What is it?
When my friend Rachel bought her Surly Long Haul Trucker a few years back, besides looking like any ordinary standard touring bike you would see rolling down your local street, it had 2 metal attachments on the top and down tube. I curiously asked her what those were and she explained that they are called S&S couplers. She went on and told me that she wanted to travel between her home country of England and Los Angeles and having S&S Couplers would make it easier for her to travel with a full-size bike. The silver attachments on the top and down tube screw apart using a special S&S coupler tool. In addition to that, the cables that run across to her rear brake and both her derailleurs had custom connectors that detach and reattach without losing its tension.
Why did I do it?
I was very intrigued with this brilliant idea and knew that this was something I would want on my bike when I decided to go travel the world. Another factor that motivated me to take on this idea was being charged $200 when I took the bike up to Vancouver last summer for my Vancouver to San Francisco tour. I first looked at the cost of buying a bike with it already installed. The cost was astronomically high! I was looking at a price tag of at least $3000. I specifically looked at the Salsa Travel Vaya which came in a metallic finish because I was really loving my Salsa Vaya 3.
With this realization in mind, why do I need to get another bike? Perhaps there was a way to get the S&S couplers installed as a retrofit build. I heard that custom frame builders were doing it for some of their own creations and started to look into it. After a simple Google search, I got my answer; it was indeed possible.
How much did it cost?
Knowing that it is possible to have my bike go through the same retrofitting, I was excited and dug deeper. I found some shops across the country who would do it for about $600. My initial thought was that this was a price of a good entry-level bike, but quickly realized that if I was to travel more, the cost of traveling with the bike will make up for it after about 3 trips (more on this later). The motivation to get this done soon was my Trans Europe trip which was happening in April, and the time of my research was in December of last year.
I actually talked to a few folks at a LA River Camp Coffee, and they all recommended that I talk to a local builder from LA, but was now working in Las Vegas. Her name is Megan Dean, and she is the creator of Moth Attack bikes. She was a student of the prestigious Yamaguchi Frame Building School so I know she was well-trained and many of my friends gave her high praises for her work.
I got in touch with her and told her what I had in mind. She was very responsive and in a matter of a few weeks was in town to pick up the bike frame. A month had passed before she was done with the installation. She had offered to paint the areas around the S&S coupler to match my paint, but that would have delayed the delivery of the job. In my naive excitement, I made the decision that the area didn’t need any painting and took the bike as is. Besides that, the exposed charred steel really looked cool. This was a decision I later regretted, but more on that later.
I was really excited to see the final product as Megan made a home delivery. The retrofit was very clean, and the silver really looked good and contrasted with the red. She gave me the S&S tool as well as a little baggy containing 3 cable splitters. The cables on the bike were all undone, but coiled up neatly. She told me she had to pull the bottom bracket apart for her work and regreased it when she was done.
It was good to have the bike back again. I still had a lot of work ahead of me. I had to figure out how to reinstall the cables. This took a few trips to the local bike shop for brake and derailleur cables along with a cable cutting tool. My pal Adrian came by to help with the installation. It took about 2-3 hours to install and get the shifting and brakes adjusted to the way I liked it.
I then figured out how to pull the frame apart with the cable splitters and put it back together. All of it was very straight forward, except maybe the direction of screwing and unscrewing of the S&S coupler. Heck, even to this day, I have trouble remember which direction to spin to unscrew since I rarely pull the frame apart.
The initial rides with the couplers were exactly the same as it had been before the modification. The frame was just as stiff and the joints are very solid. I didn’t notice anything different about my ride. Even when I loaded it up for quick overnight tours, the bike handled the same way. I took it to several overnight trips with some panniers and racks attached to it, and even then, it was sturdy and felt the same.
Where We’ve Been
The only way to truly test out the bike was to take it on trips where I had to pack and unpack the bike when I got to the destination. The first opportunity came in April when I traveled to Europe by way of Moscow and then Madrid.
I made a time-lapse video of me practicing the tear down and build up the bike and timed my progress. Read all about it here [link to previous article]. This actually served me very well as I was able to do it comfortably without losing or damaging anything.
The point of all this was to be able to pack away the bike in a box that measures 26” x 26” x 10” which is the size limit for checked baggage before they start charging oversize fees. It was really difficult at first, but with help from this site, it was manageable. I got the fenders to fit in with the bike, but the rack was a lost cause. I ended up having to bring another box with all the accessories, panniers, and front / rear racks. It was still cheaper to do that than to have a large bike box.
The bike held up very well with me and 75 lbs of gear strapped to it for 3 months. We rode nearly 2000 miles over paved, potholed, gravel, and cobblestone streets without any issues whatsoever. The only thing I noticed was that the exposed steel started to rust pretty bad because of the amounts of rain we experienced on the trip. I should have at least clear coated the area before taking it on my journey, but as they say, “hindsight is 20/20.” On my return from Europe, the bike did not get broken down as I had a bike shop in Bucharest, Romania help me pack my bike for the journey back home. I was willing to pay the $150 up charge from the airlines, but they only charged me 50 Euros. I was absolutely thrilled! I suppose I lucked out as other airlines would jump at this opportunity to make more money. I really saved money on the way to Europe. Instead of spending $200, I just paid $50. A $150 savings.
The second time I had to pack up my bike was when I went to my Adventure Cycling Colorado trip. The packing was much easier, and I didn’t have that much stuff with me for this trip because it had a duration of 1 week. Getting the bike put together actually was more difficult that time as the fenders were not cooperating, but that’s another story. The cost would have been $100 each way, but only costed $50. I saved $100 alone on this trip. Between this trip and Europe, I’ve already avoided $250 because of S&S couplers. Not too shabby.
For my last long distance trip, I actually used Bike Flights to ship my bike to Portland in August in a normal bike box because I wanted to try the service for the first time. The cost was only $65. The bike, again, handled the Washington and Oregon coast like a champ! It was solid and held together brilliantly while I traveled down from Bellingham, Washington to Klamath Falls, Oregon.
In addition to these trips, I’ve taken it off-roading up Angeles Crest, Verdugo Mountains, Santa Catalina Island, and other gravel roads around Southern California. The bike has not shown any fatigue or wear and tear.
It’s Not Perfect
Of course, it would be a disservice to you if I told you all is perfect after you install the S&S couplers. There are a few minor things that are more annoying than detrimental. One is that there is definitely an upkeep of the joints, to make sure you keep the area where the frame joins greased; specifically with Finish Line Extreme Fluoro 100% DuPont Teflon Grease. You want to be able to grease these areas to avoid seizures of the joints from extreme compression. I picked up a tube and regreased my joints after my Europe trip. Can’t say it’s done anything special, but I am all about taking care of your equipment so it takes care of you.
Another thing that I think about that perhaps nobody else does, is when I lock my bike during times where it is difficult to fit my lock around the seat tube and opt to lock it on the top or down tube. In theory, if someone had a S&S coupler tool or event a flat head screwdriver with a hammer, that person can easily unscrew it and pull the frame apart to take the bike. It sounds a bit paranoid as most people have no clue what the S&S coupler is in the first place, but if I was to live in an area like, say Denver or Portland where most people have a better idea of bike equipments, this can be a big concern. During the times when I am touring this isn’t such a big issue, but when I use my bike around the city, I do think about this. Perhaps someone else has a better solution for securing my bike. Comment below and share your thoughts on this major downfall of owning a S&S coupled bike.
One other thing that I also have to admit is that it is super annoying to pack the bike. I have to dedicate an hour or more just to do this before a trip. I can’t just have the shop do it for me if I wanted to as few shops have any idea on how to do this, I assume. I know I was really relieved when I had the bike shipped to Portland in August in a full bike box. On my way back, I bought an Amtrak box which was much bigger so that all I had to do was take the pedals off, and adjust the handlebar and stem. I’m hoping that this gets easier through time. For now, I am going to grin and bear it and ignore all the little blemishes on the frame.
Things I Should Have Done
Now that I am looking back on this upgrade, there are definitely a few things I should have done to make things easier. The first main thing that I’ve eluded to in the beginning of this post was that I should have had my frame painted. Seeing the area rust from rain and weather was disconcerting. Especially when people speculated that the rust may be forming inside of the tube. I certainly hope that’s not the case, but if it is, there’s little I can do. Learn from my mistake and do it right, especially when the price of the installation included painting as well (at least it was for me). I have since scrubbed off the rust and sprayed on a clear coat. So far it is working very well. I haven’t seen any signs of the rust coming back, yet. Let’s knock on wood as we are at the start of one of the wettest winters Southern California has ever seen.
I should have bought a case, whether it was a soft one or hard one, buying the case would help the bike fit better and provide additional protection. Instead, I bought 10 custom cardboard at about almost $7 a piece. I’ve already destroyed one during my trip to Colorado. I mean that was just 1 trip and the box was ripped to shreds. I could have put that money towards a nice case. I did buy something called a compression member which is used to prevent other luggages from crushing the box while it is being transported. I bought 3 of these to help keep the box in one shape. I believe these were a good buy as it helped reduce the chance of the bike from being damaged in transit. I can also use it if I buy a soft case in the future. First, I have to use up the cardboard boxes.
Do you need one?
So now we come to the big question of whether I would have still gotten this done knowing what I know now. Absolutely yes! To be able to take apart your bike and pack it in an airline approved box and not being asked to pay extra has been a game changer for traveling with a bike. I still have a few more trips to take to break even, but I have no doubt that I will make up for the upfront cost.
This will also help in situations where I need to catch rides in vehicles with small or little space. Imagine you’re stranded somewhere and a good samaritan comes by with a car to help, but his/her trunk is tiny. No problem! Unscrew everything and fit it in accordingly.
I would highly recommend outfitting your bike with an S&S coupler if you travel or plan on traveling with your bike. This is true even for those who don’t do a lot of bike touring. If you travel for business and love riding bikes, having an S&S coupler installed on your favorite steel and titanium bike will encourage you to explore your location.
Where do you get yours?
Ok, you’re ready to get your bike retrofitted? Great! You can find a frame builder near your area from this site. The site is also loaded with everything that is S&S couplers so be sure to bookmark it on your browser. You can also contact Megan Dean of Moth Attack bikes and let her know I sent you. Sorry, I don’t have that kind of pull for a discount, but it’ll be good to support someone who is a master at her craft. Plus she told me one of her favorite things to do is to retrofit bikes with S&S couplers. I’m serious. Ask her.
Finally, let me know if you like this article or found it useful in the comments below. Do you already own a S&S coupler bike? Let me know what you think or share your thoughts about this topic in the comments below.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.