If you’ve ever travelled with your bike, taking it on a flight can be a bit nerve racking… will it make it to my cycling holiday / race in one piece? Will the baggage handlers drop or damage it? This is where a top quality bike box can make all the difference.Having just returned from a trip where I coached our 23 Queensland junior track cyclists at nationals, with 26 bikes travelling with us, now seemed as good a time as any to check out the different types of bike boxes on offer. There are lots of options available, from cheap to expensive, more flimsy to more robust. Here’s a few options to consider to protect your pride and joy:
Originally soft cases (basically canvas bags with or without padding) were often preferred for ease of packing several into a taxi at once… Imagine touching down in a foreign country in the middle of the night and not speaking the language. Much easier if you and your team-mates can all get into one vehicle. However modern hard cases have come a long way and it is possible to get multiple bike boxes into one car, usually a van.
Having used both hard and soft cases, my preference is without question a hard case. It offers better protection, and the good quality hard cases are usually lighter since you don’t need to bother with extra padding around the frame. The lighter weight of a hard case will let you pack more into it and still be within the 23kg airline limit, including a track pump, shoes, helmet, a couple of tools and cycle clothes, all of which may not always be possible with a soft bag. The other advantage is that it will be quicker to pack and unpack. I would look for an anti-crush pole which ensures that the sides cannot be crushed inwards. Lastly, the best quality hard cases might be around $100 more than the best quality soft cases, so the price difference isn’t great.
Alternate forms of soft cases are either one made from corflute (corflute is the stuff real estate agents use to make “For Sale” signs) or the humble cardboard bike box available from your local bike shop. These cases might suit the budget conscious or infrequent traveller.
It’s so much easier getting around the airport if your case has wheels, which some soft bags and most hard cases will have. It’s worth checking if the wheels can be easily replaced as some wheels are not as durable as others.
I have a friend who absolutely hates using an Allen key, so he bought a popular brand of soft case which allows you to leave the handlebars on. If this sounds like you be aware that damage can still occur: this friend damaged his front fork and another team-mate broke his carbon bars in this type of bag where the bars are left on. My friend also took twice as long to pack his soft bag than I do with my hard case as he felt obliged to put foam padding around his carbon frame. For those not using the foam it still takes about the same time to pack as a hard case.
Most travel cases require you to remove wheels, pedals, handlebars and seatpost/saddle. This is easy to do, and easy to re-assemble. If you’re not sure how to do this your mechanic can give you a quick lesson. If you use a soft bag typically removing the rear derailleur (usually via a single bolt) is also required unless you wish to use an aluminium frame to clip the forks onto like the one shown below (beware: clipping the bike in can cause your bike frame to bend/break if several other heavy bags are loaded onto your soft case in the aircraft).
Ensure that whatever case you use the rear derailleur is protected as it is easily knocked which can bend the derailleur hanger, resulting in a rear mech that won’t shift properly when you arrive.
Most of us take a good hour to learn how to pack our new bike box the first time, but packing is often accomplished when practised within 10-15 minutes if foam padding isn’t used.
Check that your bike, especially if it’s a TT bike or 29er, and especially if it’s a larger size, will actually fit into your chosen case. The fit can be a bit tight in some cases. If the cables don’t have much slack in them getting the handlebars off and packed can sometimes be tricky, so best to “practise” packing some weeks before your event in case your mechanic needs to lengthen the cables.
As mentioned earlier, I find that hard cases generally allow you to pack more items for the same weight as a thoroughly padded soft case. If you want to risk it in an unpadded soft case it can be lighter but the risk of damage in transit is higher (and yes I have mates who only travel this way with an alloy bike and seem to get away without any damage, and some who have clipped the forks into frames to protect the rear mech and end up with a bent frame they have had to throw away).
If you ask my preference for cases, I won’t “sit on the fence” today. Without doubt the BikeBox Alan, a hard case with anti-crush pole, is my choice. The anti-crush pole makes the case so strong that you can literally stand or jump on the case (not recommended!) without damaging the bike. If you watch the manufacturers’ videos, it has been thrown off a moving car or building and the bike inside remains undamaged. Not the cheapest case available, but at around $100 more than the best of the soft cases, for me it has been money well spent. These cases start at around $700-800AUD depending on currency exchange rate. An alternative hard case is the Buxom Bike Box, a sturdy aluminium case with anti-crush pole although it tends to be more expensive than BikeBox Alan.
For a soft case, I’d look for one that is well padded with wheels, and one that requires the handlebars to be removed. My preference is to not clip the bike onto a frame. There are quite a few like this on the market, often around $500-600AUD. The soft bags emphasising compact size usually require more disassembly of your bike and as a result more packing time, so a larger case that reduces packing time would be my preference. Having had an alloy frame bent in a soft case in the past I prefer hard cases with anti-crush poles.
For those seeking a low cost option, EnviroBox offers a wheeled corflute case in a range of sizes (some cases are expandable to fit a second bike) starting at around $240. Alternatively you could look for a second hand hard case.