Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest Review: Made in Nutmeg Country
A longflap saddlebag is the centerpiece of many neo-traditional dirt touring setups, and the Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest has become a modern classic since its inception in 2016. In this review, Logan digs into the backstory behind Fab’s Chest and reports back on the latest Connecticut-made waxed Cordura model after 1,000 miles of use while bikepacking the Eastern Divide Trail and roaming around the mountains of western North Carolina…
Back in the summer of 2014, a much younger and perhaps more intrepid Ronnie Romance was cyclotoüring in Norway aboard a retro-styled, steel dirt-drop 26er. His custom Ultraromance Cool Clockwork was equipped with two small panniers, a basket up front, and a drab Carradice Camper long flap saddlebag dangling off the back of a well-worn Brooks saddle. A foam Z-fold sleeping pad was tucked in just front of it behind the seat post. One would expect this bedlam to be a rather cumbersome, thigh-rubbing cluster. An arrangement procured for Insta-aesthetics, perhaps? Fortunately, Ron stumbled on a better way somewhere in Norway’s far north. Read on to see how his olde touring kit led to the creation of the neue Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest in this detailed review.
Fabio’s Chest: The Novella
According to sources, Ron got a wild hair midway through that Norwegian tour and decided to lash the Carradice Camper to the handlebars while outfitting his bike for exploratory day rides. The bag happened to fit ever-so-neatly just between the dirt drops, and its inherent ease of accessibility sparked an idea. This discovery couldn’t have come at a better time, and it ultimately improved the dirt-touring experience for many a rider—particularly those attempting to replicate Ron’s Ultra-curated interpretation of a bag setup.
Ron later mentioned, “At first I didn’t like the way it sagged and caved in on the headtube, so I added a piece of cardboard to the inside as a stiffener. I thought it looked and worked great… It performed more like the visually unappealing [technical black fabric] bikepacking gear that was beginning to dominate the off-road touring world. I could now ditch my panniers and go on more audacious expeditions while maintaining my well-curated look.”
However, Ron didn’t stop there. He wanted a better rackless bag with modern touches that still preserved that same classic aesthetic, something “useful and handsome enough to leave on the bike full time for grocery, long ride, and commuting duties. A bag that becomes part of the bike.” There wasn’t really much like that back then. The Carradice Camper had its own set of eccentricities and wasn’t truly built for the handlebars. As it happens, Ron and I were on a similar trajectory at the time. Back in 2013, I designed and stitched a DIY saddlebag that was very much based on the Camper. My qualms with the Camper were similar to his; it wasn’t stable enough, and it used cumbersome leather buckle hardware. I added an anchored closed-cell foam layer for stability to my rendition and designed it around plastic buckles and nylon webbing for ease of access.
Like Ron, I used it on the back of the bike as a saddlebag at first. Then, on our second big trip in Africa in 2015, I strapped that same DIY bag to the handlebars. It was immediately evident that this style of bag works much better in that position. It’s far more anchored and useful up front, in my opinion, and seat packs and mini-panners work better on the rear of the bike as they’re more stable and don’t rub your thighs. Plus, in my experience, they don’t have as much of an adverse effect on the bike’s handling or center of gravity.
However, like the Carradice, my DIY bag still had a few flaws as a dedicated handlebar bag. Fortunately for me, Ron and others were quietly cooking up options in the dark recesses of sheds, garages, and workshops around the US. Fast forward to the summer of 2016, and the predecessor to the Fab’s Chest was released to the masses—well, not really, there were only 50 made by the Swift Industries factory in Seattle, Washington. It was called the UltraSwift Wizard Sleeve at the time and later renamed for reasons that may or may not be obvious to you. That model came in two sizes, a cavernous 44-liter version and a smaller 27-liter option. Both were constructed out of olive Cordura and black webbing and embellished with a bearded wizard patch.
It wasn’t until a few runs later when the bag was emblazoned with the triangular “Rose of Fabio” patch and became the Fabio’s Chest. For folks unfamiliar with the etymology behind the name, here’s how Ron describes it: “Its reference is likely lost on anyone under 40, but the luscious muscly depiction of a bloused Fabio on the cover of a trashy novel is synonymous with romance in my opinion—his pectorals in particular.”
