Hacks and Tricks of a Bike Travel Life

Lyrics by Steve Thomas

Since I was old enough to have a passport (it was a very long time ago), I have traveled the world with my bike, and sometimes even with 2 of them. Times have certainly changed. Travel has gone from a very expensive and difficult thing in the 1980s to a mundane thing, and now we’re back in a very strange situation.

Looking back about 20 years and digging into the hazy memory of what I was traveling with, it’s crazy. Depending on where I would be traveling, I would typically carry about half a spare bike, often stashed in my pockets and carry-on luggage to circumvent excess baggage fees.

The list usually included two pairs of shoes and spare pedals, because being some kind of Bigfoot pulling on size 12 it’s nearly impossible to find replacements if my shoes fail – which happened from time to time at the era. Usually it was about losing my sole (so to speak) or unscrewing the cleat bolts. Either way, that extra pair of shoes has saved a few long trips over the years; but wow, the shoes are definitely heavy and bulky to carry around.

Also, equipment is generally much more reliable these days. However, I always keep my bikes and set them up as simple and easy as possible, which means avoiding electronic shifting and overly complicated ultralight parts that could fail. I’d rather carry a pound or two more than lose an entire trip because some fancy carbon fiber gadget broke.

In the big bag

Do not mistake yourself; I know people want to protect their pride and joy, but when I see passengers waiting at the airport with huge, rigid suitcases, it thrills me. Of course, if you’re heading out for a week in Morzine and a bike trailer picks you up and your little house-sized box, then that’s fine.

On the other hand, just try cramming one into the back of a tuk-tuk in Bangkok or a petty taxi in Colombo – not to mention stowing it in a capsule during a layover in Tokyo.

For about 80% of my rides I use a soft case and very minimal disassembly of the bike. If I know I’m going to over-land and get in and out of different airports, then I go for a basic cardboard bike box, stuff everything else in there, and throw it at the other end – simple. For the return trip, I check local bike shops, and if all else fails, I pay for an overhead box.

When I say minimal stripping, I keep it as basic as possible; seatpost lowered or removed, bars removed and attached to the forks or top tube, wheels extended and attached to each side of the frame, and rear mechanism and bracket removed and attached in the rear frame triangle.

Pedals usually go in my carry-on (to save checked weight) and discs in my checked luggage where they’re unlikely to warp (I’ve been stopped and questioned trying to carry them) .

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to spend hours assembling bikes for people on the road because they’ve gone too far with the disassembly and don’t have the tools or knowledge to rebuild . Naturally, that’s a personal preference, but I’d rather have a few scuffs and scratches (which are unavoidable anyway) over the hassle and potential problems of a lost part or stripped bolt.

The tool kit

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What exactly I carry depends on what bike I’m riding, where I’m going, and whether I can be sure there’s a decent bike shop close at hand or not if things should go uphill. Here’s my standard travel tool kit, which usually fits in a free airline wash bag, the kind some give out for long-haul flights.

Multi-function tool – I always make sure he has the Allen keys I need and a chain breaker. Many modern multi-tools are missing the basics, such as screwdrivers, so check them out.

pedal wrench – a 15 mm spanner is essential for me. Relying on Allen wrenches or smaller conical wrenches is a surefire way to break up knuckles and stuck pedals. This simple piece of metal has saved many situations for me and for those around me. Always be sure to grease the threads when you put the pedals on; this helps to avoid squeaks and seizing.

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The central locking kit – for travel I always try to convert my wheels and discs to a central locking system. It’s so much easier than removing multiple allen key bolts every time you need to fly, especially when it might be every few days for me. You can find adapters online, and I always have a lightweight cassette tool and wrench to remove them.

Pump – mini-pumps are the work of the devil, especially in hot, humid climates or when riding tubeless. I wear one on the bike, but I always have a bigger option with me too. I used to carry around a cheap plastic floor pump, but now I’m compromising by using the Lezyne hybrid micropump, which is still wrapped in duct tape for emergencies, and also to hold it (because it gets very hot when in use).

Bondage and straps – toe straps, what more can I say. Never throw them away; they are some of the most useful all-purpose game savers. I use them for tying and packing, for attaching things to my bike and for a multitude of other things too. I also have some zip ties and a roll of electrical tape with me.

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Tape measure – I’d be lost without my “Christmas cracker” mini tape measure, and you’d be amazed at how many people borrow it for various things while traveling. I know my position by heart, so when rebuilding a bike or using a rental bike, it’s perfect in seconds.

Swiss knife – I usually have 2 with me; a mini knife with scissors and a larger one with the essential bottle opener and corkscrew. This is invaluable, especially considering how many multi-tools have no knives or pliers.

bits & bobs – I use old underwear and t-shirts for wrapping and as rags and throw them away as I go. My old toothbrushes are used for on-the-go cleaning, and old contact lens cases for pots of grease and storage for spare nuts and bolts.

I also carry a set of lights, spare cleats, brake pads and some chain links.

Sometimes I also carry a small canister of oil with me, but I prefer to find cheap 3 in 1 oil on the floor, because they always manage to leak somehow.

patch and roll – even though I have tubeless rims, I still use tubes, which means I also break a lot of tire levers, so I try to avoid changing tires along the way , unless I die. To minimize this, I use wider and more robust tires. I also usually have a spare tire in my bag, plus some inner tubes, an old puncture repair kit, and self-adhesive patches for my seat pocket.

Pandemic Pouch – I have added a stem pouch since the outbreak of the pandemic. This is for spare masks, hand gel, sanitizer and emergency money. I also carry an extra bottle of water on the rides to avoid having to stop.

Wiley C. Thompson