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Coupled bikes are easier, and potentially cheaper, to travel with. Here are five great options.
Travel is back. You’re vaccinated, and you’re stir-crazy—it’s time to get out there.
But first, let’s talk about bike transport. While packing your regular bike into a good case is always an option, a modern coupled bike offers the performance of full-size wheels but packs smaller than an uncoupled bike. Plus, coupled bikes usually avoids airline fees. Below is my rundown of the best coupler systems and a few of the bikes equipped with those systems.
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Before the folding bike stans scream at me; Yes, I know all about the mini-wheeled bikes from Brompton, Bike Friday, Tern, Dahon, and others. I also know about full-size folding bike options like Montague and Split Bikes. In this column I’m focusing on high-performance drop-bar bikes with full-size wheels. Frankly, when you’re taking a bucket list trip to ride in incredible places, you want to be on a performance bike—not something designed to serve as compact, last-mile transportation for urban environments.
No. 22 is known for its artful and clean bikes, so it’s no wonder that its bespoke coupler system follows suit. The bike has a flush, interlocking coupler joined by a single bolt that can be tightened with a 6mm hex wrench—something most riders probably already have in their seat bag. The coupler system is so sleek that it’s hard to tell a coupled and noncoupled No. 22 bike apart.
Mike Smith, No.22’s cofounder, told me that the company decided to develop its own coupler because they wanted something that worked well with internal routing and a hydraulic disconnect. (I’ll talk more about this in a moment.) That wasn’t possible with existing systems. Aesthetics were also a consideration; “We really try to make our bikes gorgeous and timeless and sweat the details on how they look,” Smith says.
No. 22’s machined titanium coupler isn’t a unique concept or design; connecting two tubes through a machined interface is an idea that Smith says has “been done to death.” He describes the No. 22 design as similar to those used for race car roll cages. (No. 22’s other cofounder, Bryce Gracey, calls it “scarf-style” interface). But, applying that design to a bike took special consideration. “We really needed to make sure that we designed [to] hit the tolerances so that it can handle the loads of a bike, so it’s dead quiet, no dirt gets in, its light enough that it is not going to impact your ride quality, and you can pass cables through on the inside,” Smith says.
Smith says one of the big reasons No. 22 designed this bespoke coupler was to have a system that worked with the internal routing of hydraulic hoses. But the coupler is only one part of No. 22’s system. The other part is the Brake Break, a tool-free quick connector for the rear brake hose. Based on a system designed for motorcycles, but downsized for bicycle use, the Brake Break allows the rider to separate the brake hose when packing the bike and then reconnect it when reassembling—no bleeding or adjustment necessary.
While No. 22 does not offer its couplers to other builders, it does sell the Brake Break in its online store for $250 in versions for DOT fluid (SRAM) and mineral oil (Shimano, Campagnolo).
No. 22’s bikes are dream machines any day. The strength and toughness of titanium make it the best material for a travel bike frame. Add in the Brake Break and sleek coupler system, and a No. 22 coupled bike—with SRAM’s wireless eTap AXS drivetrain—becomes the ultimate travel bike you can buy right now, in my opinion. It’s also a damn sweet bike you can ride every day.
The S&S BTC is the original high-performance coupler system and still the standard by which all couplers are judged. CNC-machined out of titanium or steel in S&S’s shop in Roseville, California, the BTC consists of two interlocking tapered-toothed fittings pulled together by a threaded collar. This system adds about a half pound to a bike, and it is durable—S&S has reports of riders getting over 90,000 miles on their coupled bikes with no issue. The coupling is often stiffer and stronger than the tube on which it’s installed .
Many builders (more than 100, says S&S) offer BTCs as an option, including premier builders such as Seven Cycles, DeSalvo, Independent Fabrications, and Waterford/Gunnar. Though most BTC-equipped bikes are steel or titanium, Calfee offers a coupler option for many of its carbon frames.
If you’re not in the market for a new bike, one of the cooler things about BTCs is that they can be retrofitted into a steel or titanium frame with relative ease. Again, several companies offer retrofit services, but if I were in the market for the service, I’d start with one of the experts in the travel bike space—Bilenky. Bilenky’s retrofits start at $695 for the basic steel; the titanium retrofits start at $1,115. Bilenky also does tandem coupler retrofits, and it offers a small selection of “Travel Package” frames—new frames from other brands like Soma with couplers preinstalled.
Ritchey’s BreakAway coupling system is ultralight and low-profile. Unlike the other systems, Ritchey employs two unique couplings—one for the down tube, and one for the seat tube.
The down tube coupling consists of flanged fittings on the tubes held together by a lightweight clamp. The other coupling is quite ingenious. For Ritchey’s steel frames, it is essentially two nested seatpost clamps—one attached to the top tube, and one built into the seat tube. The seatpost goes through the top tube clamp, and then through the seat tube clamp. Once the two clamps are properly torqued on the seatpost, the frame is locked together. The carbon frame’s seat tube coupling is a bit different, and even cleaner. Instead of using two separate clamps, the top tube clamp slides over a lug in the seat tube. Once that’s done, you can just install the post and torque the clamp like any other bike.
Though the BreakAway system is primarily on Ritchey’s frames—including road, tandem, and gravel/adventure options—Ritchey does offer it to other frame builders. Right now, Holland and Crust offer BreakAway-equipped frames.
This is a somewhat clever hack that merges Ritchey’s BreakAway system with the S&S BTC. Examples of this hybrid system from Rock Lobster and Sklar use an S&S BTC in the down tube with the Ritchey seat tube coupling. In theory, this combination is a bit lighter and sleeker looking versus using two BTCs, but more robust than the full BreakAway system.
Developed by the tandem specialists at Santana, and manufactured by Paragon Machine Works for the craft builder crowd, the Z-Coupler is a flush, interlocking coupler held together by a single M6 cap screw. It’s similar to No. 22’s couplers, and much like that system’s bikes, a Z-Coupled bike looks ultra-clean. Check out this Z-Coupled Engin—it’s hard to tell it’s a take-apart frame.
Offered in both steel and titanium, the Z-Coupler is available from Paragon to any builder to use on a single frame—Santana has exclusive use of Z-Couplers for tandem frames. It’s not (yet) as popular as S&S’s couplers, but I can see Z-Couplers taking away some BTC market share simply because it is a much sleeker and simpler system—no special spanners required.