Thursday, May 24, 2012

Traveling to Ireland with a Brompton

Brompton, DART Commuter Train
Over the past weeks, I have traveled to, from and around Ireland with my Brompton folding bike. Aside form flying from Boston to Dublin and back with the bike as part of my luggage, I also did a great deal of what I think is called "multimodal commuting" in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, making frequent use of local trains and buses. Overall I experienced relatively few problems and would certainly do this again. 

I flew Aer Lingus, and they treat bikes as any other piece of checked-in luggage. Passengers are allowed one checked bag as part of their ticket price. If they want to check in an additional bag (or bike box) it costs extra. The size of the Brompton - no matter what bag it is placed in - exceeds the size limit of Aer Lingus's carry-on luggage allowance and must be submitted as checked luggage. Knowing this, I decided to get a hard case for the bike. I needed to replace my old hard shell suitcase anyway, and figured it made sense to do it this way. 

Packed
The padded hardshell case is made by B&W (they call it the Clapton Box) and is not technically a Brompton-sanctioned product. However, it fits the bike perfectly and is sold by several retailers as a Brompton accessory. I bought mine from Clever Cycles, and I know NYCE Wheels sells them as well. There is some debate as to whether the hard case vs the Brompton B-Bag is preferable for airplane travel. Based on my own experience with international travel, I prefer to use a hard case.

The B&W case is nice in that it fits the Brompton so exactly that there is no room for the bike to move around inside. At the same time, the nature of the folded shape allows stuffing the case with other (soft!) items. I packed all of my clothing, as well as 2 pairs of shoes into this case in addition to the bike, rolling each piece up and stuffing it into a crevice. The total weight was just under the Aer Lingus checked baggage limit. The size of the hard case fits Aer Lingus's checked baggage parameters. 

The hard case with the bike and all my clothing was the only piece of baggage I checked in, thus managing to avoid extra fees. I also took a small rolling suitcase as a carry-on, and my Carradice bag as a purse/ personal item thingie. The airline had no problem with this. 

An Elegant Arrival
The problem I did have was with the TSA. When I checked in my hard case at the airport in Boston, the person handling the luggage pointed out that the closure seemed easy to open accidentally when left unlocked. She suggested I lock the case and attach the key to the outside, lest the TSA wish to open it. That is what I did. Once I landed, I was horrified to discover that the closure on the case had been tampered with and the key was no longer there, with no explanation as to what had happened. I had a spare key, but somehow it no longer worked. Trying not to panic, I arrived at my relatives' house, then looked for a locksmith at 7am as my first order of business in Ireland. There was one nearby and I rolled the hard case to them, close to tears at this point, imagining that the Brompton was all mangled inside as well. The locksmith examined the damage. Turned out, there was a piece if key stuck inside, which is why my spare key did not work. They used a pick to remove the piece of key and opened the case. Thankfully, neither my bike nor any other contents had been touched. And there was a note from the TSA inside, with the other half of the broken key taped to it. The hand-written part of the note said: "difficulty opening lluck." There was also a bunch of legal text saying that my case had been opened as part of standard procedure and that the TSA was not liable for any damage.

The lock on my case is still functional, but it is slightly mangled, and I will see whether I can get it fixed. On my return trip on Aer Lingus I did not lock the case again, but wrapped packing tape around it - in addition to the velcro closure strap the case already comes with. Not very elegant, but it did the job. The case was not opened on the return flight. 

Dublin-Belfast Luggage
My trips from Dublin to Northern Ireland and back were completely problem-free. I left the hard case at my relatives' house and traveled with just the small suitcase, Carradice bag, and the bike sheathed and folded. I got to the Antrim coast by train and bus via Belfast, and wrote about that trip here. That went well, but the way back was even easier: On the day I was leaving Northern Ireland a friend took me to see Derry, and from there a bus goes directly to Dublin. I stored both the sheathed Brompton and the suitcase in the luggage compartment on the side of the bus, and it was very simple. I have seen cyclists store full sized bikes in the luggage compartments on the sides of buses, though I don't know what the official policy regarding this is.

Having done both, I would say that long distance travel within Ireland is more convenient by bus than by train. The buses run more frequently, the stops tend to be more conveniently located, the platforms are easier to access when carrying luggage, and overall it was just a more straightforward experience whenever I opted to get somewhere by bus as opposed to train. In the US I do not like to travel by bus, as I get motion sick. Oddly I did not experience this on the buses in Ireland.

