Thursday, August 27, 2015

Box vs Superbox - and Other Updates in Bike Shipping

Full Sized vs Frame-Sized Bicycle Box
Some time during my last visit to the USA I was talking to a bike shop employee about the difficulties of posting complete bicycles to non-local customers. I mentioned the existence of bike boxes that are large enough to fit an entire, fully assembled upright bicycle of Dutch/utility-sized proportions. He told me such things did not exist - that bike boxes are getting ever-smaller, so that anything but a fully disassembled roadbike is becoming impossible to fit inside them. I insisted that I'd seen with my own eyes the kind of box I was describing, whereupon he led me to the shop's computer and asked me to show him. We tried the search a few different ways, but could not find an example. And while I vowed to get back with proof of my claim, life's relentless current got the better of me and I promptly forgot about this debate. Until yesterday. When the two-fork project I am working on with Germano-Italian manufacturer Bella Ciao arrived at my doorstep in all its glory - in just such a box! For scale, here it is shown with a standard sized bike box in front of it, and an especially large upright city bike sandwiched in between.

Bicycle As Emerged from Full Sized Box
With its generous dimensions, the Superbox can literally swallow a full-sized bicycle whole, so that it emerges ready to ride once the pedals are screwed in, the handlebars flipped and the saddle adjusted - a process that took all of 10 minutes.

The particular box pictured here is approximately 70" by 42" and about a foot deep. It is produced by Wellpappenwerk Lucka in Lucka, Germany. But lest you think the availability of this size is limited to Europe, boxes with similar dimensions are apparently sold by AmTrak for $15. So for bike shops or manufacturers looking to buy in bulk, a North American supplier must exist as well. And individuals looking to ship a bike while minimising disassembly/reassembly, can simply visit a train stations and buy one of these.

Full Sized Bicycle Box
Hypothetically, the availability of such enormous containers makes it convenient to both send and receive fully assembled bicycles. Unfortunately, there is the pesky little fact that postage rates in much of the world have run completely amuck.

Four years ago, I walked into a post office in Vienna, Austria and asked how much it would be to ship my vintage Francesco Moser frame to Boston, USA. The clerk took the frame from my hands and weighed it, then swiftly wrapped the tubes in some brown paper, slapped a postage sticker on, and charged me 14€. "Are you sure it's safe to ship it this way?!" I asked, as taken aback by this method as I was by the low price. "The most safe," he replied. "Everyone sees it's a bicycle." The day after my flight landed, the frame arrived at my doorstep without a scratch (aside, of course, from the dozens of scratches it already had from decades of use).

But things are no longer so simple. A few years back I wrote about the increasing difficulty of shipping bicycles from, to, and within North America. The problems included rising costs, size restrictions, and - perhaps most alarmingly -  the fact that damage in transit was becoming increasingly common. Today, I am sorry to report, the situation has only grown worse. At some point fairly recently, postage rates rose dramatically, so that at present time, to ship a bicycle from the US to Europe costs upward of $300 and often closer to $500, with domestic shipping rates not far behind. This came as a nasty surprise to a few framebuilders and vintage dealers/collectors I know, whose business was hit pretty hard by the change. This is also why, after my move to Ireland, most bicycles I had in Boston were re-distributed to new owners, with the ones I truly wanted to keep gradually smuggled in bike bags on flights. Shipping them over was simply out of the question.

More depressingly though, if I am to go on anecdotal evidence, it seems that damage in transit is becoming not only common but almost the norm. The last bicycle I sold non-locally arrived to the buyer with a gaping hole in the box and half the accessories missing - despite having been professionally packed and shipped by a bike shop. A friend of mine, who used to "flip" vintage bikes on a regular basis, informs me that his last 4 sales in a row suffered some form of damage in transit.

Full Sized Bicycle Box
In Europe, things seem a bit better. Within the EU, you can get a bicycle frame shipped for under $50 and a complete bike for under $100. Stories of damage are comparatively rare, too. It makes me wonder: Is it only a matter of time until things here catch up to the way they are in North America? or is there something inherent to the postage process here that makes it less costly and less prone to damage?

Either way, for those planning to either ship or receive a bicycle in the near future I will re-iterate two pieces of advice from my earlier post: (1) insure the shipment, and (2) go through a bike shop if possible, as the involvement of professionals - on both the packing/shipping and the receiving end - will make it more likely for the case to go in your favour in the event of a dispute with the shipping company over damage.

And of course, better yet: Try to buy, and sell local. It may seem like you can get a better deal by casting your net wider. But, Superbox or not, nothing beats the peace of mind and gratification of an in-person sale or purchase. You might even make a new bikey friend!

35 comments:

  1. I do a lot of shipping, and it's just getting out of hand with the costs in the US.

    That aside, this new bike is quite a looker. Is that a matte metallic green finish? Very nice color scheme.


    Wolf.

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    1. metallic green powdercoat; looks amazing

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  2. For those who travel with bicycle there is advice #3: buy a bike with frame couplers. If shipping a bike can cost $300 or more, couplers will be paid off in just 3 flights.

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    1. With some airlines (like Are Lingus), there is no extra charge for a bike bag even of the non-coupler variety, if it is your only piece of checked luggage. So if I manage to stuff mine not just with bike but with whatever else I need for the trip, my non-coupler bicycles fly free.

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    2. How did you manage that? I just flew with Aer Lingus to Geneva from Dublin this summer with only a bike bag as checked luggage and was charged 50 Euro.

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  3. I don't know if the method of shipping matters. Is there less chance of something getting damaged when it goes by ground freight instead of air? If by air, my concern would be the bike box loaded at the bottom of a large pile of luggage in the hold and being crushed.

    I spent some time working in Vienna in the 1990s and was young enough not to know any better, so I turned up at the airport with my bike, no box, no protection, pedals on and just checked it in as outsize luggage. It made it to Vienna, and back again to London later, totally unscathed.

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  4. I've found that you can get cheaper bike shipping in the US from www.bikeflights.com. I've used them for several tours so far, and it usually runs $50-$60 for coast-to-coast one-way (shipping a heavy touring bike). They just send you a packing label to affix to your box and you can either schedule a pickup or take it to your nearest FedEx (I think they've got some kind of reseller agreement with them).

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  5. I traveled from Hawaii to Michigan with a big heavy beach cruiser. I had to pay $25 for a big bike box and thought it was a lot. OK this was way back in 1986.

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  6. For PBP this year I purchased an enormous bike box from Nashbar (the Pro Bike Case, their largest) and took my bike as checked luggage. Worked, though I had to spend $150 extra each way to bring it. According to the info I was able to find on the web, it would have cost me $1000 to ship the container to my hotel in Saint-Quentin. So while it was a pain schlepping it around the airport bringing as checked luggage was the way to go.
    Airline policies vary widely, though. One guy who was on a budget told me that he'd been able to get his bike included as checked luggage without additional charge on Scandinavian Air so long as he kept it under 50 pounds. Which means packing it in a cardboard box, not a rigid container. I can't imagine trusting that it would arrive safely that way. Though, in fact, most horror stories of bike damage were from the luggage inspectors opening the container, then mashing things back inside, rather than luggage loaders not handling the boxes carefully.
    I'm inclined to guess there's a whole additional level of trouble shipping bikes, rather than bringing them as checked luggage. I wasn't able to find any reasonably priced way to ship my bike to Europe. Though there are several good ways domestically.

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    1. I've had some bad luck with flying with a soft box. Had no issues flying from the US to Denmark, but coming back into the US from the Netherlands using Superbox-sized boxes (all that we could find) was a complete mess. Each time we saw the boxes during the trip they were in worse condition. We had to aggressively repair the boxes with tape at our first stop. By the time we got our bikes again, my box was more of a bag, and my friend's was in worse state. My bike survived somehow, but my friend's front rim was broken in 3 places. The airline claims person didn't even try to blame us for the damage, and paid for a replacement.

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  7. I agree, it is getting out of hand; UPS used to be pretty reasonable; but soon after they went public their prices shot up from less then $50 to close to $100 depending on the bike/carton size! You can still get a reasonable cost, but you have to have an "account" presumably as in you are a business and do a lot of shipping.
    I don't have an account so I rarely use UPS anymore and have reverted to using USPS again, but USPS workers ain't what they used to be! Working for the post office used to be such a cushy job that their employees would never think about doing anything shady and took great pride in their work. Recently though the level of complacency has gotten rather ridiculous. After many years of nearly spotless service; over the last couple years I have failed to get several packages due to ineptitude on their parts and when I try to follow up on it, suddenly it's my fault or they simply shrug. Our neighborhood association/watch was recently circulating video of carriers literally dumping packages on the sidewalk in front of our houses!!!!
    -masmojo

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  8. The last frame I shipped (it was a frame/fork only, so it was in a smaller bike box) actually arrived to the buyer unscathed, which is always surprising to me. We've come to a ridiculous point of packaging and I nearly always wrap the entire frame/fork in multiple layers (4-5) of bubble wrap because inevitably the box will arrive damaged. What amused me about dropping the box off for this last shipment was that when I arrived to the shipping center the woman working the counter told me that they could "no longer accept boxes with any kind of holes." The box had one small hole in it (about the size of a dime - certainly not anything that was comprising to the integrity of the box). It took everything in me to not reply, "So, it's okay for you to put tons of holes in the boxes and damage everything in shipment, but I can't bring you a box with one tiny hole?" {sigh} I don't mind the rigidity in what they are willing to accept for shipping, however I do not like the damage that is now (as you point out) the norm rather than the exception.

    Honestly, if I'm shipping an entire bike, I ship it in two boxes: a very small frame box and a wheel box. This has helped keep the costs somewhat reasonable. Usually, anywhere I ship in the U.S., the costs are under $100 for both packages.

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    1. No holes? Interesting, considering most bicycle boxes are deliberately made with holes for hand gripping.

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    2. I've shipped 2 bikes in the last year or so. The first one, a 1971 Lambert, went in a regular bike box(with fork and drop-out spreaders, tons of foam etc.) VIA UPS because that"s how the buyer wanted it shipped(and we have an account at work with daily pickup/drop off), it was over $125 to Madison Wisconsin if I remember correctly and the customer said it showed up with a bootprint on the end of the box and gaping holes in the sides. The bike was fine but had certainly been on an adventure.

      The other one, a vintage BMX Race Cruiser with 26" wheels, shipped in multiple boxes via UPS and USPS to Texas for under $95 (I think). Frame/fork/handlebars via UPS with fork removed and taped to the frame in the smallest box they would fit in, with an extra 2 sheets of cardboard slipped in on each side and all the scraps of foam and bubble wrap I could find.The wheels and tires went in a cardboard wheel box from the LBS with LOTS of padding and nothing else, also via UPS, and everything else (stem, seat, seatpost, seatpost clamp, brakes, pedals, grips, numberplate and cranks, BB etc.) in a US Postal Service flatrate box. It was cheaper than sending the Lambert in one big box but of course a BMX bike packs smaller even if it is a fullsize 26" Cruiser. It was more hassle because I blew that bike into a hundred peices to make it fit, but it was going to be torn down for a rebuild anyway. The heaviest box was the smallest one, but that one was the flatrate box so it was the cheapest. It all arrived in perfect shape and the wheelbox will get reused when he ships the stuff he traded me for. I'm not sure I would do it this way again but I was hoping to save a little and ship this stuff in as close to armored packages as I could.

      Shipping a bike has become such a giant pain in the neck that when I fly to Texas to visit friends now I just use one of his bikes with my saddle and pedals, and when someone comes to visit me I hook them up with a loaner of mine or one of my friends.

