Introduction: Bike Transportation Bag
I like to tour on my bicycle in warmer, drier parts of the world than the UK. That usually means catching a flight, and nowadays almost all airlines require a bike to be disassembled and packaged in a bag or box – the days of just removing the pedals, twisting the handlebars sideways and letting a little air out of the tyres are long gone. Unfortunately, most of the bike transportation bags available to buy are heavy, bulky and expensive, none of which is good for a touring cyclist on a budget. So I made my own, for a cost similar to that of the giant polythene bags that are made to Cycling UK’s specification.
The Cycling UK bags are OK, if short-lived, and I’ve used them many times. But a number of airlines now insist on something more substantial and protective that involves, at the least, cardboard, such as the cardboard sleeves that new bikes are delivered in from the manufacturers. The only problem with that is that such sleeves can’t be carried with you while you’re touring, and it won’t often be possible to buy another one close to an airport for the return journey. On the other hand, cardboard boxes are available for free from just about every shop, bar and restaurant all over the world. My bag design incorporates internal pockets into which flattened-out boxes can be slid to provide some protection and – equally importantly – to make the bag appear stiffer and therefore more acceptable to check-in staff who sometimes seem to be looking for an excuse to refuse to accept a bicycle, or at least to make its owner sign a “limited release” to restrict the airline’s liability for damage. With the cardboard removed, the bag will roll up into a small package weighing only 425g (1lb) in its own stuff sack. The bike can also be carried in its bag, using a shoulder strap.
Also for reasons of check-in clerk acceptability, I chose to make the bag from black fabric with black hook-and-loop tape to close it. I think this makes it look more professional, ie more like a “proper” bike bag, in part because the dark colour means that any printing on the cardboard boxes doesn’t show through. But I used webbing in a contrasting colour (red) for the strap and handles because I wanted them to be obvious to a baggage handler. A handle stitched onto the bag itself could easily be ripped off if handled carelessly, and it’s difficult to get two handles securely around a bike to support its weight without risking puncturing the bag once one or both wheels have been removed. I solved this problem by making handles which attach to the four corners of the (disassembled) bike itself and emerge through holes in the bag. The whole thing can be picked up safely by any one of them.
Even if you never fly with your bike, a bag such as this will be useful if you want to take it with you on any other form of transport that won’t normally carry bikes, like coaches, buses (including car park shuttles), small passenger ferries, some trains and the London Underground. Once a bike is in a bag, it’s just a piece of luggage like any other, but be aware that many services also ban large items of luggage at peak times.
A bag is also great for keeping the back of your car mud and oil free.
Measurements in the instructions are mostly given in inches only - I find it easier to work in inches when sewing large things.
You will need:
- Ripstop nylon (it’s stronger than polyester ripstop) – get a reasonably heavy weight of fabric, at least 40 g/m² (1.2 oz/yd²). Unless your bike has a short frame or you remove the rear wheel as well as the front one you may need fabric that’s 162cm (64”) wide, which is less common than the standard 150cm (59”) width. 3.4m (3¾ yds) should be enough, or just 2m (2¼ yds) if you don’t want the internal pockets – check the required bag size first as explained in Step 2 if in any doubt.
- 1.8m (2 yds) of 2.5cm (1”) wide sew-in hook-and-loop tape (eg Velcro)
- A short length of stick-on hook-and-loop tape, or stick-on dots
- 4.1m (4.5 yds) of 2.5cm (1”) wide polypropylene or nylon webbing
- Strong polyester sewing thread to match both the fabric and the webbing
- Fusible hemming tape or double-sided sticky tape
- 50mm (2”) wide ripstop nylon repair tape (as sold in chandlers for mending spinnakers) – optional
- Large sheets of paper for the pattern and the optional stencil (Step 9)
- An old sheet or decorator’s dust sheet - optional
- Approx 0.5m (20") of nylon cord and a cord grip, if you want to make a stuff sack (Step 10)
- Acrylic paint, fabric medium and a paintbrush - optional
You’ll also need a sewing machine and the usual sewing equipment (dressmaking scissors, pins, needles, an iron and ironing board, etc), plus a candle. A Teflon sheet (such as is meant for baking) is useful if you plan to use hemming tape, but greaseproof paper or waxed paper will do as a substitute.
