Pika Packworks EEP Stretch Travel Bag
After flying with the Sci'Con and feeling both the joy of a light bag and the pain of a steep airline fee, we wanted to try the Pika Packworks EEP. We wanted the smaller standard EEP, but since that was out of stock, went with the EEP Stretch. We were hoping this was a case that would not generate the $200 bike fee on Delta.
Pika Packworks has been around for years, but has been flying under the radar. It's a small company that makes equipment bags for people in the know. They do custom as well as stock. The owner, Mark Smedley, is a Utah cyclist and former MTB pro who is handy with a sewing machine and has been designing travel bags for cyclists for years. He got a big boost when local Marty Jemison used one and showed it off to the US Postal Service Cycling Team in 1999 and word of mouth helped spread the bags success amongst many pro teams. We think we saw our first in the hands of a guy who worked for the Mercury cycling team in the early aughts. It seemed too small to be a bike bag.
When we picked up the box the EEP comes in, we thought something was wrong. The box is kind of like the size of a wheel box, but smaller. It measures 36"x12"x16". Turns out, the bag and the padding are packed in the box separately. But in the same box. The foam blocks that make for most of the protection underneath, in front, and in back of your bike is folded in thirds, and the padded Cordura bag is folded in quarters. We definitely want to save the box for storing the bag when it's not in use.
Even when assembled, the Stretch is still pretty small. 50" long by 30" tall by 10" thick (the EEP Standard measures 49"x28"x10"). Pretty compact, even though still oversized (90" is how the airlines will measure it; all bags that are greater than 62" are considered oversized, unless they're golf clubs). And the bag is light, 11.55 lbs empty.
There's nothing “hard” in this case. The sides are padded with thin-ish, dense foam. Some users of the EEP have reported stiffening the sides with plastic sheeting, but the folks at Pika don't think it's necessary and only adds weight. Both sides have deep pockets, a big one on each side for wheels and a small one on each side for stuff. There are thicker, tougher pieces of nylon on both the pockets and the walls where hubs could potentially poke through the inner and outer walls of the case. Protective patches are also on the outside to prevent the bag from being fatally rubbed in these spots.
The foam block that you put into the case is secured by a strap to the bottom. This is what anchors everything in place and prevents the bag from being squeezed from the sides. Amazingly minimal, almost hard to believe it's enough to protect our bike. We also used the anchor strap to secure our pump to the case as well as our bagged saddle and seat post. You'll notice there are no travel axles or bottom bracket clamps to hold the frame and fork to the case. This was disturbing to realize, but Pika assured us that you need neither axles nor securing. Still, just to be safe, we inserted plastic travel axles into the dropouts and the fork tips; if you want them, you should be able to get these from bike shops for free as they come with most bikes they assemble. A few grams of protection, a little redundancy seemed more than worth the extra little hassle. We took the rear derailleur off the frame, shoved it in the included padded bag and strapped the bag to the chainstays so as to not kink the cable housing.
The next step is to remove the bars. The handlebars need to come off completely or you need to pull off the stem and bars together. Once they're off, you take a padded rectangle, which you wrap around your top tube and then secure the bars to the rectangle, thus protecting the bars and the top tube and preventing them from moving around the case. Pika recommends loosening the derailleur cables (or, if you have slotted cable guides by your head tube, pulling out the cables) so you can have the entire width of the bars against the top tube for more compact packing. We were lazy and our bar/cable combo such that we didn't do this and had the bars sticking a bit beyond the bike's head tube. Still fit though.
Obviously, saddle/post and pedals need to come off, and saddlebag needs to be stowed along with the extra bottles and tubes we brought along. There are pockets on both sides for loose stuff like this; can carry tools, too, but if you do this (in the future, we can see bringing a small torque wrench), having a padded bag for the tools seem wise. If you can secure the chain to the chain ring in some fashion (like the twist-tie idea we were turned onto for the Sci'Con), all the better. You can leave cages on, but do keep bottles in them for more protection. We added our pipe insulation over the frame tubes because we had it handy, and it weighs very little, not that we saw much need for it.
The frame looks and feels well supported by the dense foam blocks on the bottom of the case. One supports the stays, while another the bottom bracket, while another protects the chain rings. The front and rear foam blocks are similarly soft but stiff. As they run completely up the sides of the case, your bike and wheels are underneath them, and they offer plenty of protection. It's true that if the bag is turned upside down, the frame will move, but it won't move far, and there's padding to protect it.
Filled and zipped up, and the EEP Stretch looks pretty small. Maybe it's the material, a matte black Cordura, maybe it's that it is a soft bag rather than a hard case. We feel there's reason to believe some of the airline screeners might not suss out that it's a bike.
Packed up, the EEP Stretch fits in the trunk of a mid-sized sedan with room for more bags. It's also pretty light, at 32lbs. And not only no markings to suggest the contents is a bicycle, but a name that could mean anything. Maybe it would fly under the radar. But when we pulled it out of the trunk at the airport, the first baggage handler spotted it and proclaimed it a bike. We'd have to check it inside. At the desk, we were charged $210, not the $200 (as listed on their site) by the Delta clerk. Not sure where she came up with that number and she wouldn't tell us. Delta was called for comment and they have yet to respond to our queries.
One of the many disappointments of current airline travel is how the bike discount plans of yesteryear have been totally forgotten. USA Cycling and League of American Bicyclists (LAB) both once had airline deals for members, where so long as you were a member, and booked through the airline, your bike could fly free. This discount used to be reason enough to join LAB. LAB has so given up on helping cyclists that they haven't updated their air-travel webpage in what appears to be three or four years. Their communications director pointed us to a helpful article by Joe Lindsey detailing the best and worst airlines for bikes (as of 2009).
On the other end of the flight, we picked up our Pika bag. Unzipped, everything was where we left it, and nothing the worse for wear. Another good thing about the EEP is that it is shippable with a bike inside. As we've shipped our bike inside an Iron Case and been hit with oversize fees, having the EEP as a shipping option is a great thing as well.
While the EEP doesn't have casters, a feature we love as we've walked miles with our packed bikes before, and despite the light weight and smaller size and unobtrusive design we still were hit with the bike fee, the Pika Packworks EEP seems to protect as well as our Iron Case, and only at a fraction of the weight. It also kicks ass on our first bike bag, highlighting how much better design is worth. Equal protection at lighter weight makes the bag very attractive. In terms of the supplemental protection we used and didn't use, we see no reason for adding any plastic sheeting. The pipe insulation and plastic axles don't seem necessary, but the peace of mind these several ounces, maybe even a pound, of protection offer is worth it to us.