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Welcome to a new series on CyclingTips. Here, we take the commonly asked question, “What product is best?”, and answer it based on the expertise of both our own team as well as a few trusted contributors. Consider these buyers guides for products we’d buy ourselves, backed by long-term experience.
To kick things off, we’re looking at bike travel cases. It’s a topic that CyclingTips founder Wade Wallace has written about in the past, and recently found himself discussing again, this time with a former pro cyclist. This rider had never had to worry about what case to buy as it was always supplied by the team. But times change and now this cyclist was met with a market full of options.
There’s no single bike case that will be perfect for everyone. However, there are a number of top picks that are sure to satisfy your particular wants and needs.
Aspects of travel cases to consider
Hardcase, soft case, or cardboard box?
Bike travel cases are typically put into two clear groupings: soft cases or hard cases.
As the name suggests, soft cases are made of various flexible fabric and/or semi-rigid exteriors with specific padding and shaping to hold bikes. They’re lighter than hard-sided cases, as well as more compact and easier to pack, making them the easy choice for most pro riders. Most soft cases can also be flattened when not in use, which can make all the difference when traveling, and the simpler nature means they’re often cheaper, too.
However, soft bags require more care in packing to ensure your bike reaches its destination safely, and likewise, there’s no guarantee that a careless baggage handler won’t load things on top of it.
In the past, traditional soft cases were little more than padded bags sized for a bike, but modern versions now often use a hybrid arrangement featuring a rigid base (sometimes with a built-in mounting system) and a soft-sided upper section. Examples of this include the EVOC Pro, Biknd Jetpack, Thule RoundTrip Traveler, Dakine, and Scicon AeroComfort. Some also use internal framing to reinforce the upper portion of the bag, while others use the wheels themselves to provide some necessary structure. These hybrid-style bags have quickly found favour recently, as they’re nearly as light and packable as true soft cases, but with extra protection and convenience features.
If protection is an absolute priority, hard cases are traditionally thought to reign supreme. These are built with molded plastic exteriors, and often with plenty of internal reinforcement, so your bike is not only protected from impact, but also from having weight put on top of it. Hard cases almost always feature built-in wheels for easier transport, too, but that’s also largely due to the fact that they’re substantially heavier and more cumbersome to move than soft cases. And because they aren’t collapsible, you’ll need a larger vehicle to shuttle them around, where many soft cases can simply be tossed into the back of a smaller hatchback.
Those hard sides may be good for protection, but it’s important to keep in mind that they’re also kind of slippery. According to one baggage handler, hard-sided cases can slide off of baggage conveyor belts and get damaged, whereas soft cases are more likely to stay put. The more strictly defined interior dimensions of hard cases make them trickier to pack, too – and not just by you, but also by airport security and customs agents who probably won’t take as much time to put everything back just so. Despite the ample protection afforded by hard cases, the downsides are often too numerous for riders to justify.
Lastly, there’s the simple cardboard box (or plastic variants, which I’ll cover later). This remains a great option for those who are trying to save money and don’t mind porting such a bulky item, and are willing to take the time to pack it properly for a safe journey. Bike-specific cardboard boxes can usually only be reused a handful of times, but given the cost – often free – it’s a small price to pay.
Wheeled or carry
Even today’s weight-conscious hybrid cases can weigh 6-8kg, and with the bike (and whatever else you stuff inside) easily doubling that figure yet again, it doesn’t take long before you’re pushing the limits of airline weight policies. The vast majority of bike cases feature wheels for easy transport, but a few opt for a simpler and lighter self-carry style. Consider what else you’re traveling with and whether you can do without wheels, but for most, they’re a must-have.
Regardless of whether the case has wheels or not, carry handles are a good thing, and the more of them there are, the better. Even the lighter cases can be awkward to move about, and it’s always nice to have convenient places to grab. At a minimum, look for handles on both sides, the top, and the front.
Mechanical aptitude and bike design
How mechanically savvy are you? Do you stress about putting your rear wheel back in, or are you comfortable with installing a fork?
What about your bike? Can it easily be taken apart, or does it feature an integrated cockpit that took the mechanic half a day to trim the steerer tube? Likewise, is your seatpost integrated? What about internal cable routing or hydraulic lines?