Step 1: Tips for Working With Ripstop Nylon
Ripstop fabric is strong for its weight, and the warp/weft grid of thicker yarns means it is tear-resistant, but it will still tear. And it frays easily. Any pinhole or needle hole is a point of weakness so holes should be kept to a minimum. Follow these tips for a bag that’s as strong as possible.
- Pass raw edges through a flame to seal them immediately after cutting, but test on a scrap first. (In the instructions, this is called “flaming”.) The easiest way is to use a candle in a holder and pull a section of the edge of the fabric taut between your hands. Pass it quickly through the flame, horizontally, then move along to the next section.This is best done over the kitchen sink, just in case!
- Avoid pinning as much as you can, use clips instead.
- Sew with a 2.5-3mm (8½-10 sts/inch) stitch length and a narrow zigzag (eg 0.5mm) to allow for a little stretch in the fabric.
- Use a new, sharp needle, and as fine as possible consistent with the thread thickness.
- Use strong polyester thread.
- Don't stitch too close to an edge or fold, or too close to another row of stitching.
- Press seams with a cool iron – test first.
- Practise using fusible hemming tape if you plan to use it instead of sticky tape. Put a Teflon sheet or greaseproof paper on top of the nylon-tape-nylon sandwich and experiment with iron settings to find a temperature/time combination that will fuse the layers together without melting the nylon. The wool setting for a count of 5 worked for me.
- Mark the fabric with pencil on the wrong (non shiny) side, or use a chinagraph pencil.
- Avoid clipping curves if possible, but flame the cut edges if you have to. There’s no need to get curved seams lying perfectly flat, this isn’t couture dressmaking.
Step 2: Checking the Shape
The pattern sketched in the PDF attached to this step (and as a jpeg image) works for my bike, a medium adult-sized hybrid with 28”/700mm wheels. It would be sensible to check that it fits your bike before taking scissors to your fabric, and that’s essential if you are not a medium-sized adult or have a non-standard bike. You’ll need to draw a full-sized pattern onto a sheet of paper anyway, using the measurements in my sketch as a guide but adjusting them as necessary to suit your own bike.
Start by dismantling your bike as you intend to for transportation purposes. For me, that means removing the pedals, the front wheel and the handlebars and then holding everything securely in place with a combination of bungees, cable ties and lengths of string. I tried various front wheel positions (see photos). I also normally remove the rear mech for travel to make it less vulnerable to damage, but that doesn’t make any significant difference to the overall size so you can leave it attached. Drop the saddle to its lowest point and take off (or twist round) any lights and other accessories to keep them out of the way. Now you can take a few key measurements and decide whether you need to make any adjustments before cutting out the first draft of a paper pattern.
To give you an idea of the clearance required, look at the photo of my disassembled bike laid on the pattern I used. Note that at the rear (curved) end of the bag it only needs to be a little deeper than the thickness of the tyre and no gusset is necessary, while at the front end the lower corner of the bag will be sewn across (see Step 6) to produce a side gusset to accommodate the width of the front axle.
Fold an old sheet in half and lay the pattern you’ve drawn onto it, with the fold side of the pattern against the fold in the sheet. Draw round the other sides of the pattern, then turn the sheet over and do the same again on the other side. Open the sheet out with the bag outline underneath.
Lay your bike down on half of this “bag” with the front forks at the fold line a few inches from where it meets the vertical side and the rear wheel at the other end of the fold line near where it meets the curved side. Take the other half of the “bag” over the bike and check that it’s large enough to enclose the bike, allowing for 1” seams at each end of the bag and 1¼” along the top opening. You might find it helpful to use clothes pegs (clothespins) to hold the two halves together. The “bag” shouldn’t be too tight, there needs to be room to slip it on and off the bike without ripping it, and to slide cardboard in. Adjust the outline if necessary by marking the sheet – err on the side of generosity for now – and then transfer these changes to the paper pattern.
