Words and photos by H. Vollert
"What’s in the big bag sir?"
The airline agent behind the counter looked at me, waiting for an answer, as I slowly got out the words I’d rehearsed on the drive to the airport.
"Uhm, a tradeshow booth."
"You’re sure it’s not a bike?"
Another long pause.
"Well, I have some bike parts in there, but it’s also a tradeshow booth."
Just like that, I had blown it. In a world where professional cyclists like Jeremy Powers rightfully brag about being "airport ninjas" due to their ability to charm agents into not making him pay exorbitant bike fees, I had just revealed myself to be…well…whatever the opposite of a ninja is. Once again, my inability to fib even just a little to a complete stranger, was going to cost me $125. As I boarded the plane, I begrudgingly started to do the math in my head, adding up the times I’d flown with a bike, and the amount of money I had spent on baggage fees. It added up to more than the frame I was flying with had cost. This got me thinking; I should really look into a travel bike.
Once I was back home, I looked into different options. From tiny Brompton-style bikes (ridiculous), to getting an existing bike retrofitted with couplers (expensive since it would require buying a frame, getting the work done and getting it repainted). For the price I had in mind, I kept coming back to the steel Ritchey Break-Away. The price, the simplicity of the design, everything about the bike was perfectly suited to my needs. So I bought the frame, which came with a travel case, and built it up with a well-used SRAM Rival group from eBay, and random parts I had from other bikes. To save a bit more money, I decided to use the wheels from my commuter bike when I traveled with the Break-Away. Its larger tires, and sizable (12-30) cassette were perfect for the kind of riding I was planning on doing during my travels.
Soon enough, the bike’s maiden voyage came. I traveled across the country to Las Vegas first. Over the next three years, I flew to Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Brussels, Barcelona, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and London with the bike. The frame quickly paid for itself, and in the process, the Ritchey Break-Away has become the one bike I’m most attached to. And the one I’m happiest riding.
At the airport
The primary feature that first attracted me to this frame was the ability to fly with it while not incurring extra baggage fees. In that regard, the bike (and its case) has performed beautifully. No airline has charged me extra as a result of the bag being oversized, overweight (since its neither), or because a bike is inside (the case’s generic black appearance takes care of this). Only one Southwest agent in Phoenix suspected that a bike might be inside the case. But since the case was not oversize or overweight, there was no fee. That scare aside, I’ve never had an issue when traveling with the bike. And in terms of weight, the combined weight of the bike and case is low enough that I’m able to fit all my bike clothes, shoes and even a Lezyne travel floor pump without hitting the airline’s weight limit. Perfect.
On the road
While the ability to fly with a bike for free (or for a very small fee, since some airlines now charge for any bag you check, bike or not) certainly made me feel ninja-like, this feature is worthless if once you arrive to your final destination, the bike doesn’t perform well. In that regard, the Ritchey Break-Away surprised me. The frame is much stiffer than any steel bike I’ve ever ridden, and on par with my double butted, newly built titanium dream bike. And as it happens, the weights of both the titanium bike and the Ritchey are exactly the same. And I could easily build a lighter version since there’s also a carbon version of the Break-Away.
So despite my somewhat utilitarian choice of parts when compared to today’s wonder bikes, the Ritchey Break-Away has been a joy to ride. The steel frame soaks up the rough back roads I end up getting lost in when I travel, and does similarly well in the awful steep pitches I encountered in Spain and Belgium. This despite the fact that one of the frame’s two joints is right next to the bottom bracket (the other being at the top tube/seat tube joint), which you would never know based on how the bike handles. And therein lies the real magic behind this frame. It doesn’t feel, or look, like a travel bike. It doesn’t feel like a compromise. Add to all this frame’s ability to take wider tires (the cyclocross version of the frame allows for even wider tires, as you might expect), and you’ll soon realize that the Break-Away doesn’t need to be packed into its suitcase when you’re back home. It’s simply too good and fun of a bike to put away. In fact, for some, this could be the only road bike they own.
Packing, unpacking and building up
Building up the Ritchey Break-Away was easy. The frame comes with the necessary brackets, carbon fork and headset, along with its case and small torque key.
Packing and unpacking the bike for the first time was intuitive. You don’t need to be a full-time bike mechanic to do this, but the slightest comfort level with how your bike works certainly helps. Still, you could easily practice at home before your first trip to feel more comfortable with the whole process, which really consists of three bolts, three cable splitters, taking off your handlebars and front brake caliper. In all, packing the bike now takes me around twenty minutes, while unpacking and putting it together adds only five minutes to the process. Surprisingly, shifting and breaking have never been affected by travel or the need for cable splitters. Just in case, however, I do travel with a small Lezyne toolkit, as well as an extra downtube clamp since it’s very unlikely that I’ll find a shop that stocks those in rural Spain on a Sunday morning.
The bag/case that the frame comes with has proven to be strong enough to take a beating from baggage handlers—and taxi drivers. This despite the fact that it’s a soft-sided case. In fact, the only issues I’ve had with the bike showing signs any signs of abuse during travel have been minimal, and likely could have been avoided with better packing on my part. For example, while I have used the frame protector pads that Ritchey provides, I’m currently experimenting with foam pipe insulation, which I’ve cut to fit, in order to find the perfect solution to packing the bike. Still, since this is a steel frame we’re talking about, the worst damage the it’s likely to endure (if you pack it well) is a chip on the paint as a result of a spoke rubbing against it. To further avoid this, you can do as I did, and cover the frame in helicopter tape, a thick, clear plastic tape that protects the frame amazingly well, and doesn’t call attention to itself.
Today, after more than three years of riding the bike at home and abroad, I still enjoy it immensely. I also get a kick out of people not believing me when I tell them that the Ritchey Break-Away is a travel bike that fits into a suitcase. In fact, I look forward to people looking for the joints in the frame, as they scratch their heads, and ultimately ask how it all works.
And while it’s true that I’m about as far as you can get from an "airport ninja", I do get to fly with a bike without incurring extra fees. How the magic happens is a small detail that I don’t necessarily have to share with anyone.