Frequent flyer: Art of the travelling cyclist
- by Cam Whiting
- Published: 22 December 2011
Serious cyclist? Is your passion all-consuming? You’ll already know that an optimal cycling lifestyle is achieved when the support system and environment around it is stable. Frequent travel, especially work-related, can easily destabilize a cyclist’s routine and potentially wreak havoc on cycling fitness.
Early in my cycling journey, I was a voracious consumer of performance-related books, journals and magazines. Amongst the volumes of advice, one statement – I think it might have been from Dr Michael Colgan’s ‘Optimum Sports Nutrition’ – stays with me: “consistency is the single-biggest contributor to athletic improvement”. [I've still got the book at home; will double-check post-vacation].
My last job involved travelling outside of my home country for five to six months per year. When not overseas, I worked out of a home office halfway around the globe from HQ. During the first 18 months, cycling time was squeezed out regularly by (in hindsight) over-zealous commitment to “zero lag” service and communications with customers in Asia and my team in Europe. Prior to this new venture, I cycled almost every day. It didn’t take long for the lack of consistency to eat away at a fitness base built up over many years.
I maintained this travel load for a little over three years before curiosity got the better of me, and Cycling iQ was born. Towards the end of that period, packing my bike for work trips became as natural as packing my passport. Now the pace of life has slowed somewhat, I’d like to offer some advice to frequent travellers that may be struggling to incorporate cycling time into their busy schedules.
The Travel Bike
If you’re not lucky enough to have a spare bike waiting for you when you land, you’ll need to take your own bike. Road cycling is inherently more efficient than mountain biking (reduced equipment, transit time to trails, cleaning, etc), so I’m assuming you will have a road bike. The most critical traits of a good travel bike are:
- gears (singlespeed road bikes are conceptually perfect for travel; after a while, you will yearn for gears)
- comfort and fit (at 4:30am, jetlagged and sleepless, a bike you enjoy riding is essential)
- light weight; preferably less than 8kg (more on this later)
Over the years, I graduated through four different bikes before settling on my ideal travel bike – a BMC teammachine SLR01, which was my everyday bike at home. It’s embarrassing to realise how obvious a choice this should have been.
Before this, I used a Surly Pacer single-speed, which had been fitted with S&S couplings and folded into a airline-friendly travel-specific case. It took ten minutes to assemble/disassemble, and served me well for a few months. I could never find the right gear though. Next, came a MY2008 BMC teammachine SLT01; an iconic bike whose form language all future BMC road bikes would reference. Unfortunately, this model was discontinued in 2009 after a five-year lifecycle; I couldn’t bear the thought of it being damaged in transit and potentially irreplaceable. (In my eyes, it is amongst the most exquisite road frames ever produced; making the harsh ride almost forgivable.)
An aluminium/carbon MY2008 BMC roadracer SL01 was the next bike recruited. It was almost perfect, with two exceptions: its reach was 5mm longer than the SLT01, and customers (who I always tried to arrange rides with when travelling) were surprised a BMC employee would be riding a three-year old bike with four-year old Campagnolo Veloce. Not an ideal look.
The SLR01 ticked all the boxes for a travel bike; light, perfect fit, very comfortable, latest model and I simply loved riding it.
The Travel Bike bag
A hard case’s main benefit is clear: ultimate protection for your bike. The main downsides are:
- weight of the case alone can easily wipe out almost half a baggage limit
- won’t always fit in a regular taxi
- takes up valuable space in a hotel room (especially the tiny business hotel rooms in metropolitan Japan)
- identifiably a bike case; leniency is less likely at check-in
- cost, relative to soft bags; hard cases can exceed $1,000
I picked up a great soft case from Japanese maker ‘Ostrich’ in 2009. It is fairly basic, but is well padded, has internal wheel compartments, small velcro-closed pockets, external luggage label sleeve and a robust, oversized, external zip to keep everything enclosed. It has a large shoulder strap, making walking with an additional wheeled suitcase relatively easy.