      Spindizzy

      BTW, if you decide to ship UPS, they have some arbitrary rules about packaging like a minimum of 3 pieces of reinforced packing tape to close any box, 2" of foam or other padding on every side and some other things that I don't remember. If you try to make a damage claim (even if you purchased additional insurance) and you don't meet the letter of the regulation you will be saddened. If a 8" square box that you tape shut with a single 12" strip of tape arrives having been under water and hit by a train but with the single piece of tape still intact but the 1948 mechanical bike siren mashed into a useless slab, you may not be able to get a settlement because it was packaged improperly. It's much better for you if they lose it altogether than for it to arrive damaged. And please, don't even bring up FedEx to me.GGGRRRrrrrrrr!

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    3. I have almost exclusively started to use FedEx over UPS because I have filed a claim with UPS and they denied it for the exact reasons Spindizzy mentions. I don't know if FedEx would be any different, but I have had somewhat better luck thus far with boxes arriving undamaged.

      Yes, no holes. I found it an odd statement too...and I've since shipped boxes with handles and they didn't reject the package, so it may simply have been an uninformed employee?

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    4. Hah! I've been riding a Lambert since '80….didn't know there were others out there. Well, it's now retired since replacing it in 2012 with a modern machine but the thing held up well through all my modifications. A unique bike.

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    5. Would you like another? 62cm, whippy as a Willow switch with a modern aluminum fork in place of the old infamous alloy Lambert "Breakaway Fork"? Perfect for unloaded tours of 20 miles or less or parking by your office door to hang your coat over(as long as it's not a particularly weighty coat of course...).

      Let me know.

      Spindizzy

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    6. Yeah, they called it a touring bike but it ended up being a perfect commuter with flat bar, Blackburn rack, and chromoly fork. Loved it, and it did some heavy duty work, whippy and all.

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  9. First get a Brompton box, then a Brompton to fit. Ships small, cheap, and secure.

    The deal with giant boxes is that common carriers (e.g. UPS, FedEx, USPS) won't take them. Above a certain combined dimension, shipping via freight is the only way. We ship bikes (other than Bromptons) only fully assembled via freight, which costs a lot, but keeps damage at a minimum, and also prevents problems with incorrect assembly on the receiving end.

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  10. Once upon a time, 2001, we used a freight forwarder in the UK to ship our tandem from Southampton to Portland. I recall it cost about $250, but was considerably more convenient than taking it on the plane. And, on the outbound leg of that trip, we shipped the bike via FedEx to NYC where we put it on board the Queen Elizabeth II for the voyage. I don't recall why we didn't take it with us on the flight, but I think it was because it would have cost us something to do that both ways, it's a hassle and the shipping charges were reasonable enough that it was worth it. Not any more. And, airline charges, which may vary widely, are absurd. It now costs $200 to take a bike, regardless of the size (other than the Brompton) overseas (United Airlines). But, wait, there's more. The charge, which is published, is subject to the discretion of the ticket agent. And, the last time I took a single bike overseas, in a Pika Packworks case, wherein I fully disclosed that it was a bike, the agent simply checked it and we were on our way, no charge. I guess the lesson here is that you should just use your bike to travel, enjoy where you are, and buy and ride "local."

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  11. I have found the rates for shipping within or from the U.S. to be quite high lately, but I often order parts and accessories from England and the shipping charges are quite reasonable. In the last month or so I ordered a helmet from England and the shipping cost was $5.60; I recently researched the cost to ship a small, 1 lb. package to the Netherlands and the best price I found (USPS) was more than $35. It’s more cost-effective for someone in the U.S. to be an importer rather than an exporter, that’s for sure.

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  12. +1 I have used large boxes traveling Amtrak.

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  13. I use the Amtrak boxes fairly regularly to ship bicycles up and down the East Coast of the US for my adult children. And for bikes I accumulate in my travels. They do have some limitations. A XL sized bike with full fenders and racks is a force fit. As are some Euro style city bikes. But other than that the service provided by Amtrak has been excellent and the bikes have arrived intact.

