Getting to Paris: box, bag or bubble wrap?

This post follows on from the previous one, which described how to go about planning for a cycling trip.

To hire or not to hire! That was the question.
The next decision we had to make was whether to take our bikes with us or hire some in Paris. This was not really a very difficult decision, as it had taken a long time to customize the bikes to the point where they were very comfortable to ride. Having to set up a hired bike would not have been that easy, especially while on tour. We liked the fact that the Anthem (and my partner’s Trance) were mountain bikes which meant we were not limited to riding in the road. This turned out to be a good decision on some of the canal trails which were less well maintained.

Having decided to take along our trusty wheels, we then got to what was probably the most difficult part of the tour planning – figuring out the best way to transport the bikes. We had made a bad mistake in our choice of airline, not realising that far better options were available. The error had to do with luggage allocations, and too late, we realised that we were limited to 23kg of booked luggage and 7kg of hand luggage. The 23kg had to include a bike, helmet, cycling shoes and tools. That was before considering items such as clothes and other everyday gear! An added problem in our situation was that our mountain bikes were quite heavy on their own. My bike and associated gear weighed 17kg, so my luggage allowance was reduced to a mere 6kg!

[Tip for Australian and New Zealander cyclists: Had we chosen instead to fly with Virgin Atlantic, bikes go for free as they are sporting equipment :-), and you are still allowed 23 kg of checked luggage (plus hand luggage). So you can take more than a single change of clothing and spend less time at the laundromat! Hooray for great airlines like Virgin!]

We read about other people’s cycle packing experiences and realised that there really is not a single, best way to pack a bike for air travel. Airlines can be quite particular about their ‘rules’, although we have found that if you use common sense, most airline staff are usually happy to help, rather than hinder. But the internet abounds with horror stories of people who have not been so lucky. It can also boil down to who checks in your luggage and whether they are having a good day!

We were in a real quandary. If we used a bike box or proper bike bag (which was our preference) they would consume precious kilograms which we just could not waste. So boxes or bike bags were not an option 😦

‘Orange’ Bags
Luckily, I have some skills with a sewing machine, and made some customised, strong (but lightweight) nylon fabric bags. The only suitable fabric I could find was brilliant orange (!) but we figured it would make the packed bikes very visible, if nothing else! The other advantage of these bags was that they folded up into small packages which we could then carry with us if necessary.

The Anthem, packed and ready to go to France in its custom ‘Orange bag’

Optimistically, we stencilled some “This way up” and “Fragile” images on the bags. I am sure that the luggage handlers took absolutely no notice of these, but they were fun to make and the bags looked very cool!

Stencilling on the Orange bags

After packing the bikes into a neat compact structure, we wrapped them in layers of bubble wrap and zipped them into their bags. Any gaps and spaces were filled with clothes and other bits and pieces to make up the package to 23kg. The only thing missing was pannier bags which were just too big and heavy.

The pannier bag dilemma – solved
We had purchased some large pannier bags for the back of each bike, but that was all our luggage allowance would permit (we took them on the plane as hand luggage).

The Anthem, fully loaded. Note small pannier bags on the front and larger ones (and backpack) on the rear luggage rack. Taken near Orleans, Loire River in background.

So I retreated to the sewing machine again and made some smaller fabric pannier bags for the front of each bike. These rolled up and were easy to pack, adding very little weight to the overall kit.
None of the bags was waterproof (even the big ones), but we planned to line them with plastic bags – this worked very well).

One of my annoyances when travelling and living out of a bag is not being able to find anything. Given that we were going to live out of pannier bags and a backpack for 4 weeks, this had the potential to drive me insane! The solution was to make a number of brightly coloured, lightweight, nylon, sausage-shaped bags (modelled on the humble plastic bread bag). Some of these ‘stuff bags’ had drawstring ties at each end, effectively giving access to the bottom of the bag as well as the top. These sausage shapes were put into the pannier bags in an upright position, so that every bag was equally accessible. This worked a treat and now we use this method to pack for all travel, not just when using pannier bags.

The preparation and packing process for this trip was a big job. But this was largely because we were going to a different country (so were not quite sure what to expect), we had severe luggage weight limits and we had never done anything like it before! We did make sure we wrote down lists of equipment etc as we ticked off each task, so that when we did it again, we had something to work from.
But it was a relief to finally have everything packed and be headed off to the airport!

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