Step 3: Cutting Out
Press the ripstop nylon with a cool iron and then fold up one end a little further than the height of the pattern (ie fold up about 40" if you’re using the pattern without adjustments). Crease the fold with the iron.
Lay the pattern down with the bottom edge along the fold in the fabric and the straight side edge against the selvedges at one side of the fabric. Place weights such as books on top to hold it in place without using pins, then cut out. Flame the cut edges. Mark the corners of the pocket locations on the inside of both halves with a pencil.
The 4-sided purple shape for the pocket in the pattern sketch indicates the placement of the top edge and the outer stitching line around the other three sides. Once you've cut out the bag, add 1½" all the way round the purple shape and use this as your pocket pattern. (1½" is added for a 1" turning and a little extra space to allow for the thickness of the sheets of corrugated cardboard that will go in these pockets.) The finished size of my pockets is as follows:
front edge 22"
bottom edge 48"
rear edge 26"
top edge 50"
Cut out the 2 pockets side by side, with the top edges placed along the selvedges if possible. Flame all the cut edges. Fold in and press 1" to the wrong side on all 4 edges of the pockets.
Step 4: The Pockets
Stitch the top edge down on both pockets.
Pin one of the pockets in place on the inside of the appropriate side of the bag with the 1” allowance tucked under, placing the corners approximately where marked. (This is about the only time that pins are really needed rather than clips.) Form small pleats at the lower corners to provide a little depth to accommodate the thickness of the cardboard, and leave the top edge of the pocket slightly slack for the same reason. Starting at one top corner, stitch ¼" from the turned-under edge all the way down that side, across the corner, along the bottom edge, and up the second side. Pivot and stitch around all 3 sides again ¼" inside the previous stitching line.
Stick on a short length of hook-and-loop tape or a Velcro dot in the centre of the pocket’s opening edge and the corresponding position on the inside of the bag to stop the pocket flopping open when it’s empty. (Without this, the top edge of the pocket tends to get caught around the bicycle when you're trying to get it in.)
Repeat with the second pocket.
Step 5: Opening Edge of the Bag
Fold under and press 1¼" to the inside along the top edge of each half of the bag. Try to avoid having to snip the curves to make them lie flat (making little pleats is better), but flame the cuts if you do.
Cut a length of hook-and-loop tape to the approximate length needed (make it a little long) and flame the cut ends. Place one half of the tape (ie hooks or loops) on the folded-over strip with the top edge ⅛" from the fold and the end of the tape level with the side (front, straight) edge of the bag. Stitch through all 3 layers (2 layers of fabric plus the tape) along that top edge, then across the end just inside the edge of the fabric, back along the lower edge and across the other end, easing in the fullness. The opening edge of the bag is curved and the tape is straight so the result will be quite wavy, but this won’t affect the closure.
Trim the end of the tape level with the front edge of the bag and flame it.
Repeat with the other side of the opening edge.
Step 6: Side Seams
Front (straight) seam
With the bag inside out, the hook-and-loop tape open, the edges of the fabric together at the sides and the folded-over edges together along the top edge, stitch the straight seam at the front end of the bag taking a 1" seam allowance and trapping the end of the hook-and-loop tape at the top. Press the seam open and use fusible hemming tape or double sided sticky tape to hold the seam allowances in place, starting just under the hook-and-loop tape and stopping a couple of inches before the lower corner.
Stick a length of ripstop repair tape over the seam, on the inside, to strengthen it. Alternatively, cut a strip of ripstop from the leftover fabric, flame the edges and stick it down with hemming tape or double sided tape. Stop a couple of inches short of the bottom corner again. Topstitch around the seam allowances at the top end, through the hook-and-loop tape, to hold them flat.
Make a pseudo-gusset at the lower corner by lining up the seam with the fold along the bottom of the bag, right sides together, to create a triangle (see photo). Draw a line at right angles to the seam/fold across this triangle at the point where its base measures 8". (This measurement needs to be a little longer than the width of the front drop-outs, including the axle and anything you will put over it to protect it.) Stitch along this line through both layers, starting at each end and stopping after 2½" to leave a 3" gap in the middle. Cut off the excess triangle of fabric, leaving a 1" seam allowance. Press open, folding the ends as in the photo, stick down the seam allowances with tape then topstitch around the opening.
Rear (curved) seam
At this point, it’s a good idea to try putting the bike in the bag, inside out. Position the front axle in the gussetted corner, pull the rest of the bag up into position, slide some corrugated cardboard sheets into the pockets and then lay it all down on the ground while you do up the hook-and-loop tape. Use clothes pegs or clips to close the open (curved) end of the bag and then mark where the seam needs to be, remembering to leave enough space to insert any other protective packaging you plan to use, and to get the bike in and out without a struggle.
Still with right sides facing and edges together as before, sew the curved seam, stopping 3" short of the lower corner. Trim the seam allowances to 1” if necessary and flame the cut edges, then stick them down and reinforce the seam with tape as for the other end of the bag. Leave the 3" gap at the bottom free and use another piece of ripstop repair tape to reinforce around that opening, folding the tape over the edge. Topstitch the seam allowances open at the top.
The bag is now essentially finished.
Step 7: The Carrying Straps/Handles - Preparation
Tips for sewing webbing
As with the ripstop nylon, cut ends of the webbing will fray easily and need to be flamed.
Sew using a large needle, strong polyester thread, a long stitch (about 3-3.5mm / 7-8½ sts/inch) and, if your sewing machine does it, a triple stitch.
Overlap joins by a minimum of 2” and stitch down the overlap in a rectangle and across both diagonals, as in the photo.
You need 3 straps: a simple handle and loop for each of the bottom corners and a longer shoulder strap which will be attached at each end of the bike and emerge though the opening in the top of the bag. The 4 attachment points on my bike are as shown in the photo:
- Front end loop – around the axle (or dummy axle) that prevents the front forks from getting bent when there isn’t a wheel in place
- Rear end loop – around a chainstay or seatstay
- Front end of shoulder strap – around the top of a front fork or the head tube
- Rear end of shoulder strap – around a lug at the back of the carrying rack
I had to cut and bend a small piece of aluminium sheet, and then bolt it to the underside of the rack, to make a suitable lug or tang (see photo). It has a very small clearance with the top of the mudguard and is never likely to slip off because the webbing has to be held perfectly flat to slide it in or out.
Before cutting the webbing it’s worth examining the equivalent attachment points on your own bike and checking what will work for you, then using a piece of string to estimate the lengths you will need. I worked on the basis that the loops at the front and rear lower corners should protrude far enough out of the bag to be a) obvious to a baggage handler looking for something to grab hold of, and b) big enough to slip a (possibly gloved) hand into easily, without being so loose and floppy that they are likely to catch on airport conveyor belts or other items of luggage.
To check the length of the shoulder strap, pull a length of webbing free from the roll and, without cutting it, knot the free end around one of the attachment points you plan to use. Then pick up the bike by the top tube, hold it at a comfortable height and get someone to drape the webbing over your shoulder and work out how long the strap needs to be to reach the other attachment point. Add some extra for the loops. If in doubt, go long because you can probably get rid of unwanted length by wrapping the strap around some other part of your bike, such as the top tube.
I did consider incorporating an adjuster buckle into the shoulder strap, so that it can be shortened to lie neatly along the top of the opening when it’s not in use and isn’t in danger of catching on anything. (I think it’s best to leave it visible when the bike is in the care of an airline or train company, to prevent baggage handlers simply grabbing a handful of bag to pick it up and possibly ripping it.) However, I decided against it because a buckle could break or slip under the weight of a bike and it’s easy enough to shorten the strap by freeing the rear end and then wrapping it around something as many times as is necessary before re-closing the top opening.
