Bike Travel – Prepping and Packing the Rig

Packed up, let's roll! Wait, where are my wheels?
Packed up, let’s roll! Wait, where are my wheels?

You’re about to purchase your travel case, and you’re ready to set off on roads unknown. Do you just throw your bike into the case and drop it off at the airline ticket counter? Do you break down the bike into more pieces than it originally arrived at the bike shop? Let’s go through the process of packing and travelling with (or shipping) your bike.

The Case

There are lots of different types: some big, some small. Some hard shelled, some soft, with their own advantages/disadvantages.

Soft Shell:

  • Typically cheaper and smaller (easier to store when not in use), lighter and simpler to move around.
  • Requires more disassembly of your bike.
  • Offers less protection from, well, everything.
  • Typically less room for additional gear.

Hard Shell:

  • Typically more expensive and larger (harder to store when not in use), heavier, and often bulky to move around (even when wheeled, as most are).
  • Bike remains (mostly) in tact, which means less rebuild time when you arrive.
  • The larger size and heavier weight can lead to more expensive shipping costs.
  • Superior protection from external damage.
  • Usually has lots of room for extra gear.

Given that I was planning to fly with my bike repeatedly, I purchased the Trico Iron Case. This case has been essentially unchanged for 20+ years, under the “If it ain’t broke…” mentality. When buying a case, make sure to consider the following:

  • How secure are the components once stored in the case?
  • Is there room for all the pieces of the bike (wheels, frame, saddle, handle bars) and is each piece protected in some way from the others?
  • Is there extra room for my other gear or will I have to carry it separately?
  • How do I plan to send my bike: carry it with me on a plane, ship it by a shipper?

The Tools

Now let’s say you have your bike case. All good to go, right? Slow down. Depending on the size of your case, your bike will need to be disassembled. The minimum disassembly I’ve seen requires removing the pedals, the handlebar (possibly the stem), and the seat post. To do this, you’ll need tools. So after you’ve purchased your case, you’ll also need to make sure you own:

  • Pedal Wrench (or two) (I recommend getting one with a long handle, to provide better leverage)
  • Torque wrench or torque keys (4NM and 6NM usually, especially if you have a carbon fiber frame)
  • Multitool (including hex keys)
  • Optional though recommended:
    • Grease (for putting your pedals back on)
    • Small zip-lock bags
    • Bubble wrap
    • Rags

Transport Methods

Shipping: If you actually want your bike to get there in one piece, I’d recommend FedEx. You can use services like as well. If you use UPS, it’ll arrive faster, and might even be cheaper, but it’ll also arrive in more pieces than when you packed it.

  • Pros: you don’t have to carry it with you. Usually insured and can cost less than putting it on a flight.
  • Cons: you have to ship it several days before you fly, and someone has to receive it. You’re without a bike until it arrives after the return trip.

Air: If you’re traveling by plane, you can still ship your bike ahead of your to your destination, but that takes more coordinating. It’s easier to just take it on the flight, though some airlines charge so much it better be sitting on the plane next to you with a Kosher meal. For airline fees for bikes, click here.

  • Pros: it’s with you when you get on the plane, and (hopefully) when you arrive. Less time without the bike (because you don’t have to ship it ahead of time, or receive it after).
  • Cons: luggage handlers HATE oversized items, and can be pretty brutal. TSA may open your bike case, at which point there’s no guaranteeing it’ll be strapped up again properly. You have to drag it around with you (don’t rent a sub-compact).

The Process

You’ve got the bike. You’ve got the box. Now you have the tools. Next up? Actually taking it apart and packing it. It takes some practice to take apart your bike (and put it back together properly), and as there may be problems, I’d recommend packing and unpacking it at least once completely before whatever trip you’re taking. Below, I’ll go through the steps I typically take when packing my bike.

Step 1) Clean the bike. Make sure it’s clean before you start taking it apart and packing it. The cleaner your bike is (especially the chain) the less everything around it (and you) will get dirty. And remove all extras (Garmins, headlight clamps, tail lights), unless they can be kept safely out of the way.

Towards the front = tighten. Towards the back = loosen.
Tighten towards the front, loosen towards the back.

Step 2) Remove the pedals. The right pedal is threaded just like any other screw. That means the old “righty tighty, lefty loosey” bit works just fine. The left pedal however is reverse-threaded, which means if you turn it to the left, you’ll be tightening it, not loosening. Because your orientation to the bike might change your concept of right/left for turning the pedal (I know it kinda does for me), I think of this instead:

  • Tighten: toward the front wheel.
  • Loosen: toward the back wheel.

What this means is if I have the wrench pointed straight up, turning it towards the back wheel – regardless of which side of the bike you’re on – will loosen the pedal.

If you’ve never taken your pedals off before, boy oh boy are you in for a treat. [Do I need to hold up my “Sarcasm” sign?] After thousands of miles, these things can be really wedged on there tight. Some people say “Take a mallet to the wrench.” I just… can’t see myself doing that around a carbon frame. What worked for me was using penetrating oil – WD-40 will work. I let it soak for a day, came back, and it worked. Others recommend placing a pipe around the wrench handle to extend the handle (increase leverage). Remember to hold onto the other arm firmly, and like all first-time activities, take your time.