Naturally, soft cases don’t provide the same level of protection as hard cases, but (in my experience) their extreme versatility – when empty and flattened, they can even be used as a stretching mat on wooden floors -light weight and transportability (two bikes in soft cases can fit in the back seat of a regular taxi, plus they’re easier to carry up stairs when using public transport) makes them unbeatable for regular travel.
Bike bag protection and useful accessories
For better protection, wheels should be individually placed in padded wheel bags before being inserted into the internal compartments. I flat-pack two double-layered cardboard boxes and place one between each wheel and the bike, which sits in the middle. Inevitably the bike bag will be side-loaded onto the airport conveyor, so dropout protectors/chain tension device (similar to this one from PRO) are needed at each end to protect against compression damage.
Though I’m meticulous with other people’s bikes, mine is ultimately neglected for months on end. Oil-covered hands are not advised for meetings later in the day so latex gloves are indispensible for the small amount of assembly that is required. The disassembly procedure – thanks to practice – is minimal:
- remove pedals, put in zip-lock bag inside shoe bag
- remove wheels, remove skewers, place in wheelbags, place in bike bag
- insert dropout protectors into frame
- loosen stem faceplate bolts, rotate handlebars around and under top tube, tighten faceplate bolts
- tie protective sleeve around top tube
- unscrew rear derailleur from hanger
- bike goes into bag, with cardboard inserts either side
- helmet (in bag with sunglasses), shoes and clothes placed in gaps around frame
On a good day, this process – and the reverse – takes 5-6 minutes. Also highly useful are a frame-mounted tool canister (I use this one from PRO) for tubes and mini-tool and a spare quick release skewer with round head (for use with indoor trainer*).
NON-ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT, BUT NICE TO HAVE
Indoor trainer* or rollers
It takes another level of dedication, but a lightweight (7-8kg) indoor trainer is invaluable for 1-2 week trips during NE Asia or European winters. I’ve done this on a handful of occasions. Even though high volumes of indoor cycling in formative years has all but killed my desire to train inside, it has always been worthwhile when faced with the alternative of poorly-equipped, or non-existent, hotel gyms.
Frequent flyer status
Asia-Pacific region travellers are pretty lucky. Carriers in this part of the world are highly accommodating, reasonable and relatively flexible when compared to American or European carriers.
Still – and stating the obvious – it’s beneficial to have status with the major alliances; One World and/or Star Alliance. My bike bag, fully loaded with everything (including clothes) weighs 17 kilograms. I normally pack very light elsewhere, so standard economy baggage limits are usually sufficient. However, having the option to pack extras (and avoid check-in anxiety) is a bonus.
Smartphone with navigation
Self-explanatory. As international data roaming is prohibitively expensive, I normally carried a hard-copy map and only briefly used Google maps when unsure about a street name or turn.
If you’re fortunate enough to have influence on where you stay, try to book a hotel with proximity to water (lake, river, sea) or parkland; especially in major urban centres. These public spaces are normally bordered by well-serviced roads or even dedicated cycling paths. Though ill-suited for serious training, cycling paths can be a serviceable warm-up before heading out onto the main roads, and they may even help cyclists avoid peak traffic on the way out to more suitable roads.
This could easily be listed under the “essential” category. Safe drinking water is vital. Hotel tap-water in some Asian countries is OK (Singapore, Japan) but definitely not OK in others (emphasis on China). Bottled water is readily available almost everywhere, but it costs alot and I personally hate the externalities. Luckily, there is an alternative that won’t cost more than two bottles of water – and it may even be entirely free. Hotels in Asia often (I experience this 90% of the time) include one or two “complimentary” bottles of water for guests. Even if they are not replenished daily, hang on to these.
If the hotel offers a gym, spa, sauna, or other recreational facility, it almost certainly will have a filtered water machine nearby. This is your ticket to free, continuous and safe drinking water for the duration of your stay. If you don’t get complimentary bottled water, just buy two bottles from a nearby 7-Eleven, Family Mart, etc, and reuse.
