Traveling with Bikes

by James Hibbard

image001The time of year is fast approaching when many athletes will fly to their annual target events. When competing at a major event, it is critical to arrive not simply physically prepared, but also psychologically calm. Critical to engendering a state of psychological calm is to arrive at the race hotel or host-housing with equipment intact, and with an ample supply of spare equipment should a component fail while at the event.

What should I bring?

What you bring depends upon your events, of course. Should you travel to a road race or criterium, pack the road bike with a set of training wheels, a set of race wheels, spare brake blocks, a spare chain, and lubricant, as well as a set of tires suitable to each wheel. Also, don’t forget to bring a spare set of cleats to use should your cleats fail. If you use tubulars on your race wheels, remember to bring spare tubulars that have been stretched and pre-glued such that a flatted tubular can be easily and quickly replaced. In addition, don’t forget to bring your usual complement of tools to make minor adjustments, as well as your seat pack and frame pump. Although neutral race support will make the pack and pump unnecessary during the race, the training that you do while at the race site should certainly be undertaken with a frame pump and spare tube should you puncture while training—especially in an unfamiliar city.

When traveling to a stage race with a time trial or track event, you may have both a road bike and either a time trial or track bike. These additional bicycles necessitate additional spare parts. When traveling to a major time trial it is ideal to have multiple sets of race wheels, as a puncture in the moments before starting the event can mean switching to a slower spoked wheel. However, for most athletes, multiple time trial wheels are cost prohibitive, so make certain to travel not only with spare race tires but also to avoid training in the days and hours leading up to the event on the wheels that you intend to race on other than for a quick test to make sure the gears are shifting smoothly and the brakes aren’t rubbing on road or TT bikes.

When traveling to a track event bring both a race and a training set of track wheels, as well as pre-stretched tubular tires and glue. If you are traveling to a track that you have not yet been to and expect that you might be using gear combinations that you have not been using in your weekly training, make sure to also bring a chain breaker and some links of chain should you need to add or remove chain in order to obtain the necessary gear ratio. I remember many athletes coming from sea level to the velodrome at Colorado Springs and frantically adding links to their chain to obtain the larger gear ratios necessitated by the altitude of that velodrome. Also make sure to keep spare chainring bolts, axle nuts, and bar plugs in your track bag. Although small and inexpensive, these are items that you don’t want to be searching for in the minutes before your event. And, because of safety concerns, many officials will not allow racers to start events with missing bar plugs, as exposed bar ends present the possibility of swinging around in a crash and impaling one’s thigh.

How Should I Pack?

There are numerous bike bags on the market designed for either one or two bicycles. Double bike bags work well when traveling with a road and track or road and time trial bike and because it is a single oversize bag, it can reduce the excess baggage fees incurred when flying with multiple bicycles. Bike bags are generally divided between hard-shelled and soft-shelled bags, but you can also always also go to a local bike shop and ask for a bike box, which you can usually get for free.

The benefit of a soft-shell bag is that it will tend to be somewhat lighter and because it is constructed from nylon or other synthetic fabric it will fit a greater range of frame sizes and handlebar types. However, as you might imagine, bicycles in soft-shelled bags can be more prone to damage by the airlines. A hard-shell bag is more limited in terms of internal space, usually requires more disassembly of the bicycle, and takes care to avoid having components rub against one another. Once packed well, a hard-shell case does tend to protect equipment better than a soft-shell one.

Most bike bags are designed to hold the bike and two wheels. It is ideal to place your sturdier training wheels in the bike bag or box with the bike and to separate out race wheels either in a cardboard box or in a hard shell wheel case. Always carry your shoes and helmet in your carry-on luggage. Should your bike be lost or damaged it is always possible to borrow a bicycle and still compete at the event you are traveling to. By contrast, it is far more difficult to obtain and set-up a pair of shoes (much less, a pair with custom orthotics). Never letting one’s shoes out of one’s sight is a cardinal rule for cyclists.

When packing bicycles, inexpensive pipe insulation placed around the tubes of the frame works well to protect the paint and frame integrity. You can usually find it at any home improvement store in the plumbing section. Also, make certain to avoid damage to the frame’s dropouts by placing a wood or plastic spacer between the front and rear drop outs where the axles would normally ago. You can find plastic spacers at most shops, or even construct a rear one from an old (wheel-less) hub. Wheels that have been removed from the bike and tucked into the bike bag are vulnerable to being crushed in transit. Take the skewers out and make sure that the axles are well padded on all sides. When removing your stem and saddle make sure to mark your saddle height with electrical tape and to take note of how many spacers are under your stem. In addition to these ways of physically marking your position, it is also always a good idea to carry a fit sheet with you with all of your bike measurements.

Just as with regular luggage, the TSA frequently inspects bike bags. Although one can do little to be sure that the TSA properly repacks one’s bike bag after an inspection, at least having in mind the potential that your bike bag might be opened can help facilitate packing decisions that can mitigate any possible damage.

What if Something Breaks at the Event?

If something breaks at the event ask locals for a reputable shop. It can often be worth traveling to a more distant bicycle shop in order to have mechanical work done by a mechanic experienced in working with high-end bicycles. If you are looking for unusual parts make sure to call ahead to minimize your stress prior to the event. When competing outside of Europe, Australia or the United States always err on the side of caution and bring more spare equipment rather than less, as you can never be certain about the availability of spare parts.