Catching up with Bags by Bird in Tucson, Arizona
Following his recent relocation to Tucson, Arizona, we stopped by the new Bags by Bird workshop to check in with owner/operator Jay Ritchey, check out the space, and learn more about his small handmade bag brand. Find our interview, a photo tour of the shop, and a closer look at two of Jay’s interesting bikes here…
Bags by Bird, also known as BXB for short, is a handmade bikepacking bag company owned and operated by Jay Ritchey, an award-winning filmmaker turned bagmaker. Formerly based out of Atlanta, Georgia, Jay uprooted his basement-run business and relocated to Tucson, Arizona, with his wife Erin and dog Juneau. BXB’s new space is located just south of the Catalina Foothills in the Metal Arts Village—a unique collection of 12 individual studios mostly occupied by artists, makers, and small businesses. This area isn’t busy with foot traffic and is more of a destination, but there are some cool things happening nearby, including a beer garden and bottle shop and the recently relocated Hello Bicycle bike shop just down the street.
BXB was born shortly after Jay’s effort to design and produce nearly two dozen backpacks for his family at Christmas. This evolved into Jay making bags to carry videography equipment by bike, as there was nothing available at the time that provided the capacity, stability, and security he was looking for. One of his early handlebar bags carried his camera equipment for more than two months in Peru while filming El Silencio: Cycling the Peru Divide, and Jay wanted to keep on making them after he returned.
Jay’s current line of saddlebag/handlebar bags shares many similarities with those early designs, including a large flap closure, the ability to overstuff when needed, and a utilitarian design that’s equal parts functional and aesthetically pleasing. Most of us here at BIKEPACKING.com have all had the opportunity to test out his bags, and we’ve all reported similar findings. The quality and attention to detail are top-notch, the dowel stabilizers do a fantastic job at keeping the bag stable, and the various straps and internal stiffener create a sturdy and bounce-free vessel for carrying just about anything.
I first met Jay at the 2019 Bikepacking Summit in Ellijay, Georgia. At that point, I admittedly didn’t know much about BXB, though I was already a big fan of his excellent films. Three years later, it’s safe to say that Bags by Bird has developed a solid following and reputation, and the small batches of bags he releases almost always sell out quickly. There are currently two saddlebag/handlebar bags in the lineup: the larger capacity Goldback and more svelte Piccolo. Both are offered in two size options, can be set up with or without a rack or support, and are available in a wide range of colours and fabrics. BXB also makes a wedge-style frame bag, the Better Half Framebag, which features two expandable pockets with flip-top lids secured by either a metal clip and cord or a magnetic Fidlock buckle.
What makes BXB’s bags unique is the functional combination of modern features with classic time-tested designs. Even Jay was quick to admit that some components of his bags have been around for 100 years or more, and it’s becoming increasingly challenging for one-person bag makers like Jay to set themselves apart from others. Maybe it’s his attention to detail, honed during his time as a filmmaker, or his creative side as a life-long photographer, but it’s clear that Jay has carved out something special. His appreciation for classic methods goes far beyond his bags, too, and include vintage foot-operated grommet machines and a pneumatic press that uses dies for cutting Hypalon panels.
To learn some more about Bags by Bird and how things are going amid a global pandemic, I sent a handful of questions over to Jay following my visit. Find my short interview with him below.
Tell us about your recent move from Georgia to Arizona. What prompted the relocation?
We were out in Atlanta because of my wife’s job at the CDC, which has been good for us and her career. Due to COVID’s effect on jobs moving remotely, she was able to get a telework position, and that opened up the option to move. I really like Atlanta and the South for many reasons, but being from California, and more recently Tucson, the pull to be back out west surrounded by mountain ranges and wide horizons was real. So, it’s great being back in Tucson with amazing riding, hiking, and isolation easily accessible.
Any significant changes in the shop setup from what you had in Georgia?
Yes, I’m taking a step up! Both in that I’m above ground and out of my basement shop and that the new space is bigger and has great natural light. It’s about 500 square feet and I have all my machines on casters so I can roll them out and use them when needed, which helps keep the space opened up and that light bouncing around. beautifully.
Your bags have a classic aesthetic but integrate features that are clearly added for performance. What are the influences behind your designs?
I want to make my bags as tough as can be, easy to use, and with a clean, functional aesthetic. This is one reason why I don’t use zippers in my designs is. I’ve seen so many of them fail on big bike tours, so I wanted to save customers from that experience and avoid repairs coming back to find me. So, when I went to design a frame bag, I explored flap openings (which is nothing new to cycling frame bags) for about six months and honed in the design to allow for easy one-handed opening that allowed for overstuffing without concern for zipper failure.
