Review: Thule Pack n Pedal Side Frames
My wife and I opted to take a biking/camping trip along the C&O Canal. Obviously, this requires rigging up the mountain bikes to carry equipment so some form of rack and pannier combination were necessary. On a hard-tail bike, this is a pretty straightforward routine where the hardest decision is the number of options. On a fully suspended bike, the options are far more limited.
The typical rack system attaches at two points - at the rear axle and to the seat post. This allows for weight support and stabilization. With an articulation point for the rear suspension, the positioning between the seat post and the rear axle is dynamic. To address this situation, Thule makes a Tour Rack designed with flexible mounting options in mind. Thule uses a ratcheting strap system that allows it to adapt to various sized frames, another handy feature as full suspension bikes often have larger trailing arms to the rear axle.
The Tour Rack itself, works like a charm. It holds onto the frame solidly without rattles or unwanted lateral movement. The adjustable deck permits aligning the Tour Rack to virtually any frame angle and it supports up to 25 pounds of cargo with ease. However, just a horizontal deck isn't going to be useful for a camping trip. Hanging panniers directly off this unit will have them dragging into the side of your tire immediately. For that, Thule makes the Pack n Pedal Side Frames.
By design, the Side Frames attach to the Tour Rack from their top. They can literally "flap" since the attachment is like a hinge. Once a load is attached, it rests against the Side Frames so that movement is not an issue. What keeps the Side Frames from swinging inward to hit the tire or spokes? Basically the Side Frame rests against the supporting arm of the Tour Rack. What is an issue, is that Thule decided to construct the Side Frames from plastic ... a plastic that flexes easily.
Look closely at the stock image from Thule. Notice how the support arm to the Tour Rack seem to align down the middle of the Side Frames. That basically only works for short people with tiny feet. Anybody with a larger pedal stroke and shoes will constantly kick their panniers if they're even able to pedal at all. Needless to say, the Side Frames will need to slid as far backward as possible (which already isn't much). Furthermore, depending on the frame angles, contact with the Tour Rack might be limited to the front of the Side Frames only (my reality).
Here is where the troublesome part of their plastic construction comes into play. Within only five miles of the C&O Canal ride, the Side Frames had bowed inward under the weight of the panniers and were dragging along the rear tire. Fortunately for that trip, I was able to mitigate the problem with a field expedient solution (visible in the upper left of the photo). A simple stick wedged between the Side Frames at the rear and duct taped into place provided the necessary separation to complete the ride.
Literally one year later, we opted to take another camping trip down the C&O Canal by bike. This time around, I decided to change how I attached the Side Frames to the Tour Rack. Effectively, it could be attached in any of three positions. By raising the frame higher, I had hoped to reduce the units ability to flex inward. At first, this solution seemed to work.
As the picture depicts, raising the Side Frames solved the first problem. Eliminating about four inches at the bottom limited the amount of stress the loaded panniers were able to cause, preventing them from contacting the tire. However, the loaded panniers now caused the top of the unit to flex. By the time this C&O Canal trip was complete, they were bending nearly 1.5" at the rear.
The flex on the Side Frame is quite apparent and completely unacceptable. If the units were made from lightweight aluminum or at least had other reinforced metal inserts, perhaps this wouldn't be a problem. Varying the Side Frame's mounting position only changes the nature of the flex - either at the bottom or the top. Was the Thule unit overloaded?
Both of the Thule Shield Panniers together weighed 22 pounds on the trip - each was packed with lightweight or ultralight gear. The configuration was within the design specification for the gear, so the usage of an easily flexed plastic is a poor choice that cannot warrant a recommendation. My wife rides a hard tail. She had no issues whatsoever with her Ibera Pack Rack - I'm jealous.