Waiting for the Train/Bus
Even when not traveling, I would sometimes take my bike on a local bus or train when visiting friends, or when doing a ride with a remote start. 

Ulsterbus Bus Stop
In Northern Ireland, I made use of the Ulsterbus, which runs frequently between the various towns and villages along the coast.

DART Commuter Train
In the Republic of Ireland, I rode the DART commuter train from  the seaside suburb of Dun Laoghaire, where I was staying, to Dublin a couple of time. All of this was extremely easy to do, with no one questioning my bringing a folding bike on board. I did not have to sheath the Brompton in order to disguise it, and in some cases did not even need to fold it.   

Brompton, Ulsterbus Bus Stop
I am happy with my decision to bring the Brompton along to Ireland, and with how I chose to do it. Traveling around with the bike and additional luggage was easy. The transportation system there is excellent compared to most parts of the US. I also enjoyed flying Aer Lingus. They have straightforard baggage guidelines and are pleasant to deal with.

As with any international travel from the US, the biggest risk factor is the TSA. Their behaviour is unpredictable and you just never know. In my experience, TSA-specific locks do not always help: Many of my colleagues have had these locks cut and their luggage damaged regardless. The best thing is not to lock your case, period, and to use extra velcro straps or tape for added security if desired. When it comes to bikes specifically, there is also some debate as to whether it is preferable to travel with the bike in "stealth mode" or to make it as obvious as possible that there is a bike inside. Based on the combined anecdotal evidence I've heard, I believe the latter is best when it comes to the TSA. If they don't know what something is, they are more liable to damage it in the process of trying to find out. Either way, travel insurance is a good idea when overseas travel from the US is involved.

Back in the US now, I may return to Ireland later this year - again with the Brompton in tow. Having my own bike at my disposal at all times was invaluable; I cannot imagine traveling otherwise from now on. 

49 comments:

  1. For the TSA, I think it's very important that you plaster your bike liberally with "this bike is not a bomb" stickers. That always sets people at ease.

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  2. Hello Velouria,

    Many thanks for posting all of the great reports and photos about your trip to Ireland. A real joy to read and look at. You've given a lot of great insights and made me think about a lot of the routes I ride in a different way. For instance .... any time I've cycled along the Dark Hedges, I've always been too busy chasing somebody else's wheel to appreciate the beautiful scenery! You must have clocked up a good few miles on the Brompton by now!

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  3. Your pictures make me wonder how you stored your camera equipment while you were on the bike. Did you simply stuff it in the saddlebag or did you take specific precautions? Thanks :)

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    1. It is not a saddlebag but a City Folder - a Brompton-specific office bag with a padded compartment. I have additional padded compartments when I carry multiple cameras or other delicate equipment. Zimbale makes a nice one.

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  4. Velouria

    I find your report on traveling in Ireland with a Brompton very Interesting and I also favour using Buses over Trains.I think you will find you will get to like your Brompton very quickly and use it a lot.

    chris531

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  5. "whether it is preferable to travel with the bike in "stealth mode" or to make it as obvious as possible that there is a bike inside"

    My experience is that "stealth mode" is a bad idea. I once traveled with a tubeset for a bicycle frame, and that bag took an extra 24 hours to arrive. Nobody could track it, it had vanished!

    I appears that the U.S. authorities took a day to figure out whether this was something that should not be exported ("precision-drawn tubes")... Perhaps if I had written a note explaining it, it would have been better? Or perhaps that would have been more suspect?

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    1. My aversion to the stealth mode comes from stories of coupler bike cases turned inside out when not clearly labeled as such. I've had similar things happen when transporting other unusual (not bikey) objects, until I started labeling them.

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    2. it can be fun, I've been thoroughly quizzed at an airport in Verona for carrying an old Pavoni, naked, under my arm, otoh, nothing got broken, it not involving homeland security, my sympathy

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  6. drwchase -- One Boston LBS is called "Bikes not Bombs". Would the traveling Brompton be safer with a "Bikes not Bombs" sticker affixed to case or would it add delicious irony? Take another trip, Veloria!

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    1. Hmm yeah, I would not want anything with the word "bombs" on it, either when dealing with the TSA or when traveling through N Ireland.

