Thursday, June 20, 2013

Making A Carbon Sandwich, or How To: Pack Your Triathlon Bike

(Un)packing my bike is one of my least favorite parts of traveling to train and race.  However, my bike is one of my most important pieces of equipment, and by far the most expensive, so (un)packing it properly is essential.

Every time I pack my bike I am going to war with ticket agents, baggage handlers, and the TSA.  Sun Tzu says there is an art to war.  I say there is an art to packing a bike.

Arming Yourself

*Towel - which does triple-duty for practice swims and transition towel
*Masking tape
*Electrical tape - which does double-duty for attaching gels to bike frames
*Two or three twist ties
*Latex, or similar, gloves
*Allen key (aka hex wrench) multi-tool
[NOTE: I ride Shimano pedals, which can be removed using a size 6 Allen key, the largest Allen key on the Park Tools Allen key multi-tool.  Your pedals may require a pedal wrench, or another type of tool to remove them.]

*Two "skewers"

Go to the hardware store and buy a length of threaded, 1/4" or 3/8" metal rod, with 8 each of the appropriate-sized washers and nuts.  Have the store pre-cut the threaded metal rod into a 6" piece (for the fork) and an 8" piece (for the rear triangle, which is the space between the seat stays and chain stays normally filled by the rear wheel).

Total cost of materials: $5-6.
Arriving at the race without a cracked fork or crushed rear triangle: PRICELESS.

On both ends of each pre-cut piece place the hardware in the order nut-washer-washer-nut.  The fork and rear triangle drop-outs will go between the washers; pictures of this are further down.

*Packing material

Go to a bike store and ask for a complete set of the packing material which arrives on new frames and wheels.  At the very least you want the hub protectors (I'm currently operating on three..., four is ideal) and the styrofoam frame tube protectors.

Total cost of materials: $0 (or a six-pack of beer).
Avoiding unnecessary scratches from loose items in the bike box: PRICELESS.

*Three plastic bags similar to those dispensed in the produce section of the grocery store.
*Two ziploc bags, at least one of which is gallon size.

For reassembly, you will need latex gloves, the same multi-tool (or the same tools) required for dis-assembly, and a small amount of carbon assembly paste (assuming you have a carbon frame and/or components; which here is pale red and in a small jewelry baggie).  A torque wrench is optional to re-tighten screws on carbon components.

Carbon assembly paste is anti-lubricant for normally slippery carbon-to-carbon contact.  The paste has the consistency of stiff toothpaste, and like some whitening toothpastes, feels gritty in texture due to the microscopic particles which minimize the slippage between the carbon.  The only places it should be used during bike re-assembly is bar/stem face plate, and seat post/seat post collar.

Battle Strategy

NOTE: Mark stem/bar position and saddle height before touching anything.  Electrical tape (as below), a sharpie, or a paint pen work well.

Shift into the biggest gear (biggest ring in the front, smallest ring in the back).

Remove anything from the frame and bars that isn't tied down: seat post (keeping saddle and rear bottle cages attached), aerodrink mount, pedals, Bento box, saddle bag, etc..  The only items I leave attached is the frame bottle cage and my SRM PowerControl mount.

Loosen the stem's face plate so the bars can drop.  DON'T totally remove the bars yet, unless you feel their weight won't stress the cables/housing as the bars just hang there, and that having them flop around won't bother you while wrapping the tubes.  Remove the front wheel.

The first time you pack your bike will take the longest; two hours for me.  Most of the time is spent matching the proper length of styrofoam frame tube protectors to each tube, and labeling them all.  Two hours three years ago and every subsequent time I pack it takes me less than two minutes to protect all the tubes.

Cover every piece of tube, except...

Protecting the right chain stay is optional.  The drive train components and chain gets packed next to and around it so I have found the styrofoam only gets in the way. 

I put a piece behind the seat post collar.

I protect each crank arm.

I also protect the frame's face plate and head tube.

