Words by Aaron Gulley
The first time I flew with a bicycle, I very nearly lost it forever. I was attempting to bring my high school mountain bike—a fully rigid, late-1980s Muddy Fox—from my childhood home in Jos, Nigeria, to my inaugural year of college in the U.S. Thirty-six hours after taking off from Lagos, I arrived in Denver unscathed. My bike did not.
I fretted that my poor packing job—pieced-together cardboard, discarded pages from The Guardian Nigeria, twine from the market—led to my bike’s demise. I called the airlines constantly those first few weeks. The luggage tag was last scanned in Zurich, but there was no sign of my bike. After a month I gave up hope and resigned myself to walking.
One night three months after my flight, around 2a.m., my phone rang. In my stupor, I couldn’t understand the German accent on the line, hung up, and went back to bed. The next morning, when I opened my dorm room door, my travel-worn bike box blocked my passage. Car tire tread marred the cardboard as if it had been run over, and a bent pedal poked through the box like an arm grasping for help. But once exhumed, the good ‘ol Muddy Fox ran as smoothly as it ever had—minus that pedal.
I’ve flown hundreds of times with a bike since then, and I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two. Most importantly, the right case is the key to both defending your bike from the rigors of airline handling, as well as making the travel experience simple and enjoyable. Over three decades, I’ve tried everything from cardboard boxes and soft-side cases to fully rigid plastic cartons and carbon clamshells, and after several years with the EVOC Bike Travel Bag I won’t go back. It’s the perfect mix of protection, ease of packing, lightweight, and ability to compress down and fit under a car seat on arrival.
Here’s my process. Having done it once or twice, it takes 30 minutes or less, whether I’m in my garage or on the clay streets of a Nigerian village.
I didn’t always worry about this step until a friend traveling to New Zealand was fined $200 and threatened with having his bike confiscated because it was dirty. Granted, the Kiwis are militant about cleanliness based on years of environmental destruction from invasive species arriving by plane and boat. But if all it takes is a few minutes with a scrub brush and hose to preempt issues with an overly litigious customs official, why not?
As I learned on the Muddy Fox, a protruding pedal is one of the first and easiest things broken. Take these off, put them in a Ziploc, and set them aside (see below).
Some people say this isn’t necessary. But once you pull the rear derailleur (see below), the chain can make a greasy mess. And since modern quick links take all the hassle out of removing the chain, I like to remove mine, clean it, wrap it in a fresh rag inside a Ziploc bag, and stow it in one of the Travel Bag zip pockets. Pro Tip: Get a pair of Pack Pliers, which are a must for any bike travel anyway, and can store spare quick links for trailside repairs.
First, use a Sharpie or tape to mark a simple hash mark on bars and stem so it’s easy to dial your setup on the other end. (Do the same for your seat post.) Unscrew the stem bolts, pull off the bars, then screw the bolts back through the face plate and into the stem so you don’t lose anything. Strap the Frame Protector over the top and down tubes, then attach the handlebars to the loops on the outside of the protector. I personally like to loosen the stem clamp bolts and swivel the stem rearward over the frame so it can’t possibly jab through the bag. Note: If you have a road or triathlon bike, you can skip this step with the EVOC Road Bike Bag Pro
Once removed, reinsert the thru axles into the frame and fork. This gives the bike rigidity in case it takes a big impact. Deflate the tires so they are soft, but not so soft that they can break the tubeless bead. Then stow the wheels in the wheel pockets. Pro Tip: Remove your rotors and tuck them in a Ziploc inside the main portion of the bag. This may not seem entirely necessary given the protective wheel slots on the Evoc bag. But rotors are easily bent, and it’s no fun having a trip botched by such a preventable issue. I once landed in Tucson with my bike the night before a solo effort at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo to find my rotor was trashed from transit. I spent the next morning frantically finding a replacement and arrived only 20 minutes prior to the start.
Once you have mounted the bike into the bag and strapped the frame and fork in place, unscrew the derailleur from the frame to prevent the hanger bolt from getting bent from an impact. If you run AXS, pat yourself tuck it safely away in a zip pocket in the main compartment. I still run cables, so I like to wrap up the derailleur in a clean rag, tuck the whole thing in a Ziploc, and place the package between the chain stays. Pro Tip: If I’m really anxious about rough travel, like the time I traveled in Myanmar on the reputedly tough-on-bags Yangon Airways, I use a couple of zip ties through the baggie and to the frame to really hold the derailleur solid.
Airlines are sticklers for dimensions and weights—especially with bikes. So check your carrier’s regulations in advance and make sure you are in compliance. This step could save you hundreds of dollars, or even ensure that you aren’t turned away completely. Pro Tip: Print a few pages with your name, address, and contact, and stow them in the bike bag in case the luggage tag fails.
Editor's note: Complying with airline regulations relating to bicycles as checked luggage cannot be overemphasized. To provide you a starting reference point we have prepared an overview of Airline Bike Travel Regulations.
Many people will tell you to put all your cycling sundries in with your bike if you have weight to spare. Do not! Pack your pedals, helmet, multitool, and shoes in your suitcase with your riding apparel. When my bike failed to show up for a two-week vineyard bike-touring trip to South Africa, I was still able to rent a replacement and get myself set up nearly as comfortably as I would have been on my own ride.
Pro Tip: Don’t leave home without some basic replacement parts you might not be able to get easily on arrival, including a spare derailleur hanger, quick links for your chain, bottle of sealant, tube(s), replacement cleat and cleat bolts, and a charger (if your bike is wired). I also like to bring a much larger mini-pump than normal to help get tires resealed should they leak. The more rural and remote you are going, the bigger your backup kit should be: On expeditions in Ethiopia and Chile, I’ve carried replacement rotors, spare shift cables, a dropper seat post clamp (in case it fails), and even a brake bleed kit.