The bicycle is such a great way to see places and cyclists are such natural travelers that the difficulty flying with a bike entails is nothing short of tragic. Everything we’ve worked on and can do on a bicycle is not only thrown in stark contrast, but nearly destroyed by the efforts it takes to get a bicycle to and from an airport. On a bike, we’re light, graceful, fluid, powerful. With that bike wrapped in the appropriate protection and the necessary gear packed in a case, we’re almost always heavy, awkward to the point of bumbling, leaden of foot, and at the whims of multiple uniformed guardians of the airport and air. It’s almost enough to make us cry. Even an “easy” trip makes us shudder thinking of the work it takes to get our bike on the plane with us and ready to ride at point B.
Over the years, our case of choice has changed. In the dark ages, a cardboard box was enough, but that was when cars were larger and airlines didn’t see bike travelers as a revenue stream. We then graduated to a low-end padded bag. The bag was smaller and simpler, but we ended up covering our bike and wheels with so much secondary padding, and even then we experienced damage on a few occasions that something burlier seemed appropriate. We moved on to the Trico Sports Iron Case. Though it is plastic and foam, the case is as advertised, both for its protective qualities and its weight (over 30lbs). The latter, in terms of schlepping the thing, getting it into cars, and airline fees, has made the Iron Case much less desirable for us as those fees have gone up and cars have gotten smaller. Wheeling the Iron Case up and down stairs to get to and from Belgian trains is an experience few need.
So, it is with this prelude that we decided to take the Sci’Con Aero Comfort Plus Travel Case on our latest trip. On the plus side, it’s pretty light, 16lbs empty. And it’s pretty well designed. The bag necessitates a minimum of disassembly (just remove wheels and skewers) and has pretty good protection. The people at Sci’Con report that the bag should fit a bike with post and saddle up to around 60cm, even up to 65cm if saddle and post are removed. The key element is the steel frame at the bottom of the bag. It holds your fork and rear dropouts and can adjust for pretty widely varying wheelbases, about all the variations on full-sized adult bikes. You can stick your bike in with a minimum of disassembly. Exterior dimensions are 46"x18"x38" (L 117cm x D 45cm x H 97cm). And there are casters on the bottom so you can wheel it on any smooth surface. A fair number of pro teams supply this bag to their riders because of both the weight and simplicity.
But, as with any form of lightweight protection going into a life-or-death cage match with thugs, hidden anvils, other forms of cartoonish destruction, and lady luck, we have greater piece of mind if we bulk up a bit. It’s great that the wheels each have their own zippered pocket, and we felt comfortable leaving Zipp wheels in them. But the frame is another story. We used foam pipe insulation, cheap lightweight protection, on frame tubes just to lessen the chance of scrapes and scratches. We took off the rear derailleur and put it in a plastic bag. We used twist-ties to affix the chain to the inner ring so it wouldn’t flop off when tossed on its side. We used a toe-strap as a secondary retention system holding the dropouts to the frame. We put large-capacity bottles in our Arundel bottle cages so there would be more support for the bag (checked with Arundel on this; they thought it fine). We velcroed our saddle bag to the interior frame and toe-strapped the frame pump to the internal frame. We put our saddle and post combo in a bag and also secured that to the internal frame.
Complementing the design are interior straps that stabilize the sides of the bag. As in there are a few straps with a quick release buckle that goes from the inside of the left wall of the bag to the inside right wall of the bag. This does seem to further stiffen and stabilize the bag so that the sides don’t shift when the bag is zipped up.
The Aero Comfort is designed so you can leave your bars and stem in place. This scared us a bit as we’ve had airlines damage handlebars, heavy, old-skool handlebars, before. One valuable piece of advice we heard was to get a set of cheap “dummy” handlebars to put in place of your expensive bars and secure the “good” bars to the fork. This strikes us a pretty smart idea, especially if you’re rocking carbon handlebars or are going somewhere where you don’t have the time or ability to replace bars quickly.
When all was done, the case with our bag packed inside and some supplemental protection weighed in at 37lbs. Light. But still potentially oversized. On the good side, the packed bag doesn’t necessitate renting a pickup truck to get the bag to the airport. On the bad, the Aerocomfort is clearly marked as having a bicycle inside. While we appreciate the “warning * bike inside * handle with care” for those who bother to not only pay attention but think to take care, we’re disappointed that in this age of airlines reaming cyclists, Sci’Con thought it best to advertise the contents of the bag.
Not that eagle-eyed baggage handlers and clerks couldn’t see it was a bike the moment they spied the bag. We tried the beginner-level strategy of checking the bag at the curb. The handler told us it was a bike without asking us to volunteer the contents. And we had to get on line to check it inside, where the clerk charged us $200. Ouch! So much for tipping the handler.
Delta really sticks it to cyclists; they charge double or more than most of their competition. Why they do this, we don’t know, and they refused to return our calls when we inquired. It’s a free country, sort of, and we don’t have to fly Delta in most situations, and we’ll try to skip Delta when we can in the future.
We did some investigating on their website and found it nearly impossible for any bike to make it through without getting hit. They measure things not only by weight, but by size (measure height+width+depth). So there are both oversized and overweight bags. Oversized is over 62" linear inches. Overweight is over 50lbs. It’s hard to get a bike into a box that has dimensions 62" or less. Of course, not all sports equipment gets treated equally by Delta or anyone else. On Delta, golf bags and skis can weigh up to 50lbs and exceed 80" without charge. The Sci’Con bag and packed bike are underweight by 13lbs but oversized by 40".
Size does and doesn’t make a difference. A plane can’t tell if a bag has the volume of a handbag or the volume of a bike case; weight makes a difference in fuel economy. Perhaps, if every passenger brought a bike, not all the luggage would fit, but this is, if it’s used by the airline, a dubious proposition at best. The airlines certainly don’t apply the same scrutiny to carry-on luggage and turn a blind eye to plenty of other gear.
$200 lighter, we waved our bag and bike goodbye. On the other side, our bag came out with the oversized luggage. Did a quick unzip of the case, and a quick inspection (inspect the bike at the airport in order to have a decent chance of filing an insurance claim against the airline) and everything seemed good to go (tires had air in them, bars were straight, no noticeable dents in the frame). And the bag fit in the trunk of a Toyota Avalon no problem.
Unpacking a bike from the Sci’Con bag is much quicker than packing and a good time to do a more thorough inspection. Ours was ready to go within 15 minutes. We like the ease of packing our bike in the Aero Comfort Plus bag, though having our bars “exposed” (aka vulnerable to bashing) still makes us a little uncomfortable. Even though we’re riding aluminum handlebars, on future trips, we’ll probably unbolt the bars we’re riding, stick on a pair of cheapies, and let those bars take the risk. Other than that, even though the casters are a welcome addition in terms of moving the bike on foot without resembling a Sherpa, we wish there was a way to better disguise the bike so we might have a slight chance of getting past the airline baggage minders without paying the steep bike fee.