Sorry if you got the wrong idea and thought this was another article about getting faster on your bike. It’s not. I’ll get right to the point – flying to a race with a bike is a pain in the ***! Packing it safely, dragging the bag or box around, and paying the exorbitant excess baggage fee is frustrating, but it’s part of our sport. Let’s make the experience as low-stress as possible by taking a few precautions.
There are two ways to get your bike to the race site: ship it days before, or bring it with you on the plane. Shipping your bike means packaging it and sending it via a carrier that will take large items. You can send it to a bike shop or any other physical destination that can take daytime deliveries. If timed properly your bike will be there waiting for you, perhaps assembled and ready to ride of you sent it to a bike shop. The downside is the planning involved and time without your precious training buddy.
Most athletes do take their bike on the plane with them though…
Taking it with you on the plane has its benefits and drawbacks. You’re always with your bike (unless the airline loses it); you can ride it the day you pack it and as soon as you reassemble it at the race site. On the other hand, you’ll need to find a vehicle big enough to transport the bag or box to and from the airports (perhaps a companion’s bike as well), and it’s going to cost you plenty in excess baggage charges unless it’s an international flight (note: this policy is changing on many airlines).
Like it or not, there’s an excess baggage charge on bikes for domestic flights, hopefully none for international flights if you have only 2 pieces of checked baggage. The fee has steadily risen from $12 since I began flying with a bike 28 years ago, to $50-$75 now. To me the high fee says that the airlines would really prefer not to take checked bikes, and this attitude often comes across through ticket agents and baggage carriers.
If you believe baggage handlers really don’t want to deal with your bike, you’ll understand why you’d better pack it carefully. I’ve seen bikes dropped from significant heights, luggage weighing hundreds of pounds loaded on top, and generally handled with contempt. This doesn’t mean that it’s always the case, but it happens.
The container you use, and the care you take in packing your bike can make all the difference. There are padded nylon bags with supportive metal frames inside, hard ‘sandwich style’ cases with foam layers inside, and hard cases with a metal framework inside to secure your bike’s frame. All the different types of bike cases work well, but none is a guarantee that your bike will be impervious to damage. If you don’t want to spring for the $250 to $350+ price to buy your own bike case, look for a bike shop that rents them for a fraction of the cost.
If you’re doing the packing job yourself you’ll need some basic tools and minor disassembly/assembly skills. You’ll need to remove wheels, handlebars, seat, and pedals, then reassemble it at your destination. Teaching you how to do this is a job for a bike shop or a mechanically skilled friend, but I can give you a few packing tips.
Your goals are to crush-proof the bike and avoid metal against metal contact. If your bike case doesn’t have a supportive framework, you should put spacers where the wheels’ axles would normally be in the frame’s fork and rear triangle. This does much to strengthen the frame, thus avoiding damage from outside forces like weight or dropping the box/bag. When you remove the handlebar with brake and shift cables still attached, it will have to rest next to, or beside the frame. This is fine as-long-as it’s secured with substantial padding at contact points. I like to use old-style toe straps to keep the handlebar from moving around and potentially denting the frame or damaging paint.
I recommend that you be self-sufficient and bring all the tools you’ll need. Also bring rags for padding and cleaning, as well as lubricant, a pump, spare tubes and tires. Bike cases allow room for other items that may not fit into your luggage. Use this space as needed for your gear, but don’t overload, as very heavy bike cases make for irate baggage handlers!
Allow extra time when checking-in with your bike. Bike bags and boxes move more slowly than normal luggage on their way to the plane and ticket agents are often baffled when presented with a passenger traveling with a bike (if you’re lucky, they may not charge you). Make sure you have an extra day at your destination before the race. For whatever reason, bikes often don’t make it there with you. But, every airline I’ve flown with has a policy of delivering the bike for free to you at your destination. For me, luckily, this has always occurred within 24 hours of my arrival. If the bike doesn’t make it with your other luggage, don’t panic. I’ve found that the more connections you make, the more likely your bike will get ‘lost.’ On flights with connections, my bike has been ‘delayed’ about 20% of the time!
In 28 years of flying with my bike it’s always made it to my destination – eventually :). But just in case it doesn’t and you’re waiting there in a panic, make an alternative plan. Maybe you could borrow a friend’s bike who’s in another race, or perhaps a loaner/rental from a local bike shop could save the day. Traveling with your bike is a drag, but it could be worse: Be glad you don’t have to travel with a surfboard or a kayak!