A Passage to India - with a bike

A Passage to India - with a bike

They make 22 million bicycles a year in India.

So, obviously, I was always going to take mine with me when I flew here in October.

Joking aside, it would have made a lot of sense to buy a new bicycle here. I wouldn’t have had to go through the hassle of packing it up and hauling it to the airport.

(I’ll let you in on a secret here, it’s not that much hassle. Check out our guide to flying with your bike here).

But I do really love my bike. And now it’s here, I can rest smugly in the knowledge that no one else in the country has a 1990s Olmo racer with a Campagnolo Record groupset.


Anyway, here’s the story of how I got my bike from London to Bhopal.

Why I took my bike

The first, and most obvious, reason why I brought my bike with me is simple: I love this bike.

All this is subjective, but I think it looks great and handles really well. Obviously, I look awesome on it. It probably goes faster than other bikes too.

There’s also the bragging rights that it will bring with it. Cycling is blowing up in India and more and more people are riding recreationally and not just for transport or commuting. 

High end bicycles have seen a huge surge in demand in the country, especially after lockdowns led people to look beyond the gym as a way to keep fit.

Most of this surge is being felt in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Bhopal is a little bit different. It’s a city of 2 million souls, twice the size of Birmingham. But when we adjust our comparison for India’s total population, Bhopal is better compared to Darlington. It’s a small city, by Indian standards…

Riding around Bhopal on my Olmo, I know when I meet other cyclists, I’m going to stand out. I’m going to have something to chat about when we stop for coffee and cake (or chai and a laddoo).

Finally, I should note the fact that I am not a stranger to packing up a bike and flying it across the world. This Olmo has already been to Johannesburg. And I took my Bob Jackson to Singapore and back. Twice.

Some Practicalities

If you read our blog post about flying with a bike, you’ll see that the first thing you have to do is check airline policy on flying with bikes before you book.

Yeah, I didn’t do that. My wife booked my ticket and just chose the cheapest flight. She went premium economy with the kids and I was in economy two weeks later - but I’m not going to get into that now…

I wasn’t too worried though since most of the big international airlines have pretty similar policies when it comes to taking a bike, and Virgin Atlantic was no exception. In fact, they are pretty generous, allowing me to check two bags into the hold, each up to 25kg. Bikes are classed as ‘Sporting Equipment’ and you can count the bike as one of those 25kg bags.

So, with a few weeks to go, I was happy that I wasn’t going to have any issues with the airline, all I had to do was pack it up and get it to the airport.

Boxing the Bike

There’s three options when it comes to packing up a bike. 

  1. Hard shell bike cases - purpose built boxes that are simply perfect for the job, providing  great protection for your bike. But they come with a hefty price tag between £300 and £1000.
  2. Soft bike bags - bike-specific bags that are affordable and can be conveniently folded up for storage. But they don’t offer much protection considering your bike may end up at the bottom of a pile of regular suitcases.
  3. Cardboard bike boxes - the kind that your bike came in when you bought it new, yes, a big cardboard box. Simple, but effective, especially if you pad it out nicely inside. Best of all, you can probably get one for free if you ask nicely at your local bike shop.

I don’t fly with my bike frequently enough to warrant buying into option 1, a hard shell case. I would love to have one, some of the best are seriously drool-worthy. But it could cost more than the flight and, when I’m in my small flat in London, I would have nowhere to put the damned thing.

So I go for a hybrid approach of options 2 and 3, putting the bike into a soft case and then placing that into a cardboard bike box. In the seven international trips I’ve completed so far, I’ve not suffered any damage to the bike at all!

The bike bag I use is one you won’t easily find in the UK. It’s made by a Malaysian company called Cykling and I won it in a competition nearly ten years ago. But it does the job. It’s nicely padded, has a bunch of pockets and compartments and two separate bags for the wheels. Once packed up, it fits nicely in the cardboard box too.

Packing the bike up is a pretty simple job - we go into detail about it in this blog post.

The first thing I did was to remove the pedals - remembering that the left hand pedal is reverse-threaded - though I actually forgot and wasted a few minutes tightening the thing.

