The Ortlieb Story - CycleBlaze

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The Ortlieb Story

Mike Ayling
Crossing the Warburton Highway

Riding the Warburton Rail Trail the other day Mary and I met a couple met a couple riding small wheel folding  e-bikes. We were struck by the brand name which was the same as a well known brand of vacuum cleaners which I will not mention because the one we had was a real lemon but most people that we talk to are very happy with theirs. We now have a J Edgar.

Anyway when we got home Mary found the site of the local distributor to check them out and found that they are also distributors for Ortlieb and have this on their site.


South England spring 1981. A continuous rain falls onto the lushgreen hills. Quite usual for this area. And right in this downpourthere stands a young biker with fuzzy hair and a fully loadedbicycle. The weather seems to get on his nerves. Water is drippingdown his clothes, his bags, his curls and nose. The young adventurerhad saved up for this trip and was looking forward to hit the road.Here and now he is not very keen on again spending the coming nightin a soaking wet sleeping bag with damp clothing. The young guywatches a truck passing by. The South England rain drums down on thetruck tarp. The goods remain dry and clean.

One thing is for sure: this event took place before the idea ofthe first waterproof ORTLIEB pannier was born. And you can alsoassume that this situation stands in direct context with the firstORTLIEB pannier. The guy with fuzzy hair is called Hartmut ORTLIEB.He is about to channel his frustration and convert it intocreativity. He makes something up in his head which will rescue thenext hard-earned trip! Right after returning back home hestarts making a pack container out of red truck tarp on his mother’ssewing machine. He fixes the lid with a piece of webbing strap from asaddler. At the hardware store he gets hooks to fix the self-willedpack to the rack. And since biking keeps body and mind in motion, theactive teenager produces from now on new ideas every day, andimproves and refines his invention. Looking at the packhorseprinciple, he finally ends up with two packs. It was in the timeswhen the outdoor industry still consisted of a few freaks whodistributed the latest product innovations via photo copied flyers.Young Hartmut is just about to finish school and still bikes throughtown carrying his sewn rear panniers along.More and more friendsand acquaintances show their interest in these unconventional bagsthat stand out more with their function than their design. Quiteoften Hartmut is asked “Hey, can I get a pair of those, I couldsell them in my shop!” The first distribution strategies andpannier line are set up. The sewing machine is moved into a back yardgarage.


The rear pannier invention is followed by a handle bar bag. Soonthe demand is too high for a one man operation. More man power isrequired, so family members and friends are roped in. In 1982, thecompany ORTLIEB is founded.The first product brochure presents aclear product line: sewn rear and front panniers, and handle barbags. The “marketing plan” faces the first exhibition. With afolding table, ORTLIEB presents its first unique products in the darkcorner underneath the escalators. Verbal propaganda is the successfuladvertising strategy back then in the still small outdoor industry.The result is overwhelming. The unpleasant memories of adamp sleeping bag still take their toll, and the busy inventor cannotrest in peace. Sewn connections are somehow not tight enough. So hetries his first welding connections in order to solve the problem.The magical word is “high frequency”. In contrast to hot weldingseams, the high frequency rays guarantee higher strength and preservethe material at the same time. The trials on an old disused machinewhich had been used for manufacturing spectacle cases develop intoseries production.

From now on, ORTLIEB panniers are 100% WATERPROOF! Withoutimpregnation or tapped seams. The first milestone is set. And thenext one follows immediately: the roll closure. It is a simple buteffective principle for a dry bag. The result is not only awaterproof product, but one which will even float. The hardware storehooks on the bike panniers, though stable, no longer stand up to theexpectations of the manufacturer and customer circle. So theself-taught inventor puzzles over the first self-locking mountingsystem “Quick-Lock1”. In the meantime, the company has grown andemploys 20 people, including mother ORTLIEB who manages asreceptionist and secretary.



This days we cannot imagine ORTLIEB without being a synonym forwaterproof bicycle panniers. The legendary “Back-Rollers” made adecisive contribution to this reputation. Hundreds of thousands ofBack-Rollers are travelling as faithful companions around the globe.Numerous supporters and all weather bikers carry the message of thereliable brand ORTLIEB around the world. The bicycle messengers makea remarkable contribution as well and are, together with theirstriking messenger bags, part of every metropolis. They are theevidence “on wheels” that durability is a promise byORTLIEB. The founders of the bike and outdoor business werevisionaries. What was defined as non-conformism back then is todayconsidered as quite ordinary. The bicycle is a universal means oftransport, a sport gear on the road and off-road. Just like thehiking backpack and the multi-functional jacket, ORTLIEB panniers ona bike rack disclose the fine choice of equipment and outdooraffinity of their wearer.