If you can easily remove your bars and strap them to the side of your bike, then your case options are wide open. But even if your handlebar has to stay in place, there are still bags that can accommodate you, such as the Scicon AeroComfort. Either way, most cases require you to remove the seatpost, so if your frame has an integrated version, then you’ll almost certainly be forced to use a soft bag (and probably one of the bigger ones at that).
You’ll also want to consider axle compatibility for cases where the bike is rigidly mounted to the base. And on a similar note, consider all the bikes in your stable and the riding you like to do. Most soft cases will easily handle a wide variety of bikes, but it’s not guaranteed.
Decent transport vessels for your bike vary wildly in price. Cardboard boxes are typically free, basic bike bags start as low as US$150, and premium models can command over US$1,000. So what makes the most sense? Most of our suggestions hover around the US$400 mark. Imitation or no-name versions can obviously be had for less, but our experience has shown that proven durability across multiple trips is often why the more expensive cases cost what they do, and why cheaper cases don’t always provide the best value over the long term.
As the saying goes, sometimes you just get what you pay for, and given that you’re likely bringing your bike along for a cycling trip, it’s wise to make the investment to make sure your prized possession arrives intact.
However, that doesn’t mean you always need to spend top dollar. More expensive cases do typically offer improved durability, greater bike protection, and easier transportability, but sometimes they only offer additional features you may not really use. Consider your needs (and skill level), and concentrate on the features that matter. Those willing to dismantle a bike plenty will find case options for less, while those paranoid about safe travels should spend more.
One other budget consideration is the actual travel cost. Many airlines charge for sporting goods or bikes, while others charge simply on weight. Unless you’re a premium flyer with an additional baggage allowance, a lighter case will almost always be cheaper to travel with than a heavier one. Likewise, some cases sneak past the bike fee by looking like a regular suitcase (such as the Orucase), so if you’re planning to travel lots, one of the stealthier options may be a better choice for you.
What’s your plan on the other side of your trip?
What are you going to do with the case once you’ve arrived at your destination? If it’s a hard case, do you have a minivan to transport it and a friendly hotel to store it? Do you even have the space at home to store it when it isn’t being used?
Storage certainly isn’t one of the more exciting things to consider when discussing travel cases, but it can nevertheless be a deciding factor. Hard cases are the most inconvenient in this respect by far, but today’s hybrid cases sometimes don’t collapse that much, either. Think hard about where your case will be when there isn’t a bike inside, whether it’s at home or a hotel room.
How the cases work
Every case requires a slightly different approach to packing but there are some common themes. Most bike travel cases require you to remove the pedals, wheels and seatpost. A full-sized bike box will require nearly as much, but will usually allow you to keep your rear wheel in place.
Many cases require you to remove the handlebars or stem. Many seasoned travelers will also remove their rear derailleurs and disc-brake rotors, too. Either way, additional padding is always a good idea, and regardless of how the manufacturers intend for their cases to be packed, it’s always a good idea to strap everything together so that nothing can move around inside the case en route to your destination. Also, cover any sharp components and if the case doesn’t do it already, reinforce the dropouts with a plastic spacer or similar.
Our favourite cases and bags
As already stated, there’s no single perfect bike case, but there are a number of great options that are suited to different needs. We’ve broken our favourites down into five categories: easiest to pack, most versatile, most compact, cheapest choice, and the most secure.
CyclingTips customer experience manager Andy van Bergen likely travels with his bike more than any other person on staff, and has certainly tested the care of baggage handlers over the years – most recently on an epic journey to Mount Everest to sample the newly paved road to base camp. As someone who has just a basic mechanical aptitude, Andy picks the Scicon AeroComfort simply because it’s “super fast to pack”. Andy isn’t alone with this selection, and it’s pretty funny to stand at oversized baggage prior to a large cycling event and witness the seemingly endless parade of these specific cases.
