Travel with your bike: how to pack a bike box

Sci-Con bike box waiting to be packed

There are three schools of thought about transporting a bike to a distant location; box it, bag it and bring it naked. Of the three I have to say that I simply don’t trust anything other than the first but I know plenty of people who use bags and swear by them. As for naked transport (unless it’s mandated by the size of the aircraft which can happen with island-based events) I’d rather ride the damn thing there! This article is going to show you the principles of how to box up a bike – we have used a Sci-Con box which is one of the more deluxe models but the general techniques apply to pretty much all the types.

Step one is to strip the bike of all the bits that you know will have to come off anyway. And, while that sounds obvious, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve forgotten to remove the pedals before the wheels are off and that’s just the first mistake. So, while the bike still looks like a bike and can stand up on its own you want to remove the pedals, the tribars (if you know, or even think, they won’t fit), any rear-mounted drinks systems, the computer, etc. Once that’s done the wheels come off and the packing can start.

Stowing the wheels and frame

Both the boxes we own; that’s the Sci-Con and a smaller Elite box, have dedicated compartments for the wheels so they get packed first. You’ll need to let some air out of the tyres – quite a lot in the case of the Sci-Con – to get them to fit into their recesses and it is always recommend that you use a spare set of cheap skewers to hold them into the case rather than the nice ones because the ends outside the box can get whacked. Where the wheels are just laid in the box it is strongly advised that the skewers come out to prevent them snagging anything.

An empty Sci-Con looks big enough to swallow anything!

As well as the bike and the box you will need lots of bubble wrap, some rags for the oily bits, a supply of zip ties – I use re-useable ones but if you can’t get them remember to pack extras for the return journey, and a load of pipe insulation for padding the frame and things like the pump.

The wheels fit snuggly into custom recesses in the lid.

The eagle-eyed will spot that the rear wheel is the ‘wrong way round’ in the picture – that’s deliberate so you can see that the rear wheel is the one on top. In the later pictures it’s the right way round with the sprockets protected in the lid of the case.

The frame is just lying in the box, it’s not secure at this point.

Although there’s plenty of room in a Sci-Con box, it’s one of the roomiest there is, it’s often easier to pop the handlebars out of the stem so they fit in neater. With a modern Ahead-type stem it’s simply a case of removing the front plate. Never, ever, be tempted to remove the stem from the steerer as this will loosen up the headset and unless you know what you are doing that’s something you don’t want to have to be adjusting on race day. At this stage the frame is just loose in the box, you need to sort a couple of things out first before it gets strapped in.

This is where the head tube and stem will be strapped in.

Protect the vulnerable

Probably the single most vulnerable part of the bike is the rear mech and if that gets bent you’ll be in serious trouble. And, if the rear mech gets a whack then the mech hanger will probably also get bent. Double trouble! The 60 seconds it takes to remove it is worth it. The first thing is to unhook the control cable so that there’s no tension in the mech and to do this you’ll have to push the jockey wheels into the middle of the bike – as though you were changing up to a bigger sprocket. Use light pressure only and you’ll feel it move in and then the cable outer can be unhooked from the little housing that’s on the chain stay. Once the tension is off you can remove the rear mech by unscrewing the single hex bolt that holds it to the dropout.

Release the tension in the rear derailleur by unclipping the control cable from the chainstay.

What I recommend you do then is to fit a rear dropout protector into the frame, most local bike shops will have plenty and normally give them away, and, because I can, I normally zip tie the protector to the frame so it can’t fall out. That both holds the rear frame of the bike in position and gives you something to tie the rear mech to once you have wrapped it in some rag or bubble wrap. To stop the chain flapping around and scratching the frame you wrap it in rag and then zip tie the whole bundle to the chain stay. This also helps to keep the chain on the inner chainring where it’s out of the way.

The chain is wrapped and then secured to the chainstay to prevent damage.

Strapping it in

Now it’s time to strap everything into place. The Sci-Con has three mounting points; one for the bottom bracket, one for the saddle/seat tube and one for the stem/top tube. Because the bike being boxed in the photos is a small one it’s possible to just drop the saddle to its lowest position and not have to bother taking the seatpin out. However, that means extending the strap – hence the heavy duty zip tie between the case and the strap itself. Once all three straps are tight the frame is effectively suspended in the middle of the box.

The frame is small so the strap has been extended with a heavy duty zip tie.
The bottom bracket housing is where the third strap gets fitted.

Filling up the gaps

Now the essentials are sorted you can begin to fill in the gaps. First to go in are the bits you took off the bike; pedals, tribars, hydration system, a mini track pump (that’s in some pipe insulation and strapped to the down tube) and the essential tools to put is all back together again. I always pack a pedal spanner, workshop allen keys in 4mm and 5mm, a mini tool kit for smaller jobs, a spare set of tyre levers, tubes, a spare tyre and a tape measure so you can set the bike up correctly at the other end – that’s what the numbers on the inside of the box are for, to remind you of the saddle height and the distance from the saddle to the bars.

Packing in the essentials to fill in the voids, bubble wrap is cheap and light.

Once these bits are bubble wrapped and packed in it’s a matter of fitting anything else that’s light and compact into the spaces so there are no voids left. In go the bike shoes, helmet in a pod, trainers, bags of energy food and all the bottles. Once the case looks like the picture below, a sheet of corrugated cardboard cut from an old bike box acts as a separator between the frame and the wheels and the case gets closed up.

You have a 23Kg limit so you might as well make the most of it!

Don’t pack these!

One thing that you don’t put in the box are CO2 canisters – not unless you want to be unpacking your box at the airport. Technically the regulation is nonsense – the risk of a CO2 canister exploding is about as likely as you winning the lottery – and some flights will let you get away with it but all it takes is one officious inspector and its bits and pieces all over the floor as they make you take the whole thing to bits.

Final steps

After some experience with boxes going abroad I now secure ours with heavy duty zip ties – I have drilled holes through the handles to take extra ones. While using the combination locks or padlocks will give an illusion of security – if someone wants to get in they will rip these off anyway, wrecking the box in the process – if you are flying to the USA you should use the new approved ones that the inspectors can open or they will cut them off anyway! You should also use duct tape over the catches as these are the most vulnerable parts and early Sci-Cons did tend to get them whacked off it they weren’t protected. Wheels are the other vulnerable area – you can tell a rental fleet Sci-Con by the fact that it has generally lost a wheel or two… …that’s why airports provide baggage trolleys!

If you do detect any damage to the case when you arrive you should immediately photograph it and report it to the baggage handling people. Once you are out of the baggage hall you won’t have a hope of putting in a claim so better to start the process and then drop it than not start it at all. If the frame is packed out well with soft material between it and the case the risk of damage inside is small – and this is where bags can let you down as you often cannot detect any damage to the outer which might alert you to the cargo inside being compromised. That said, in the main, baggage handlers seem to be aware that bikes are a) delicate and b) expensive and so likely to cause them more hassle than they need if they damage them. A horde of angry triathletes is a fearsome prospect at the best of times. And, after all, you did insure the thing… …didn’t you? Remember that if you hired the bike box you are responsible for it and given that the good ones run to several hundred pounds a pop it’s worth making sure that it’s covered.