Step 8: Making the Carrying Straps/Handles
I made my handles/straps as follows:
- Front end strap – a 23” (58cm) length of webbing formed into an 11” loop (ie 5½" doubled) at one end for the handle and a 6” loop (3" doubled) at the other end to go round the front axle. The two ends of the webbing are overlapped in the middle by 2” and this overlap is then stitched through all 3 layers.
- Rear end strap – a 42" (107cm) length of webbing formed into an 11" loop at one end for the handle and a 12” loop at the other end to go round a seatstay. The loops each have a 2” overlap again, and they are separated by an 11” length of webbing.
- Shoulder strap – a 93" (236cm) length of webbing formed into an 11” loop at one end (to go round the top of a front fork) with a 2" overlap, and a 21" loop with a 3" overlap at the other end (to slip under the end of the rear carrying rack where it’s held in place by the lug described in the previous step). The loops are separated by 51".
Step 9: Adding a Painted Design
I painted a bicycle symbol on each side of my bag. It’s there to tell baggage handlers what’s inside – in the hope that it might stop them treating my bike like a suitcase that can be flung around with impunity – and which way round the bike is. However, if you plan to use your bag to carry a bike on forms of transport that don’t normally allow them, it might be better to avoid this step.
Instead of a symbol, you could simply write “bike” in different languages.
Put a sheet of cardboard in the pocket on the side you are working on to help keep the fabric taut and prevent any paint transfer to the inside. Decide on your design, draw it out at full size and then transfer it to the bag. I did that by cutting a stencil from paper and then drawing through it with a soft pencil onto the ripstop nylon. If you have access to large sheets of waxed paper, you could try cutting a stencil from that and then ironing it onto the fabric and painting through it directly.
I found that ordinary, cheap, children’s acrylic paint worked reasonably well on ripstop nylon when mixed with an acrylic fabric medium, but it would be as well to test your paint on a sample first. Two coats of white acrylic gave good coverage even on my black fabric, and once dry the paint flexed with the fabric, did not flake off and was water resistant. I just painted within the pencil outline using an artist’s brush. If you have a waxed paper stencil or another type of stencil that will stick to the fabric, you could try using a can of spray paint for a much quicker result.
Step 10: Stuff Sack
For cycle touring, it’s useful to have a small bag into which the transportation bag and its straps can be stuffed tightly to make as small a package as possible. It adds very little to the overall weight and is well worth having. I made one from leftover ripstop, complete with a loop on the outside through which a strap passes to secure the package behind the saddle.
Start by rolling up the transportation bag with the carrying straps tucked inside. Try to get it into a nice tight cylindrical shape that's as small as possible. Hold it like that with some rubber bands while you measure the length and circumference of the cylinder - it should be longer than its circumference. Add 4" to the length and 1" to the circumference, then cut a rectangle of that size from ripstop nylon. Cut another rectangle 1½" x 3½" for the loop that will take the strap. Flame all the edges.
Make the loop. Fold a third of its width in, lengthwise, and then fold it again so that it's in 3 layers. Stitch along the middle of the resulting strip to hold the layers in place. Pin it to the right side of one long edge with the centre of the loop ½" from the centre point of that edge. The two ends should be sticking out beyond the edge of the fabric. Adjust the length of the loop to suit your webbing - see photo - bearing in mind that the seam will be ½" in from the edge.
The short edge that is further from the loop will be the bottom of the bag while the other end will be the top that is closed with a drawcord.
Sew the long edge seam, right sides together, starting 1¼" from the top edge. Take a ½" seam allowance and be careful only to catch in the ends of the loop, not the middle part. Press the seam open.
Position the seam so that it runs down the centre of the bag and sew across the bottom end, again taking a ½" seam allowance. If you want, you can make the bottom more rectangular by arranging it to form little triangles at the two corners (like the bottom of the front seam in Step 6) and sewing across them - see photo.