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    2. Guys... I am pretty sure Anonymous and dr2chase were joking.

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    3. Anna, I know they were. I just hope no one is actually inspired to joke about this with the security people or intentionally put Bikes Not Bombs stickers on their luggage. I assure you the TSA is humourless.

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    4. It's one of those things that pretty much highlights how stupid we are about safety. Remember the Lite-Brite-Mooninite incident? Yeah, the first rule of bomb making, is to make it look really weird and attention getting (as opposed to making it look like a discarded fast "food" bag). Or that girl with the LEDs on her shirt at Logan, woooo, vewwy-scary, we're hunting tewwawists.

      The only time I was ever got a thorough search at the airport, was the same time I checked a folding bike (in a flimsy nylon bag, not that I cared much about the condition of a cheap Craigslist folding bike). This is not a war on terror, this is a war on different. The guy I saw with bagpipes in his carry-on, they wanted to look those over, too.

      Never mind that in this country, terrorists are slightly more dangerous than falling out of trees, and slightly less dangerous than falling out of beds. Vastly less dangerous than the health risks of NOT riding a bike.

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  7. This post is beyond helpful. I has debating investing in this exact setup recently. As in, getting a folding bike for travel, but the questions of packing and airlines always gave me some pause. This post gave me a lot of fodder. Thank you!

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  8. Your posts about riding the Brompton in Ireland have made me reconsider my new bike buying plans. Damn! Reading this blog I want something new every day...

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  9. I have always flown commando-style with my Brompton, meaning no case or cover of any kind, rolling the naked folded bike to the gate, where I check it as you would a stroller or wheelchair. If no attendant to gate check it, I'll carry it on and stow in the overhead bin. Dozens of times, domestic and international, no problems. The bike will pass through the TSA scanner belts, and generally they react with approving amusement.

    No case means you can ride to and from the airport. I don't travel with more luggage than will fit in the T Bag and either a transverse saddlebag or messenger bag.

    I reason that a soft case won't protect the bike from being crushed under several other suitcases as checked luggage, while a rigid case prevents me from being able to ride to/from airports or with all my stuff at my destination.

    A completely naked folded bike communicates its own safe handling requirements effectively enough, and there's no question about what it is. If it gets a little ding here and there, it's character. A bike too precious to be dinged is too precious to ride, as I see it. Travel enough and the saved taxi fares pay for the bike in case it does get banged up too much.

    Some pictures, relevant links for the skeptical:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/3953181031
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/3953943294
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/3391062497
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/2886172919
    http://primacyclorina.com/2012/02/24/navigating-the-airport-by-brompton/
    http://pathlesspedaled.com/2011/03/this-bike-is-not-a-bike/

    I have heard from some (Clever Cycles) customers of trouble trying to emulate my methods, particularly with Delta, American, and their partners. So I won't fly those carriers. Don't call the airline to ask if you can carry your bike on board. It's a Jedi mind trick. "This is not the bicycle you are seeking to exclude." If someday I encounter a hostile airline person, my "plan B" involves putting the bike in one of those plastic bins reserved for suitcases that have burst, or else fabricating a sheath out of cardboard and duct tape, then checking the bike.

    PS: Ironically enough, Tern folding bicycles makes a semi-rigid case that fits Bromptons (other than H-types) better even than Terns. It's cheaper and lighter than the more protective Clapton Box, and has a TSA-approved combination lock: http://www.ternbicycles.com/gear/airporter-mini

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  10. I would be interested in reading your assessment of the Brompton's performance. I test rode one the other day for just a few minutes and found it to be light, strong, and maneuverable, but I was not entirely sold on it. Also, I couldn't get a sense if my relation with it would change over time, whether for better or for worse. Key to my buying one would be my ability to take it on an American domestic flight (probably Southwest) as carry-on baggage. The dealer told me that one of his customers does this regularly without any problems, but she just covers it with an expandable cover that attaches to the saddle, not with the standard carrying bag and certainly not with the hard case. The idea would be to ride to the airport, hop on the plane, ride from the other airport to my destination, and then reverse the process. An alternative woud be to check it as baggage but in its soft carrying case, not the hard case, which would be impossible to carry on the bike. Doable? I might be asking too much.