There are lots of videos online to show you how to remove pedals (and yes, they make it look WAY too friggin’ easy). Store the pedals in your zip-lock bags to prevent the grease from getting everywhere (optionally wrap in bubble wrap if you have delicate pedals or you fear they’ll be near other components when packed).

Step 3) Set the chain and remove the wheels. Place your bike in the smaller cog (highest gear on your cassette) tp keep the derailleur swung forward (this is probably easier to do with your wheels on). Pop off your wheels, removing the skewers and storing them in one of your zip-lock bags. Most boxes will provide a skewer-substitute for your fork and rear dropouts. Position and secure those into the dropouts. Remember to deflate your tires if your bike is traveling by air.

Stpe 4) Secure the chain and derailleur. Secure the chain with a piece of string/rope above your brake caliper. This will swing the rear derailleur forward towards the chain stay (and not hanging out where it can be damaged) and keeps the chain out of the way. Or use string/rope to secure your derailleur to the chain stay to keep it forward and let the chain dangle. I typically place my shoes and other miscellaneous, soft items below the derailleur to provide some cushioning/support once everything is packed. Some people say align the drive-side crank arm next to the chain stay. Others say align the non-drive-side. I’m not sure it matters which is aligned, as long as one is. Then, use your extra gear to pad/support the other arm.

Step 5) Remove the seat post. Before you remove it, either place tape (like electrical or painters tape) on the seat post to mark where the height is. You can take a picture as well – doesn’t hurt – but your camera angle might affect how the height looks, even when the post is marked. So, tape is best. Wrap it in bubble wrap and/or bike rags to prevent damage and to keep it away from other components (like the frame).

[NOTE: When loosening torqued bolts, always use your multitool hex keys and NOT your torque wrench or torque keys. Using your torque keys to loosen a bolt can damage the torque key so that it no longer torques to the proper value. When tightening, always use a torque wrench or the appropriate torque key (most bolts are marked with the correct torque for that  bolt).]

Mark your handlebar with tape or some other indicator so you know where to position it when reconnecting. Same with your seat post.
Mark your handlebar with tape or some other indicator so you know where to position it when reconnecting. Same with your seat post.

Step 6) Remove the handle bars. For the Trico Iron Case, you don’t have to remove the stem (which is really nice, since that stack can be tricky to put back together and align). For this, all you need to do is remove the bolts that hold the handle bar to the stem. Just like the saddle, place tape on either side of the stem clamp, so you know how to position your handle bars afterwards. Also remember that your handlebars tilt forward and backwards, so use the end of the tape to mark that as well. Position your handlebars so the cables aren’t tangled. I’ve seen some where the positioning had this along the top of the box. I align mine with the fork. Whatever works here is fine. Most handlebars are sturdy. If you’re using carbon bars… not sure I have any advice for that.

Step 7) Padding and extra gear. In my case, there’s plenty of extra space for my water bottles (I leave those in the cages to protect the cages, empty of course), saddle bag (between the water bottles for more support), helmet and other misc. gear. I use my Camelbak to store the pedals, skewers, and all my tools, since it’s naturally padded. I use my shoes to support the rear derailleur, and then I add padding/towels/etc. wherever I think it might be needed.

WARNING: Make sure to place some padding/rags between your wheels!!! In a case like this, they overlap, and your spokes can scratch one-another.

Make a List, Check it Thrice

Santa may be delivering gifts to billions of children, but we’re riding bikes. If he misses one or two kids, no real harm done. If we forget our pedals, well…

So, lists. Not everyone is  a list maker. Takes time to make them, time to check them. And there’s the ever-present “Oh, I’ll remember” monster waiting to bite you in the ass. If you have a smart phone (rare not to nowadays) you can make your list once and re-use it for every trip (including the trip home). I have two lists: one for travel prep (my step-by-step so I don’t forget anything), and one for all the cycle gear (so I can check off everything I’m supposed to bring). You won’t need everything for every trip, but with these new list apps, it’s easy to just leave those other things on your list, already checked off.

Below is a list that I have, and you can add/remove things to your liking:

  • Advil/Motrin (I get exertion headaches)
  • Arm warmers
  • Bandaids/portable first aid kit
  • Base layers
  • Bubble wrap
  • Camelbak
  • Cash (never hurts to pack some cash)
  • CO2 Cartridges (NOTE: You can’t take these on a place!)
  • CO2 pump
  • Bandanas/Durags)
  • Endurolytes/Supplements
  • Frame Pump
  • Garmin & USB cord
  • Gloves
  • Headlight & charger
  • Helmet
  • Inner tubes
  • Insurance card & license copies
  • Jacket
  • Jerseys
  • Multitool
  • Pedal wrench
  • Pedals
  • Rags
  • Reflective Gloves (night riding)
  • Reflective Leg bands (night riding)
  • Registration copy (if traveling to an event)
  • Riding glasses
  • Tights (for cold-weather riding)
  • Seat Post (and saddle!)
  • Skewers
  • Shoes
  • Shoe covers
  • Shorts/Bibs
  • Shot bloks (or whatever snacks you prefer)
  • Sunblock
  • Tail light & charger
  • Tire levers
  • Torque Keys (4Nm & 6 Nm)
  • Water bottles
  • Wheels
  • Zip lock bags