    Aaron

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  14. Another worry sending bikes - or any one off commercial shipment - from abroad to the U.S. via post is customs.

    Most European (likely Middle-East and African as well) parcel posts are shipped via Newark. Once they arrive at the Newark Post Office they are then put on a conveyor belt that routes them into a neighboring building for customs screening. The USPS is a quasi-independent government owned corporation. Customs is a government agency. The two communicate with each other as badly as anyone could imagine.

    Case in point: This spring I purchased from a German company a few TA components the U.S. importer does not source. German Post has a wonderful tracking system that allowed me to follow the package each step of the way from Germany to Newark. There the USPS system showed the package arrival and quick routing to customs. Where the package apparently then stayed for more than three months.

    E-mails, letters and calls made no difference. The USPS blamed Customs. Customs blamed the USPS. Finally for reasons no one even bothered to try and explain the package was returned to Germany. The wonderful German business resent the package via DHL. I received it a few days later.

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  15. Also, meant to say my most recent custom came in an Air Caddy box. Some disassembly is required but not much. These are very sturdy so less likely to be damaged. Of course it is obvious there is a bike inside so there is risk from dishonest logistics employees. http://www.lickbike.com/productpage.php?PART_NUM_SUB=3702-08

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  16. I spent the winter working at a used bike dealer and had to ship a lot of bikes out for out-of-town sales. The sticking point for us was the size limitation of our carrier, which was, if I recall, 52"x32"x8", with talk of limits being reduced in the near future. At that size, a 700c wheel with a substantial tire barely fits into the box (I had to deflate the tires in some cases).
    I'm currently working at a shop with very different shipping policies and a better carrier, who charges a flat rate for bike boxes, and it's a lot easier. While we don't have particularly tall boxes, we build a lot of fat bikes (it's Wisconsin, after all) so we get some exceptionally broad boxes which fit most things pretty easily.

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  17. How exciting, the twin-forked Bella Ciao arrived and it's still summer.

    Which fork is on the bike,low or mid trail handling and which is on the ground? As I recall you thought you would get a 72.5°. And are both of them different than the stock fork that comes with a Bella Ciao?

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  18. Someone has already mention BikeFlights; they're getting good reviews on the RBW Forum. Also, a soft bike bag (you can reinforce yourself with cardboard) from Ground Effect which requires very little bike dis-assembly: http://www.groundeffect.co.nz/products/body-bag-compact-bike-bag

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  19. I was able to obtain several such used boxes from the local bike shop prior to our move last summer. One was large enough to fit the Raleigh DL-1 roadster. At least one was for an Electra Townie, if I recall correctly.
    I didn't try shipping, because the bikes fit in the moving truck. We did price out costs and discovered that Amtrak was least expensive, followed by FedEx, but this was a cross-continent move and didn't involve international borders or oceans.
    My last bike came FedEx, and was less beat up than the previous shipments from a few years back. I'm guessing I just got lucky.

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  20. Some of the reasons I wouldn't buy an expensive touring bike are mentioned in this article. Crazy price in airlines and horrible treatment. I would hate to get a nice custom bike only to get the fork crushed or the gear hanger badly bent. On my last touring trips, I just bought a nice used steel mtb (must have a price below airline fees), do a complete rebuild to ensure everything works, and I donate it at the end of the trip (helps somebody and saves me the return fees and the hassle of finding another box). So far this method is working the best, and it also allows me to be more relaxed when leaving the bike parked somewhere unattended.

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    1. Sounds like the enlightened approach. It might also help some of us (Me) get past the idea that we have to have some specific highly sophisticated machine, ideally tailored to our individual "needs" just to go screw off for a while on a bike.

      Maybe.

      Spindizzy

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  21. Domestic parcel shipping in the US has become very expensive due to the add-on charges imposed by UPS and Fedex Ground. A few years ago, the two major carriers started calculating "dimensional weight" or "dim" as a way to increase revenues. In addition to the weight-based rates, the cubic volume of a carton now contributes to the final charge. I haven't calculated the cost of a bicycle, but I would imagine the dim weight is substantial.