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    1. It is interesting you say that. I test-rode the Brompton several times, including one weekend-long test ride, and was not sold on it either. On my own accord, I probably would not have gotten one until a couple more years down the road, and it was my husband who made the decision for us to get them at this stage (we each have one). What can I say: He was right, I was wrong. It took me about a week to really get used to the bike. Then once I did I simply stopped riding most of my other bikes. I don't just like the fold and the small size; I actually prefer the Brompton's handling.

      As far as carrying the bike onto the plane: I know of several Brompton owners other than Todd who do it. My reason for not doing it, is that I am not strong enough to lift the thing that high, and also I did not want to risk it being denied on an international flight and having no Plan B. However, I might try it next time.

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  11. Todd, thanks, you answered all of my questions!

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  12. I'm planning a bike trip next June; two weeks Benelux cycling about 20-40 miles a day, and another two not really cycling much but I bike would definitely be used pedaling around. I've been thinking about taking a bike vs. renting one. I never thought of buying a Brompton, but after reading your post, it sounds like it might be a good idea.

    So my question is how do you think the Brompton would do with the mileage I mentioned? It really isn't heavy touring with big miles and lots of gear. More touring lite, staying at B&Bs, not camping.

    Would you do such a trip with your Brompton?

    This was such an interesting post. Thanks so much!

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    1. Yes, that is the kind of mileage I did in Ireland. It was hilly too. Not a problem.

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    2. What gearing option does your Brompton have?

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    3. The lowered gearing option.

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  13. In terms of design, the element that bothered me about the Brompton was the clamp that held the handlebars in place, what I suppose is considered the stem. It looked thin and cheap to me, words that I would not use to describe the rest of the bike. As someone who is sensitive to aesthetics, did you find it unattractive? I actually think I might forget about it after awhile, but it is in such a conspicuous place while riding that I am afraid it will always irritate my delicate sensibilities. Also, any feelings about the handlebars? I like the look of the S but the M seems the most popular and I am intrigued by the functionality of the P. Then there is the H.

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    1. Thomas, I've introduced a lot of people to Bromptons, and this is the first time I've heard this specific reservation. At "thin and cheap" I had to read twice to be sure you weren't referring to the shifters, which often attract that very comment. The shifters tend to rattle and *feel* cheap, but are actually quite tough, a case of competent functional and materials engineering untempered by human factors design. Re handlebars, aesthetics aside the S and M types differ profoundly in fit and feel, such that I think your height and riding style would trump other considerations.

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    2. Thomas - I do not see it, and am not even sure what you mean. In general, "attractive" is not exactly the word I would use for Bromptons, but every part certainly seems well made.

      The handlebars: I have tried P, S and M at this point. I thought that I would find the P most ergonomic, but I did not. The M and the S offer basically the same hand positions, only the M are higher and make you more upright. So I chose those, because I wanted it to be a relatively upright bike.

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    3. incidentally, Brompton's aluminium handlebars can break, at the clamp (on the Brompton website there's something about replacing them every few years), i guess somewhere in there keeping it all under 14 or so kg's came into the design too, while i can't fold an old sunbeam into a briefcase, i accept it as valid compromises

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    4. Several Brompton owners I've met in Ireland have a horizontal bar installed across their M handlebars to prevent stress and breakage. I have never seen that until now.

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    5. the problem with aluminium is that it doesn't give any warning when it's about to go, and are likely to go when under most stress (not, at all, good), but Brompton has reinforced the design five or six years ago, for what its worth, according to AtoB magazine..

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    6. Would like to know more about this handlebar clamp/issue, given that I've torn two pairs of non-Brompton handlebars in half over the years (and a third pair, heavily used by me, fell apart after I gifted them to someone else -- very embarrassing). Hasn't resulted in an injury, but not fun.

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  15. A most informative post! BTW, I initially thought that was a B17, but now I see it has no holes...a Team Pro?

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    1. Initially I'd put my Berthoud women's touring saddle on the bike. It did not feel right, so right before the trip I replaced it with a Brooks Finesse.

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    2. So, you did not find the Finesse too narrow for upright riding?

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    3. No, it's perfect. But I found it (and other B17S-sized saddles) too wide for my roadbike earlier. I must have weird sitbones.

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  16. Come election getting rid of TSA is priority No 1. "Your all Palestinians now", if not stopped it will spread over here to Europe. Third party!

