Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Have Bike, Will Travel?

Co-Motion Tandem with Couplers and Belt Drive
Earlier, I mentioned the popularity of folding bikes at Interbike - a trend that can be attributed to the rise of multimodal urban transport. But a related trend was evident as well: full sized bicycles that disassemble for travel. It seemed like every other booth featured at least one model with couplers - a method of construction that allows for the frame to be taken apart and fit into a standard sized suitcase. The separated parts of the tubes screw into the (usually stainless steel) couplers to form a complete frame, and the brake and shifter cables can be similarly separated using cable splitters. Couplers can be installed on all sorts of bicycles, lugged or welded, with thick or thin tubing - including enormous tandem frames such as this Co-Motion. Visually, I think they look best on stainless steel or silver frames - otherwise they interrupt the continuity of the tubing - though others may not agree (Royal H. has managed to pull these off on a small and elaborately lugged frame without making it overly busy).

Ritchey Breakaway
An alternative method to coupling is the Ritchey break-away system - which I'd heard a lot about, but only now saw in person for the first time.  I am not sure exactly how it works in comparison to couplers, but the connecting points are at the seat cluster and on the downtube near the bottom bracket, which has the benefit of making them seamlessly integrated with the frame.

The idea of taking bicycles apart for travel is certainly not new. While it is not clear who came up with the concept originally and when, I know that disassembleable military bicycles from a number of manufacturers were used during World War II. And Rene Herse offered demountable models for personal use in the 1950s.

Today, the surge in popularity of such bicycles can be traced to the increasing complexity and expense of air travel. Until 2005 or so, many domestic and international airlines allowed full size bicycle boxes to be checked in as luggage for free, or at a minimal cost. Today some airlines do not permit bicycles at all, while those that do charge fees upward of $200 each way. For a couple of years, the ability to disassemble a bicycle and fit it into a standard suitcase allowed the cyclist to avoid this by simply checking in the bike as a regular piece of luggage. However, as of 2010 things have gotten even worse: Most international airlines no longer allow two pieces of luggage per person as before, but limit the amount to one. So even with a disassembleable bicycle, a traveler would have to either check in the suitcase containing it as their sole piece of luggage, or pay an extra fee for checking in two suitcases. As far as I know, no full-size disassembleable bicycle will fit into the overhead compartment of an airplane as carry-on luggage, due to the wheel size. 

Even luggage restrictions aside, there is the very real possibility of a disassembled bicycle being damaged as part of a careless security search, for one thing. And then there is the question of the traveler being sufficiently competent to assemble the bicycle upon arrival - as failure to do this properly can result in safety issues. All things considered, is it worth it? As someone who travels fairly frequently, I am not sure whether a disassembleable bicycle would be more of a help or a burden. For the traveling cyclists out there - what are your thoughts?

39 comments:

  1. Indeed, traveling with bikes is a pain (and a strain on the wallet). I've brought huge Christiania Bikes on planes over the past two years and have paid anywhere from $50 to $600, so it is largely dependent on which airline you travel with and how they view this piece of baggage.
    When I lucked out with the $50 dollar charge - for an (tremendously) oversized box weighing 100+ pounds - the reason was simply, it's a bike and all bikes are charged a flat fee of €40. I believe the airline was SAS or Icelandair.
    The $600 dollar charge was due to an overweight charge, on top of a bicycle charge, on top of an additional bag charge. This one hurt.
    One way around the additional bag charge is to simply pack your clothes inside the bike box. This adds some padding, keeps things from rattling around, and will save you the extra baggage fee. Then a standard carryon can house the rest of what you need to bring.
    It's not perfect, but it simplifies things and cuts costs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'd look into renting. If you add fees to the cost of the break away bicycle I suspect you can get a lot of days of rental. Also, each time you rent, you can review the shop and bicycle on your blog! Bonus. Safe travels.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sorry if my wording was confusing, I wasn't suggesting that I am considering such a bike for myself. What I meant was that, as someone who travels a lot, I'm not sure that I'd find disassembleable bicycles convenient and wonder to what extent those who own them get real utility out of them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The estimable Piaw Na on coupled bikes.
    http://piaw.blogspot.com/2005/08/ss-couplers.htm

    ReplyDelete
  5. From what I've gathered, the people who use these bikes the most are the ones who tour in different countries, and need to transport their bikes on airplanes to do so. These folks don't use their bikes as commuters, so they don't need to disassemble them on a daily or weekly basis, and they also don't want to compromise what they ride... they don't want a small-wheeled folder to tour on.