    Dim weight is calculated by multiplying the parcel's length x width x height and dividing the result by a either 166 for domestic parcels or 139 for international destinations. If the result of the calculation is greater than the physical weight, the greater number is the billable amount.

    UPS and Fedex also charge for residential deliveries; the surcharges are now in excess of $2.00.

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  22. Have a look a the Rivendell bike shipping videos - they seem to do a good job with packaging (although admittedly I haven't bought a bike/frame from them). Yet.

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  23. Hi Tony, my husband and I had complete Rivendells (Sam Hillborne and Roadeo) shipped to Cleveland as our wedding gifts to each other. The bikes arrived in sturdy boxes that had a few creases on the corners but the bikes inside were expertly packed and unscathed. We were able to have them assembled (front wheel/saddle/handlebars/stem/pedals were off the bike, if I recall) and ready to roll that evening in our living room!

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  24. Online-only bike suppliers have started a trend of serving customers who hope to avoid a visit to a shop by shipping in these giant boxes. To their credit, most recommend seeking expert help if the buyer lacks know-how. They often ship such bikes via freight truck, where tall boxes are rarely loaded by laying them flat under other boxes, since it is easier for drivers to slide boxes in their vertical orientation, and it slows deliveries if other freight is covered up by a flat-laid big bike box. (they might lay one on top of a load, though.) I believe these boxes are oversize by UPS limits.

    The trouble with an oversize box is that it is large and unwieldy.  For air travel, imagine the handlers trying to maneuver such a box.  You probably struggled to get it curbside. Assuming handlers will shepherd your bike safely is naïve; they are pressed for time and your box is just one of thousands of pieces of luggage. Even industry boxes that are smaller, give fits to airline handlers. (just watch through the window...better yet, don't watch.)  A box such as used to supply dealers has hand-holes at an ideal height, where the box won’t drag on the ground. Its size has more panel strength due to a smaller silhouette. (Just because you write "Keep Upright" on the box doesn’t mean it won't be laid flat under some golf clubs.) 

    A good mechanic takes basic steps to protect the rear derailleur, the spacing of the front fork, and pads the frame tubes and adjacent front wheel with care.  Yet even this can't completely defend against the hazards of shipping via air. I believe a compact box and some necessary disassembly is worth it.  During some 30 years as a mechanic, my personal bikes and my customers' bikes got a few extra steps: such as fully removing the rear derailleur, not just shifting it to the innermost rear sprocket. This helps avoid the most common type of serious damage: the vulnerable rear dropout/derailleur hangar gets bent.  Because the rear derailleur sticks out from the bike more than any other part. One can’t just grab the derailleur to bend it back. (It is almost never the derailleur itself that is bent, instead it's the part of the frame where it attaches.) A visit to a shop will be in that bike's future.  Even modern replaceable hangar designs means buying  a spare hangar, while hoping only that part was bent. Someone who is avoiding doing minor reassembly probably won't want to attach a new hangar. Nor will they know why the rear gears keep shifting into the spokes after even a mild case of bending. This caveat applies to any bike being shipped, no matter what size of box. Anyway, most riders will know when to seek help from a friendly mechanic.


    All of that said, I’m an optimist. I tend to think, “things will work out.”  So I can see that getting a bike served up 98% assembled in a big box will appeal to many. But I’d never pack a bicycle for a client that way, it’s too hard to assure ideal transit. I would expect the return rate for a dinged frame tube to be more likely in the case of these oversized boxes.

    Regarding bikes that have been boxed up in any manner: before riding, check that the handlebars and stem are secure. Sounds obvious, but even trade mechanics sometimes forget to physically test this. The best proof comes from standing in front of the bike, facing the bars, with front wheel between knees. Grab the bars and use a moderate amount of force and see that the bars do not rotate, nor do the bar ends sink down if you put weight on them. This "handshake" with your bike will bring a dangerous condition to light. (do this also whenever you borrow or rent a bike.)   

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