Featuring a rigid base and an internal frame that locks in both front and rear dropouts, this hybrid soft bag really shines in its ability to keep your handlebars exactly in place. Likewise, all but the biggest of bikes will fit in with the seatpost in place (great for frames with integrated post designs), and given the case’s generous width, many users don’t even bother removing their pedals. Just simply remove the wheels, bolt the bike into the internal frame, and you’re away. Without question, the AeroComfort is the best option for riders with limited mechanical skills, or those who simply can’t be bothered.
However, the AeroComfort is not without its issues. Leaving the handlebars on means the case is surprisingly wide, to the point that our Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom gave his up since it was hard to fit inside his small family car.
The soft sides are only lightly padded, and also unsupported, so there’s fairly limited protection. In the event of a severe impact, it’s likely your shifters or carbon handlebars will be the first to be damaged. Four casters make it easier to wheel the AeroComfort around, but as a result, baggage handlers are also known to tip these cases on their sides or flip them upside down to keep them from rolling away. And speaking of casters, the ones on this case don’t exactly have the best reputation for longevity, so many owners (Andy included) have sought out more durable alternatives.
Finally, Scicon makes three specific versions of this case to fit road, triathlon, or mountain bikes. The new 3.0 version will work with thru-axles, but it’s not a case for those that travel with a variety of bikes.
Update (04/02/2020): Evoc’s new Road Bike Bag Pro is even easier to pack and offers noticeably better bike protection when compared to the Scicon AeroComfort Road TSA 3.0. It is, however, a more expensive case that’s heavier and far longer in length.
Giving those Scicon cases some strong competition are the more rectangular-shaped soft case options. Many of these work with a wide range of bikes and, with the handlebars removed, offer a more reliable amount of protection.
Two favourites are the EVOC Pro and Thule RoundTrip Traveler. Both use a rigid base to which the bike is firmly mounted, and have plenty of internal straps and pockets to secure handlebars and other components. Wheels are given their own external pockets on either side of the case, which not only keeps them from rubbing against the bike, but adds such rigidity to the sides of the case as well.
EVOC also adds removable tubular plastic rods on the sides for even more structure, while the slightly simpler Thule relies solely on the bike’s wheels and is a little lighter as a result. Both can easily carry a wide range of bike types inside, too, from wispy road bikes to full-blown enduro and downhill rigs.
Both cases are relatively thin and can be folded down when not in use. However, the generous length means there’s no pretending there isn’t a bike inside, and you will need a car with fold-down rear seats to fit it inside.
If you like what these cases do, but want something noticeably lighter and a little more compact, then check out the USA-made Pika PackWorks EEP case. When not traveling with his dedicated Baum titanium travel bike (which is built with S&S couplers on the frame), this is CyclingTips founder Wade Wallace’s case of choice. It’s impressively light at about 5kg, and the construction quality is top notch. However, keep in mind that there are no wheels on this bag, and the compact size means you may have to size up if you want multiple-bike versatility.
Perhaps proving just how good the Pika PackWorks design is, is how widely it has been copied. One such copy comes from SwiftCarbon, which adds wheels for extra convenience and carries a lower price given the overseas manufacturing, but with lower subsequent build quality as a result.
If you’ve got a bike with an integrated seatpost (and the Scicon AeroComfort doesn’t appeal to you), then our suggestion is the Pika PackWorks EEP ISP case. It’s made with the same super high quality as the standard version, but is specifically designed with additional height.
Most bike travel cases are large enough and shaped in such a way that they’re instantly recognisable as holding a bicycle inside, which often results in a hefty fee for many airlines. Even if there aren’t any additional charges, the oversized format relegates you to dedicated queues at the airport, and possibly a maxi-taxi when you land to take you where you need to go. But for those that want cheaper and simpler travel (at the cost of disassembly time), there are solutions.
The Orucase Airport Ninja is likely to fool an airline into thinking you don’t have a bike. But despite the compact size, it still fits many regular road bikes inside while also coming very close to satisfying airline guidelines for non-oversized baggage. It doesn’t have wheels, but backpack straps are built right in, and thanks to its impressively low weight, it’s actually quite comfortable to wear (although you’ll look like a ninja turtle).
The Airport Ninja is also very well designed and impeccably constructed (they’re stitched in small batches in the US), and sufficiently convenient that both CyclingTips US tech editor James Huang and senior editor Caley Fretz use them regularly for both work and play. And given the exorbitant fees American carriers often charge for bikes, it takes as little as a single round-trip for the Orucase to pay for itself.