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  17. Sorry, I didn't mean to sound insulting. I find the clamp to be industrial-looking which is actually quite in tune with the rest of the bike, with all of its naked clamps and fittings. I am thinking, however, and not that anyone asked, that if one of the tongues (or whatever you call them) of the clamp wrapped over the top of the bars and secured underneath as with a standard threaded stem, or even had a cast fitting secured by four small bolts as with a threadless stem, a very conspicuous part of the bike would look quite sharp.

    One of the parts of a bicycle that I love to look at is a nice Nitto stem where it clamps onto a nice pair of Nitto handlebars. I know this is comparing apples and oranges and unfair. Overall, I find Bromptons quite nice-looking. I particularly like the arch in the main tube and the little wheels, also the elegant saddle perched on the super tall seat post.

    As for custom modifications, I have found out the hard way working with Vespas that once you start modifying, the project never ends. So I now tend to leave things as they are and trust that the designers and engineers have already found the best solution.

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  18. Thanks for thoroughly and elegantly documenting your Irish adventures. I have been reading "Boomerang," Michael Lewis's excellent book on economic bubbles, including the banking debacle that left Ireland saddled with a mountain of debt. Hope your Irish friends/family weren't affected.
    MT Cyclist

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  19. You are really making that bike look appealing... :)

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  20. Glad to see you got your Brompton to Ireland and back in one piece - I flew to Dublin (from the UK) with my Brompton in a soft bag from Caradice - and this with the notoriously unfriendly airline RyanAir (aka ScamAir for the hidden costs they try to land you with) - but had no problems whatsoever with the Brompton. Sadly I was just there for a conference and only briefly got outside of Dublin for an afternoon ride prior to leaving. A few pics of my packing and a couple of the bike in Ireland are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/karlosofsyston/sets/72157629656131461/
    11 months ago you said "the Brompton is not an attractive bike from the start" - have you come around yet? ;-)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lovely_bicycle/5911106874/

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    1. I did not know they were nicknamed ScamAir : ) I used to fly RyanAir all the time when I lived in the UK with no problems.

      The Brompton is cute, like a small forest animal. But I don't think it is a conventionally attractive bicycle. Who said conventional is good though...

      Thanks for the pictures!

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    2. Thanks so much for sharing your pictures Karl. I will be taking my Brompton along from Cape Town (where I live) to Oxford in August this year. I once used the B Bag with cardboard inside to protect it. But your foam idea looks great! See http://capetownbrompton.tumblr.com - you may just see my traveling with it :-)

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  21. I just came across this blog post when searching for people traveling with Bromptons for overseas flights. I'm about to go to San Fran tomorrow morning and was thinking about taking my B (Bumble B) It's abit late for me to take him now as I would have to rush out and get a hard case as I think they would be the best option as I luv my little buddy too much for him to get damaged in anyway.

    Anyways I'd like to thank you for easing my fears abit & I will be looking to get a hard case for my next overseas trip, hell I may see if I can get one in the USA cheaper.

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  22. I know it is an old topic, but justo to add that I bought a B-bag and travelled from Portugal to Brazil. All was ok, except that I had to pay 150 Euros (!!) because TAP found that my Brompton was an "Oversized Luggage". Maybe if I had a hardcase, they would let it go without hassle. Hell, the fee was almost the price of the hard case :´(

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  23. I loved your blog post, I have a brompton which I use to commute to work cycling/train/cycling in London but I am originally from Ireland so loved that you had travelled with you bike to my homeland :)
    also thinking of getting the carradice bag and it looks so pretty and vintage in your photos you have me convince.

    thanks

    Julie

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  24. I will be traveling from Cape Town to the UK in August this year where I will spend 10 days at Oxford at a conference. I am training for a 300 km mountainbike race which I do each year and so need to keep my bike fitness more or less up to normal standards (last year I was in Holland at a University for 3 weeks and rented a bike). However, instead of renting a bike I am thinking of taking my Brompton with me for early morning rides, and of course to get around Oxford and London during my stay.

    I have the Brompton B Bag (which I used once before from the UK back to SA). It is a great bag, although it doesn't offer much protection for the bike). I am thinking that I may use the B Bag and put my clothes in with the bike as padding, and then add some foam as well.

    I'll let you know how it goes! Check out my Bromptons at http://capetownbrompton.tumblr.com

    Thanks!

    Dion

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