Monday, December 27, 2010


Whoa! A little bike content, and there’s been precious little of that lately so I‘ll make sure this is only tangentially bikish.

I’ve been working on detoxification of my saddle bag.  You know how you occasionally have to scrape the bug splats and road grime from your windshield?  Or how your computer has that virus protection program that needs to clean out the ‘quarantine tank’ from time to time? Well, recently I detected a faint odor of mildew in the area of my bike. On closer inspection, it was clear that my Carradice Barley bag was ‘infected’ with mildew!

This bag that has served me so well for the past few years has become home to a colony of stinky mildew aliens, and they must be stopped!

I looked very closely and there was no mold or mildew apparent to the naked eye (aren’t all eyes naked?) Still, there was absolutely no denying that it was harboring a healthy, smelly, mildew colony.

I think most normal people have an aversion to mildew, but I am decidedly abnormal in that I really cannot stand the smell, let alone the idea of mildew taking over my stuff. There was a time in my past where I was exposed to mildew and actually could not escape it. I’m sure this negative reinforcement has fueled my abnormal reaction. I don’t flinch, or develop a nervous twitch or eye tick, … but almost.

The conventional wisdom suggests that if it is mildewed, you just toss it and start with a new, or non-mildewed replacement. This probably arises from the circumstances which typically attend to the  mildewed item: It’s a box of books, or clothes, or some other priceless/worthless memento from your past life. You finally get around to opening that box and phew, pitch this!

The Barley is different: It’s been in service all along and I still rely on it for the longer events. It’s an expensive item, well worn but with lots of useable life left. In fact, it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that this one, barring catastrophe, and with a dose of luck might serve me well right up until they pack me off to the home. I could probably find a way to Rube it to fit one of those big wheel trikes you see the senior set tooling down to the post office on. If not, I’m sure my friend Kent could figure a neat work around.  Of course there are more than just the practical considerations: This bag and I have bonded, I can’t say it’s served me around the world, but it has helped me get half way around, … and back.

I was pretty sure how I would approach this problem but it’s so easy to get on the information super highway now that I figured no harm asking before I jumped off the cliff. I found a few off beat recommendations on the web. The responses to my query over at randon google pretty much covered the range of options. There were a few responses born of enthusiasm not tempered by experience (bleach and peroxide) and a few others that I expected.  What I like about posing a question to this group is, almost always you receive an eclectic mix of high tech, home remedy, and ‘what could it hurt?” responses. Sort of like what you might expect if you asked a committee of the UN to solve a problem.  I was only a little let down not to find at least one suggestion that incorporated either zip ties or coroplast (or both).  To be honest I was not optimistic about a simple resolution: mildew may have a faint odor but part if it’s distaste for me is it’s dogged persistence.

Because I was interested in ‘saving the village without destroying the village’ I started with the less impactful strategies and worked into more aggressive therapies (similar to cancer treatment).  I wasn’t too surprised that a hearty scrub in a mix of extremely hot water and alcohol didn’t do the trick. I’m sure this course killed most if not all of the bad bugs, but I guess mildew smells bad, dead or alive. What did surprise me was how much dirt was left in the laundry basin! I’m not saying there was enough dirt left behind to grow carrots, but I probably could have gotten a jump on my lettuce starts. That heavy coarse canvas can hold maybe half its weight in fine dirt particles! Still stunk though, no discernible reduction in odor.

Next up, I employed a new-to-me home remedy: Extremely hot water and a solution of lemon juice and salt. This had appeal for a couple reasons: First as a remedy for fish ailments, I’ve always got a 40# bag of rock salt around. But also, I have a sort of genetic predisposition to home remedies. My mom, may she rest in peace, was born in a soddy on the Montana Prairie. Throw in the Great Depression, surviving the 1918 influenza pandemic, and an early life as the cleaning lady for those who could afford cleaning ladies, and this translates into an embrace of home remedies of every kind that is hard to break. I’m not saying that I still rub oil of eucalyptus on the soles of my feet when I go to bed with a cold but salt and lemon juice sounded like it came from somebody’s kitchen. Plus it is cheap, and that as we all know is a main ingredient in all home remedies.

Anyway, lemon and salt? Well, it might have diminished the odor of mildew slightly, or it might just have been wishful thinking. In any case the bag was still very obviously stinky. It did however produce more dirt, in the laundry tub than I thought the bag had left in it. I must say, I am confident that some gremlin was not just throwing handfuls of dirt in while I wasn’t looking. At each subsequent washing the bag has taken on a progressively lighter color. When new it was dark olive (LL Bean might call it 'Hunter', while Lands End might call it ‘Deep Forest’), now it's pretty much Khaki ('Sand' at J Crew).

One side benefit that all you gram counting racer types might take note of: If my experience is any indication, you should seriously consider taking that little wedge pack under your saddle that holds the credit card and the cell phone for a soak and a scrub. I mean really SCRUB that thing! It’s a good bet you’ll drop some serious weight off the bike! Believe me, it's dirtier than you think.

Round three was a move to the obvious: Another scrubbing with extremely hot water and old fashioned soap. I am pleased to say that though I once again scrubbed the thing into submission l did not harm it, and I also did not produce much more dirt. If nothing else I am confident that the Barley is now clean enough that I would probably get a grudging nod of approval from my dear old mom. Alas, once it finally air dried for the third time, it still smelled. The odor was dramatically diminished but also, unmistakably there.

At this juncture I had to make a strategic decision: Do I continue on the path of trying to rid the bag of the smell and risk ‘destroying the village’ or move toward the new century definition of cleaning which is actually masking with some other odor? Isn’t it amazing how many products tout themselves as cleaners while slickly transitioning to the “fresh” scent the product leaves behind. You don’t actually get rid of the cat pee smell, but when you are done you have 'minty fresh' with cat pee notes.  There is something to be said for the old ways.

It wasn’t an easy choice so I took what I thought might be the middle path. As we know, a compromise most often meets no goals and offends all involved. The middle path doesn’t really lead anywhere but you feel good because you are still plodding along. What steered me toward the middle path was that:
  1. I had knocked the odor back, … a lot, and
  2. There is a finite amount of vigorous scrubbing in extremely hot  water and whatever concoction you care to mix in that an old canvas bag can take.
Also, if I opted for a masking agent and it either didn’t work or was more obnoxious than mildew, I figured I now had the chops to wash it out. I’m the cleaning lady’s boy after all.

So the next step along the turnpike to mediocrity was to decide which masking agent to choose. I went with a product called Fabreze. Do you know this? I had never heard of it but it was one of the recommendations of the rando-nation. As I was perusing the aisles at a big box emporium I came upon a large spray bottle of ‘Fabreze For Cars”.  I brought it home and let it stand on top of the washer, the laundry room, ...VERY close to the Barley, ...for a week! No change, so I guessed I was actually going to have to spray some on the Barley as per instructions and do the scrubbing thing again.

I did that last weekend and let the bag air dry once again. Et Voila! NO SCENT OF MILDEW! Fabreze does have an after odor, but it is hard to describe. It’s not floral or perfumy, sort of 'essence of commercial cleaner'. Tell the truth I was sort of hoping for something like ‘new car smell’. That‘s not entirely obnoxious but if you’ve ever bought a new car, you know that smell doesn’t last long. It remains to be seen if this is the end of the cleaning phase. If the mildew essence returns I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve.

But there is more to come regardless. All this cleaning has removed not only all the dirt but also any semblance of water resistance. Like the oiled Grebe who survived the multiple rinses with Dawn Dish soap, the Barley now has all the water resistance of a car wash sponge.

So of course the next step is to re-waterproof. The home remedy approach might find me coating the thing with any of a number of treatments I used to put on my work boots when I was a working man. (They are all out in a mildewy box in the shop by the way).

I started out with Currin's Whale Oil Paste.  

Seriously, whale fat to waterproof boots. I have to admit, it feels awkward to make that admission, please forgive me, it was another time and I was a different person (isn’t that what they all say!) That stuff worked pretty well, but I think it would be a little too greasy on the bag, and frankly, essence of whale oil paste is not a big step up from mildew. Let's not loose sight of the goal.  I also used buckets of Snow Seal.

Do they still make that stuff? It might make a decent application for the chain on a snow bike but I’m not sure it would work on canvas - visions of waxy petroleum goo pooling inside the bag. It would surely impinge on the flavor of my lucky Clif Bar, the one I have been carting around since PBP’03. Come to think if it, that thing is probably now home to millions of mildew spores. Here is what I have settled on:

Actually, this too came from the rag tag rando crew, I didn’t even know it existed but it would seem to be just the perfect bowl of porridge: not too hot, and not too cold, juuust right. It’s ordered and on it’s way, but given the post Christmas 'shippingpalooza' no telling when or even if it will show up on the door step. I’ll write up a product review later, if it ever comes.

Here's how the bag looks now

The reason I have not been all breathless and panting about getting this project done is because I've been using this setup in the interim:

I really like this Acorn bag, and though using it with the Bagman rack is a bit of a hack, it works quite well. The Bagman makes changing bags a breeze.  If you've never used one of these British style bags with leather straps and nickle buckles you are really missing an opportunity to fiddle away loads of time you could be riding, never mind the buckets of frustration each time you want to take the bag off or put it on.  Really, half the fun of bicycling is fiddling around with 'stuff' ... in the cold rain, ... with numb fingers, ... you don' know what you are missing.

PS: for those naysayers who adhere to the ‘mildew-means-toss’ school of thinking…. you may be right. I refuse to ride with a mildewed bag just to say I saved it, but I won’t give it up without a fight. My philosophy is; anything worth doing is worth overdoing. (this post for example)


  1. That's a clever/tidy set-up you've got there with the Acorn bag (have you had occasion to use a spare tire on a ride?).

    I own their roll bag and their large saddle bag, so the joys of frozen hands fiddling with miniature buckles and straps are all too familiar :-)

  2. Godd thing you managed to get rid of the smell.

    Vinegar, or something with higher conent of acetic acid ("Pickling vinegar") can be useful for removing smell without ruining the object you're trying to get stink-free.