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Plane & Pilot

The Ultimate Travel Bicycle

By Steven Higginson

The idea of taking along a bicycle to your favorite fly-away spot as a leisurely form of ground transportation is nothing out of the ordinary. My problem is that the available folding bikes have always fallen short of my expectations. They either had the wrong gearing, the frame was the wrong size or the design--in order to fit within the confines of folding--was slightly less than stable. In fact, most folding bikes look like they'd be more at home in a circus than a country road--they've never been designed with serious touring in mind. I want to be able to do some riding, to see the sights, to really take in the outdoors.

I'd just about put the idea out of my mind and relegated myself to the usual array of "beater," one-speed rentals when a note from S&S Machine, out of Roseville, Calif., landed on my desk. The heading "High-Performance Travel Bikes" immediately caught my attention, followed by photos of a beautiful 25-inch frame, 16-speed touring bike featuring state-of-the-art Campagnolo Veloce cycling components and a machined stainless-steel, indexed and threaded coupling. My first impression was that I'd been sent a photo of the wrong bike but, on closer examination, I could see the couplings incorporated into the cycle's frame. The idea is to utilize the S&S Bicycle Torque Coupling to make any bike into one that will fold and travel--and that means any bike, from tricycle to mountain bikes.

Naturally, I jumped on the phone and contacted Steve Smilanick, owner of S&S Machine, for more information. Smilanick explained that he'd come up with the idea for the coupling when he wanted to take his bike along on a Mediterranean cruise. An avid cyclist, Smilanick felt it would be a shame if he couldn't cycle to the beautiful places he was to visit. His travel agent said the cruise line wouldn't let Smilanick bring along a cycle bag, but he could bring a bike if it fit into regular luggage. As a machinist and consummate problem-solver, Smilanick attacked with vigor the task of finding a suitable travel two-wheeler.

While researching the market for ready-made travel bikes to suit his needs, Smilanick found only flimsy hinges, small wheels and tires and pretty strange geometry. He didn't think these examples were something on which he'd care to ride 50 to 100 miles a day, so he decided to build one himself. Within a week, Smilanick had designed and made the first prototype couplings and installed them on his Bianchi. He test-rode the "new" cycle for a week, then broke it down, packed it with some clothes and gear in the largest duffel bag he could find and left for his cruise. He checked his bag on the plane in Sacramento as regular baggage, and it was in his cabin on the cruise ship with his other luggage when he arrived in Spain. During the cruise, Smilanick rode in Spain, Italy and Greece and got to see some real country and people, which made the trip all the more enjoyable. Smilanick has since traveled to the Caribbean, Europe and Hawaii and, in every case, the bike has been checked as regular baggage with no extra charges.

The bicycle Torque Coupling is simply built into any bicycle frame and voila, instant travel bike.

Since that first prototype, the coupling system has been refined and lightened and is now something that can be built into the bicycle and would never be noticed until the bike is broken down and packed into its case for travel. The goal of the Bicycle Torque Coupling is to enable the bike frame to be broken into two parts. Along with some minor disassembly of other bike components, this will allow a traditional-style, 25-inch (64cm) road bike into 700C wheels to fit into a 26x26x10-inch case. This meets most airlines' maximum baggage size limitation of 62 inches combined length, width and girth. The actual weight of the package depends on the size and type of bicycle onto which the couplings are incorporated. In the case of the 25-inch touring bike I reviewed, the combined weight of bicycle and soft case was about 25 pounds.

At these dimensions, a real bike would fit into most lightplanes without busting payload or gross. The overall package wouldn't fit through the luggage door of our C-182 but, because of the light weight, was easily manageable when loading through the cabin door and over the rear seatback. Once it was in place, there was plenty of room for additional baggage or even a second cycle.

Traveling Cases

Several options are available, including a light Cordura fabric bag that's great for personal handling because of its flexibility when loading baggage around the bike. A heavier Cordura backpack has additional compartments for clothing and supplies and straps that could accommodate the serious mountain-biker. An all-seam-welded aluminum hard case allows maximum protection from "gorilla" baggage handlers. A heavy cardboard case can provide good protection from baggage handlers and doubles as good all-around storage at a substantial savings over the aluminum unit. Custom frame covers are available to protect the finish of your cycle and a drawstring tool bag comes with the torque coupling system.

At first, the bike's disassembly appeared to be a bit of a hassle. Yet, after breaking it down and reassembling it a couple times, it proved to be straightforward and took no more than 15 or 20 minutes. The beauty of the system is that it requires no disconnection of cables or readjustment of settings for the brakes or shifting deraileurs. The process goes something like this: 1) Remove the front and back wheels. 2) Remove the seat. 3) Remove the handlebars but leave the brake cables attached. 4) Loosen and unscrew both torque couplings and separate the two frame sections. 5) Wrap the painted frame sections with the provided protective covers. 6) Carefully pack the components in the case in proper sequence and close it up. Again, this takes a bit of practice, but it eventually works very well.

One question that came to mind was that of structural integrity. Would the addition of the couplings weaken or cause unwanted torsional flex throughout the frame? Smilanick assured me that tests showed significant increases in tensile as well as torsional rigidity above and well beyond that of the original Reynolds 531 steel alloy tubing. Our test bike seemed well up to the task and supported every claim. Couplings are machined from 17-4 precipitation-hardening stainless steel, lugs are heat-treated to H1150 with a yield strength of 125,000 psi and nuts are heat-treated to H900 with a yield strength of 185,000 psi. All this makes for a set of stout components that, once installed on a frame, adds only 8.8 ounces to the cycle's finished weight. Even during vigorous off-road riding, the couplings have shown no tendency to loosen or fail.

At the time of this writing, S&S Machine was working in conjunction with 14 different bicycle manufacturers that can accommodate the most discriminating cyclist's needs. Services range from simple retrofitting of systems into existing steel-framed bikes to new, all-out custom fabrication of any alloy steel bike frame. Current bicycle styles with torque couplings installed include Road Racing, Multi-Sport, Touring, Hybrid, Off-Road, Tandem and Track.

If you're a pilot who loves to ride or a cyclist who loves to fly, for more information, contact: S&S Machine, 9334 Viking Pl., Roseville, CA 95747, (916) 771-0235.

Copied with permission from Plane & Pilot/Werner Publishing Corporation 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1220, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1175, Phone (310) 820-1500, Fax (310) 826-5008, January '95 Issue

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