    Our Bike Friday tandem (and all bike friday tandems) is a demontable tandem, which disassembles into three segments and packs into two suitcases. Hence the double entendre of their motto: "Bikes that fly, performance that packs".

    Here's a closeup of the BF coupler, which is powder coated along with the frame:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/7516215@N03/5090351227/in/photostream/

    and here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/7516215@N03/5090943250/in/photostream/

    Notice the spring-loaded cables, you just pull them out of the cable stops when you disassemble the frame. The cables themselves also have couplers.

    Personally, I haven't once disassembled it, and I don't foresee any need to do so anytime soon. But Bike Friday specifically markets these to folks who want to travel by airplane with their bikes. That's also why they don't use proprietary parts, unlike Brompton. Who wants to have a proprietary brake caliper or pedal FedEx dropped to Zimbabwe while on tour? But I digress...

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have an SNS coupled cross bike which does facilitate airline travel as I can break it down into a well padded softcase that falls within most max baggage dimensions.

    When I need to travel with my road/tri bike in NA, I use FedEX or UPS to ship the bike to the hotel or an LBS before I fly ... it's usually cheaper, is insured, and doesn't get damaged.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I recently flew to a distant cycling event and was delighted to learn than Frontier Airlines treats bike boxes as regular checked luggage, so only $20!
    My plans for an S&S coupled bike are now on hold since they fly most places I'm likely to go.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've spoken mostly to people who've traveled internationally, and half of those who've checked bikes in as luggage (as opposed to in a bike box, as an extra bike with all the fees that entails) have reported damage. What happens is that the security people will open it and take it apart, then put it back together improperly and things get smashed together. It also confuses me that often the cases for disassembleable bikes are soft cases.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Can the break away system be installed on frames other than Ritchey, or is it specific to their bikes?

    ReplyDelete
  10. That's creepy about the security staff emptying out the bike suitcases and trying to cram the bikes back in. Sends chills down my spine! You'd think they'd be briefed about how to approach examining that type of luggage without messing it all up. I wouldn't want anyone touching a bike I packed up.

    ReplyDelete
  11. do you mean to say that you saw production bikes with couplers at interbike or are you talking about custom frames? anyone who checks a bike in a soft case is asking for it though

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'd thought of it many times but never did it because there were other things to do at the destination. If I were to do a long tour then the cost/benefit equation might tilt.
    With bike shares popping up it's a great option for those cities and it's zero hassle.
    Last time travelling I almost bought a cheap bike with the intent of either donating it or reselling once the trip was over.
    Also, last year I rode my bro-in-law's crappy Walmart dualie w/knobbies all over the place, including a 30 mile road ride. My ass hurt all the time though. Lesson: bring your seat at least.
    Yet another option: Brompton.

    ReplyDelete
  13. For packing: a lot of pipe insulation and a lot of zip ties. This allows the TSA guys to inspect and not have to figure out what goes where. It's already together.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I am going to Vienna again in October and thankfully I have the good fortune to have a friend there who can lend me bicycles for both commuting and sport. If I didn't, then I'd probably already own a Brompton by now.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Edward - Not sure, and I can find surprisingly little information from Ritchey. One of my sponsors is a dealer and huge supporter of these bikes, so he will know. But odd that the Ritchey website itself offers no details.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Ritchey - doesn't look retrofitable. Frame breaks above the seat lug.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Not retrofitable, but building a frame using "the Ritchey seat lug" and such? Seems to me it could work, on a nice lugged frame too.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Bud has the Breakway, likes it well enough.
    Then again S&S couplers are a popular, proven design. Sure they stand out, but people who have them and travel a lot make the aesthetic compromise. Folks say the ride isn't impeded; more relevant if you have a HiPo bike. With those quick connect cabling adapters it must be pretty easy.

    ReplyDelete
  19. "Ritchey Designs custom butted steel tubes and compression locking system that joins the front and rear triangles of the frame that can be dismantled and packed into a smartly design compact travel case (also designed by Ritchey)."

