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Have Bike, Will Travel: Logistical Tips for Bicycle Transport

Advice from experienced bicycle explorers on how to travel with your bike.

When Saris Chief Mechanical Engineer, BJ Bass, isn’t at work brainstorming ideas about how to improve the ride experience of cyclists with American-made accessories – he’s out living it. And we mean that literally, as nearly all of BJ’s vacations revolve around exploring new places by bike.

He’s not alone in these excursions, as cycling adventure both domestic and abroad is an interest shared by his wife. Whether hanging their mountain bikes on a ski lift in the Alps for a downhill run, pushing through a long Midwest gravel grinder, or exploring new singletrack in the states, their adventures over the years have taught them a lot about traveling with bikes.

Here BJ and his wife share their wealth of knowledge for those seeking tips on how to bring a bike along for their next adventure, wherever that may be.

By: BJ Bass, Chief Mechanical Engineer

riding bikes in Tignes, France
Tignes, France: finishing a day’s riding with a view.

Pre-Trip: A Word on Travel Insurance

Travel insurance isn’t something that most vacationers consider. However, if you’re planning for adventure then it also makes sense to plan for the times when things go sideways. During trips with mountain biking away from road or vehicle access, a helicopter might be needed to pick you up in an emergency.

In our opinion, the $40,000 average cost of heli-evac makes travel insurance a necessity. This is why most guide services require proof of medical and evac coverage before taking you with them. Besides, if you’re confident in your coverage, that makes it even easier to stay focused on having fun.

Case in point: A few years ago, one of our mountain biking trips ended on the first day with an over-the-bars crash and broken collarbone. Travel insurance covered some very effective painkillers and a $4,000 flight home for treatment, plus the additional $4,000 to re-book the trip for the next summer. We all crash sometimes, and adventure is often about failing and trying again. The fact that insurance covered a shot at redemption was pretty amazing.

World Nomads has been our go-to for travel insurance. They specifically cover mountain biking, and have a 24-hour call center for assistance

chairlift rides in Tignes, France
Tignes, France: the chairlift rides can be as breathtaking as the trails.

How to Travel with Your Bike

When it comes to transporting your bike to the best riding destinations, there are a few ways to go about it. Below are three options my wife and I use regularly, along with some lessons we’ve learned along the way.

By Car

Driving is the easiest way to bring your bike somewhere. We all have a bike rack that makes it quick to load our bikes up and hit the road, but longer trips deserve more preparation.

Checking the radar map before you head out is a simple thing to do to determine the best way to transport your bike. If we’re crossing heavy rain during a drive, we’ll typically break our bikes down and stow them in our car. However, if your car packed too full, or your bike is too filthy to be allowed inside, then most issues can be avoided by simply applying wet lube to your chain before heading out.

Being flatlanders from the Midwest, it is always surprising to us when snow in the mountains shows up in May or September. Be ready for this when passing over mountain ranges. Snow means salt and rust if left unattended, but hotels and campgrounds typically have a hose available to rinse your bike off with upon arrival. Most modern bikes will remain happy so long as they’re sprayed down within a day of salt exposure.

Madison, WI, singletrack trails
Madison, WI, singletrack: transporting your bike on a hitch rack will help keep the inside of your car mud-free.

By Airplane

Depending on the airline you choose, experiences flying with a bike can vary widely. For example, Delta charges at least $150 each way for a bike, and we’ve found that they generally aren’t helpful when it comes to any damage caused by baggage handlers. Virgin Airlines, on the other hand, will take a bike as a regular checked bag for no charge (if the bike + case weight is under 50.7 lb).

Don’t trust us on this though, airline policies change on an annual basis, so you’ll need to look into your airline’s policy before booking the trip. We tend to shop around each time before purchasing tickets to determine the best price with bikes included.

Importantly, if you book a flight through more than one airline, the first airline’s fees should determine your baggage fee on the bike - so long as it can be checked through to your destination.

As an example, I flew from Chicago to Geneva, with a layover in London. Virgin Airlines handled the flight between Chicago to London, and British Airways handled the leg from London to Geneva. On the way to Europe, I checked my bike in with Virgin for free as a regular checked bag. On the return flight to the US, I checked in with British Airways and they charged a $150 fee for the bike. Also, try to avoid overnight layovers because you will be charged each time you have to check your bike in.

Biking over rocks in La Plagne, France
La Plagne, France: even with all of these rocks, tearing yourself away from the scenery may be the most challenging part of riding in the Alps.

By Courier

If you’re flying with an airline that charges an arm and a leg for bike transport, then shipping a bike to your hotel or a bike shop can be a more affordable approach. For domestic travel, we use Bike Flights. They’ll insure your bike and help out if it is damaged.

To minimize the likelihood of damage, we’ve learned to ship our bikes in soft cases with spacers between the dropouts. Shipping companies will stack things on top of cardboard bike boxes and bicycle hard cases, but they don’t seem to do this with soft cases. Our experience with hard cases and cardboard boxes has always involved some amount of bike damage, ranging from shifter pods being broken to having the top tube smashed.

If you’re concerned about damage in shipping, have your local bike shop pack your bike professionally. That way if a courier damages your bike, you can relay these important words: “My bike was packed professionally in the same way that every new bike is packed from the manufacturer.” This statement has resolved our claims with FedEx every time.

La Salle Mountains make an amazing backdrop
The Whole Enchilada, Moab, Utah: the La Salle Mountains make an amazing backdrop once you finish climbing them and start descending.

What About Bike Rentals?

