To take your bike, just put it in your bag Packing: A couple of cycling Houdinis have perfected ways to fold or disassemble bicycles, so you can take one along.

April 13, 1997|By Sue Halpern | Sue Halpern,NEW YORK NEWS SERVICE

The trip my family was planning seemed simple enough: We would fly to Montana and spend the week biking around `D Flathead Lake, where we were staying.

But traveling by air with a bicycle can be difficult. Airlines require that bicycles be packed without pedals and with the handlebars parallel to the frame, and common sense suggests that a bike be well-crated. I had seen ads for molded plastic bike cases filled with shock-absorbing foam, but they cost about $300 each and are subject to the $50 oversized-luggage charge levied by airlines. The bike cases are big, too, and I wasn't sure how we would get them, our duffel bags -- and us -- to the airport in our small car.

I asked the travel agent to look into rental bikes, even though they can be trouble. Their quality is variable at best, and they tend to come in one size: men's medium. And most rental fleets are limited to big, clunky mountain bikes, while most of my touring is done on the road, where a lighter, sleeker road bike is more appropriate.

In any case, the travel agent found the bikes would each cost $120 for the week, they couldn't be reserved, and none had a child carrier. She said we could rent a car for significantly less, and that is what we did.

Inventiveness

But we won't have to do that again. Recently, a couple of cycling Houdinis have perfected ways to fold or disassemble bicycles, making it easier to take one along. Steve Smilanick, an aerospace machinist in California, invented the S and S bike coupler, a device that allows a bike frame to be taken apart and crammed into a suitcase that meets airlines' baggage standards. And Hanz and Alan Scholz of Green Gear Cycling in Eugene, Ore., invented the Bike Friday, a high-performance folding bike that fits into a relatively small protective case.

S and S couplers work like a plug going into a socket: Fit the left side of the frame into the right side, tighten it up, and you've got a frame with as much structural integrity as an ordinary bike's. I first saw a bike that had been outfitted with a coupler at Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia; its owner had brought it in so that custom-bike-maker Steve Bilenky could saw it in half and,

brazing with silver, join the stainless steel couplers to the top and bottom tubes.

As long as they have steel or titanium tubing of sufficient diameter, most bicycles can be retrofitted with S and S couplers, and on its Web site, S and S maintains a list of 49 bike makers who are trained to install its couplers. Some of them retrofit, some make custom bikes, and some do both.

Still, the ultimate travel bike is, like many ultimate things, hand-made. But custom-made bikes, even without the couplers, are expensive. Couplers add about $300 to the price, and a hard case doubles that cost. So, since adding couplers alone costs as much as the extra baggage charges for six airline round trips, bikes with couplers make sense financially for people who travel a lot.

They also make sense for people who know something about bicycles. The wheels, brakes, seat-post, pedals and handlebars have to come off, and this turns out to be a lot easier than reattaching them at the other end. And once they are off, they have to be placed, like puzzle pieces, in the box. It took me about an hour. Putting it back together took longer. It should go faster, I'm told, with practice.

Easier to pack

Green Gear's Bike Friday is a bit easier to pack, though the first time I did it I had a wrench in one hand and a remote-control clicker in the other so I could slo-mo, rewind and slo-mo the company's how-to video until I could close the case without damaging the derailleur. Because it is a folding bike, with fewer detachable pieces than an S and S bike, it is not too difficult to get it up and running once you've arrived at your destination. (I did it in 18 minutes.)

Bike Fridays, which come in touring, off-road, road and tandem models that start at $1,000 (the case is extra), do not look like conventional bikes, though for the most part they ride like them. For one thing, they've got tiny, easy-to-pack, 20-inch wheels. For another, the seat-post and handlebar stem, both of which are custom-fit, appear to be very long. The whole effect can be summed up in two words: praying mantis.

But don't let that stop you. Despite its small wheels, the bike is geared like a traditional bike. Last summer, I took Bike Friday's New World Tourist, a 21-speed touring bike, to Port Townsend, Wash., a city known for its rugged ups and downs, and the bike performed admirably on the hills. For noodling around the city and for unloaded rides, it was ideal. When I loaded groceries in a box strapped to the back rack, however, I had to lean into the handlebars to prevent it from tipping over backward on the steepest stretches. And on trips longer than 30 miles, I found that, as good as the gearing was, spinning such small wheels got tiring.

Still, the bike was fun and convenient, and it fit me well. I saw more on the bike than I would have in a car and/or on foot. To reach the only places I couldn't go, I rented a kayak.

Information

S and S Machine: 916-771-0235, fax 916-771-0397, Web site http: //www.sandsmachine.com/.

Bilenky Cycle Works Ltd.: 800-213-6388, fax 215-329-5380, Web site www.bilenky.com.

Green Gear Cycling: 800-777-0258, Web site www.bikefriday.com.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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