Every triathlete’s nightmare … flying with their bike.
Of all the logistical challenges triathletes face, getting your bike to a race on time and race-ready can feel like a roll of the dice.
I was on the shuttle bus on my way back to my car after watching the last of the pros cross the finish line at Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant last June when I spotted Flora Duffy out my window. She was out for a jog. She looked fresh and, if she was feeling devastated, she showed no sign of it.
It was like witnessing a lesson in grace and acceptance: the Tokyo Olympic gold medallist and four-time ITU world champion had flown up from Denver for the race, and all bets were on Duffy to finish on top of the podium. She’d made it to Tremblant. Her bike had not.
Just about everybody has a lost luggage story these days, and for most of us, the stakes are not quite as high as they were for Duffy. (She’d been forced to withdraw from the Chattanooga 70.3 due to COVID, and the Mont-Tremblant race was her last shot at a slot for October’s 70.3 World Championship.) But any age-grouper who has ever flown to a race can relate. Of all the logistical challenges triathletes face, how to get your bike there in one piece, on time and race-ready can feel like a roll of the dice.
Take Christine Piché. Last year was a come-back year for the 48-year-old electromechanical technician, who moved to Lac-Mégantic, Que., to begin the long preparation to race the gruelling CanadaMan/Woman XTri event. She’d finally recovered from her injuries after being struck by a car on the bike course at Mont-Tremblant in 2019 while training for her first full-distance race. She’d had surgery to repair a torn-up shoulder and, to celebrate, last spring Piché invested $17,000 in a Felt time-trial bike with all the bells and whistles. She won her age-group in the CanadaMan sprint in July, posted a personal-best time at Ironman 70.3 Maine two weeks later, then raced Timberman a couple of weeks after that. She wrapped up the season in early December, flying to Orlando for Ironman 70.3 Florida.
When Piché collected her bags at the airport, she discovered the rigid Thule bike case scuffed up, with the little feet at the bottom broken off. Inside, things were worse.
“When I took my bike out of the case, I found the fork all scratched up,” she said. “I also discovered that two cables were cut — one of the gear shifters on the aerobar no longer worked and a brake, as well.”
How had it happened? Piché says she had packed the bike like it was crystal, cushioning it with extra padding and tying every piece down with extra straps. She had arrived in Florida a week early, to give herself time for a few rides before her event. But, with electronics and other parts in short supply everywhere, she spent most of that week tracking down bike shops and pleading with mechanics to get her most-prized possession fixed ahead of her event. She got the bike back just in time to rack it for the race.
“They ended up using a part from a bike that was already in the shop,” she says.
On the return flight, Piché’s Felt fared even worse.
“When I picked up my case in Montreal, one of the clips on it had been ripped right off. The lock had been cut, and there were bike parts missing.”
One of her carbon wheels was also broken. She said even the American Airlines representative at the airport couldn’t believe the extent of the damage and helped her document her complaint.
“Customs has the right to open a case,” she says she was told. “They cut my lock and went into mine and made no effort to put the bike back the right way.”
Once home, Piché’s bike went straight back into the shop for another long wait for parts.
She finally called me at the end of January with some good news.
“My baby is back,” she said. By then, she was $1,000 out of pocket for the bike repairs. The case wasn’t yet fixed, and she was still waiting for a response from the airline for her compensation claim.
“It’s a lot of money, but it’s not just about the money,” Piché said. “The whole thing upset me so much, and dealing with it took up so much of my time, I’ve neglected my training. I haven’t felt motivated — just overwhelmed by the whole bad experience.”
As a prep race for the gruelling CanadaMan/Woman, Piché signed up for Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote in the Canary Islands in March.
Getting there is a snap if you’re in Europe, but from Canada it involves flying on at least two airlines. That means more oversized luggage fees, more trips through customs and, once you leave the airport, more stress about finding a taxi big enough to haul you, your bike and the rest of the gear to wherever you are staying.
When Montreal triathlete Genady Balik and his partner Ann Walling travelled to Lanzarote for a training camp a few years ago, Balik calculated that the excess luggage fees for the two bikes alone would add up to $600.
“They have very good bike rentals in Lanzarote,” he said. “For $500, we could rent bikes. So that’s what we did.”
I shared Balik’s experience with Piché, but the suggestion that she rent a bike in Lanzarote didn’t go down well.
“Renting a bike that I haven’t been fitted for: it’s too much of a risk,” she says. “I’m still recovering from my accident. I risk getting hurt again. I risk being unable to finish the race. I need my own bike.”
At least getting the bike to the race shouldn’t break the bank.
Since 2019, many airlines appear to have taken pity on triathletes and other cyclists, lowering their fees for bikes. American Airlines, Delta and United now count bikes as part of your checked baggage allowance, as long as the packed bike weighs in at no more than 23 kg (50 lbs) and the overall dimensions of the bike case meet each airline’s relatively generous maximum size. Some European airlines, like British Airways, have followed suit. So has Spain’s Iberia, for long-haul flights — but a short-haul flight (from Madrid to Lanzarote, for example) will set you back 45 euros.
In this country, Westjet and Air Canada both charge a $50 handling fee for bicycles, regardless of whether you are checking other bags. Air Transat also charges $50 in the Americas, but $75 for transAtlantic flights.
On almost all the airlines, you’ll still incur excess charges if your packed bike is too heavy. Some of the most durable hard cases weigh in at 12.5 kg when they’re empty — so how light is your bike?
Believe it or not, this is all an improvement. At least you know what you are in for. A decade ago, when I hauled my bike to London for the ITU age-group world championships, Air Canada charged me $50 for the bike as my only piece of checked luggage — plus another $75 in handling fees. I flew home on Icelandair via Reykjavik to take advantage of a free stopover, but I paid $200 US in additional baggage fees: $100 for each leg of that trip.
Lesson learned. Do your homework. Then budget accordingly.