Travel Gravel – Taking your gravel bike on holiday with you this summer

One of the big dilemmas of booking an overseas gravel riding trip is whether to take your own bike or to find a rental bike locally. While you can pretty easily find a road bike or MTB to rent in many locations, finding an appropriate gravel bike to hire is not always guaranteed and that probably means one thing – packing up your own bike instead. With summer trips just on the horizon, we thought we’d give you our top tips for safely taking your pride and joy on holiday with you.

I can clearly remember the very first time I flew with my bike. It was the end of the 1990s and I was travelling out to the French Pyrenees for my first overseas cycling trip. To say that my group of friends was giddy with excitement would be an understatement, but as we walked out to board our plane on the glass-sided airbridge, I can vividly remember looking out and watching one of the baggage handlers dropping my friend’s bike from the hold of the plane back onto the tarmac. We beat our fists on the plate glass windows and screamed obscenities at the carelessness of the ground staff, but to no avail. Luckily, the bike had been super-well packed and it arrived unscathed, but it forever left a mental image in my brain. Whenever I fly with my bike now, I assume the ground staff will drop it from the hold of the plane and so I pack it appropriately.

There’s no two ways about this – packing up your treasured bike to take away on holiday with you is a time-consuming job. In the old days you could roll up to the check-in desk with your bike intact (apart from the pedals which you removed to stop the ground staff joy-riding it around the airport), let a few PSI out of your tyres and that would be it. The airline check-in staff would attach a label around the toptube and it would be loaded on the plane intact. The logic was that if the staff knew it was a bike, they would treat it more gently than if it was just a large, awkwardly shaped and frequently overweight bag. I did this a significant number of times (I should probably go to Airlines Anonymous and confess to the enormity of my carbon footprint across the last 25 years in fact) and remarkably my bike always arrived intact.

Jump to the current day and the introduction of stricter airline rules, combined with the arrival of hydraulic brakes, tubeless tyres and electronic groupsets, not to mention the more fragile nature of bikes made from carbon fibre, means that most of us will choose to box up our bike, rather than risking checking it in au naturel

If you are going to pack up your bike for flying, what options are there available to you:

  • You can ask nicely at your local bikeshop and if you give them enough notice, they will often give you a spare cardboard bike box for free. With some disassembly, the judicious application of some padding material and a big roll of parcel tape, your bike can be packed with relative ease and low cost (except time). The downsides are they are not super durable and they won’t cope with getting wet.
  • You can rent/buy a hard-sided bike case. These are super strong and can generally withstand greater impacts than other types of bags/boxes but are often hilariously heavy and can be quite a PITA to pack your bike into, particularly if you ride a bike outside of the “average” size range or have some exotic features such as a built-in seat mast or all-in-one bars and stem. They’re also a significant financial investment if you choose to buy one.
  • Soft-sided bike bag. This might be the ideal goldilocks option. More durable than carboard and arguably easier to pack than a hard sided box, plus it’s more flexible/accommodating of different shapes of gravel bikes too. The other benefit is the weight to strength to space ratio – with clever design features such as removable side struts and moldable foam padding, these bags can pack down small and often weigh less than half of what a hard-sided case does. The downside is that they don’t offer the same levels of protection as a hard case and can still be pretty expensive. 

For my recent Sri Lanka gravel trip I borrowed a soft-sided PRO Bike Travel Case and thought I’d run you through what I did to make sure my gravel bike made it safely to the other side of the world. The PRO bike weighed 9kgs and was “was developed to fit all bikes; including 29’er mountain bikes, gravel bikes and road bikes.

It packed down impressively small, but the flipside of this was that it needed quite a bit of assembly to make it bike bag shaped! Luckily the instructions were pretty clear and if you have space to store it fully built, then you can discount the assembly time next time you use it. Although it’s designed to only require minimal bike disassembly, while offering “a reinforced frame to provide a sturdy, protective, travel case for your bike”, I still assumed that the baggage handlers would throw my bike out of the hold (and then run-it over with a jumbo jet too, for good measure) so I went the extra mile to ensure the bike was über-padded inside the bag.

These are the steps I went through to get my bike from fully built to ready to fly:

  • Put it into the biggest gear (large chainring/small sprocket).
  • Removed the pedals.
  • Adjusted the shape of the internal frame to match the wheelbase of my bike.
  • Removed the wheels and attached the bike frameset to the internal frame. Added plastic spacers into the disk callipers.
  • Unplugged the Di2 cables from the front and rear derailleurs and removed the rear mech from the frame using a 5mm Allen key.
  • Wrapped the rear derailleur in padded foam and ziptied it between the chainstays using reusable zipties.
  • Place a double layer of foam padding around the bottom of the large chainring and secured with a ziptie.  
  • Removed the disk rotors from the wheels and placed them in homemade cardboard sleeves. Put the rotors in one of the internal pockets on the bag so as not to forget them.
  • Added a layer of electrical tape around the seatpost to mark the position and removed from the frame using a torque wrench. Wrapped the saddle/seatpost assembly in bubble wrap and inserted it between the rear seatstays.
  • Wrapped the fork legs in padding.
  • Removed the one-piece bar/stem (including disconnecting one of the Di2 connectors to avoid stretching the cable), wrapped in padding. Rotated gently sideways (avoided stretching the hoses or cables) and ziptied to the frame/forks to ensure it can’t move.
  • Padded the brake levers/stem/out front computer mount to ensure nothing could rub or protrude through the bag.
  • Wrapped the wheel hubs/cassette in bubble wrap held in place with re-usable zipties
  • Partially deflated the tyres (only a few PSI) and inserted into the pockets, with the cassette facing inwards.
  • Added plumber’s foam insulation piping to top tube and seat stays.
  • Inserted the internal frame back into the bike bag and sinched everything tight with the built in straps.
  • Checked that nothing was protruding/rubbing/unpadded.
  • Put all the tools I needed into a large padded envelope and secured into the base of the bag, making sure it couldn’t “float around” during transit.
  • Double checked I had included any loose parts (brake rotors/pedals) etc in a padded envelope in the bike bag.
  • Did up the main zip, breathed a sigh of relief and added a zip tie to the two zippers to ensure they couldn’t accidentally come undone during the journey.

That probably all sounds like a gigantic PITA and you might wonder why I went to so much effort? In actual fact the whole thing took less than an hour (and that included documenting the process). There’s definitely no need to go to this much effort and indeed a lot of people will simply remove the wheels and the bars and do the zips up, but having seen what happens when baggage handlers are tired/distracted/not-paying-attention, I always go overboard when I’m packing and 99% of the time the bike arrives in mint condition.

If you only have a few minutes available and want to do the minimum to get your bike to your destination in one piece, these would be my cut-down top tips:

  • Remove your disc rotors and place a plastic spacer in the calliper – a bent rotor will drive you bonkers as you ride along, and it rubs annoyingly for the whole of your holiday.
  • If you have Di2, unplug the cables to prevent accidental battery drain during the flight (and ALWAYS take your charger with you, just in case).
  • Pad anything that might rub – expensive paintwork or pristine carbon fibre will get trashed surprisingly easier by something grating against it.
  • Put a ziptie through the external zips or clasps. That stops accidental opening (or petty theft) but won’t prevent customs officials from accessing the contents if they need to.

We can’t guarantee that our top tips will ensure your gravel bike arrives in perfect condition, they will certainly go a long way to help. Happy Travels!

You may also be interested in: