Cargo Bikes and Stone Tablets Pt2

Alright, last week I laid down a system for categorizing cargo bikes, as God had commanded me. Perhaps the system doesn’t quite recognize every little nuanced variation of cargo bike, but we can’t have a different subgenre of cargo bike named for every butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker who pedaled his way to work.

What we needed was a way to get a handle on the types of bikes so we could discuss how the major variations compare against one another. Longtail cargo bikes get the majority of media coverage right now, but are they the right bike for everyone… all the time? Let’s look at where the new generation of longtails come from and maybe talk a little about their potential.

Without getting too deep into it, longtail largely started with Xtracycle developing the Free Radical system that modified a standard single bicycle into a longtail cargo bike. The idea came about from founder Ross Evans’ travels in underdeveloped world countries, where he thought about how to make the humble bicycle increase people’s employment opportunities. The Free Radical system creates a bike, with a long wheelbase and a sturdy area to strap cargo, that can transverse dirt roads well. Before the Free Radical, the only way to dramatically increase the carrying capacity of a bike would be to attach some sort of trailer to the bike. But a trailer introduces a number of handling issues to a bike. By putting the cargo section between the rider and the rear wheel, the Free Radical makes the bike a lot more maneuverable and shorter overall compared to a bike plus trailer. Xtracycle likened a bike equipped with a Free Radical to a bicycle analogue of a sport utility vehicle, coining the term SUB or “sport utility bike.”

Since then companies such as Surly have worked in partnership with Xtracycle to use their racks and other accessories on pre-made, unitary longtails. Other companies such as Yuba and Kona have developed similar longtails outside of the Xtracycle system. Compared to other cargo bikes, longtails do really well at carrying very large loads on unpaved surfaces. They can also transport any passenger that can keep his/her balance on the rear deck. Longtails can carry loads for which most people would consider a petrol-burning vehicle necessary, thus longtails are very popular among the car-free contingent. Surf the various cargonista blogs and you’ll find tons of epic transport runs, plus very detailed desciptions of complex component specs.

I think longtails definitely have their place as capable tools, but are they end all be all of cargo bikes? The issue I have with longtails is that they are big bikes that are often too mechanically complex and/or expensive to be the solution for everyone who wants to use a bike more often for load-bearing tasks.

These bikes are almost as long as tandems, trading the stoker’s crank for cargo capacity. There’s a lot of bike there. A fully loaded longtail is no picnic for a novice rider, but an unladen longtail is only nimble compared to a bike with a trailer. There is a variation of the longtail theme, called the Freight-8, that uses small diameter wheels to allow the cargo section to drop down low between the rider and rear wheel (possibly at the expense of offroad capability since big loads will roll better over dirt on larger wheels) , and it is reported to have better handling characteristics. Additionally, managing the load distribution should be easier since there is less issue of load asymmetry on the Freight-8’s load platform. This is an issue with typical longtails since the somewhat high platform dictates that you either strap the load high up or lash the it along side the rear wheel and try to balance it laterally. In any case, any longtail structure is obviously more complex than a single-rider diamond frame, which will prevent the frames from being dead cheap, but some people are tricking out their bikes to ridiculous extremes. A $5K cargo bike is not a workable model to get the average person to reduce car usage.

Plus, let’s get real. Society is not going to suddenly give up cars tomorrow and ride cargo bikes to a petrol-free utopia. Not after almost 70 years of the automobile being pampered by US infrastructure planning; it just isn’t practical for many people. A more realistic model is that we create pathways of multimodal transportation that integrate cycling. Maybe that means taking a bike onto a train, or driving to the city and leaving your car at the city outskirts while you ride your bike within the city limits. Remember, longtails are big bikes. Unless you have an SUV, station wagon, or an auto equipped with a tandem rack, you are going to have a devil of a time loading the bike in your car. As a matter of a fact, I can tell you from personal experience that I dislike lifting a longtail in any situation.

