Have Bike, Will Travel
By Steve Thomas
Bikes and travel; there can be few better combinations in life. For many of us, a bike in itself is a wonderful machine that offers us limitless self-propelled liberty and adventure. The freedom of the open road, there’s nothing else quite like it; still, I’m sure we all have those dream trips and adventures stashed away somewhere in the back of our mind. Be they riding across the wilds of the Himalayas, pedaling through the vineyards of the Loire Valley or a week of conquering cols in the Dolomites, they’re all out there and waiting for us to ride.
There’s truly no time like the present to get out and start ticking those dream rides off; after all, none of us know what tomorrow will bring, or even if it will ever come. Thus, the time to pack your bike and travel is not somewhere just out of reach; it should be right now.
JUST PLAIN LUCKY
Luckily, or more precisely by life-choice, I’ve had the good fortune to spend a huge chunk of my adulthood traveling the world with my bike, and even though that’s one heck of a long time, I still have not even scratched the surface of the many great rides scattered all around this planet of ours.
Over these many decades I’ve learned a thing or two about the indefinable art of traveling with a bike—mostly by misadventure, which is the best way for lessons to resonate. It’s all too easy to make simple and understandable travel mistakes, and I still do much of the time.
Unfortunately, these mistakes can lead to all sorts of stresses and added expense, leaving your trip in tatters or, even worse, in a far-flung emergency room, which from multiple experiences I can tell you is not much fun, not even with the benefit of hindsight.
There’s little carved in stone, as things evolve and change at a rapid pace, but here’s a prime selection of my experience-based learnings, tips and tricks to help you make the most out of those great travels, and to help you make them great adventures and not misadventures.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
This may sound a little obvious, but it still amazes me just how little research and planning people do before heading off on a two-wheeled trip.
Before you make any firm plans, it’s essential that you research the destination—and I don’t just mean perusing through the likes of TripAdvisor. There are plenty of credible stories and details out there that will give you an insight of which season is good to ride. Look at weather apps, and even tour company itineraries and date schedules. Although these are often commercially led and not always accurate, they do give a pointer on timing and routes.
Avoid local school holiday periods, certain festivals (like Songkran in Thailand) and typhoon seasons. In many areas of Asia, also check out when the annual burning season is, as it can be intolerable, but is often masked over by tourist boards and companies not wishing to lose business.
Major sporting and cultural events also mean over-booked flights along with premium rates for everything so also try and work around these if possible.
WHEELS OF CHOICE
Selecting the right bike for a trip is essential. If you’re heading for silky-smooth roads or a Gran Fondo road event, then a regular road bike should be fine, but if you’re not sure of the terrain or figure the roads could be rough, then it’s well worth trading those tiny speed gains for a gravel or touring bike, which, in my opinion, is the ideal choice for 80 percent of road- and dry-dirt based riding adventures. You can always take an extra pair of skinny tires if you do decide to go for a foreign Strava segment.
“It also pays to set up your bike with lower gearing beforehand. There’s no shame in it, and when it comes to unforeseen climbs, everyone who didn’t will think of you as brilliant for thinking ahead.”
Always keep things relatively simple and fixable, too. You can most likely get your fancy carbon wheels sorted in Tuscany, but try that on the Karakorum Highway and it’s a different story. The best bet is to use wheels that have traditional J-bend spokes, which can be found around the globe.
A really wise alternative is to research quality rental bikes. Years ago you would’ve struggled finding good equipment, but these days there are many options. On a short trip it can save a whole lot of stress, time and money.
SPARES AND ESSENTIALS
No matter where you’re going, you really should aim to be self-sufficient with what you carry and have basic tools to fix most mechanical situations on the spot. The more remote you’ll be, the more this comes into play.
Unless you know that you’ll be skimming on silky smooth roads, take heavier and wider tires than normal. If you might be riding off-road, then adding sealant to your tubes really is a must.
It also pays to set up your bike with lower gearing beforehand. There’s no shame in it, and when it comes to unforeseen climbs, everyone who didn’t will think of you as brilliant for thinking ahead. In many regions, between the climbs, the heat and any extra gear carried on the bike, all can conspire to have you begging for those extra few teeth at the back.
I always have a decent multi-tool (with a chain tool), a regular wrench for pedals, spare tubes, glueless patches, strong tire levers, a chain link, extra shoe cleats, brake pads, a rear derailleur hanger, and a small plastic container with spare bolts and some grease, a small container of oil, tape, zip-ties, toe straps, and an old cloth.
If I will be in one location only, I also take a cheap plastic floor pump with a Schrader/Presta adapter. This is very useful, especially if you are running tubeless, a small set of LED lights and a GPS. I use a medium-sized seat pouch and a small top tube bag for my phone and other essentials.
THE PACKING CHOICES
Unless you’re flying business class or are heading to an event or location with their own transport and storage facilities, I say forget using a hard case for your bike. Sure, they offer the best protection, but they are big and cumbersome; try hailing a taxi or fumbling to stash one in a small hotel room! Not to mention, they weigh in at around 10 kilograms, which is around half of your baggage allowance gone.
“The good news is that for some (thankful) reason, just last year many of the major air carriers began waiving the fee for bikes. Hallelujah!”
