Spares and essentials
No matter where you’re going, you should aim to be self-sufficient. So always take the basic tools you’re going to need to fix the most obvious mechanical problems you’re likely to encounter on the spot. And, as a rule of thumb, realize that the more remote your destination, the more prepared you’ll need to be.
I always have a decent mini tool (with a chain tool), a regular wrench for pedals, spare tubes, glue-less patches, strong tyre levers, a chain link, a shoe cleat, a spare rear gear hanger and brake pads, a small plastic container with spare bolts and some grease, a small container of oil, tape, zip ties, toe straps and an old cloth.
Mini pumps can be a killer, so I mostly now take a mini floor pump like the Lezyne Micro Floor Drive. If I know I’m going to be based in one location, I also take a cheap plastic floor pump which has a Schrader/Presta adaptor. This is very useful – especially if you are running tubeless tyres. I’ll also be sure to have a small set of LED lights and a GPS. I use a medium-sized seat pouch, and have also found that a small top-tube bag is ideal for my phone and other essentials.
Also, unless you know that you’ll be skimming on silky smooth roads, take heavier and wider tyres than normal. And if you know you’re likely to be riding off-road, consider adding sealant to your tubes, too. It can also pay to lower your gearing. There’s no shame in it, and in many regions the climbs and the heat may well conspire to have you begging for those extra few teeth at the back.
Unless you’re flying business class or are heading to an event or location where you know transport and storage facilities will be laid on, forget using hard bike cases. Yes, they protect your bike well, but they are big and cumbersome – try getting one into a taxi or even a small hotel room. There’s also the fact that they can weigh in at around 10kg, which will account for around half of your baggage allowance.
For years, when it came to packing my bike, I used to simply turn the bars, remove the pedals and put a little bubble wrap on the frame. This meant the bike got wheeled rather than thrown by the baggage handlers, and was almost ready to ride from the get-go when I’d get off the plane at the other end. Sadly, many airlines don’t allow this anymore (although again, it’s always worth checking in advance), so now I mostly opt for a simple padded bag. These are lightweight, can be maneuvered into taxis, taken on trains and buses and stashed away easily. Depending on the airline baggage policy, I also put other packs, shoes and bulky items in the bag, too.
Another way to go is the obvious, but often overlooked, choice of the humble cardboard bike box. You can get these for free (or for a small fee) at most bike shops, and many airlines also sell them. They weigh almost nothing, offer great protection and you can either fold or ditch them once you’ve reached your destination. If you do go this route, check online for bike shops at the end point of your journey and arrange to pick up a box from them for the return leg. To be on the safe side, do this before you leave home.
Over the years, I’ve seen people go to all sorts of odd extremes when packing their bike. My advice, though, is to keep it simple otherwise you might find yourself trying to work out a puzzle you simply can’t solve when it comes to putting your bike back together.
Or at least spending so much time trying to reassemble it that you miss out on a ride.
My personal strip-down is as follows: Pedals off and into my hand luggage. Discs off and into my checked bag with a small piece of cardboard between the disc pads so that they can’t get bent. Remove the rear mech and gear hanger, wrap these in a rag and strap with the chain inside the seat stays. Take the saddle and seatpost off or lower it to prevent it from getting scratched. Next, remove handlebars, turn the stem and forks inwards/sideways and then strap the bars to the top-tube. Slightly deflate tyres, remove the quick release skewers and put the bike into the bag/box.
If it’s a soft case, I try to put the bike in upside down to avoid the chainring being on the ground. If it’s a box, I add an extra layer of cardboard beneath the chainring, and then add shoes and other items until the weight meets the allowance.
How to beat the system
Navigating and deciphering airline baggage policies is tricky, to say the least. Policies can change at the drop of a hat, and they also often differ on routings, and even with connecting codeshare flights (depending on how the agents booked the through flight).
Never book to fly with your bike until you’ve checked and figured out the small print on bike carriage. When you have booked, try to stay within the limits and be sure to have a copy of the airline policy or email confirmation when you get to check in.
Check-in and duty clerks often do not know the policies, and also vary greatly in their approaches to excess fees and allowances. When in line, if possible, look for an older clerk. They tend to take the least time with check-in, and are less likely to be weighing hand luggage or issuing excess fees. If you find yourself in line and pointed at a fearsome clerk, step out, take a phone call and look for a better slot.
If you see fees being handed down, and are over the limit, then hurriedly try to stash a few heavier bits (although not sharp items or liquids) into your hand luggage. Wearing clothing with plenty of pockets as well as a bum bag is always advisable, too. And always make your baggage look light – never appear to be struggling with your bags. It always pays to be charming and polite, too.
Always try to sweet talk your way out of bother, and it doesn’t harm to wave any relevant frequent flier cards about, either. Also, if you’re travelling with somebody else and you’re worried about excess weight, then take whatever might make the difference out of your luggage and hand it to them before checking in. You can then re-stash those bits in your carry-on bag or, as I have seen some wily types do, their bike bag as you often have to take that to a separate desk after weigh-in anyway.
As a last resort, be prepared to ditch your non-essentials at check-in. I have had to do this many times to avoid excessive fees. Again, it’s worth using a bit of charm to see if you can get the clerk to cut you some slack, which may work if it’s busy as they’ll want to keep the queue moving, but certainly don’t rely on it. Remember, it’s all about being adaptable
As a rule, Middle Eastern airlines offer decent baggage allowances for long-haul flights, while US airlines tend to levy really expensive charges. For shorter flights, budget airlines are always a good choice as you generally have to pay a set fee in advance, which eliminates most of the check-in stress.
What kit to pack
Usually, a packed bike along with spares and tooling will weigh in at around 18kg, and if you’re like me your carry-on bag will be maxed out with cameras, laptops and gadgets. If that’s the case, you really do need to keep things minimal and multi-purpose when it comes to your kit. Unless I’m headed to a specific event that requires specific kit, I always tend to pack the same gear.
I go with SPD pedals and MTB shoes, as they’re much more versatile. I also take a lightweight pair of trail shoes and a throw-away pair of flip-flops. As for cycling clothing, I take two pairs of fairly plain and multi-purpose warm weather bibs and two warm-weather jerseys, I also pack leg warmers, a lightweight fleece plus a waterproof, lightweight trousers and T-shirts – all of which I can wear on or off the bike, as well essentials like socks and underwear.
Forget packing your entire wardrobe, and get into the habit of washing and drying your gear at every given chance. And anything that can be sourced locally, tends not to come with me either. A bottle of contact lens liquid, for example, can weigh as much as a mini tool, while a tube of regular shower gel can be heavier than a pair of shorts.
Where to ride
Although southern Europe is a prime destination for winter riding, it doesn’t always work out as financially favorable as you might imagine. Luckily, the world is literally full of great alternatives in places that might be a bit more out there, but still offer great riding and are also budget friendly.
I’ve often found that once you’ve reached an exotic part of the world, the costs on the ground are so cheap that – even once your flights have been taken into consideration – you may well be spending about the same as you would on a trip to Majorca. There are many great Southeast Asian destinations, for example, that offer some awesome riding, such as Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines or Vietnam.
While closer to home, the Turkish coast, Greece, Croatia and Morocco may not be destinations that spring readily to mind but are also fantastic places to ride. OK, so some of those places may require a little more planning, but garnish those plans with a sense of adventure and you’re guaranteed a holiday that’ll turn out far more memorable than your standard Benidorm bash.