Next up was removing the handlebars. The airlines tell you to ‘turn the handlebars so they’re in line with the frame’, but I prefer to play it safe and remove the stem from the frame, pad it out with some bubble wrap and tie it to the frame with zip ties. Doing it like this means I can rest easy knowing that the brake levers won’t scratch the frame if things get a bit bouncy with the baggage handlers!

The airlines don’t tell you to do this, but I like to remove the rear derailleur and pack it in bubble wrap. The derailleur itself can be pretty delicate and, even worse, if you leave it attached and things get bashed, it can bend the bit of the frame to which it attaches, which can be pretty expensive to fix.

Nor do they tell you to remove the saddle and seat post, but it’s a good idea as it makes the whole package that little bit smaller and easier to manage.

Lastly, I removed the wheels, took out the skewers and deflated the tyres. It hasn’t happened to anyone I know yet, but in theory the pressure differences can mean your tyres go pop at 30,000 feet!

That was the difficult stuff over. All that was left to do was to strap it into the bag, pad up some of the pointier bits, then zip up the bag and slide it into the bike box.

This is when you might notice that you still have a bit of space left in the box, space which can be filled with anything you can (legally) take on the plane!

So I got out the bathroom scales and weighed myself. Now, we won’t go into the disaster that is the number that then appeared, but I should note that the purpose of this was to have a number to subtract from that which was shown when I then picked up the bike in the box, because what I needed to know was, am I under the 25kg limit!!!

I had a good few kilos to play with, so in went two boxes of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and a load of packets of crisps - stuff which doesn’t weigh much but which won’t travel very well in my regular suitcase. There was still a bit of space left, so in went a couple of t-shirts and other clothes, just to take a bit of pressure off the suitcase.

That was it, the night before my flight, and I was good to go!

empty cardboard bike box

bike inside bike bag

bike packed into bike bag

sealed cardboard bike box


Getting to the airport

I’d long harboured a desire to take the Elizabeth Line to Heathrow. I’ve not ridden on it yet and the direct-to-Heathrow service seemed ideal.

But I’m afraid I chickened out and, since it was a morning flight which required me to leave home earlier than I would normally consider appropriate, I called Paul, a London Taxi driver who lives near me and has helped me out in the past. In fact, a few months ago I sent an old friend, the legendary CyclingMikey, his way when Mikey was looking for a ride to Heathrow.

Past experience has shown me that, unlike a Prius, black cabs are able easily to accommodate a bike in a box - so another thing I didn’t have to worry about!

Paul was a little surprised to see my big box, but it didn’t faze him one bit (he’s carried more luggage previously when driving me with my wife and kids!). We were soon on our way and pulling into the Heathrow drop-off with plenty of time to spare.

blurry image of cardboard bike box inside a london black taxi

Checking in

All things considered, I think this is both the worst and my favourite part of the whole experience.

It’s the worst because this is where you discover that there’s a whole load of narrow bits to Heathrow that, until you turn up with a big box, you had never noticed. The snaked lines of the check in queue are the worst, they are not designed for you and your big box!

But it’s also the best bit because here is where you can roll your trolley confidently toward the assistant at the entrance to the queue and you get to see the slight look of surprise on their face as they clock your big box.

This is where you hope for your upgrade. No, not to the first class cabin - though I can still dream - but to the front of the queue. In my case, I got sidelined into the business class check in. Which was nice.

The lovely lady there was not perturbed in the slightest by my box. “Bike, is it?” was about as exciting as it got there.

“How much does it weigh?”

“Just under 25kg. Well, according to my bathroom scale.”

And that was it. My tags were printed, I stuck them on the box. Simples.

There was only one fillip remaining - a trip to the mysterious Oversized Baggage part of the terminal. I was led through double doors marked No Unauthorised Access and suddenly the shiny, branded Heathrow disappeared and was replaced by the grimy, undecorated bowels of the place to an enormous x-ray machine and conveyor. I placed the box on the rollers and said my goodbyes - “See you in India, I hope”.

I have to admit, the unpolished nature of this part of the airport leaves you wondering if you will ever see the bike again, but then my rational side reminds me that of all the luggage items that wend their way through the place, your oversized box is probably the least likely thing of all to end up on the wrong flight. 

So I relaxed, went through security and found my way to the whisky part of Duty Free.

