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  • Writer's pictureThomas Sweeney

The Luggage Problem

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

I have a lot of cheap suitcases in my garage. Point-to-point bicycle touring is funny that way. When you fly somewhere, you have to pack your gear, and I've found the best way to do that is in a duffel bag or suitcase, something semi-solid that will transport your belongings with no complaints from baggage handlers. A cardboard bicycle box is the best way to get the bike onto a plane, the disassembled two-wheeler crammed inside in a specific fashion to minimize damage.

In the past seven years, I’ve checked my bicycle and belongings onto flights thirteen times. When I arrived somewhere, I unfortunately had to leave behind the box and the luggage. At the end of the trip, I found new baggage, including the massive cardboard bicycle box. Flying with all my gear is the most stressful part of bicycle touring, as the excerpts from my memoir, Lisbon to Shanghai in Four Summers, show.

2015, Lisbon International Airport: I listened to the hum of air vents and muffled voices while eyeing the luggage carousel and oversized baggage claim, waiting for my bag and bicycle to arrive. I pictured my bicycle, packed in its box, in the belly of a cargo jet on its way to the far reaches of the globe.

When the massive cardboard rectangle arrived, I grabbed it with trembling hands and inspected every corner. It appeared intact. I dragged the box toward the luggage carousel. A few minutes later, my black duffle bag arrived. It contained three more panniers, which collectively held a mess of clothes for every type of weather, cycling shoes, eight spare tubes, two extra chains, a multitude of tools, my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and every other item I conceived I might need on my trip. Three jars of peanut butter and eight packs of gum were stashed somewhere inside.

Belongings in hand, I paused to consider my next move. I had dreaded this moment for months. Unpacking the bicycle was only one piece of the puzzle. It needed to be reassembled, the handlebars reattached, the seat repositioned, the pedals screwed on, the cables recalibrated. In my mind, the best place to do that was in the baggage claim area, safe from the uncertainties of the outside world...

Six weeks later, I had to transport everything home.

My first day in London, I found a sporting goods store where I procured a bicycle box to carry my Soma home. I walked the mass of cardboard a mile back to my hotel under a rare sunlit sky, questioning how I would find a bicycle box the following summer in a country where no one spoke English. After securing the container in my room, I went to another store and bought a duffle bag to bring the rest of my gear back to Colorado. It was a far simpler task, but one I knew I’d have to repeat in the years to come...

I packed my bicycle in my hotel room, next to the runway at Heathrow, listening to planes take off and land every few minutes, careful not to smear grease on the pristine walls.

In 2016… I arrived at Geneva International Airport bleary-eyed but ready to ride. I changed into my cycling clothes in a bathroom and threw away the T-shirt and boxers I’d been wearing since leaving my house.

My bike box and bags arrived unscathed. I looked around to make sure there weren’t any security guards nearby, then set up a workshop in a corner of the baggage claim area, assembled my Soma, affixed the panniers, and discarded the cardboard box. I hung the duffel bag, too bulky to carry with me, on the trash bin, hoping an airport worker would have a use for it. Then I pushed my loaded bicycle through customs and into the waiting summer sun.

That summer, I flew home from Tbilisi, Georgia, having pedaled 2699 miles across ten countries…

Prior to my arrival, I had researched lodging in Tbilisi that was within walking distance of several bike shops. My first day in the city, I walked into one and held up a list of phrases on my cell phone to the salesman. I pointed to the one that said “bicycle box” in Turkish, Russian, and Georgian. He went to the back of the store and returned with a large cardboard container that would carry my Soma back to Colorado. Later, I bought a cheap duffel bag from a street vendor to get my panniers home.

In 2017, I flew back to Tbilisi, en route to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and China. I left behind a bicycle box next to a trash bin inside Tbilisi International Airport, hoping it would be recycled, but knowing that it wouldn't be. I gave the duffel bag to an airport worker, glad it wouldn't go to waste. Three days later, I procured another bicycle box in Baku, Azerbaijan, to get my bicycle onto another airplane for an hour-long flight across the Caspian Sea.

I ditched that box too, along with another cheap duffel bag, at Atyrau International Airport in western Kazakhstan, lamenting the waste that I was leaving behind.

Four thousand miles later, I repeated the routine in Xi’an, China, so I could return home. One of the suitcases I purchased in Xi’an is still hanging in my garage, and makes occasional trips with me now and again, a nice souvenir of my days in Xi'an.

In 2018, I flew back to Xi’an… I checked into my hotel and pulled my bike box and luggage to my room. Despite being exhausted and frazzled, I assembled my bicycle and sorted my gear before leaving to hunt for a grocery store.

I left my room early the next morning, the remains of my bike box and an old suitcase piled next to the trash bin. I didn't mind throwing away the suitcase; I'd had to ductape the thing closed because the zipper had failed. It was bound for the trash bin anyway. I hoped someone could use the backpack I left behind though.

After returning my key, I walked into the morning sunshine and hopped on the Soma.

Three weeks later, it was time to fly home from Shanghai. I found a bike shop and obtained another bicycle box after assuring the salesman that I knew how to pack a bike. I bought another suitcase at a department store. I crammed everything into my new set of luggage, leaving behind a few panniers that were too decrepit to be used again to lighten the load.

In 2019, I rode across southern Australia. I let behind another bike box and duffel bag in Perth. Again, I hung the duffel bag next to the trash bin, hoping someone could use it. Upon my arrival in Sydney, I bought a US$20 suitcase at a Kmart, and acquired a bicycle box at yet another bicycle shop. Both held up long enough to get my gear across the Pacific.

Two years passed before I needed another bicycle box and suitcase to bring my gear home from Boston. In 2020 I was reduced to travelling by rental car, within the continental United States, due to that pandemic.

I've often considered the impact of using so much luggage - especially the bicycle boxes, which were probably never recycled. Hopefully, someone grabbed the duffel bags so they could be used again. At home, I now have enough suitcases to last me the rest of my life, and I plan to make good use of them. Having said that, let me know if you ever need one - I've got plenty to spare...

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