I am a strictly minimalist, carry-on only, buy what you need when you get there type of packer. But recently I got a folding bike, the Downtube Nova. At $259 it’s one of the cheaper folding bikes available, but delivers on the basics and weighs only 24 pounds. I needed a bike in Portland, Oregon but I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying, so trying out a folder I could potentially take with me seemed like the perfect compromise.
The two main disadvantages of the Nova are 1) it’s imported by a one-man company with none of the accessories or customer support of a larger company like Dahon or Tern, so everything’s pretty much DIY, and 2) it’s really annoying to roll folded. The advantages are that it’s cheap, light, and fast. It’s perfect for someone with bike know-how to stash in the trunk of their car for fun riding.
Unfortunately, that’s not me. First I used it for getting to and from Portland’s light rail system, which worked, but was often a pain - because of stairs, or hills, or weather, or having to carry the bike folded. In pretty much every scenario I encountered, a full-sized bike made more sense.
So I decided to take it bike touring in South Korea.
The 4 Rivers Bike Path is a new, beautiful, well-maintained bike trail that runs from Incheon in the northwest to Busan in the southeast. I really wanted to visit Korea and I really wanted to try traveling with a bike, so it seemed like the perfect place to go. The trouble was, how was I going to get my bike on a plane?
Googling led me to Bikeforums.net, which has a wealth of information about doing just about anything with your folding bike. I learned that the most affordable, flexible way to fly with a folding bike is to pack it into a cardboard box (possibly the one it came in) and pad the hell out of it. The most discreet way to fly with a folding bike is to disassemble it, pad the hell out of it, and pack it into a rolling suitcase that’s just big enough to fit the bike but also small enough to be standard size luggage (thus avoiding extra baggage fees). That means the suitcase has to measure 62 linear inches (height + width + depth) or less and weigh under 50 pounds with the bike in it.
The Delsey Bastille Lite 29-Inch Spinner ($159 on sale) is one of a number of suitcases that meets these specifications. I chose it because it’s hard-sided and yet, at 9.4 pounds, lighter than a lot of soft-sided cases. I was also hopeful that the body dimensions (29 x 20x 13 inches) would give me enough space to fit 20-inch wheels.
Disassembling my bike to fit it into the case was tricky because I’d never done more than change a flat before (and that with help). Fortunately The Reluctant Cyclist made a great video about fitting a Tern Link D8 folding bike into a 31-inch Samsonite Flight suitcase that illustrates how to remove things and get the frame to fit. I was able to fit the Downtube Nova in a little differently, following these steps:
- Release the brakes.
- Open the rear wheel quick release and remove the rear wheel.
- Remove the bolt that attaches the rear derailleur to the frame. Save it in a small bag.
- Open the front wheel quick release and remove the front wheel.
- Open the seat post quick release and remove the seat post.
- Remove the small screw from the front of the handlebar post so that the handlebars can slide out of the post. Save the screw.
- Fold the frame and place it in the suitcase with the chainring on the bottom of the frame and placed in the right front corner of the suitcase.
- Place the seat in the right back corner and thread the post through the frame.
- Put the rear wheel on top of the bike, disc down.
- Put the front wheel on top of the rear wheel so that the quick release levers from both wheels go through the spokes of both wheels.
- Add a note with instructions for how to put the bike back in the case, in case security needs to remove it. I included photos and laminated it.
Besides the bike, I was also able to fit: the Tern Luggage Truss and Kanga Rack, my helmet, a portable air pump, a repair kit with tire patches and levers, a spare tube, a light towel, an extra sweater, and a pouch of cosmetics.
Unpacking and re-assembling the bike in Seoul went smoothly until I tried to unfold the frame. The hinge clasp had somehow gotten jammed shut and now prevented the two parts of the hinge from connecting. I took it to a bike shop where the owner got out some tools, banged the clasp out, and refused payment. And voila, I had a functional bike again.
Before tackling the 4 Rivers Bike Path I brought the suitcase to Raon Baggage Storage at Hongik University Station. I picked it up when I got back to Seoul and I was ready to pack up the bike and head to the airport.
On the way back to the US the suitcase ended up at a different airport than me because of Delta’s massive shutdown in Atlanta. When it turned up in the middle of the night a couple of days later it was slightly ripped and one corner was dented, but miraculously everything was still inside. There was even a “we looked in here” note from the TSA, which I took to mean “Holy crap there’s a bike in here! You’re awesome!”
I’m not sure I’ll ever do this again, mostly because the Downtube Nova just isn’t ideal for commuting in the crowded cities I tend to live in, but I’m glad I did it once. I had a bike I was familiar with to ride and repair, and I learned a lot more about bikes and bike care than I would have had I rented.