Saturday, January 31, 2009

Flying with a bike.

Every now and then I like to post something useful on this blog, even if it's by accident. Today's lesson is how to pack a bicycle for air travel. There's probably more than one way of doing it - this is mine. Use it as a guide. You may well be able to improve on it.

Flying with a bike is a nerve-wracking experience - it's really easy for something to go wrong. I travel from Hobart to Melbourne with a bike about half a dozen times a year and unless I take the utmost care something always seems to get damaged. Usually it's the paintwork but I've also had brake levers damaged and derailleurs bent. Here's how to avoid the worst our nations' baggage handlers can dish out. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Allow about 30 minutes at each end for packing and unpacking. You'll need a cardboard bike box. I've tried soft-sided bike bags, but I don't recommend them. Hard cases are available but they're expensive and easily damaged themselves. Boxes have given me the least trouble. You can buy a box from one from the airlines for about $20 or you can get one for free from your friendly local bike shop. The advantage of getting one from a bike shop (apart from the price) is they usually also have a few little bits which can come in handy: like plastic dropout fittings to protect your forks from being crushed together and inserts to stop the wheel axles from poking through the box. (You can just see one of these at the bottom of the the photo to the left. It's round and black.)

Once you've procured a box and removed any protruding staples, you'll also need some packing tape and small knife, a smaller box so oddments don't get lost or float around causing havoc, a pedal spanner, some allen keys and about three metres of foam pipe insulation: it's black foam tubing which you can buy in hardware stores. About $20 worth will last you a few trips.

Ready to go? Take some of the tape and mark your saddle height so you're not messing around trying to get it right out later. Remove the seat post and saddle. You might need to tighten the seat post clamp a bit to make sure it's doesn't come loose and be lost in transit. Remove the wheels. Take the quick release skewers from the wheels and put them in the small box. Remove the pedals and put them in the small box. (Putting them inside a plastic bag will help stop getting grease on everything else.)

Once this is done, it's time to add some protection. I simply cut some pieces of the pipe insulation to length and slide them onto the forks, brake levers and crank arms. Cut a piece to fit the right seat stay and tape it in place. You can tape the chain to this piece to stop it flapping around as in the picture to the left. Cut lengthwise slits in the remaining insulation and tape it in place so it protects the main tubes. I also tape a piece under the chainset to protect it and the box from damage.

Once this is done, remove the stem cap and stem fixing bolts and lift the handlebars clear of the steerer tube. (You may need to secure the steerer - I use an old stem part to keep it all nice. Tape will work in a pinch.) Rotate the handlebar assembly so it's parallel to the forks with the brake levers facing forwards. A couple of big rubber bands can be useful to hold the handlebars in place. Replace the stem top cap and bolt so they don't get lost. Pop the lot into the box.

Find the back wheel and carefully wrap the cassette in a rag, taping it in place if need be. (I usually let a little air out of the tyres so they're less likely to blow out in transit.) Pop an axle protector on the non cassette side and put the wheel in the box so the cassette side is facing inward. Repeat the process for the front wheel (though no cassette obviously).

Made sure the small box contains the following: your allen keys, the pedal spanner, a left and a right pedal. The small box will usually fit neatly on top of the seat stays and seat post and saddle sit on top of that. Now is the time to check - very carefully - that nothing metal is rubbing on anything else metal and that nothing is likely to shift too far in transit. Use spare insulation an old rag or expendable clothing to protect the bits from each other. Keep in mind the box will very likely be dropped or laid flat and have luggage placed on top of it and may well be upside down at some stage.

Some airlines which carry bikes are pretty relaxed about the weight. Virgin Blue, who I use and recommend - count sporting equipment as 5kg of your 23kg checked baggage allowance regardless of its actual weight. Handy! This means it makes some sense to pack other items in your bike box too: shoes, water bottles, empty panniers, filthy clothing and so on spring to mind, but don't take the piss and remember you will have to lift or carry this box yourself at some stage. 15kg is good, 20kg will stretch your arms. I don't recommend putting your helmet in with the bike, it's very likely to get damaged.

When you're happy with your effort, tape the big box shut. Write your name and address on the sides, whack on some fragile stickers for a laugh and you're nearly ready to go. Advanced students tape a piece of string to the box with their knife attached and drop it inside through one of the carrying holes so they've got a easy way of reopening the box at the other end. Put the unused packing tape in your carry on luggage for the return voyage and you're away.

Some final tips. Get to the airport in plenty of time because you're going to have to check in and then take the bike to the oversized baggage department which is usually some distance away from the check-in counters. Keep the weight down, particularly if you're too stubborn or cheap to hire a luggage cart at each end like me. And if you're hiring as car, making sure it's a hatchback makes it much easier to transport the bike at the other end. Good luck!

(Update) Someone pointed out to me that many bike boxes are large enough to put the bike in with the back wheel in place. That's is the case and may be a better way to pack for some people. I still prefer both wheels off, which allows more space at the front of the box to protect the delicate and expensive shifters. As always your mileage may vary)

517km so far this year.

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