19 August 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Ergon BC3 backpack

I have a love/hate relationship with this pack. It is brilliant in some ways but also has quite a few annoyances in other ways. The BC3 is the largest volume pack in Ergon's biking line and is intended for folks who want to carry a serious amount of equipment on the trail. It has a volume of 25 liters and is made of a very tough and completely water-proof material. Ergon’s claim to fame with its products is a new and (hopefully) more ergonomic design than what other manufacturers are offering. They do succeed for the most part, but the drawbacks of the pack are significant

Ergon uses the Flink® Link ball joint for the upper harness and a structural weight-bearing waist belt to provide a very unique and effective chassis for carrying loads. This technology is licensed from another company (flink GMBH) and the word “flink” was drawn from the words "flexible" and "link." I was blown away by how light and maneuverable I felt wearing the BC3 compared to packs that place the weight on the shoulders. Putting the weight on the hips is no new concept- that’s how proper backpacks (for actual backpacking) are designed. The Flink® Link concept adds to this to create a more maneuverable environment for the user’s torso and it works like gangbusters. While riding, the weight of the pack feels secure and balanced, but at the same time your torso feels much more free and agile. It’s like you have a pack of perhaps a third of the weight on your back- still with more maneuverability. This awesome ability is more noticeable the harder the riding gets. If you leave the ground regularly, or spend a lot of time in really “ledgy” technical stuff like in Moab- this pack instills more confidence than ever, since your balance isn’t being negatively affected as much. It’s not magic mind you, but it is a significant improvement, and the Flink® Link design also keeps most of the pack elevated off of your back so ventilation is pretty good. This one trait of the pack is at the crux of any decision one makes about buying the BC3 because it is such a huge improvement, but at the same time there are a number of little problems that you will have to live with. The question becomes: Is the benefit of the one big positive trait worth putting up with a few drawbacks? The answer is only one you can decide for yourself, but I‘m not willing to keep using it for riding- but am keeping it for day-hikes and such.

Outside the Flink® Link, the design of the pack is pretty good. It is obvious that Ergon were going for a contained smooth look that doesn’t have any edges or pockets on the outside. They succeeded with this but I consider it a design mistake. I realize that this design means that the pack is less likely to catch on wayward branches and bushes but that part of mountain biking is a very small percentage of any trails I have ever ridden. Even as a hiker, I would understand only if you did a lot of off-trail travel. The drawback here it that there is only one outside pocket and it is only a little one. Well, it is medium sized, but won’t really change its shape to accommodate stuff. This allows me to segue into another problem- the outer material is so tough and rigid that it makes the pack more difficult to use and pack than others. Much of this is due to the fact that there is no accordion/bellows type area where you can get some extra stretch. For instance, if the top pocket was a separate piece of material and then sewn on like a flap, it wouldn’t be at the mercy of how much equipment I stuffed into the bottom part of the pack. As it stands now, I have so much in the main chamber of the pack that it pushes the top pocket in from below and makes it smaller. Include the rigid outer material that has absolutely no stretch to it, and that top pocket ends up holding very little. The interior pockets are mostly pointless- no zippers on them and again, the stretch issue. For the same reasons, it is very hard to get the bladder into the bladder compartment, and I usually have to take a bunch of gear out to do this. This whole process gets old quickly and is one of the reasons I am not going to use it for biking anymore. To Ergon I would say this: Put some sewn-on outside pockets (2-3 small and one medium/ large), separate the bladder compartment from the rest with something stiff so the bulk of one side doesn’t affect the other, and then re-think all the interior compartments because most don’t help. These improvements alone would tip the BC3 back into the “use it all the time” group for me.

There were a couple of other little things. The sternum strap keeps sliding up its adjustable piping and there is enough space at the top of the little rail for it to just come off- which it does while riding (at least once every ride). This is easy to fix but annoying. Also, I find that for the best performance and balance, I have to strap down all the belts really tight- particularly the waist-belt. I find this uncomfortable for any period of time so I loosen them and then the pack can occasionally (and slowly) slide to one side of my back. This could just be the way it fits me, but I can’t figure out how to stop it without cinching it down to an uncomfortable level. I will admit that I loaded the BC3 to the pack’s weight limit or maybe a bit over, but still… You don’t usually see weight limits on packs so my guess is that the Flink® Link is only tested/rated to its 10kg limit. One last thing, this pack is pricey. At $195 it is very expensive for a riding pack. For this price it should come with a bladder. Hell, increase the price by $15 and then include the bladder. Regardless- it should come with one.

In the end it is still a step forward for packs. It just needs more work on the non-chassis side of things. I wish they made large backpacking packs with the Flink® Link- maybe someday. If I gave the impression that I don’t like this pack then I’m sorry- that’s not the case. I’m just angry at it- the way you get angry at someone you love when you expect more from them. I want to use this pack. I want to take back all the negative comments. But it needs help. Call this review an intervention then- perhaps Ergon will make some changes for the next generation.

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