They have a sampling desk you know… 

It was afternoon in India by then, I promise…

The flight

view from inside a plane at london heathrow

There wasn’t much bike-related stuff on the flight, to be honest. 

No one was in the seat next to me, that’s always a bonus. 

I had a bulkhead seat. Winner.

I watched some episodes of Family Guy and The Office.

The food was, not bad…

in flight meal of chicken curry and rice

I watched All My Friends Hate Me, which was good.

I got a few hours of sleep, which was needed.

We landed in Delhi early. Which was nice…

Arriving in Delhi

I landed in Delhi just after midnight. Fortunately, my body thought it was 7:30pm. Unfortunately, I had 6 hours to go until my connecting flight to Bhopal. This was going to be fun…

People have all kinds of different theories about how best to get through an airport. Waiting around is unavoidable, but I am one of those people who would rather wait around in the baggage hall than in the immigration queue, so once the plane doors are open, it’s like a starting gun has been fired and the power walk to passport control begins.

Despite spending a good deal of time before my flight printing passenger locator forms and vaccination certificates, the health check desks were entirely unmanned and I found myself at the passport desks pretty quickly. 

India’s immigration officers are fairly dour, jolly greetings get you nowhere and the best approach is simply to have your documents in order, hand them over and wait for the gates to open. 

Then follows the now typical slalom through a ‘last chance’ duty free store. Annoyingly, the prices in the Delhi store are often lower than that found at Heathrow, but my paranoia that someone will mistakenly (or cunningly) walk off with my luggage from the carousel means that I hurry past the sparkling shrines to Chivas and M&Ms and straight to the baggage hall.

The bags from our flight were already beginning to cascade onto the merry-go-round and my instinct was to grab myself a prime slot by the samsonite waterfall. 

But flying with a bike creates a dilemma, since, as at all airports, Oversize Baggage is born of a different opening than your run-of-the-mill suitcases. Indecision burned me - do I wait for my undifferentiated black suitcase with a small red ribbon on the handle to prevent it falling into the wrong hands, or do I wait for my precious big box? 

I’d flown into Delhi with an oversize item before (a Dali soundbar, if you must know), so I knew from where my bike was likely to appear. However, in these situations, one must never rely on past experience and assumptions, since these things can end up in the most unpredictable places. Neither does it help that Delhi airport actually has two oversize portals.

So first stop was the baggage hall information desk, where I was assured that it would appear at the same opening as had my soundbar a few months previously.

I went to check it out.

Things did not look promising:

oversize baggage collection point at delhi airport

A parent myself, the sight of an exploded pram and associated accessories was pretty disheartening. A rather forlorn guitar case did not make me feel much better.

The oversize portal, unmanned and unloved, did not appear to be functioning. Nor could I be sure that my big box would actually fit through its flappy curtain.

Nor could I see Carousel 10 from oversize baggage collection point OOG 2.

I was conflicted.

But my paranoia over the potential loss of all my clothing forced me to return to the carousel where, as one would expect, my bag was the last to tumble down the rubber slide.

Thus began a panicked period of concern for my bike. Had it been loaded onto the right plane? Had it suffered the same fate as the OOG 2 pram? Had my Crunchy Nut Cornflakes been mistaken for something illegitimate? Where the **** was my bike?!?!?!?

By now carousel 10 had ceased its rotation and the few bags that remained were being piled up by porters. I wondered for a while what had become of their owners - had they been denied entry? Were they haggling over the price of a two-foot Toblerone?

As genuine despair set in, I asked a porter what was going on and was directed to make a complaint.

He pointed to a desk. There was a long queue.

Agitated, I saw someone in a different uniform and asked again.

I was pointed to a different desk.

This desk had a shorter queue.

I headed that way.

Then, in a Lazarene moment, a large cardboard box entered my peripheral and the Herald Angels did sing Hark.

My box was here - and it seemed to be intact!

Final destination - Bhopal

It was now 2am and tiredness was creeping in. By right I should be heading out and on to a home and a bed - but I was not home yet, I had still to get to Bhopal.

I made a few checks of my box and all seemed well. One of the handholds had become ruptured and some of the sweet treats I had stashed were visible. It was tempting to start patching it up there and then, but knowing that I was in sight of the customs desks, I knew that messing around with my bags and box may arouse some kind of suspicion, so I loaded my trolley and headed on to the green channel.