Turn under a single 1" hem to the wrong side around the top edge and press the fold, then stitch ¾" from it to make a casing. Use a safety pin to insert the draw cord through the gap left at the top of the side seam. Feed the ends through a cord grip then knot them together, leaving just enough length for a strap to hold the drawcord in place (see photo).
Make a strap from leftover webbing and hook-and-loop tape. Always strap the stuff sack onto the bike with the seam underneath, to protect it from the rain.
Step 11: Using the Bag
It’s quite quick and easy for one person to fit this bag.
First, cut up some cardboard boxes to roughly the same size as the pockets – if you lay the bag flat on the ground you can see the pocket shapes from the stitching lines. Next, the handles/straps.
Start with a disassembled bike, but fit the front handle when you remove the front wheel. You’ll need to slip the smaller loop around the axle before replacing it in the forks. The nut must be tightened securely to prevent the axle pulling out of the dropouts if the bicycle is lifted by this handle, so cut a length of pipe or tube to an appropriate length and slip the axle through it before putting the pipe/axle combo through the tube. I use a short length of 15mm copper plumbing pipe. That way, when the nut is tightened the forks crush down on the ends of the tube and there’s no risk of bending or breaking them. In addition I use a length of plastic pipe that goes over the top of the axle for added protection, and the loop of the strap goes around this.
For the rear handle, tuck the larger loop behind one of the seatstays or chainstays (the parts of the bike that meet at the rear wheel hub), whichever lines up best with the hole at the bottom of the curved end of the bag. Then pull the (smaller) handle loop through the larger loop to secure the strap around the stay.
Tuck the smaller loop of the shoulder strap around a front fork near the top, where it meets the head tube, keeping it clear of the brake calipers, gear cables, etc. Pull the opposite end of the strap through this loop and then loop it around the tang under the end of your rear pannier rack (or whatever else you may have concocted to hold that end of the strap securely). Leave it draped along the top of the bike so it doesn’t fall down when you lift the bike into the bag.
Open the hook-and-loop tape along the top of the bag and check that the pockets are held closed by their small pieces of hook-and-loop tape.
Lay the bag with its base along the ground and the sides as out of the way as possible. It makes life easier if you do this next to a wall or something else you can lean the bike against.
With the bike in an upright position, place it down on the base of the bag with the front forks at the gussetted corner and the rear wheel at the other corner (ie the bottom of the curved end). Holding it steady with one hand, use the other to poke the handle loops out through the holes in each corner.
Ease the bag up over the bike and, with the shoulder strap on the outside, close the top opening in a few places to keep the bag in place while you lay the bike down on one side.
Pull the top opening fully apart and open the pocket that’s uppermost. Slide in a sheet (or two) of corrugated cardboard cut from flattened out cartons. You might want to add extra cardboard where it’s needed, like over the rear wheel hub and the chainrings. Then turn the bike and bag over and fill the other pocket with cardboard too.
Finally, check the two handles at the bottom corners are sticking out and then close up the top of the bag, letting each end of the shoulder strap emerge through the hook-and-loop closure where it wants to. Now you can carry your bike (for short distances, at least) and transport it without getting oil and mud everywhere, and it has at least some protection for flights or train/tube journeys that don’t allow bikes unless they are disassembled.
At an airport, when you get to the point where your bike is about to be put on a baggage belt (ie the check-in desk or the outsized baggage X-ray point), pull open a few inches of hook-and-loop tape at the rear, release the rear end of the shoulder strap, wrap it around the frame or the pannier rack a few times to shorten it so that it just runs along the top of the bag and won’t get caught on anything, then close up the opening again. I think it’s best to leave the strap on the outside where it’s visible, rather than risking a baggage handler grabbing a handful of nylon fabric and possibly tearing it.
When you get to your destination and want to ride away, you can throw away the cardboard and just roll up the bag into a small package that can be strapped behind your saddle. Carry a roll of ripstop repair tape (or parcel tape, or duct tape) with you on your tour, just in case you have to make any running repairs before the journey home.
Runner Up in the