Independent opinion makers and the international specialty mediasupported the development of the brand ORTLIEB from the verybeginnings with enthusiasm. Every month, on average, an ORTLIEBproduct is awarded with a “Best Buy” or “Recommendation”.This is definitely a permanent incentive for the 220 employees tocommit themselves for maintaining the high quality and innovativepower of ORTLIEB.The truck tarps of the first years were replacedby new materials which are custom designed according to ORTLIEB’sspecifications. These are followed by new technologies which havebeen used for several years. As always, all products in the highfrequency welding process are exclusively manufactured at the companyhead quarters in Heilsbronn: “Made in Germany”, it’s a matterof honour. This is also reflected by constantly rising numbers ofemployees, a fact for which Hartmut ORTLIEB was awarded with the“Jobstar” in 2005 by institutions of the region Nuremberg.Formore than 30 years, ORTLIEB has been providing momentum in the bikeand outdoor market and has set standards in the field of highfunctional equipment.The target has always remained the same:individuals who actively spend their leisure time in nature shouldfeel independent from all facts they cannot influence, in otherwords: from the weather.


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4 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Mike Ayling

We feel that Ortlieb was absolutely the most important thing that made long distance touring possible for us. We now there are other brands around now, like Arkel, but it's irrelevant because our original Ortlieb stuff is still in perfect shape after 9 years.

In 2014 we detoured to Heilsbronn, Ortlieb headquarters. The whole story and the photos can be found here, but this is an excerpt:

Although the Ortlieb factory outside of town is a big thing to us, it seems like Heilsbronn's main claim to fame is a major monastery complex in the centre of town. 

We had no idea what we would find at the Ortlieb factory - whether a retail outlet, a showroom, or perhaps a factory with nothing there for us. We walked in and introduced ourselves as cyclists from Canada to the receptionist. She made a phone call, and we were quickly introduced to Andrea, a lovely person from the export department. Andrea greeted us very warmly, and brought us through to a show room. From the start we were made to feel not like an intrusion but like a welcome arrival. Ralf from marketing came out and took a photo of us with the bikes, and we were given a gift of two Ortlieb branded Buffs - which is a stretchy knit tube that can be worn on your head in various ways.

After three years of using our Ortlieb bags, we had developed some ideas on how they could be improved, and were tickled with the idea of being able to explain these to someone at the factory. Andrea listened to each of our things with great care, and we had a good discussion about them. We were also impressed with the forthright replies to questions about whether the bags could or would delaminate in hot moist climates, under what conditions the map case might yellow in the sun, and why Ortlieb had changed the mount for handlebar bags to a less convenient design.

The show room we were in was filled with the now mind boggling variety of Ortlieb bags and packs, many of which we had never seen before. Among these were ones in an all yellow refective material (great idea), and bags made from polyurethane (PU) rather than PVC. Andrea went into some detail about the reasons (or not) that one would want to use PU. Again, we were much impressed by the forthright and clear explanations.

The conversation turned to the boss and founder of the company - Hartmut Ortlieb, who in 1982 got fed up with having his gear soaked and produced the first bags from waterproof material. There is a framed advertising poster from a Nurnberg shop where Harmut marketed his first bags. The Hartmut photo in the poster shows him as a typically hairy youngster.

Another poster on a wall shows the older Hartmut. I am not sure what the thrust of the poster was exactly.

Andrea could not give us a factory tour, saying that the processes are closely guarded. However we did notice from the window of a conference room we were in some real work going on. It was explained to us that in the area we were looking in to, Ortlieb custom produces machine tools for functions that can not be done by standard commercially available machines.

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4 months ago
Mike AylingTo Steve Miller/Grampies

Steve I started with a set of Australian made panniers that had an excellent fixing system but as the became older became much less waterproof. Then the bloke that I rode Adelaide to Melbourne with had Ortliebs and explained  all the advantages to me.

Great P R by Ortlieb at your visit resulting in you giving them a great rap in your journal.

I read a journal recently on Cycle Blaze by a couple riding Tout Terrain bikes who were experiencing a mechanical problem with one of the bikes due to incorrect assembly by the selling dealer in America and finally visited the Tout Terrain factory where the bike was speedily repaired and they were made most welcome.

The Rohloff story is similar to Ortlieb, Mr Rohloff found that riding his mountain bike on the beach wrecked his derailleur drive train and consequently developed his 14 speed IGH which is well regarded by many cycle tourists.

Anyway I look forward to your next journal  once  they find an antidote to this virus and things can get back to something like normal.


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4 months ago