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With a good bike box, you can see the world

September 17, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

THERE are two things I call "baby": my dog and my bicycle.

For practical reasons, I couldn't take my pooch along on a trip to Florida to visit family. But I decided to take my custom-fitted road bike.

Bad enough I had chosen a sport that requires wearing Lycra. But taking my bike meant I had to obtain an appropriate packing box, learn how to disassemble (and reassemble) the bike, budget for extra baggage fees and figure out where to ride at my destinations.

I was determined, though. I had lost a lot of excess weight because of cycling and was about to fly into a no-diet zone: my mom's house. Moreover, I had grown to love cycling and thought it would add a new element of adventure to a family visit.

It's a hassle, so why not rent?

For casual rides, the heavy, all-purpose bikes found at most rental shops are fine. (You can find a nationwide list of rental places -- which are often in tourist areas -- at www.bikeaccess.net.)

But I wanted to do daily, 30-mile, quick-paced rides on my carbon, fitted bike. That would be difficult, at least for me, on an off-the-rack rental. My middle-aged body is not that forgiving.

First, I needed a shipping box.

On the lower end are cardboard boxes that bike manufacturers use to ship their products to dealers. You can get them at low or even no cost at bike shops, but the boxes require more disassembly of the bike than I'm comfortable with.

Specialty bike boxes with ultra-protective, hard shells can cost $400 or more, but I settled on a cheaper corrugated plastic box from CrateWorks (www.crateworks.com) that uses an ingenious system of Velcro straps and foam inserts to secure and protect a bike. (It even had a spot for my helmet.) It costs $169, plus $35 for ground shipping. CrateWorks offers a corrugated cardboard version for $109, but it's not waterproof and can be used only a handful of times.

The system required removal of the handlebar unit, seat post and pedals, so I made arrangements with a local bike shop to allow me to watch and learn as its employees did this. The shop charged me $25, half the normal price of preparing a bike for shipping, because I brought my own box and packed the pieces myself.

Next, I had to try to avoid incurring the extra fees that airlines often charge for shipping a bike as baggage. United Airlines, for example, puts bikes in the same category as cellos and charges an extra $85 each way.

"It's for the extra resources to handle fragile equipment," said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

The Adventure Cycling Assn., a nonprofit group that promotes bicycle touring, calls the fee unfair. "It's arbitrary and exorbitant," said spokesman Aaron Teasdale. "If a bike is packed properly, it needs no special handling." When asked what's in the box he is checking in, Teasdale's friend regularly says "conference materials" and is not charged, Teasdale said.

I decided instead to adopt a no-lie policy suggested by some cyclists on the Internet -- vagueness, unless asked to be specific.

When I got to the airport and presented the box to a skycap, he looked up and asked, "What's in there?"

"It's sports equipment!" I blurted out. I'd make a terrible actor.

The skycap smiled slightly as he held up his hand to shut me up. He picked up the box and said, "This is very light." (It weighed less than 25 pounds). He then peered into one of the handholds and saw the compartment holding the wheels.

"All I see in there is a couple of wheels," he said, whisking the box onto a cart to go to security inspection.

I discreetly handed him a $10 tip.

At the Fort Lauderdale airport, the box rolled onto the conveyor belt like any other piece of luggage. It came through with no hint of damage.

With "sports equipment" in hand, all I had to do now was find some good routes. It turned out not to be much of a problem.

I was going to be in different parts of the state, traveling with my mom by car, and my reassembled bike fit neatly into her car trunk with the back seats folded down.

My niece in Jacksonville suggested I head down a coastal highway that had a bike lane, little traffic and almost no stoplights. At my nephew's home in Gainesville, I found a wonderful, mostly rural route posted by a local bike club on the Internet.

And back in southern Florida, where my mom lives, I called a local shop, Lake Worth Bicycle. The owner not only described a route through fabled Palm Beach, but also taped directions on the back door of his shop so I could find them early the next morning.

All and all, I did five great rides in a week. I got to see areas I wouldn't have seen, eat without guilt and have a bit of solo time, which made time I spent with family all the more enjoyable.

At the airport for the flight home, the skycap didn't even ask what was in the box. There was again no extra fee.

One of the best moments of my bicycle adventure came after the last ride in Lake Worth. By then, Lake Worth Bicycle was open, and Robert Machin, the gregarious owner, greeted me warmly. He proudly gave me a tour of the shop, which has been in his family for three generations, and introduced me to his father, who still comes by to help out.

Before I left, they made espresso shots for everyone, including the first customers who had wandered in. We clinked the tiny glasses.

"This means you have to come back and see us again," Machin told me.

I have every intention of doing so. Have bike box, will travel.

*

david.colker@latimes.com

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