    Sounds like it's an integrated-enough system that to do it from scratch, provided you could get licensing for the design, would necessitate a specific travel case to maximize littleness.
    The S&S looks way hotter than the plain Ritchey seat lug anyway, to my eye.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I've thought about this quite a bit and think I would just go with shipping the bike in advance to where I am going, given the increased airline costs. The cost is not prohibitive (starts around $40), you avoid the issues of security guys messing around with your bike, you don't have to make compromises on the frame to allow it to be broken down, or pay extra for a breakaway frame that you rarely use, and reassembly is minimal. It would be easy to arrange for the hotel or wherever you were staying to hold the shipment for you before your arrival. You would have to do without your bike for a while, but who cares -- most of us have more than one bike anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Checked the ticket info for my upcoming trip just for fun. The airline I am taking charges 50EUR one way for a 2nd piece of check-in luggage, assuming it is not oversized. For a bike box they charge 150EUR one way.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Yes, Ritchey Breakaway lugs are available to other builders. Curtlo among others uses them. A very smart design that looks cleaner and is less expensive than S&S couplers. They are not retrofit-able, which is a big S&S selling point. Well, I suppose you could retrofit them onto a bike, but at a huge cost as you would need to replace a lot of tubes and stays.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks cyclotourist, indeed Curtlo makes breakaway bikes. Found pictures of a couple of builds and you can't even tell the bikes disassemble, which is kind of neat. Wonder whether it's okay to braze capped seatstays to those seatlugs.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Velouria wrote:
    "What happens is that the security people will open it and take it apart, then put it back together improperly and things get smashed together. It also confuses me that often the cases for disassembleable bikes are soft cases."

    My experience has been you can insist on being present and repack the bike yourself ... besides, my hardcase locks, so they either need me present or have to break-in.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Rob said:
    "...anyone who checks a bike in a soft case is asking for it though"

    Rob - a few years back, I would have agreed, but my hardcase has suffered more damage than my softcase ... Air Canada and Iberia have both broken and replaced {albeit kicking and screaming} my hardcase.

    Fortunately, neither have had their contents damaged.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Here are some better pix from Gellie It looks like you could build with any sort of seat stay you want, as long as it attaches to the lower "lug" and doesn't interfere with the bolting mechanism. There are some links there showing other bikes that are tig welded as well as the fillet brazed one. If I were going to get a demountable, I'm pretty sure this is the design I would use.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Okay, it would be a blast to design a fully lugged frame using these; need to ask Royal H Bryan about it!

    ReplyDelete
  28. And then ride it in exotic locales!

    ReplyDelete
  29. Not for me, too many bikes. Will have to find someone who wants one made, like with the Randonneur project. Though I do want a randonneur for myself now after that project... Argh, never mind! : )

    ReplyDelete
  30. I never take a bike as luggage. I've ground shipped my bike on UPS and other services many times, and air shipped it overseas. Its much more affordable and I've never had any serious problems. It takes planning though and allowing extra time. Thing is it may take 4 or 5 days or even a week or so to get there, and you need to send it to a place you can count on to reliably take custody of it until you can get to it. Then, depending on what you are doing you may need to stash the box or case, rolls of tape etc. until you are ready to ship it back. And arrange for it to be picked up. All of this can be a logistical hassle.

    I bring the tools, pedals, skewers, h@lm#t and other parts in my suitcase.

    When I do this most bike shops I've dealt with will save me a discarded bike box and sometimes packing materials like styrofoam, etc., if I give them plenty of lead time. It all takes planning but the cost difference is worth it. Plus no security person is going to unpack the thing and cause it to be damaged.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I've taken the Club Racer to Paris, Vancouver, and Honolulu and each time the assembly and disassembly was a fair bit of work, but it was really nice to have a bike that I knew, was familiar with, and had setup properly for the rides that I was doing. The Paris and Vancouver trips, being for 1000k+ rides, sort of required it; but I could have conceivably rented a bike in Hawaii. Still, my preference for a bike with luggage options for a long ride would've severely constrained my choices.

    (oh, and yes, every time I've put my bike on a flight, it's been inspected by TSA.
    It's less of an issue if I ship the bike via UPS -- which is now my preferred option if travelling domestically)

    I just recently came back from a trip to Australia and, for once, I did not take the ANT with me. Part of it was that I had just gotten the rebuilt bike back a week before and didn't want to go through the exercise of disassembling it just yet, but the other part was that I did not expect to get a chance to stretch my legs on this trip. Packed work schedule, etc. I had a free Sunday and, if I had the ANT with me, I would've sorely been tempted to take off on an impromptu winery tour of the Yarra Valley. In the end, wound up renting a Lekker Double Dutch and tooled around the city. That was fine, too.

    So, basically: if I'm just going to be in the city, I'd go with a bikeshare or a rental and leave my bikes at home. If I'm going to be touring (even if it's a sub-24 hour tour) then I'll put up with the hassle of bringing my bike.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I got a Bike Friday New World Tourist for traveling. (I tried a Tikit first, but it didn't quite do everything I wanted.) It takes a while to pack and unpack, though a lot of that is putting on and taking off accessories (fenders, racks, lights, bell, extra bottle cages, lock bracket); if you leave those off, it's 10-15 minutes max to unpack and set up. I find it rides quite nicely on 40-406 Schwalbe Marathons. I've used it on a couple of 7-10 day tours, and until next August, while I'm living overseas, it's my only bike. I might use it on brevets next spring if I decide to do any in 2012.

    I'm happy enough with the NWT that I don't see the point of getting a take-apart bike with larger tires. Like Cris, if I am traveling and don't think I'll have time for a longish ride, I won't take it, but if I expect to have a couple free hours, I will. The last time I was in Charleston, SC, I didn't bring it; instead, I rented a hybrid from a local shop. After doing 30 miles on that, I decided that the hassle of bringing my own bike was worth it.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Since we're on the topic of drop bars, how did you feel about the modern-ish ergo drops on the Seven?

    So far I've only used classic bars, but wouldn't be opposed to trying a more modern design if the benefits drastically outweighed the hideous looks.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Oops! That last comment would have made much more sense in the "Must Haves: Dropbars with Flat Ramps" post, which was where it was intended.

    ReplyDelete
  35. A great option for someone looking for a full size folding bike is a Montague...in my opinion at least. It's a full-size bike with full-size wheels that folds (not disassembles). It's great for getting around in the city - I can ride to the train, I can take the bus and then ride to work on the other end (avoiding a lengthy wait for a bus transfer). It gives me a lot of options depending on how I"m feeling, the weather, length of ride etc. Anyone looking for a folding bike that doesn't sacrifice ride quality should definitely check these out.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Just packed my S&S coupler Surly into it's hard sided case.
    I'll be flying on a trip tomorrow for the long weekend.

    I've had to pay for carrying an extra bag not a bike the case fits within luggage limits.
    The last flight I came home to find I had a bent rear spoke
    and a busted clip off the bike case. S&S sent me a clip to replace.
    At least it was after biking for a week in California not before.
    In the 2 years since building it I've ridden in California, Florida, Texas and Maine as well as greater boston.
    The dream is to take it touring in foreign lands.

    On a weekend in D.C. I used the bike share.
    It was great & only 6 bucks for each bike for 2 hours.

    If I get around to getting a custom frame built it will definitely have the couplers.
    That suitcase was expensive!

    ReplyDelete
  37. I see a few posted about Bike Friday, which I was surprised not to see in your post. I have a Bike Friday NWT, tandem and their recumbent model, SAT R DAY. In addition I have an S&S coupled regular sized recumbent, where everything but the seat fits in a 26x26x10 suitcase. I've carried the seat as my "2nd carry on" for domestic and international flights without a problema.

    The "joy" of having "my" bike wherever I go outweighs (bad pun) the cost of a 2nd piece of luggage, or whatever weird fee the airline comes up with.

    I heartily recommend you try a Bike Friday "Tiket" as a commuter for the Boston area. Write to BF and see if they'll grant you a loaner in return for an article.

    In the meantime, ride long and prosper.
    Slo Joe Recumbo

    ReplyDelete
  38. P.S. You can't S&S couple an aluminum frame, if I remember right.

    ReplyDelete