Up close with Canadian bike-bag maker Arkel

After two years of ski instructing and tree planting in Canada my visa runs out in November so I’ve got enough time for a blow-out bike trip. I bought a bike from Kona, and am carrying my stuff in a mix of bikepacking and cycle touring bags from Arkel. Both firms are Canadian. With a friend in Sherbrooke, Quebec, it made sense to start my trip from there, and I was also able to visit Arkel in person to get the bags I’d be using for the journey along Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail, “one of the world’s most scenic destinations.” 

Sherbrooke has a long association with the textile industry, which is one of the reasons why Arkel relocated there. 70 percent of the company’s products are made by hand in Sherbrooke (the welded waterproof gear is made in China). 

I was shown around this friendly firm by sales manager Kevin Ryan, a globe-trotting cycle tourist who, similar to my background, was introduced to long-distance cycle touring by his father. With Arkel since 1999, Ryan still travels by bike, and we discussed whether I should go on-trend with an all-bikepacking set-up or stick to an old-school cycle touring ensemble. We decided it would be best if I went half-and-half – my Kona Rove steel gravel bike therefore now has traditional but lightweight Orca waterproof panniers on the front and the Seatpacker 15 bikepacking seatbag to the rear. 

Bags chosen I was then shown how they are made, and who makes them. Availability of specialist machinists is a given in Sherbrooke because of the town’s textile heritage (it’s long been a centre for yarn production). Additionally, Arkel’s strong values are evident from its association since 2003 with CRDITED Estrie, a local social service programme for folks with intellectual disabilities and pervasive development disorders. The 15-strong crew assemble Arkel’s famously secure cam-lock mounting system. 

Like Burley, which I profiled last year, Arkel was founded by a die-hard outdoorsman making gear by hand. Serge Vigeant, a Montreal-based writer and artist, started making backpacks in 1988. The Arkel name came from Vigeant’s novelist pen-name which he had concocted initially from a throw of alphabet dice. The backpacks didn’t sell so he moved into pannier bags which did. Sales blossomed, but a slew of orders taken at the Toronto International Bicycle show in 1996 stretched Vigeant’s finances, and he found himself unable to make the goods that had been ordered.

With no cash and disappointed would-be customers, Arkel was on the point of collapse when it was rescued by civil engineer turned banker Paul McKenzie. He pumped in cash, and in return acquired 60 percent of the business. Vigeant – and his former wife Diane Laplante – later sold their shares to McKenzie, and the business was moved the 150kms from Montreal to Sherbrooke, which is a stone’s throw away from Vermont over the border in the USA.

BikeBiz – via my award-winning journalist dad (I’ll get brownie points for that) – has been writing about Arkel since its products started UK distribution in 2001. 

And I’ve been around the bags most of my life – my parents both ride with Arkel bags. My mum rides to work with Arkel panniers, and my dad’s city bike is equipped with an Arkel trunk bag. They tour with huge Arkel tandem pannier bags. I travel lighter, but it’s good to carry on the family tradition of cycle touring – and now bikepacking – with Arkel bags. 

Having seen the bags being made I now understand why the firm trusts its products so much that they offer lifetime warranties on them. But unlike some other “lifetime warranties” these ones are for real – the guarantee is transferable, no receipt required. Thing is, the bags have got to fail for the Arkel guarantee to kick in, and they are built so solid this rarely happens, which is one less thing to worry about as I head to Cape Breton and the start of the Cabot Trail.

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