Even if you live in the city and only use one mode of transportation, you still have to store the bike someplace. If you have a garage or secure parking area, great, but if you live in an apartment building in my neighborhood, you’re gonna want to take anything of value inside. That means 4 flights of narrow stairs, and as I said, I hate lifting longtails. Do I even have to mention the problems of 2 people and a longtail in a 1-bedroom apartment?

If you operate in areas closer to what the modern longtail was conceived in, then it makes a lot of sense. Rural areas, unpaved roads, or places with wide-open roads and sidewalks to park. Certainly, if you’re going offroad with a large load, the longtail can’t be beat.

I hope to see more longtail designs in the future, maybe addressing some of the torsional rigidity issues that people have been talking about. Unlike a tandem stoker, cargo doesn’t keep itself balanced on the bike in the interests of self-preservation, so the longtail rider needs to do work against the deadweight to keep the bike upright. As a result, the bike twists noticeably from the headtube back. Also, these bikes are begging for better kickstands as a stock feature.

I aim to broaden the discussion of cargo bikes. Once a week for the next month, I’m going to talk about each of the configurations of cargo bikes I defined in Pt1.

Has anyone out there been attracted to longtail cargo bikes but been put off their size, complexity, and cost? Perhaps you did sell the car in favor of a cargo bike? Or would you be more inclined to buy a smaller cargo bike to compliment or reduce your auto usage?

(For part 3 of the series, click here)



18 Comments

Perhaps you did sell the car in favor of a cargo bike?

Well, not exactly, but when our car died a little over a month after getting an Xtracycle set up, having the Xtracycle available was one of the main factors in our decision not to replace the car. (Which has been, all things considered, an excellent decision.)

That said, now that I have a 4x longer commute than back then, I’ve been taking the bus instead of riding the X. I’m in the market now for a commuter bicycle which is more suitable for longer rides with small-ish loads in panniers and which fits on the bus rack in case I have a hard day at work and don’t want to ride back.

The Big Dummy and other longtails made for Xtracycle have made significant improvement, but as [I wrote recently](http://bikehugger.com/2008/11/huggacast_72_cargo_power.htm) they require skill, handling, and [advanced cargo techniques](http://bikehugger.com/2008/12/huggacast_76_santa_sleigh.htm). A driver for writing that post was that I lamented the fact that I wasn’t comfortable handing Bettie to our intern to deliver packages. It’s too complex of a bike for a novice to ride. That’s not a diss, just a fact. The next gen has to address the whippy front-end. They’ve got the rear fixed.

Watch the video in my post at 23 seconds and you can see the bike twist . . .

I’ve also heard from shops, Mark included, that Longtails are also a long build, much like a custom tandem. That’s a big commitment from a shop because the Longtail customer is likely one that wants everything custom like Dapper Lad [did with Barney](http://bikehugger.com/2008/10/introducing_barney_big_dummy.htm).

My family and I are SERIOUISLY considering buying a longtail.  I have grown up riding bikes and work in the industry so many of the concerns with handling and complexity do no apply to my case….What does apply is the fact that I have two small children (4 years and 10 months).  We have a trailer that I will begin using again in the next few weeks to get the kids dropped off in the mornings to school and daycare.  I hate pulling a trailer.  I have been well aware of Xtra cycle and now the longtails that borrow their design foundation for many years.  What I am not in love with are the very limited was in which children are supported on longtails.  I mean I just havent seen a great way to get two children onto the same long tail when there is a bit larger age discrepancy….I am eager to see this topic addressed in an upcoming posting…..

Xtracycle has excellent child seats and there—check [Vik’s Big Dummy blog](http://viksbigdummy.blogspot.com/), as another resource. Also my [Xtracycle Minivan](http://austinbikeblog.org/2008/09/16/my-xtracycle-mini-van/) and custom, [wood child seats](http://longwalktogreen.blogspot.com/2008/09/interested-in-snapdeck-kids-seat.html).

“Has anyone out there been attracted to longtail cargo bikes but been put off their size, complexity, and cost?”

I’m put off by their long wheelbase and the way that they divide the load and put it behind you.  The 8-Freight solves the load vision, but with added drivetrain complexity.  I think the longtail is nice because it is simple to make.  I don’t think that it is the optimal configuration.

I build a simple Cycle Truck to work around these issues.  The wheel base is similar to a regular bike, so I can hang it on my basement wall.  The load isn’t divided so I can carry large boxes easily.  The downside with the Cycle Truck format is that the weight is cantilevered forward of the front wheel.  This limits their utility with really large and heavy loads.

In your taxonomy you missed a style of bike.  They are effectively Cycle Trucks with the front wheel moved forward from the handlebars.  They aren’t the same as Long Johns because the load isn’t down low and the bike is much shorter.  Bilenky probably makes the most commonly seen version in the US, but David Wilson, ANT, and others also make them.

My next cargo bike will be of that style, but shorter than most of the commercial ones.  The overall length will be no longer than my current cycle truck, but the handling will be better.

alex

Check out Pt1 of the series, where I do mention cycle trucks.  Then come back each week for a new entry in which I will be discussing a different type of cargo bike. And from the beginning, I’ve been planning on talking about the cycle truck… or some people want to call it, “the butcher bike”....and still others “the baker’s bike”. These all fall under the general type of bike with a front rack attached to the frame.  But as I said, that’s for a later discussion.

I recently bought a Kona Ute longtail, and have been pleasantly surprised by how stiff it feels even under heavy load. The kick stand really sucks though; I don’t trust it for any load over about 25 lbs.

One thing I find interesting is how high up I am. With the upright riding posture, I actually have a higher vantage point than almost any driver on the road other than big ole SUVs.

For me the price was right during an end of year sale. I picked it up for $700. I can’t imagine a longtail could be much cheaper given the above mentioned labor-intensive construction of a beefy, big frame.

That is a great deal; especially since they were sold out all of 08. We’ll have an 09 next month and plan an in-depth review. I think the biggest growth in longtails is with light-duty versions—grocery getters and to get that backpack off your back.

Yeah, I got the last ‘08 that Alki Bike & Board had in stock.

these bikes are begging for better kickstands as a stock feature

If you want to trick it out in the aftermarket, there is the
Haulin’ Colin centerstand.

that’s correct and we’ve got a center stand on the Bettie now. Also the new Torker Cargo we’re testing has one stock. Xtracycle is selling their own center stand now—very nice.

The new Xtracycle Kick Back  is a great kickstand solution for Long Tail bikes.  Its, sturdy and easy to use.

I have owned a Xtracycle longtail for about 6 months now and really enjoy it. It does have some flex issues as mentioned. I thought the flex was mostly because it was the free-radical bolt-on and not the Surly purpose built frame. Sounds like there is still flex present in the Big Dummy from the post. The flex I experience is more of a wobble (while putting a good deal of weight onto the pedals, full disclosure I am a big guy 250lbs) that feels (to me) like my crank bolt is loose and has taken quite a while for me to accept that it was flex and not a more serious and hazardous problem. I pretty much pedal with no worries now-a-days though! I would recommend a internally geared rear hub (shimano nexus, etc.) for anyone considering a custom build. The adjustment on a standard rear derailleur is tricky with all that chain. I futs with it all the time and still don’t have it just right. Over all I was hopeful that this would be my ticket to a car fee lifestyle but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve convinced myself that a electric assist in the form of a 1000 watt hub motor would do the trick. So, we shall see..! As for the Kids on a longtail issue. I retrofitted my sons tricycle seat and a three point harness from a scavenged stroller and now feel perfectly safe with him all strapped in and he LOVES riding on the Freerad.. He’s 3 and I had been hauling him around in a burly trailer up til’ he got old enough to handle riding on the Xtra. Life is good bikes are where it’s at and electric assist longtails are the future! At least for me!

@KlayHog,

Thanks for the comment—the flex I wrote about with the Big Dummy is in the front, an area that seems overlooked by longtail designers. And note that we’re really pushing the limits of longtails with the weight we’re carrying, but at the same time wanting to engage conversation about the design and more.

Good stuff here.  At first reading, I thought it was too negative, but everything you’ve pointed out is true.  Nevertheless, these flaws have to be balanced against the bikes’ capacities/abilities.  For example, sure LTs are heavier and longer than regular bikes, but unloaded they probably ride more regular bikes than other cargobike styles. 

The sport-utility comparison is pretty good (station-wagon works too, perhaps better): xtracycle-size loads (a good size grocery shop, a small amount of lumber or landscaping material, or a passenger) are frequent necessities.

@David

Right on. Our intent here is to engage in a good convo (wish that Xtracycle would pop in and Surly), just like if we all convened in a bike shop and debated the merits of a bike design, drivetrain, or whatever. The frank convo is based, for me at least, in my belief in longtails and cargo bikes and our particular usage is really pushing the limits.

Cargonistas, like any fanboy/girl, I think sometimes in their enthusiasm overlook flaws that’ll make the product more mainstream (or resent the mainstreaming of something they love) and any deep fan base should speak up about features or improvements they want. A good example of this is when the Ute got playah hated instead of, “cool, a light-duty longtail.” (the playah hatin’ didn’t stop sales, though).

Also my standards, being an old-school roadie, I think are different. I expect any bike I ride to perform. For example, totally dig my Brompton, do not understand why they’ve got such crappy, flex-o-matic cranks on them. You can spec a Brompton all sorts of ways, but not upgrade the cranks. That’s not a diss to El Brompto, instead a hey, can we get a crank that’s stiffer? One that I can’t grab with my hand and bend like a spoon?

All in all, even getting people thinking that they can carry groceries on their bike instead of their car is good.

I went car-free a while ago (5 years or so), but have had motorcycles during that time, so it’s kind of half-way to real car-free life.  About a year and a half ago, I ended up building up an Xtracycle, and found myself wondering about your front-end wobble complaint, since I don’t experience it.

Then I realized, I built my X with a massively overbuilt downhill frame (a warranty frame replacement where I didn’t have any say in which frame I got): a Norco Bigfoot (ok, apparently Norco calls it a “Freeride” frame).  In any case, the point is that by utilizing this big beefy frame, I was able to avoid the front-end wobblies.  And that speaks to a distinct advantage of the Free Radical over the Big Dummy: you can build it up with any bike frame.

I actually think the Big Dummy looks like a fantastic frame, and I’m not trying to put it down in any way, but I was interested to realize that I had (inadvertently, I admit) avoided a problem by building up my own Xtracycle.

Here’s my classification scheme, with links to some in each category.  Some of the bikes are more kid-transport focused than actual cargo-focused.

Longtail Style - Sturdy Large Rack either added to bike or built in

Project Rwanda Coffee Bike:

Xtracycle:

Surley’s Big Dummy (Xtracycle built in)

Kona Ute

Yuba Mundo

Porteur Bicycles (Front rack integrated with frame)

James Black’s New Cycle Truck:

Cargo Bicycles (Cargo in Back – 2 or 3 wheels)

Masden kg271

Human Powered Machines’ Tri-Hauler:

Cargo Bicycles (Long John Style - Cargo in Front)

Clever Cycles Bakfiets:

Portland Metrofiets:

Dutch Bikes Coach Trike:

Human Powered Machines’ Long Haul

Pashley

SmartTrike:

Dutch ID

Christiania

TrioBike

Bicycle Trailers

BOB (formerly Beast of Burden)

Instructibles.com (one of dozens)

Burley:

Koga-Miyata Chela:

Human Powered Machines’ Tri-Hauler:

Ikea Delivery Bicycle with Trailer:

Extra Power (to move the cargo)

StokeMonkey

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