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Fifty States, Fifty Centuries, Part II
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by Ken Comer

It was a century ago and two bicycle manufacturers had a problem. They needed to transport their latest product from Ohio to North Carolina on the common carrier of the day -- the railroad. To accomplish this, they had to engineer it so that it could be broken down and packed as baggage. Railcars at the time had limited dimensions and they would need to use several railroads.

Today's travelling bicyclist can certainly understand the trepidation of Orville and Wilbur Wright as they negotiated with the Dayton freight agents. They were, of course, transporting the world's first airplane to Kitty Hawk. It would be disassembled and reassembled in December 1903 in time for the historic flight. Today, we face the same problems transporting our means of transport: preventing damage, avoiding excessive charges, taking careful inventory of the parts and tools. What can be bought at the other end instead of transporting it? What do we tell the agent is in the box?

My 50 Centuries Project (my goal of riding a century in every state) has brought me, too often, face to face with the same issues. I've used a soft case and a hard case. I've bought a folding bike, and I've rented a bike at the other end. If you live in Virginia and want to ride a bike on the West Coast, transporting the bike can be the most troublesome issue.

Planning how to get a bicycle to ride at the other end can be more complicated than planning a small invasion, and almost as expensive. There are three key challenges -- protecting the bike, avoiding excessive airline charges, and limiting the hassle of maneuvering a packed bicycle around airports, taxis, buses, and hotels.

Protecting the bike: For about ten years I used a soft-sided bike case (to Florida, Colorado, California, Canada and Europe). After two broken axles, I decided to invest in a hard case which I used this past season. The hard case is a viable solution if bike damage is the primary concern.

Airline fees: The large hard case -- I use the Performance case -- will almost always be charged the oversize airline fee. United Airlines charges $80 each way for a bicycle on domestic flights. Nominally, the dimensions (height plus width plus depth) can not exceed 62", and the weight limit for domestic baggage has been lowered to 50 pounds. (If you're transporting a full bike case, the $80 fee usually includes the cost of oversize baggage.) On a round trip, this means that renting a bike is usually less expensive.

Bike rentals are becoming more straightforward. Many of the larger bicycle shops offer rentals. If you're doing an organized tour, most tour operators are happy to arrange for rentals as well. And, in many resort areas, bike rentals are very common.

Often, however, using a rental bike has problems of its own. Most of us pay serious attention to the small details of our bikes. There are comfort issues, such the dimensions and position of the adjustable components. Our saddles are chosen with care and broken in. Pedals and cleats match, and cyclo-computers are set up to record the total mileage for the year. After all this TLC, there are distinct advantages to bringing your home bike on vacation.

I experimented with a Montague folding bike. These are full-size mountain bikes with a folding frame. The Montague performed flawlessly as a bicycle, and I've put many miles on mine. As a travelling bike, however, there appears to be little or no advantage over a regular, non-folding frame. Together, the bike and the case cost over $1000 (some experiment!). A full-size folding bike cannot be contained within a case that fits the 62" maximum airline limit. In fact, the case the Montague travels in measures 32" by 28" by 12". I discovered, to my dismay, that the airlines charge anyway. In one instance, the service agent at the oversize baggage desk charged me $50 for an "overweight" case, and then had me chased down at the gate for an extra $30 because I had the temerity to transport a bicycle.

There are other solutions that I have not yet explored. Several people have been pleased with compact-folding bikes from Bike Friday and Dahon. These bikes pack into their own case, which will fit within the airline dimensions. The bikes use small-diameter wheels, and spare parts might be a problem. Riders report that the bikes perform well on the road. The expense, however, has held me back from "experimenting" again.

Recently I decided to try another option. A full-size bike can be fitted with "Bicycle Torque Couplers" on the frame -- one on the top tube and one on the down tube. These couplers were invented by the S&S Corporation, an aircraft parts company. When decoupled, the frame can be packed into a case that fits the airline dimensions. If you saw the case that holds an S&S-coupled bike, you would not believe there was a bike inside. The S&S website includes many testimonials to the success of the design.

Frames with the couplers can be purchased new for about $2000 and up. Alternatively, your own frame can be retrofit for about $800. (These prices include an airline-acceptable case and specialized packing materials.) For us, the best (and closest) choice appears to be Bilenky Cycleworks in North Philadelphia. It's best to pick the bike up in person, as they work through the complicated packing and unpacking process, which is unique for each frame geometry. I just picked mine up in January. Later in this series, I'll report on the progress of my new Trek 520 "travel bike".

So, the next time you face the "oversize baggage" customer service representative, bike case in hand, be sure to tell him the story of Orville and Wilbur. Make the point that, without the bicycle to support the inventors of the airplane, we would not have an opportunity to fly -- with or without our bicycles. Undoubtedly, the CSR will proceed to swipe your card for the $80 fee, and mark your boarding pass in such a way that you can expect a long discussion with the Transportation Security Administration.

The Ride: Cache Valley Century, Logan, UT. Completed Saturday, September 4, 2004.

This was my first real step in my 50 Century journey. I had scoured the internet for a good combination of air fare, century timing, and route details. I avoided the massive mountain climbing challenges for which I was not ready. I also avoided centuries in states that I had done before.

Utah's Cache valley is a U-shaped valley in Utah's extreme northeast corner. Logan is the prominent "city", but it's really a modest town. Like most areas west of the Mississippi, the region is plotted out on a grid work of streets, which cross at 90-degree intersections. Only the mountains and rivers break the grid up, forcing infrequent curves and detours.

The century began and ended in Richmond, some 12 miles north of Logan. The well-designed route circled north, into Idaho, giving me two states for the price of one. It then followed the U-shaped outline of the Cache River Valley, looping far south and returning via Logan to Richmond. Most of the roads were quiet, back-country roads that allowed us to pass quietly among the broad farms of the valley. The route avoided the valley's many busy thoroughfares.

This was the best of the West in terms of climate and beauty. The valley was narrow enough that the mountain walls on the east and west side could be seen from any point in the ride. From the dewy sparkle of the misty start to the sun-baked finish, the day could not have been more perfect. Low clouds hung along the ridges early, interrupted by shafts of light. Later in the day, a wind kept us cool, but occasionally seemed to meet us in the face. (Have you ever noticed a tailwind? In a circular route, surely there was a tailwind, but I can't remember it.)

If you don't like the West because it's dry and treeless, then you would not have had much fun on this ride. This was grassland, interrupted only by the occasional cottonwood tree. And, many among us would reach the five rest stops with empty water bottles -- especially the later ones after the sun had done its work.

Utah is, of course, Mormon country. From the hilltop temples to the beehive-outline on the route signs (the beehive is an early Mormon icon), there's no escaping the gentle influence of the religion. This means, of course, that many businesses will be closed on Sunday. In fact, it was difficult to find an open bicycle shop on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend, although that had more to do with the heavy schedule of weekend cycling events rather than any religious observation.

I can't say that I finished in record time. There were, however, several riders behind me this time as I climbed the last hill into Richmond. I thought I had the route to myself on mile 101, but two women overtook me so fast that I didn't see them coming. They were past me and into the town before I knew it. The final stretch took us on an eastbound road into town, which was drenched in sunshine from behind. The sight of the town, framed against a glowing mountain range, provided a sense of serenity as we ended the ride.

This was more than just the first step. This was an experiment. Could I bring all the pieces together for a century on the other side of the continent? Several tests included: registering for ride, rental car, hotels, and airlines; disassembling and reassembling the bike; century survival skills -- water, food, etc.; and what did I not know? As I rode that last, sunny mile into Richmond, I had all the answers I needed. My quest was launched.

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