Hacks and tips from a lifetime of travelling by bike
Words by Steve Thomas
Ever since I was old enough to hold a passport (which was a very long time ago), I've been travelling the world with my bike, and at times even with 2 of them. Times sure have changed. Travel went from being a very expensive and difficult thing in the 1980s to being commonplace, and now we're back in a very strange situation indeed.
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Looking back 20 years or so and delving into the foggy memory bank of what I used to travel with, it's insane. Depending on where I would be travelling, I would generally carry around half a bike worth of spares, often stashed in my pockets and hand luggage to get around excess baggage fees.
The list generally included two pairs of shoes and spare pedals, too, as being something of a Bigfoot who pulls on size 12's, it is almost impossible to find replacements should my shoes fail – which happened in those days now and then. Usually, it was a case of losing my sole (so to speak) or stripping cleat bolts. Either way, that extra pair of shoes did save a few long haul trips over the years; but wow, shoes sure are heavy and bulky to carry.
Plus, equipment is generally far more reliable these days. However, I do always keep my bikes and set up as simple and maintainable as possible, which means avoiding electronic shifting and over-complicated ultralight parts that could fail. I'd rather carry an extra pound or two than lose an entire trip because some fancy carbon fibre gizmo broke.
In the big bag
Don't misunderstand me; I know that people want to protect their pride and joy, but when I see riders waiting at the airport with huge hard cases, it does make me quiver. Sure, if you're heading for a week in Morzine and there's a bike trailer coming to pick you and your small house-sized box up, then fair enough.
On the other hand, just try cramming one of those in the back of a tuk-tuk in Bangkok or in a small taxi in Colombo – let alone stashing it into a capsule pod during a stopover in Tokyo.
For around 80% of my travels, I use a soft case and a very minimal strip-down of the bike. If I know that I will be over-landing and coming in and out of different airports, then I opt for a basic cardboard bike box, stash everything else into it and trash it at the other end – simple. For the return journey, I check out local bike shops, and if all else fails, I pay for an airline box.
When I say minimal strip down, I do keep this as basic as I can; seatpost down or removed, bars off and strapped to the forks or top tube, wheels out and strapped either side of the frame and rear mech and hanger removed and strapped into the rear frame triangle.
Pedals usually go in my hand luggage (to save checked weight), and discs in my checked baggage where they are unlikely to get warped (I have been stopped and questioned when trying to carry them on).
I've lost count of the number of times I've had to spend hours piecing together bikes for people on trips because they've gone too far with the strip down and don't have the tools or knowledge to rebuild. Naturally, this is a personal preference, but I'd rather have a couple of scrapes and scratches (which are inevitable anyway) over the hassle and potential issues of a lost part or stripped bolt.
The tool kit
Exactly what I carry depends on the bike I'm using, where I'm going, and whether I can be sure that there is a decent bike shop close to hand or not should things go bottom bracket up. Here's my standard travelling tool kit, which mostly fits into a free airline wash bag, the kind some hand out for long haul flights.
Multi-tool – I always ensure it has the Allen keys I need and a chain tool. Many modern multi-tools miss out on the basics, such as screwdrivers, so check them out.
Pedal spanner – a 15mm spanner is essential to me. Relying on Allen keys or smaller cone spanners is a sure-fire way to smashed knuckles and stuck pedals. This simple hunk of metal has saved many a situation for me and for those around me. Always be sure to grease the threads when putting pedals on; it helps to avoid creaks and seizing.
The centre-lock kit – for travel, I always try and convert my wheels and discs to a centre lock system. This is so much easier than removing multiple Allen key bolts every time you need to fly, especially when that can be every few days for me. You can find adaptors online, and I always have a lightweight cassette tool and spanner to remove them.
Pump – mini pumps are the work of the devil, especially in hot and humid climates or when you're running tubeless. I do carry one on the bike, but I always have a bigger option with me too. I used to carry a cheap plastic floor pump, but now compromise by using the hybrid Lezyne Micropump, which always has a wrap of duct tape around it for emergencies, and also to hold it with (as it gets super-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 multi-purpose game savers around. I use them for strapping and packing, for attaching things to my bike and for a multitude of other things too. I have a few zip ties and a roll of insulation tape with me too.
Tape measure – I would be lost without my "Christmas cracker" mini tape measure, and you would be amazed how many people actually borrow it for various things when travelling. I know my position off by heart, so when rebuilding a bike or using a hire bike, it's bang on within seconds.
Swiss Army Knife – I usually have 2 of these with me; a mini knife with scissors and a bigger one with the all essential bottle opener and corkscrew. This is invaluable, especially given how many multi-tools have no knife or pliers.
Bits & bobs – I use old underwear and tee shirts for packing and as rags and throw them away as I go. My old toothbrushes are used for cleaning on the go, and old contact lens cases for grease pots and storing spare nuts & bolts.
I also carry a set of lights, spare cleats, brake pads and a couple of chain split-links.
Sometimes I also carry a small can of oil with me, but I prefer to find cheap 3 in 1 oil on the ground, as they always manage to somehow leak.
Patch & roll – even though I have tubeless rims, I still use inner tubes, which means I also snap a lot of tyre levers, so I try to avoid changing tyres on the go unless I flat. To minimise this, I run wider and more robust tyres. I also usually have a spare tyre in my bag, plus a couple of tubes, an old puncture repair kit and self-adhesive patches for my seat pouch.
Pandemic pouch – I've added a stem pouch since the pandemic came around. This is for spare masks, hand gel, sanitiser and emergency cash. I also carry an extra bottle of water on rides to avoid the need to stop.
I've always kept a quick link underneath the stem cap and 2 or 3 spokes taped to the frame and anything slightly valuable inside the seatpost held in with an expanding bung.