Local bunch rides
I’ve been incredibly fortunate; it has been (and continues to be) my job to know where road cyclists live, where they ride, their favourite hangouts (online and offline) and what infrastructure exists to support their cycling. Local cycling forums and expat community pages are great starting points for business travellers that are planning to ride. I’ve found the following really helpful:
SOUTH KOREA (Seoul): Dossa forums
JAPAN (Tokyo): Tokyo Cycling Club
PHILIPPINES: Pinoy MTBer (don’t let the name fool you)
INDIA: Bikes Zone
MALAYSIA: Togoparts forum (also excellent for Indonesia and Singapore)
SINGAPORE: ANZA Cycling (link to forum off home page)
AUSTRALIA: Bicycles Network Australia
NEW ZEALAND: Vorb
A surprising number of expats roam these forums. It’s highly likely they arrived in their new home-city with little or no knowledge of the local cycling scene. As a result of their own experiences, they are normally very happy to share their local knowledge with visiting cyclists. Before my first visit to Shanghai, I registered with the FHL group. Shortly after posting a message enquiring about local riding, I received two emails with offers to escort me from my hotel to the local morning bunch ride. These acts of kindness are not uncommon throughout the global cycling community. It’s pretty cool.
Before your flight, go riding
It’s a great feeling to board a long-haul flight having ridden beforehand. If you can, get out for a decent early morning ride on the day of your flight. If your flight departs very early, plan a solid ride the day prior. Even if you intend to ride on the same day you disembark, things don’t always go as planned. Psychologically, it’s easier to skip the first post-flight ride if you already had an intense workout before you boarded. Plan to have an early night and a great ride tomorrow instead.
Depending on the duration of your flight, time of arrival and schedule that day, you may only have time to get to your hotel and go to work. However, there are two important cycling-related tasks that every travelling cyclists should be able to achieve before bed.
Prepare for your ride
Regardless of how tired I am on arrival day, I always assemble my bike and lay out my riding clothes before bedtime. Ignoring the first early-morning alarm after a long, and possibly sleepless, flight is more likely if you haven’t made a meaningful prior commitment to riding. Make it easier on yourself by having everything ready to go as soon as you wake up.
Confirm your attendance
If you’ve been lucky enough to find a bunch ride to join, SMS (if you have a mobile contact) or message (on the forum) your riding buddies with a message that makes you accountable.
This will be a given for most business travellers with back-to-back meetings all day and inevitable work-related social commitments in the evenings. In most major cities, traffic density really escalates after 07:00. Ideally, your ride will be coming to an end by this time. Admittedly, my cycling obsession is more chronic than most – I’ve often ridden at 04:00 just so I can benefit from the post-ride clarity, endorphins and physical catharsis that endures the entire day after.
ALWAYS carry local currency. If you get hopelessly lost, shelve your pride and get a taxi back to your hotel.
Most of my cycling clothing is expensive; maybe because it fits so well and feels superb, maybe I’m just a sucker. Hotel laundry services are brutal on clothing, so I developed a simple solution: after your ride, jump into the shower fully-clothed. Use a facecloth (there are normally two facecloths and two towels in most hotel bathrooms) and soap (I use Dove, as it’s mild) to scrub your clothing like your own skin. Remove, rinse, gently wring, then drop onto a spare towel that you’ve laid out beside the shower. Do this layer by layer until everything is removed then – duh – wash yourself.
Post-shower, twist the spare towel around the clothes tightly to wring out excess water. Then hang your clothing from anything that’s going. It’s diligent to have two sets of cycling clothing on rotation.
Individual physiologies respond differently to high travel loads. I’m not advocating falling out of bed after one hour’s sleep, then heading out into Gangnam-gu traffic in December – while it’s raining – following a multi-leg trip from east-coast USA. Safety and common sense come first.
Apart from the physical benefits of cycling while travelling, there is excellent potential to have an amazing riding experience and meet new friends. I hope some of the above tips come in useful for frequent travellers seeking to maintain cycling fitness in spite of the challenges.
About the Author
Cam Whiting, previously with BMC Racing, is a consultant for cycling brands and regularly reports as an industry insid
r on Cycling IQ