Made in Nutmeg Country
The Fab’s Chest was made by Swift until 2019. As we all know, Covid derailed the supply chain and upended the outdoor industry in 2020 after an onslaught of consumers scrambled for equipment to support their newfound hobbies. Ron and business partner Arya were forced to react quickly and looked high and low for a new facility, hoping to bring production closer to their home in Connecticut. Good fortune and keen noses led them to a factory in Waterbury, a town of some 100,000 residents in the central-west part of the state. As a matter of fact, it’s the same factory that’s been making Sackville bags for Rivendell for quite some time. Long story short, the two ended up buying the facility and all the machinery in May of 2022. Nutmeg Needleworks was born. There are eight employees running things, including Ron and Arya.
The current iteration—now formally named the Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest—is fully constructed at the Nutmeg Needleworks facility. Better yet, nearly all of the materials used to make all their bags are sourced from and made by nearby companies in New England and elsewhere in the US. The sailing industry is big in the Nutmeg State, and X-Ply laminated fabrics were originally developed as sail cloth. Both Challenge and Dimension Polyant are based and manufactured there, and the X50 used in one variation of this bag is made about 45 minutes away from Nutmeg Needleworks. The waxed Cordura material used on the bag I reviewed comes from a mill in Missouri, and the nylon buckles are even made in the US.
The strangest component used in the Fab’s Chest is the strut that’s sewn into the back of the bag to ensure stability and durability where it’s strapped to the handlebars. This flexible white enamel coated support is indeed a German made corset bone, a holdover from 16th century fashion (look it up!). “In sourcing the highest quality materials for these bags, sometimes you have to borrow from other industries,” Ron explains. “Corsets used to be made from whale baleen harvested from Connecticut whalers in the 1800s, but that ship has since sailed.”
Fab’s Chest V5.X
Technically, this is the fifth generation of the Fab’s Chest. However, Ron always thinks of it as a work in progress, “…and now that we own the shop that makes them, we are able to be that much more involved,” he says. He also considers this one to be a separate iteration since the fabric is new as of last year. Previously, the only option for folks looking to go full classique was full waxed cotton duck cloth. But, according to Ron, the waxed Cordura is far more abrasion resistant in addition to being rot- and mildew-proof. “The downside is it’s not offered in anything but drab colors, and not the bright vibrant waxed varieties that have been popular for us. Fabrics are really fun for us to play around with, and many of our customers own multiple sets in different colors. Gotta match the bike and mood!” Ron adds.
I tested the Small Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest in Field Tan Waxed Cordura, which is probably the most widely recognized version of this bag. In summary, it features a two-layer construction with a waxed Cordura outer and a thinner yellow Cordura inner liner. There’s a large sheet of HDPE plastic sandwiched between the two layers that makes up the entire U-shaped body of the bag. There’s one large main compartment inside with a single organizer sleeve sewn into the back interior of the bag.
Strap System and Attaching the Bag
Unlike many other top-opener bags—including the BXB Goldback and the Carradice Camper—the Fabio’s Chest doesn’t have straps slots that penetrate the bag and wrap around an internal dowel rod or strut. Instead, the three-layer attachment system is all contained outside the bag. I was a little skeptical at first, but it’s proven to be a sturdy and durable system with the included 1.5” velcro/webbing straps.
The horizontal mounting area consists of a 1.5” webbing strap stitched directly to the bag, sandwiching the corset bone stabilizer. The third layer is a smaller 1” strip of nylon webbing that’s bartacked to the larger webbing. This doesn’t do much for handlebar mounting, but it offers two smaller slots that are about 3” (7.5cm) apart for use with Voile Nano straps to attach to saddle loops. A dowel or a found stick is recommended to secure with the larger velcro handlebar straps
The handlebar strap slots are positioned about 5.25” (13.3cm) apart, which seems to be a versatile placement for strapping the bag directly to drop bars or flat bars. The system generally keeps the bag anchored, and there’s an additional four-position daisy chain at the bottom of the bag to secure it to a rack or the head tube. I believe it came with a little shock cord, but I ditched that in favor of a Voilé Nano strap when using it without a stabilizer rack. Two additional daisy chains allow the use of a Pec Dec or Rod Steward bag stabilizer, which I’ll get to later.
The Fabio’s Chest’s closure system is a little more complicated. It’s also different than other bags in this category, like the BXB Goldback and Swift Zeitgeist. Both of those have a drawstring cinch closure under the flap made from thinner material, whereas the Fab’s Chest has a roll-top using the same fabric as the bag body. As you can see in the photo above, it has a long roll-top—perhaps a little too long, in my opinion—but folks who like to pack a lot of extra stuff might appreciate the 10” (25cm) of fabric above the top of the U-shape. I found it to be a hair too chunky when rolled with five or six folds, as I rarely packed it too tall. The X50 version would likely have the advantage here as X-Pac is a much thinner fabric and would have less mass when folded over. I also wouldn’t mind seeing a longer webbing strap for the roll-top closure buckles as they sometimes get folded up into the fabric. A little sliver of HDPE stitched in at the roll closure would also be a welcome addition as it might also make it easier to roll up.
Once it’s rolled up and buckled, there’s another lateral compression strap that essentially draws the top-front of the bag toward the handlebars and cinches the extra fabric and load down. This strap starts at the front and connects to the female buckle fixed at the base of the long flap. This is a nice and necessary addition to help secure everything and keep the front of the bag from billowing out.
Once battened down with the flap, the roll-top keeps things solid and seems to keep water out. I got rained on a little on a couple occasions and nothing inside got wet. Like any stitched bag, that would probably change in the event of a super heavy or long downpour, so it’s still smart to stash things like sleeping bags and electronics in dry bags.
The flap itself is about 21” long (54cm) and folds over with snaps when not extended. It has a male connector for a Fidlock magnetic closure on the inside that connects to one of two female receivers on the outside front of the bag body. The top one is used when the bag is loaded (but not too full), and the lower one is only accessible when the bag is empty and not in use. It’s a nice system, however, and it helps secure the load and adds to the stability. It’s a little tricky to connect if the bag’s too full though, and sometimes hard to disconnect. Finally, there are two compression straps on either side of the flap. The split-back nylon buckles are moveable throughout the daisy chain for when you need to expand the bag for extra gear or groceries, too. It also comes with two extras for the “full” position. Ron’s Bikes states that the bag is a whopping 20” high with a fully extended roll-top.
Weight and First Impressions
Despite this being a size small, my first impression of the Fabio’s Chest was something along the lines of “damn, this is a lot of bag!” It’s not light or minimal by any stretch of the imagination, and it tipped the scale at two and a half pounds (1,152 grams). That being said, Ron tried to talk me into testing the X50 (X-Pac) version, which weighs some 150 grams lighter than the waxed Cordura model and is no doubt more in line with what many of our readers want. “There is roughly a 220-gram difference between the two in a large chest, and about 80 grams in our smallest bag, the Fab’s Abs,” Ron explains. However, I didn’t really care about the weight. I knew what I was getting into and was more interested in aesthetics and durability with this bag.
In the Field
I can’t imagine needing the large Fab’s Chest (or Fab’s Junk trunk, as I will now refer to it) because the small size is more than adequate. I fit my typical handlebar load in it with room to spare. My preference for handlebars is usually to pack bulky yet light items in that position—the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow, and usually a layer or two, like a puffy and rain jacket. All that squeezed in no problem, and I still had the two generously sized side pockets. It is worth noting that the main bag body is 10″ (25.2cm) wide which limits what can be included. For example, longer tent poles aren’t an option.
Speaking of pockets, I really like these. They’re large and perfect for things like snacks, sunscreen, a sunglasses case, a headlamp, and other such items that are nice to have handy. To me, they’re kind of a replacement for stem bags. Additionally, they have some nice details that I haven’t seen before, namely the strapkeeper webbing and velcro closure. The velcro essentially closes the pockets and keeps contents intact without having to close the buckles. That saved my ass a few times when I left them open after a snack break.
All in all, the Fabio’s Chest is quite stable. They did a good job at solving the wiggle problem by implementing the right strap spacing, internal supports, and width of the bag body. I used it in three configurations: with the Pec Dec, a simple three-bar “rack” system; atop a front rack; and with just a headtube strap, as mentioned. It’s plenty stable in any configuration, although it’s the most rock solid when used with the Pec Dec, Ron’s own creation that I’ll dig into in another review.
My only complaint in regard to performance is that the Fab’s Chest is very deep. I guess that’s not as much of a complaint as it is something to consider. It’s worked on all of my bikes, but if you have limited vertical clearance between your handlebar and front tire, a rack is necessary. Ron’s Bikes states that the height in “Basket Mode” is 8.5”. I’m not sure what that means, but according to my measurements, you need about 11.5” (29cm) of vertical space from the center of your bars at the stem to the top of the front tire when used without a rack; that’s when measured on the horizontal axis.
As you can see in most of these photos, the Pec Dec or a front rack helps this tremendously, but when used without a rack, it barely fit on my Tumbleweed Stargazer Ti, leaving just about 1.5-2” of wiggle room between the bottom of the bag and the tire. Considering the size of the Stargazer’s head tube, I think that would nix the Fab’s Chest as an option for many folks with smaller bikes and no rack mounts or anyone running a suspension fork—although that’s definitely not the target audience here. Perhaps a shallower Fab’s Bird Chest is in order?
I put approximately 1,000 very rough miles on this bag. Segment 2 of the Eastern Divide Trail was no joke, and it features many stretches with some of the most bumpy miles that the complete 6,000-mile route has to offer. As mentioned earlier on in the review, I was a little skeptical about the lack of an internal dowel with the strap system. Reason being, the strap area on a handlebar bag takes the most abuse and is often a point of failure. Other saddlebags like the old Carradice use an internal wooden dowel to alleviate stress on the stitching. The Fab’s Chest’s unique design hasn’t had any problems. And while the last couple of stitches next to the strap slots show a little stress (as you can see in a couple photos, like the one above “FAB’S CHEST V5.X”), they’re far from having any issues. I’d expect it to go another 1,000 rough miles or more without needing attention. And the great thing about a bag like this one is the fact that it can be repaired anywhere with a simple needle and thread.
- Model/Size Tested: Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest, Small
- Material: Field Tan Waxed Cordura
- Actual Weight: 1,152 grams (2.54 pounds)
- Place of Manufacture: Connecticut, USA
- Price: $275
- Manufacturer’s Details: RonsBikes.com
- Easy to install and remove solution that’s equally as easy on the eyes
- Corset bone and strap system is sturdy and has proven to be very durable
- Side pockets are perfectly spacious, and the auxiliary velcro closure is a nice touch for those of us who often forget to close the buckles
- Waxed Cordura is nice looking and seems to be durable and highly water-resistant
- Like other bags in this category, the roll-top closure, moveable buckles, and adjustable flap make it very versatile for an ever-changing cargo situation on tour, such as adding extra food and then eating it
- Heavier than most handlebar bags
- Perhaps a little too much fabric used for flap and roll closure; could also use a longer webbing area at closure and HDPE strip
- Deep design requires a lot of vertical space between handlebar and tire and is best with a Pec Dec or front rack
- An inch or two of additional webbing on all three compression straps would be nice for extra leverage
In summary, the Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest is easy to use and pretty stable, offers a very versatile and useful packing volume, and has proven to be durable and reliable over the thousand miles I’ve been testing it. So, what’s not to love, and who’s this bag for? Its two and a half pound weight is going to turn off some people, and the deep profile of the bag necessitating a rack or support will make it unrealistic for others. Of course, the more technical fabric on the X50 version will shave a little bit of weight off the bottom line. But, the reality is, the Fab’s Chest is the antithesis of what would be considered a technical bikepacking or bicycle touring bag. And that’s okay. Its classic aesthetics, usable design, and reliability will win a lot of folks over, as it did me during my time testing it.
Make sure to dig into these related articles for more info...
FILED IN (CATEGORIES & TAGS)
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.