Yes, you can check your bikes as luggage when you fly, but the airlines have conspired to make it anything but easy and pleasant. First the counter person stares at your bike box as if you were bringing a half-ton Civil War cannon on board. Then the baggage goons play "Let’s see how far we can chuck the treehugger’s toy bike!" And you get to pay additional fees for this special treatment.
Having already had some experience with this traveling in the US with our bikes, in our early planning for the expedition Jennifer and I looked into a variety of collapsible bicycles, both "folders" and "take-aparts." We even test-rode a pair of folding bikes with tiny wheels, which popped out of a Samsonite suitcase. The company actually makes a folding tandem, that fits into two suitcases, which when empty, combine to form a small trailer to tow your gear!
Nice for commuters, but not for us. Our bikes need to be able to carry enormous loads (without a trailer), and to handle like regular bikes. We chose to go with traditional, unfoldable mountain bikes frames. On our trip through the Americas, we paid the price for their rigid durability. Extra airline charges, having to muscle the heavy bikes into bus cargo holds, multiple scratches and dents inflicted on our bikes once they were rattling around inside, and getting passed up by multiple buses because there was no room for our big machines. As we reflected on our journey so far, as we rode south through Chile and Argentine, we wondered if there weren’t a better way.
Grant Peterson at Rivendell Bicycle Works, and the Waterford factory in Wisconsin, convincingly showed us that there is. When we went to Grant with our idea to simply use S and S Machine coupler kits on our frames, he insisted on doing nothing less than "to start from scratch, to custom build the bikes around the couplers, and to make them fit you much better than your last bikes." Bicycle-architect Grant proceeded to carefully measure our bodies, as well as our current bikes, then scratching his bushy head while tapping away on his computer, he designed the touring rigs of our dreams. Our new homes!
Our hopeful cycling solution, the coupler kit, is a precisely machined set of two joints that allow the traveling cyclist to unscrew her bike frame, fold it in half, toss it into a rugged duffel bag, jump on motorized transport without paying any extra fare. Then, at her destination, to pull her bike out of its secure hiding place, quickly reassemble and roll!
The couplers are made out of stainless steel, with precisely machined interlocking teeth. To firmly bind this mechanical union, a collar is threaded over the closed joint and torqued down with a special wrench, much like the coupling of a couple of garden hoses (See drawings).
Photo of coupling substituted for drawings used in the newsletter.
Bicycle lovers find it painful to imagine, thinking of our shiny new Rivendell frames, but each frame’s top tube and down tube must be cut near the seat tube in order to install the couplers so that the frame will fold in half. The bike is actually as strong or stronger than it would be without the couplers. And for you lurking liability lawyers out there, it is very unlikely that such carefully coupled bikes will come apart mid-ride, if the collars are tightened regularly.
Now that we’ve joined the ranks of folding bike enthusiasts, we are delighted to find that there are "folder" clubs worldwide, which stage regular foldable rides. We’ve also found that folder riders come in all sizes: six-foot-five REI vice president Dennis Madsen rolls out of Kent, Washington corporate headquarters each day on his foldable road, with kid-sized twenty-inch wheels.
It’s interesting to us both that we’ve ended up on take-apart individual bikes; there was a moment in our early planning when we seriously considered riding tandem around the Pacific. In fact, while we were back in the Bay Area a couple contacted us who plan to ride a tandem from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego. They saw our website and wanted to quiz us about our experiences in some of the regions, and of course about gear. I had to tell them that our own consideration of tandems lasted for about three minutes before I realized that would mean riding for two years without doing a wheelie. And Jen balked when she considered the prospect of riding two years with her nose just inches away from my butt. But now, after our experiences on the road in the first six months of our ride, we’re even more glad we didn’t opt for the tandem, far more difficult to fit on buses, planes and dugout canoes.
Jen and I have learned a lot about cycle touring from our first six months on the road. We’ve learned about what works and what is just an extra gizmo. When you spend hours in the saddle each day thought balloons float from kids to careers, and from the current damnable drizzle to designing your own bike gear. As a long-distance cycle tourist, you are the ultimate product-tester. We are true believers in commuting to work by bike, or hammering out a five-hour weekend fitness ride, but such periodic rides are far different from spending most of your waking hours each day on a bike. Pedal power leads to pedal insights, not only about gear but about how you are living your life.
We don’t claim to be experts, and suggest that you be wary of anyone who does, but we know more than when we started. We spend a lot of time gathering information from folks who have "been there" before, and we take everything with a grain (sometimes a boulder) of salt. The best way to learn is to try to learn from your successes and failures, making sure that you risk attempting something different. I have; I’m on my third bike by now, but I think that, by Jove, I’ve finally got it.
This article was copied with permission from their newsletter Tales From The Rim.
Number Five - March 31, 1997