For years I used to simply loosen the stem and turn the handlebars, remove pedals and put a little bubble wrap on the frame and have the bike rolled onto the plane. This meant the bike gets wheeled, not thrown, onto the plane and is almost ready to ride from the get-go. Sadly, most airlines do not allow this anymore.
These days I opt for a simple padded bag. They are lightweight, can be maneuvered into taxis, taken on trains and buses, and be broken down and stashed away easily. Depending on the airline baggage policy, I also put other backpacks, shoes and bulky items in the bag.
All too often the obvious choice is overlooked—the humble cardboard bike box. You can get these for free (or for a small fee) at most bike shops (many airlines also sell them), and then fold or ditch them at the other end. They weigh almost nothing and offer reasonable protection. The only downside is that they too are bulky if you need to get them into a taxi, but if you’ve already flown, then you can always ditch the box at the airport.
People go to all sorts of extremes with bike packing. This is just asking for trouble at the other end when you cannot put the puzzle back together quite right.
My personal strip-down is as follows: Pedals off and into my hand luggage, discs off and into my checked bag (be sure they cannot get bent), put a small piece of cardboard between the (disc) brake pads, take the rear derailleur off, wrap these in a rag and strapped with the chain inside the rear stays. Next, take your handlebars off, turn the stem and forks inwards/sideways, and then strap the bars to the top tube. Only slightly deflate the tires and remove the quick-release skewers if the wheels come off.
If it’s a soft case I try to put the bike in upside down (to avoid the chainring being on the ground). If it’s a box, I add an extra layer of cardboard beneath the chainring, and then add shoes and other items until the weight meets the max allowance.
THE BAGGAGE SYSTEM
Navigating and deciphering airline baggage policies is tricky to say the least. Policies can change at the drop of a hat, and they also often differ on routings and even with connecting code-share flights (depending on how the agents booked the through flight).
The good news is that for some (thankful) reason, just last year many of the major air carriers (United, Delta and American) began waiving the fee for bikes. Hallelujah! For domestic flights, you could always look into the viability of either shipping your bike in advance with a courier or using a service such as BikeFlights.com.
Never book to fly with your bike until you’ve checked and figured out the small print on bike carriage. When you have booked, try to stay within any weight limits and be sure to have a copy of the airline policy or e-mail confirmation when you get to check in.
Check-in and duty clerks often do not know the policies, and also vary greatly in their approaches to excess fees and allowances. If you see fees being handed down and are over the limit, then hurriedly try and stash a few heavier (not sharp) items)in your pockets or hand luggage (have extra pockets and a fanny pack, too), and always make your baggage look light (i.e., don’t struggle with it).
If all else fails, be polite, try and sweet talk around things, and wave around any relevant frequent-flier cards. If you have somebody else with you, then take things out and hand them to them before checking in. You can often re-stash them in your carry-on or in the bike bag (you often have to take it to a separate desk, which is out of sight).
The final straw is to ditch your non-essentials at check in. I have been hit with fees exceeding the flight cost and have had to do this many times. Often the clerk will relent and want to keep the line moving. If not, then destroy or damage anything you leave behind, and negotiate a settlement on the fee and compromise.
Usually a packed bike, along with spares and tooling, will weigh in at around 18 kilograms, and (if you’re like me) your carry-on will already be maxed out with cameras, laptops and gadgets. Because of this, you really do need to keep things minimal and multi-purpose.
Unless it’s a go-fast event, I’ll pack clipless mountain bike pedals and shoes, as they are much more versatile and can be used for walking off the bike. When it comes to clothing, I have one rule: forget packing your entire wardrobe—get into the habit of bringing less and washing and drying your riding gear at every
I usually include a lightweight pair of trail shoes and a throw-away pair of flip flops, fairly plain and multi-purpose warm-weather bike gear, arm and leg warmers, a lightweight fleece and waterproof protection for both on and off the bike, baggies, lightweight trousers and tees, which I can also wear on the bike.
The bottom line? Just go! Bicycles are meant to be ridden and the more unfamiliar the route, the more memorable the experience. It doesn’t have to be distant, foreign or exotic, it just has to be new. And if the choice comes down between taking a trip to the roads you’ve dreamt of riding versus a new pair of carbon hoops, take the trip!
It’s Time To Get Your Travel On
Four bike bags
A favorite with ProTour teams, Scicon has made a name for themselves with an extensive line of both soft- and hard-case bike bags. The well-padded AeroComfort 3.0 soft bag allows the bike to stay built.
MAKE IT HAPPEN: A HANDFUL OF TOURS
Thomsom Bike Tours:
Western Spirit Cycling:
Trek Travel: www.trektravel.com
Bici Italia Tours: www.biciitalia.com
Thule offers both hard- and soft-case bike bags. The ABS plastic hard-shell RoundTrip Transition includes an integrated bike assembly stand plus nylon wheel bags.
In addition to their vast line of wheels and hard parts, Pro Components is also in the
travel bag business and offer the Pro Bike
The new Road Bike Bag Pro from Evoc Sports is full of travel-friendly accoutrements that let you keep the handlebars on for added convenience.