Remove the rear wheel and place the now wheel-and-accessory-less frame into the bike box.  I orient the frame so that the bars point toward the handle I use to pull the box on its wheels.  The bars and fork should be turned right (toward the lid of the box), so that the bars (which are still loosely in the stem) flop onto the fork, facing the ceiling, and that both sides of the fork lay against the bottom of the case, rather than have the left side of the fork down (toward the floor) and the right side of the fork up (toward the ceiling).

NEVER PUT YOUR FRAME IN THE BIKE BOX WITH THE CHAIN RINGS DOWN.  I mean, unless you like riding on bent chain rings, misaligned chain ring teeth, a kinked chain, and a bent derailleur hanger.

Orient the crank arms so that the left one (toward the floor in this picture) runs along the left chain stay.

Put in the rear triangle "skewer."  Remember: nut-washer-rear-drop-out-washer-nut.  Tighten the nuts so the "skewer" won't fall out.

Use the twist-ties to secure the chain to the big chain ring.

Remove the rear derailleur using the appropriate size Allen key.  It's one bolt, with no washer or nut, and the bolt does not come out of the derailleur.  The hanger remains attached to the bike.

Put the rear derailleur, the corresponding cable and housing, and some chain, into one of the plastic produce bags.

Bundle the bag around its contents, keeping the derailleur tucked close to the right chain stay and inside (toward the floor in this picture) the rear triangle.

Wrap the excess bag about the right seat stay and secure the end with masking or electrical tape.

Put in the fork "skewer."

I like to wrap the entire fork, including up and over the front brake caliper.  I use a sleeve of bubble wrap, but anything soft (another towel? the leg off an old wetsuit?) will do.

Remove the stem's face plate, take out the bars (the shifter and brake cables and housing, and maybe a bike computer cable, should now be the only connection between the bars and the rest of the bike), and re-attach the face plate to the rest of the stem tightly so it won't rattle.

Getting the bars to lay flat across the fork may require some twisting of the cables, which is fine as long as you don't pull while you twist.

Lay the towel across the fork, front brake caliper, head tube, stem and face plate, and top tube.

Lay the bars across the towel, finding a spot where the bars will lay without sliding.  Push down gently to simulate what will happen when the box is closed and strapped tight.  If things don't nestle together, adjust the towel and bars.

Put the seat post/saddle/rear bottle cage assembly into one of the plastic produce bags.

Seat post first and with the rear bottle cages facing the rear drop outs, stick the bag into the rear triangle.

Wrap the third plastic produce bag around the seat post collar area so nothing loose gets into your frame....and never gets out again.

Put the real skewers into the gallon-sized ziploc bag, and nestle them along the top tube.

Put the pedals into the second ziploc bag and nestle them in a nook somewhere.  The pedals are heavy and if allowed to rattle around unchecked, will definitely damage something.

Put the wheel hub protectors in.

Fill the extra spaces with soft and light items as you prefer.  I leave the rear triangle area empty except for the seat post, as there are just so many delicate - and expensive - components nearby.

Start the carbon sandwich: foam on top of frame then wheels.  I put the cassette facing down and roughly aiming to the middle of the rear triangle below it on the other side of the foam.  It's a pressure distribution thing.

Finish the carbon sandwich: foam on top of wheels then lid.

I connect all straps, and only then tighten all straps evenly, so the lid pushes on all parts of the sandwich with similar pressure.

I know the process seems a bit over-protective, and some of the steps probably are, but the replacement value of my race set-up is pretty much the down-payment on a small house so I consider the effort to be thorough worth the investment of time.  And while the first time packing a bike can be slow - and feel like an over-sized arts and crafts project - repetition (many times I have (un)packed four times in a two week period, and too often to count, twice in less than 36-48 hours) brings efficiency: I can pack it in 20-25 min (even stopping to take pictures only took 36 min) and unpack in 10 min.

And now to war...come home with your shield or on it...

1 comment:

Thelma Bowman said...

These are helpful tips. Packing has never been an easy task, and it doubles the stress when you have huge equipment with you like bikes. But following a guideline somehow lightens it up. Packaging tape and straps are really a must-have to secure your bike/equipment from getting a scratch, or worse, actually breaking parts of it. Thanks for sharing!

Thelma Bowman @

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