In 2003, I started searching for a touring bicycle. One of my requirements was that it be easy to travel with. I have relatives in England, wanted to tour in Europe and the United States, and knew that I'd be taking it on airplanes. As I looked around, I discovered two possibilities: folding bicycles and S&S couplers.
Folding bicycles are specifically designed bikes that are hinged together in ingenious ways to fold up into, what looks like, a small jumble of metal that can be picked up and carried onto trains and fit into boxes suitable for checking onto airplanes. One even comes with a hard plastic carrying case that converts into a trailer. This page provides a list of folding bikes.
S&S Couplers are the creation of S and S Machine, an industrial machine shop in Roseville, CA. The couplers are threaded stainless steel parts that are braised onto a frame that has been cut in half.
When the couplers are screwed together, the bike becomes whole and rides like a solid, uncoupled bike (in my experience).
The benefit of the couplers is two-fold. First, when the couplers are separated, the bike can be disassembled and put into a box that fits the airlines requirements for checked luggage. Second, a coupled bike rides like a regular bicycle.
I know that many people tour on folding bikes, but I decided to buy an S&S coupled bike mainly because 1) I wanted a true touring bike and 2) I only intended to own one bike and wanted it to be a full-sized bike.
A steel, carbon fiber, or titanium (but not aluminum) bike can be retro-fitted with the couplers, but I was buying a new bike and ordered it with the couplers installed. The cost for the couplers, a hard carrying case, and various packing pieces (the full package) was $850 in 2003.
Like all things, there are things I like about my coupled bike and aspects of them that are a bit of bother. I included a section on each.
What I like about my coupled bike
In the 10 years that I've owned this bike, I've flown to England several times, France, Switzerland, and all over the US with the bike in its box. I'd estimate at least one round trip flight a year with it. Assuming it costs $100/flight to check a regular bike, I've saved a couple thousand bucks on airline fees alone!
In addition to saving money on airline bicycle handling fees, I also travel with my bike in a hard shell case that protects it from rough handling by airline workers. My case has many scratches and it is hard to believe that my bike would have remained unharmed given all the times I have flown with it.
While the bike case is heavy (about 45 pounds) and big, it is also square, fits on luggage trolleys, and has wheels on one corner and a handle on the other. Thus, the packed bike isn't hard to maneuver around an airport or transport to a location from one. That said, traveling any distance with it, especially up or down stairs, is hard on my body's parts.
An unexpected benefit of my coupled bike is being able to easily transport it in virtually any vehicle by uncoupling it and putting in the trunk or hatchback. I've done this much more often than packing it in its case.
There are two situations where being able to put my bike into a vehicle is valuable. One is when I want to travel with my bike without carrying on an outside rack. There are many reasons for this, such as, bad weather or not wanting to leave the bike exposed when the car is unattended. I've done this several time when I rented a car to return home at the end of a bike tour.
The other time an uncoupled bike comes in handy is during a tour when I need to get a ride. I am not a bike touring purist who has to ride every foot of every tour. I take rides past particularly dangerous sections of roads or over shoulder-less bridges. Being able to pack my bike into any type or size of vehicle without a bike rack has allowed me to accept offered rides many times.
Lastly, my bike rides like a normal bike. I don't have to buy specialized parts, odd-sized tires, or learn how to maintain customized equipment, as I would with a folding bike. Thus, even though I have a bike that splits apart, I ride a bike that was custom fitted to my body with widely available parts. In my experience, it is a hard combination to beat!
What are the downsides of my coupled bike?
The most obvious problem with S&S couplers is the cost. Adding them significantly raises the cost of a bicycle several hundred dollars.
In addition, to take full advantage of their travel capabilities, you need to pay even more to get all the travel accessories, such as, tube wrappers and compression fittings. The hard case (there is also a soft case) costs about as much as the couplers do! Though, there is no reason the disassembled bike couldn't be put in a well padded cardboard box of the requisite size. Whatever the cost, I have saved much more in airline fees then the couplers and travel gear originally cost me.
Putting an uncoupled bike into its box is not a simple task. While I have never packed a regular bike for air travel (nor traveled with one), it is hard to imagine that it is more effort than getting my uncoupled bike into its box. It takes time to learn how to put the bike into its travel box. I had to learn what needs to be taken off the bike, how the pieces fit into the box, and then how to reassemble the pieces and adjust them into a working bicycle. This process is complicated by my bike's 700 (27 inch) wheels that have to go into a 26 inch box!
This photo gives you and idea of the challenge. The bike has to be put into the box.
The bike consists of 5 main parts, not counting the rims.
Eventually, everything fits into the case.
I created a set of step-by-step photos so that I could follow the same successful method each time. I now carry these photos with me when I travel. For more discussion, you might this thread at bikeforums.com informative. Note that the S&S website has a set of links to the packing procedure of various makes of bike. Having done this packing and unpacking dozens of times, I know how long it takes (90 minutes) and now add pre-trip inspection and maintenance into the process.
After getting the bike to the destination, the next hassle is what to do with the box? If you are riding a loop, you can leave it at the hotel. I've done this before and the hotel was happy to hold the box until I returned.
If you aren't riding a loop, what do you do? On those tours, I simply took the box, put extra stuff I traveled in into it, and then shipped it to my destination. Within the US, it cost me about $30 the last time I did it. I consider this a minor inconvenience, about the same as finding a cardboard box to pack a regular bike in.
One bothersome result of packing and unpacking the bike is all the dings it gets in the process. When all the components are packed in the bike box, there is a good deal of metal to metal contact, such as, spokes on painted frame. Even if I am extra careful to pad everything in the case, the TSA (airport security people) usually open the case and move things around. Either way, the paint on a coupled bike will get pretty beat up. I've gone through more than one vial of touch-up paint in the last 10 years!
The couplers are designed so they can only be opened by a special tool that comes with the couplers. It looks like an oddly shaped wrench.
The "normal" looking (right) end is a pedal wrench. I carry this tool when I ride in case I need to tighten or unscrew the couplers. The wrench is added weight to my touring load that I wouldn't carry if it wasn't for the couplers.
The couplers are solid connectors but do require an occasional tightening. Over time, they can loosen, which, on my bike, causes the rear derailleur to skip gears. I now know to test them frequently and what to check if the gears start jumping.
Would I buy them again?
If something happened to my bike and I had to buy another touring bike, would I have S&S couplers put on it? I can't imagine why not. To me, the cost gets returned many times over through the years. Are the problems a bother? Yes. Are they any worse than traveling with a folding or regular? I don't know but I doubt it.
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Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz