Article and photos by: A.V. Schmit
With the major airlines removing the draconian fees associated with flying with a bike, you may be tempted to bring your bike with you on your next vacation. Passengers on American, United and Delta will pay the same amount for a bike as they would for any other piece of checked luggage under 50 pounds — about $30. That’s a far cry from the $150 each way to fly with a bike, only a years ago.
International flights typically offer two checked bags per passenger with no additional cost, so the idea of traveling for an international IRONMAN or IM 70.3 is a lot more approachable. And… If you plan on racing, having the bike you trained with is an essential part of being successful.
“Woot, woot, I can travel with my bike,” they thought, until they realized, “Oh wait, I don’t know how to pack my bike for travel.”
Fear not, I can show you some pretty simple techniques to keep your “baby” safe on a plane.
If you are my age, I’m sure you remember the 1970’s American Tourister luggage commercial with the Gorilla. And if you don’t recall, here it is on YouTube:
The point is… baggage handlers typically tend to be a lot less careful than you might want them to be with your bike. So you need to take steps to prepare your bike for travel the best that you can.
For airline travel, there are really two basic categories of luggage to carry a bike — Padded soft case or hard plastic case. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. With a padded soft case, you typically have to disassemble less of the bike, especially on a triathlon bike. But a soft case does not offer as much protection as a rigid case.
With a rigid bike case, your bike has more protection, but more of it needs to be disassembled to fit. A rigid hard case does offer more protection than a padded soft case. In the event of a catastrophic situation, like a very heavy piece of luggage falling from a height or the bike case falling off the luggage carrier, either event will likely damage the bike contained within either type of case.
OK, onto packing a bike for travel. In this example I’m packing a Cervelo P5 three in a Sci-Con Aerocomfort 3.0 padded triathlon bag.
Step 1 – Remove the pedals, and wipe the grease off the spindles with a paper towel or shop rag. Don’t worry, we are going to pack a bit of bike grease for re-assembly when we get to our destination. I tend not to want to travel with a full tube of grease, rather I like to squirt a small blob into a heavy-duty zip lock bag. It’s lighter, and you are less likely to run afoul of any hazardous chemical limits.
Step 2 — Remove bottle cages and other accessories. Wrap them in bubble wrap for protection and storage later in the process. And, while you’re at it, remove any CO2 cartridges, as compressed gas of any kind is not allowed on a plane. Be sure to get replacements at your travel destination.
Step 3 — If you don’t have access to a bike stand, then it makes the most sense to remove the wheels from the bike and use the alloy cradle of the bag to support the bike for the rest of the procedure. A P5, as well as many tri-bike frames, has horizontal drop outs, so you will need to slide the rear end of the bike into the Frame Defender Armature and then use the quick release at the front to secure the forks.
If your bike uses thru axles, you will need them to secure the bike frame to the armature.
Step 4 — At this point, I like to wrap the frame in closed cell foam to protect the finish from accidental chips or dings. With the popularity of online shopping, you probably have some thin closed cell foam hanging around the house. If not, you might stop by your local bike store to see if they have any leftover foam packing material from in-bound bike shipments. You can also use “bubble wrap,” but I’ve found it to be less effective than closed-cell foam.
Step 5 — Since the advent of 11-speed drive trains, virtually all road / triathlon groupsets have a “master link” in their chains. A master link is a special link that uses a mechanical connection to connect the chain. With a simple pair of specialized pliers, it’s easy to remove the chain and package it in bubble wrap.
While many boxes and bags make chain removal optional. It’s my thinking the more you can do to protect the frame from damage, the better. A chain moving around inside a bag or box can really do a number on your bike’s paint. Just take it off.
Step 6 — Remove the rear derailleur. On a Shimano Di2 or SRAM AXS, this is a very straightforward procedure. For Di2 you simply unplug the E-Tube wire and use a hex wrench to remove the derailleur. On a SRAM system, simple use a hex wrench and remove the rear derailleur. It is advisable to remove the battery in the case of SRAM AXS as well, prior to placing it in a zip-lock bag and bubble wrapping it.
For Di2, just make sure the shifters and the battery are disconnected to prevent accidental “shifting” during travel from draining your battery.
For a traditional mechanical derailleur, remove the mounting bolt with the appropriate hex wrench, wrap the derailleur in bubble wrap and tuck it in-between the chain stays and secure it. Be careful not to kink the cable housing.
Step 7 — Remove the quick release skewers from the wheels and place them in the pockets on the left and right side of the bag.
If your bike uses disc brakes, it’s recommended that you remove them prior to packing the bike. I know, it’s a pain, but so is a slightly bent disc that is rubbing as the wheel rotates. Most disc wheels are either 6-bolt or center-lock.
If your wheels are 6-bolt, you will likely need a T25 Torx wrench to remove and reinstall them at your destination. And if it is 6-bolt, you may want to bring a few extra bolts just in case 1 or 2 of the T25 heads get stripped during the process.
If your wheels use center-locks, be sure to pack the tools you will need to get them back on.
Step 8 — After you have removed the pedals, chain, rear derailleur, water bottle cages and accessories. Wrap them carefully in bubble wrap and place them in the storage bag that will be placed under the down tup of the frame and secure the bag. This is also a great place to stow the tools you will need to put the bike back together when you arrive at your destination.
Step 9 — Add additional padding to delicate parts of the bike, including the shifters mounted on the aero extensions. Insert the wheels into the pockets on the left and right of the bag. Be sure to remove your skewers and wrap them in bubble wrap before you stow them in the bag.
Secure the Velcro and other straps and prepare to close the bag. Before you do, it is a good idea to take some pictures of your packing job so there is no question about how the bike was packed in the event there is an incident during travel.
Step 10 — BONUS — If you use an iPhone, then I would highly recommend you place an Apple AirTag somewhere in the bag. This gives you extra piece of mind that your bike has made it on the plane safely. An AirTag is a blue tooth device that can use the location data of any iPhone it encounters to pinpoint the position of your bike.
Your bike arrives in tact, you’ve taken the time to put it back together and now it’s time to rack it and race the next day.