Bike rentals are a great way to avoid the challenges of traveling with a bike, while simultaneously getting to try out some of the newest technologies. Renting can also be convenient as shops are usually willing to store their bikes, so you don’t have to worry about keeping the bike secure overnight.

However, the quality of bike rentals can vary greatly, and the disadvantages of rentals relative to your personal rig can be very real. Rentals often have tubed tires for serviceability, which makes the likelihood of flats is higher than with the tubeless systems most of us run now. This also means that your tire pressure will likely be higher than with a tubeless setup, which reduces traction and comfort on long riding days.

And when it comes to suspension, rental bikes are usually set up by the last person who rode them. That person may not have been a suspension expert, and even if they were, they may not have weighed the same amount as you do or engaged in the same riding style. A simple guide to setting up suspension is worth reviewing to make sure you’ll be controlled and safe on your rental.

La Thuile, Italy chairlift
La Thuile, Italy: it doesn’t show up on camera, but the shop at the bottom of the chairlift served the best ice cream we’ve ever had.

The last thing to consider with a rental bike is the contact points. Most rentals can be swapped over to your preferred pedals if you bring them, but few will change the saddle or handlebar width. No one wants to spend a long day on an uncomfortable saddle, and if you have narrow shoulders then recent trends towards ultra-wide handlebars will make things more challenging for you.

We experienced this first-hand during our last trip to Colorado. My wife smashed the front rim on her bike, so she got a rental. While she was able to adapt to the rental bike, the wide bars caused shoulder pain and made it more difficult for her to sustain hard efforts throughout the day.

The Whole Enchilada, Moab, Utah
The Whole Enchilada, Moab, Utah: no one makes it past this overlook without taking a picture. The view is absolutely stunning.

How to Store Your Bike at Your Destination

After arriving, the last challenge is how to keep your bike safe overnight. In our experience, we’ve found there to be three options: storing your bike where you’ve booked accommodations, in your vehicle, or on your vehicle’s bike rack.

Hotel Storage

There are the a few hotels that allow bikes in hotel rooms, like the Winter Park Mountain Lodge in Colorado, but those places are rare gems in the hospitality industry. The bike friendliness of hotels usually ranges from unhelpful to outright hostile. Many hotels in riding destinations have bike storage rooms with security cameras, but hotel staff has warned me that things are stolen from those rooms regularly, and they recommend keeping the bikes inside your vehicle. However, if your car is too small or full for this approach (or your bike is too filthy), then there are some other options.

Most hotels will allow your bike inside if it’s in a travel case or bag, so a soft case that can fit your bike with a simple wheel removal will typically allow you to bring it inside. Sneaking un-bagged bikes in to your hotel is also a common approach but be prepared for the lofty fee that comes with getting caught.

Vehicle Storage

Most places will recommend that you keep your bike in your car, but bikes are a muddy greasy mess inside your vehicle - or at least our bikes are.

If you have a van, SUV, wagon, or hatchback, a blanket or cargo liner can go a long way towards keeping your car clean while on a trip. There are a lot of floor mat options out there too, but make sure your system covers the back of your seats to prevent tire marks. Options like Canvasback liners give good coverage if you’re the type of person who has their bike inside their car regularly.

If you’d rather keep your bike on a car rack in the hotel parking lot overnight, that’s an option as well – although the bike is more likely to be stolen when stored on the vehicle versus in. If outside is your only option, buying a $50 GPS tracker and leaving it on your bike in case of theft might allow you to find your bike in the morning, and many trackers can send you a text if the bike moves, so you’ll be alerted if a theft is in progress.

warm up on a fantastic day of riding in France
La Plagne, France: this was just the warm up on a fantastic day of riding.

How to Adjust Bike Setup for Altitude

Venturing away from sea level comes with its own set of challenges. Most of our trips are mountain biking-based, and we’ve learned to take note – and try to correct for – elevation’s impact on our ride experience, especially on components subject to the whims of air pressure.

Tire Pressure

Here’s one for the armchair engineers: how should you adjust your tire pressure (aka: psi) to compensate for altitude?

Atmospheric pressure is 14.7 psi at sea level, and 10.5 psi at 9,000 feet. When I travel from the Midwest to ride in the Rocky Mountains, should I adjust my tire pressure and how? At home, I run 20 psi in my front tire. But in the mountains, I would need to pump my tire up to 24 psi to maintain the same absolute pressure.

There are two things I’ve experienced in this scenario:

  1. If I add 4 psi to my tires in the mountains, they will feel bouncy and out of control.

  2. If I continue to run 20 psi in the mountains (effectively reducing my tire pressure by 4 psi) I will smash my rim on a rock. (This second scenario has happened 3 times now, and I still haven’t learned.)

I’ve concluded that a compromise is necessary, where I add some pressure to my tires at higher elevations, usually around 2 psi, to minimize rock strikes - but not so much that it makes the tires feel completely bouncy and out of control.

committing to doing things the hard way in Moab
The Whole Enchilada, Moab, Utah: committing to doing things the hard way.

Suspension Air Pressure

Expect to adjust your suspension’s air pressure at higher elevations too. If you set everything up before your departure, both suspension and tire pressures will increase along with elevation.

As an example, when visiting Winter Park, CO (a town at 9,000 feet elevation), our suspension sag went from 30% to 20%, definitely the opposite of what we wanted for charging big mountain trails. If you’ve made the switch to coil suspension, then you don’t need to worry about this.

And remember, no matter how looming the logistics of a bike trip may be – the payoff is worth it. And be sure to pack your action cam too, as it’s the best way to capture memories while enjoying the ride.