It easily fits in the boot of a car, too, and is an excellent replacement option for dedicated travel bikes that use either S&S couplers or the Ritchey Break-Away design.
Though not an issue for either James or Caley, both of whom have worked as bike mechanics, using such a compact case requires extensive bike disassembly, including removing the fork. In most cases, though, it’s a similar amount of labour to a dedicated travel bike. And additionally, the lack of casters isn’t for everyone, and so you’ll want to be sure your other baggage is easily scooted.
Those dedicated travel bikes shouldn’t be discounted, either. Ultra-compact cases like the Airport Ninja work well for some, but taller riders in particular won’t be able to fit their everyday bikes inside, with or without the fork. Bikes with frames that split in two, however, can fit into a non-oversized case while still accommodating the vertically gifted.
There are two popular options here. S&S couplers can either be added into some round-tubed metal bikes, or built into a custom frame. Ritchey’s Break-Away design is the other major choice, and the company’s off-the-peg frames are generally much less expensive.
Whichever way you go, those bikes fit inside a case that’s barely larger than a wheel box. Such a small package certainly makes traveling with a bike a breeze, but the disassembly and assembly is more detailed than any other suggestion here.
When you consider its weight, ability to pack flat, and the cost of replacement (often free), it’s tough to beat the humble cardboard bike box. In fact, many mountain bike professionals choose to travel with cardboard boxes as they are (occasionally) more carefully treated and the absolute low weight and increased size allows for plenty of space to shove spare wheels, tools, parts, and race clothing in whatever gaps exist.
If you plan ahead, many bike stores will happily let you take one out of their rubbish for free. And if you ask nicely, they’ll probably give you some packaging materials, too.
Other than the fact you never want to leave your bike box in the rain, another nuisance is the truly awkward carrying shape. It’s certainly not something you want to transport from one terminal to another. I’ve seen some clever hacks to get around this, such as using toy trains strapped to the bottom. Likewise, ratchet strapping can be used as more durable handles.
Taking the cardboard box one step further is the Air Caddy, a triangular box that offers a few clever accessories to increase bike protection and make transporting it easier. James Huang has had test bikes shipped in these boxes before and has been impressed by how securely the bike is held and the ease of use. However, these boxes are tough to find outside of the USA.
For those seeking all of the good stuff — a regular cardboard box that can withstand the rain and more than one use — there’s the Enviro Bike Box (or similar options, such as this corrugated plastic one from BikeFlights), both of which are effectively a plastic version of standard cardboard bike boxes. The blocky nature remains extremely awkward to carry, and the exterior dimension may prove larger than ideal during your travels, but they’re cheaper than the fancier alternatives, still reusable, and can break down flat for storage.
If protection is at the very top of your priority list for a bicycle travel case, but you’re not willing to go with a hard-sided model, then the Biknd Helium V4 gets our top pick. It’s the next best thing to a hard case in terms of protection, but with far fewer of the negatives mentioned earlier.
This semi-soft case uses an inflatable bladder system that really locks the bike in place and surrounds your bike with a cushion of air. The original Biknd Helium is the choice of our Australian tech editor, Matt Wikstrom, and the newer version refines the protection while dropping 2kg in precious weight. At just over 9kg, it’s a tad heavier than the EVOC or Thule options above, but also more cosseting, and there’s also enough room inside for two wheelsets – a great option for traveling cyclocross racers. It isn’t as accommodating of mountain bikes, but if drop bars are your thing, and you’ve got the money to spare, the Biknd Helium is hard to beat.
In case pumping your case up isn’t your style or if you want to carry a mountain bike, then the Savage Bike Bag from DoucheBags is worth a look. Nobody on the team owns one, but a few of us have played with them and see the attraction. It’s very similar to the EVOC Pro case, but with added protection from a collapsible aluminium “roll cage”. It still lacks side protection but is otherwise a well-reinforced case. With the hilarious name aside, the obvious disadvantage is its 11kg+ weight.
What have you used and found to be great? What was terrible? We’d love for you to share your experiences in the comments below.