My heart sank as the man in front was pulled aside and directed to x-ray his bags. I had nothing in much luggage to cause concern or shame, but I did not fancy the hassle.

I approached the official.

“What’s in the box?”

“A bicycle.”


And that was that, I had done it!



For now began a bit of a merry-go-round:

  1. Out into the arrivals hall
  2. Patch up damaged box
  3. Remove duty free whisky and gin from hand luggage
  4. Place whisky and gin in main suitcase
  5. Worry that this now meant my 25kg suitcase was now rather more than 25kg
  6. Breathe
  7. Follow signs to Domestic Transfers
  8. “You can’t come this way”
  9. “Why not?”
  10. “Your box is too big. Cannot fit in lift”
  11. “So how?”
  12. “Go outside. Big lift. Entrance 3”
  13. Leave arrivals hall, knowing I can’t get back in if I want to
  14. Taxi. Taxi. You want Taxi? Taxi. Taxi.
  15. Entrance 3. No big lift
  16. Starting to feel the humidity. Sweating
  17. Find big lift
  18. Am at big lift exit, have to reverse as people emerge
  19. Big lift doors close
  20. Go around to big lift entrance
  21. Lift has gone
  22. Wait for lift
  23. Lift ascends to Departures
  24. Still sweating
  25. Queue to enter Departures
  26. Box is wider than queue snake barriers
  27. Adjust barriers
  28. Receive funny looks
  29. Win at queue
  30. Nice man opens doors wider to fit big box
  31. Cool air conditioner welcomes me back

I’ll save you some time here and say that Air India’s check in was similar to that in London with a queue snake bypass. My problem here was that, unlike my international flight with an allowance of 2 pieces of 25kg, my domestic flight would only allow one bag. But I strode forward confidently, because my wife had paid in advance for an extra piece of luggage.

cardboard bike box on a luggage trolley at delhi airport

Except she hadn’t…


Some unsubstantiated argument (from me) and much embarrassment, I was soon £140 lighter.

Still, I was nearly there.

Except the man at the Oversize Baggage portal was Gandalf for the day - “You shall not pass”.

He didn’t like the look of my box. To be fair, it didn’t look like it would pass through his entrance.

So off I went to another hidden corner of the airport where there was a genuine whopper of an x-ray machine and, after a pretty decent wait for a specific individual, I waved farewell to my box once again.

  1. Onward to the security screening
  2. Attempt to join the much shorter Business and First Class queue. Fail
  3. Back of the line
  4. Queue snake splits just in front of me as new screening line is opened
  5. Winning
  6. Not winning. New screening line stalls as officials decide someone else should be monitoring the x-ray screens
  7. Through the metal detector without a beep
  8. Winning
  9. Will my bag require a secondary check?
  10. No!
  11. Winning!
  12. Onward to the shops and gates
  13. Hungry
  14. Oh so hungry
  15. McDonalds
  16. Chicken McSpicy
  17. Sprite no ice
  18. Oreo McFlurry
  19. Winning
  20. Ready to board?
  21. No
  22. Still three hours to go?
  23. Yes
  24. Not winning
  25. Play games on phone
  26. Actual winning
  27. Go to gate
  28. Still ages to go
  29. Call to board
  30. Front of queue!
  31. “Welcome Sir”
  32. “Please wait”
  33. “Please wait over there”
  34. “There is some problem”
  35. “Sorry Sir, you cannot sit in 4A”
  36. “Please to sit in 34A”
  37. “Why?”
  38. “Please to sit in 34A”
  39. Walk to plane
  40. Board plane
  41. “I’m supposed to be in 4A but he said I must sit in 34A”
  42. “Really? Plane is empty. Sit in 4A:
  43. Thanks be to God
  44. Fall asleep
  45. Land with a bump
  46. Wake up in shock
  47. “Welcome to Bhopal. Thank you for flying with Air India”
  48. Carousel 2
  49. Box at Carousel 1
  50. Winning

And that, as they say, was that.

22 hours after leaving my house in London, I crossed the threshold in Bhopal hugged my wife and kids and asked “can the AC be turned on please?”

Now, did I remember to pack my multitool?

opened cardboard bike box in a house in india

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