Have bike, will travel. It’s true, but it can also get a little complicated. When you only have a week or two off from work and the starting point for your tour is 1,500 miles away, your bike is suddenly your biggest piece of luggage.
Luckily, there are myriad ways to transport a bicycle. Most methods require the bike to be partially disassembled and put in some sort of container, such as a soft-sided case, a hard-sided case, or a bike box.
The hassle-free method is to take your bicycle to your local bike shop and have them disassemble and ship it to your destination. For those looking to save a little money, the most economical method is to take apart the bike and put it in a cardboard bike box yourself, whether you’re flying with it or shipping it.
Boxing your bike will take some time — at least an hour — but it’s worth it to carefully protect your favorite touring machine from the damage of those who handle it along the way. It’s no fun to get to the trailhead of your long-awaited tour only to find your bicycle has been damaged.
A cardboard bike box, which you can buy or get for free from your local bike shop
Keep in mind that these come in different sizes, and you might have to disassemble your bike more or less depending on the size of your box.
Extra cardboard for padding
Pipe insulation to protect the frame (or bubble wrap)
Dummy axle for the front fork and possibly rear dropouts
You can ask your local bike shop if they have plastic or cardboard dummy axles
Or you can make one from a block of wood
If you have thru-axles, you don’t need a dummy axle
Pad spacers if you have hydraulic disc brakes
Utility knife or scissors
Steps to Disassembling and Boxing Your Bike
Protect the Frame
If you want to protect the bike frame from possible scratches, pad the tubes and fork with pipe insulation. To do this, cut the insulation to the length of the tube and then slit it down the middle. Wrap insulation around tube and tape securely.
Pay special attention to the front and rear dropouts, but be sure to leave room for dummy axles.
Prepare for Disassembly
Shift the gears so that the cables are slack (by putting your chain on the smallest sprocket on the cassette).
If an airline requires it, deflate the tires. Otherwise, keep them inflated to protect the rims. If deflated, tubeless tires run the risk of being jostled off the rim, with sealant potentially making a mess of your bike and box.
Remove the Pedals
Using the pedal wrench, remove the pedals.
Remember that the left pedal is a left-hand thread; the right pedal is a standard right-hand thread.
Wrap pedals in bubble wrap and tape. Set aside.
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Then put on your reading helmet.
Remove and Pack the Handlebars
There are two ways to do this. Do whichever way seems easiest to you. Keep in mind that your brake and shifting cables remain attached to the bike.
Remove the handlebars and stem as a unit.
Remove the handlebars from the stem (like in the video) and reattach bolts to avoid losing any pieces of the stem.
Without bending brake and shifting cables, position the handlebars parallel to and as far back along the top tube as possible.
Add padding as needed and secure the handlebars to the top tube with tape or zip ties.
Remove the Wheels
Remove the front and rear wheels.
If your bike box is long enough, you can leave the rear wheel attached.
Remove the quick-release skewers, put them in bubble wrap, and set aside.
If you have a thru-axle, remove the axle from the wheel and place them back in the fork and rear dropouts.
Safeguard Disc Brakes
Hydraulic disc brakes pose a risk when you remove the rotor with the wheel. If the brake lever is pressed in transit, the calipers will close together and get stuck in the braking position. They’re a pain to separate. To avoid this frustration, slip in pad spacers between the brake calipers after you remove the wheel.
With any type of disc brake, some people prefer to protect the rotor from being bent by removing it and wrapping it in bubble wrap.
Protect the Rear Derailer
Unbolt the rear derailer (but don't disconnect the cable) and secure it with one of the following methods.
If your rear wheel is still attached, position the derailer against the rear wheel spokes below its normal position so it doesn’t stick out past the frame. Wrap in bubble wrap and zip tie to the wheel.
If you have removed your rear wheel, position the derailer inside the triangle (like in the video). Wrap in bubble wrap and zip tie securely to the frame.
Reposition the Saddle
The saddle may not fit in the box as is, so either lower the seatpost or remove the seatpost and saddle as one unit.
Be sure to mark the seatpost position before you move or remove it so you know your preferred height.
If you’re removing the seatpost and saddle, wrap them in bubble wrap.
Protect the Fork
Place dummy axles in the front fork and rear dropouts (if the rear wheel has been removed from the bike). This protects the fork and frame from being bent in transit.
If you can’t find dummy axles from your local bike shop, cut a small block of wood to fit between the dropouts and either tape or screw in place.
If you have wheels that have a thru-axle, use a hex key to remove the thru-axle and place it back in the fork to protect the fork and frame from being bent.
Protect the Crank
Position the crank so that the crank arms are parallel to the ground and tape or zip tie one arm to the chainstay.
Apply bubble wrap or foam to both crank arms.
Fold a piece of cardboard around the outer chainring to protect it (and to protect the box from its sharp teeth).
Find a piece of foam, or fold up some bubble wrap, and apply it to the underside of the bottom bracket.
Box the Bike
Line the bottom of the box with foam or bubble wrap.
Place the frame inside the box.
Fit the front wheel alongside the front of the bike
Pad the box or the front wheel axle ends with extra cardboard to prevent the widest part of the wheel from puncturing the box.
Some people even tie the wheels to the frame.
If the rear wheel is detached, place it alongside the rear of the frame in the box with the cassette facing in and under the frame.
Secure the Extra Parts
With the extra bubble-wrapped parts, you can either take those in your luggage (then you know they won’t fall out of the box in the instance the box comes untaped).
Or bundle them together to form a big package and secure them to the bike frame within the bike box.
Pad and secure anything that seems loose in the box.
Put your name and address on a note attached to the bike in case the bike box gets destroyed in transit.
Tape all seams securely. But do not tape over the carrying holes.
Mark out any old addresses or shipping labels.
Clearly label the outside of the box with your name, destination, flight number (if applicable), and return address.
Remember to take your tools with you so that you can put your bike back together at your destination.
To make it easier on airport baggage handlers, reinforce the handholds by taping the edges of the holes.
Also with baggage handlers in mind, don’t fill your box with heavy stuff — keeping the box light will ensure it is easier to handle and less likely of being dropped.
Don’t leave anything hanging out of the box.
This story has been updated and was originally published on December 22, 2015.
For getting there by flights, personally I wouldn't trust just a cardboard box to the luggage-handlers. :( A sturdy bike-box made out of stronger material would be better, I'd say. However, what would you recommend wrt the bike-box when you get there? You won't be able to drag a bike-box around with you when on a long-distance cycle-route. Do you know if airports will store a bike-box while you're away on the bike-route?
April 19, 2019, 10:46 AM
What do you do about the pannier racks?
April 19, 2019, 2:01 PM
Good question, Michael! If the whole thing will fit in the box, you can leave them on the bike frame. If they don't, you'll have to remove them and try to arrange them on top of the top tube (if the box is wide enough). If that doesn't work, I guess you're carrying them on the plane!
May 16, 2019, 7:55 AM
Usually the rear wheel, fender and pannier rack can stay on if packed in a cardboard box. The front wheel and fender will have to be taken off and packed in the box itself - wrapped in bubble wrap. The fender can be kept in the empty triangular space inside the frame. The front wheel should be zip tied to the crank arm on the non-drive side, after you pass it through the spokes - actually it should be zip tied to 2/3 points. It is a good idea to tape the fender to the frame if you are flying. Airport security might open your box and loose things might tumble out.
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