I’m kind of obsessive about my bag designs and stitchwork. I’m constantly thinking about the functionality, aesthetics, user experience, weather resistance, potential weak points, and how to be a more efficient fabricator because I have my hands on these bags every day. It’s only human to reflect and consider new improvements over time. Being a one-person operation gives me the flexibility to make those changes easily, and it also gives my customers the best bag I can fabricate.
How important is “handmade in the US” to you? Is it becoming more difficult to achieve this, considering current geopolitical issues affecting prices, availability, etc.?
I’m making every effort to source as much of the fabric, buckles, and other components from the country where I live. Fortunately, it hasn’t been too challenging, though during COVID there are longer delays, and in some cases, the shipping has tripled in cost! For me, “made in USA” is not about nationalism but more so a reaction to globalization. I’m trying to keep money and business as local as possible because that means a better life for my neighbors here. BXB is going to stay small and do a few bags really well, so I’m not interested in dominating the bike bag market by offering every style bag while chasing cheaper production internationally.
Tell us about some of your latest bag designs.
I’ve been working on a new version of the Better Half that has a redesigned flap and attachment points, and I’m really excited about it. It’s coming in four sizes too: there will be a short and long version (day ride capacity and camping capacity) for small and large sizes.
You lived in Tucson for a while before moving to Georgia. Has it changed?
Tucson has changed for the better, I think. The cycling dial has turned up in Southern Arizona with lots of new mountain bike trails and the little town of Patagonia south of here blowing up the gravel scene. It’s great to come back and have even more stoke in the community than before.
Can we expect any new products this year?
I’m hoping to finally release the “right height” bag for folks needing a made-to-height bag.
You were a respected filmmaker prior to getting in the bikepacking bag business. Do you miss making films, and is there something more fulfilling about making bags by hand?
Yes, before starting bags full time I made some cycling films that were self produced and I also had a great opportunity to help Rue film Lael Wilcox’s 2019 Tour Divide attempt. Making small films is a lot of fun and certainly satisfies the creative itch, but there is so much work that goes into them and so much equipment needed that I would pretty much break even on these projects that I would have to work on a set lighting team in the Atlanta film industry or help create content for small tech startups to make enough money. Working long days for good ol’ boys in the film industry or stressed out startup entrepreneurs wasn’t ideal, I was stressed and all my time was gone, so I thought sewing could be a good way to live a boss-free life. I’m super happy sewing has turned into a full time gig even if that means saying no to a lot of video projects, I still keep some photography and video work happen on the side but it’s more for personal enjoyment.
Jay’s Crust Lightning Bolt
Jay described his Crust Lightning Bolt as “the best fixed gear bike” he’s ever ridden. “From road to gravel to flowy singletrack, it rolls!” he said. Jay led us on a ride on the Honeybee Trails just north of the city and proved its ability to tackle twisty trails with style. It’s currently kitted out with a prototype Better Half Framebag, a no-nonsense build kit, and a dynamo-powered front light. I avoided shifting for some of the ride in solidarity with his single gear, and it’s made me eager to try out a true single-speed setup soon.
Jay’s Custom Hoefer “Chilleur”
Jay’s custom Hoefer “Chilleur” was built by Georgia-based frame builder Donald Hoefer. After too many rough rides on drop-bar bikes and developing carpal tunnel issues in his hands, Jay began converting all of his bikes over to flat bars with Ergon grips. His beloved Kona Sutra LTD didn’t have adequate reach/top tube length, and with no suitable replacement at the time, he opted for a complete custom build. It’s a massive 64cm frame with a 64cm top tube, providing lots of room for Jay’s curiously long legs and wingspan and comfortable flat bars.
As featured here on the site as a Reader’s Rig, it was originally built up with 29 x 2.35″ slicks for cruising around Atlanta, but has since been converted over to some cushy 29 x 2.6″ Teravail Honchos for rambling the trails surrounding Tucson. The Sutra LTD fork has also been swapped over for one from Black Mountain Cycles in California, and Jay is currently playing around with handlebar options to dial in the comfort factor. Big tires, steel frame, comfortable geometry… ATB, anyone?
I really appreciate how Jay runs BXB. He’s not pushing any secret agenda, works hard, and directs his time and energy into making high-quality, functional luggage based on years of experience riding and producing fantastic films. Jay is modest, and as his wife Erin confirmed, you won’t catch him bragging about new designs or products. He is invested in his craft, incredibly detail-oriented, and easily excited by French seams, new tech, and time-tested classics. Although BXB is a one-person show, he’s quick to admit that there have been mentors along the way that play a big role in the BXB we know today.
Make sure to check out some of our latest BXB reviews and a couple of his films linked below, and head over to BagsxBird.com or @bagsxbird on Instagram to see more.
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