, they are also PVC-free and come with a two year warranty. I can’t comment on the longevity or performance of these.

It’s not surprising that Ortlieb’s Back Roller panniers are a favourite among tourers; they do what they are designed to exceptionally well and are built to last. The introduction of the Free offers those looking to invest, or replace, the option of making a more responsible purchase without compromising on performance.

SPECIFICATIONS

  • Material: D62, PS60
  • Adapter: Quick-Lock2.1
  • Weight: 2 x 925 g | 32.6 oz
  • Height: 42 cm | 16 inch
  • Upper width: 32 cm | 12 inch
  • Lower width: 23 cm | 9 inch
  • Depth: 17 cm | 6 inch
  • Volume: 2 x 20 l | 1220.5 cu.inch

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