Cargo Bikes and Stone Tablets Pt4

Long johns, longtails, just plain long bikes. Does a cargo bike have to be a big bike? Is there too much beast and burden in these beasts of burden? In this week’s cargo bike entry, I’ll begin talking about cargo bikes that are more conservative in size but may have more potential for the greater cycling public. In essence, the next two types of cargo bikes have racks affixed to the front or on the steering axis but differ in the rack’s mounting points.

The first type is what we will call a porteur, named after the French newspaper delivery riders who rushed the newest editions to the street vendors during the heated print media competition early last century. The best riders were well-paid for their endurance and speed and so had money to buy bicycles from builders better known for their competition machines than mundane work bikes.

I’m sure that there may be some other name for this bike, but too bad. As the earthly agent of God’s divine will to categorize cargo bikes, I have spoken.

The favored way of carrying the stacks of newsprint was a wide rack braced on the fork. Why not on the back? Well, I’m not certain, but I can plausibly reason based on my seven long years of delivering pizzas by bicycle. Granted, we pizza delivery drivers (we were never called “pizza bikers” or “pizza riders”) did not use front racks, but we stopped using rear racks pretty quick. The reason was that you could keep an eye on your wares if it’s in front of you. We just balanced the pizza boxes in hotbags right on the handlebar and road as fast as we could. I’ve also worked as a messenger in DC, and I am sure without a doubt that the intensity level delivering pizza was greater. While riding hard, I’ve always felt that you could finesse the bike better over rough road surfaces with the load forward of the rider.

At speed, a heavily weighted rear end (such as on a bike with a rear rack) is really abusive to the rear wheel, whereas a load on a fork-mounted rack balances the rider’s natural rear weight bias. This knowledge was my basis for choosing a front low-rider rack for my travel bike when I toured Japan. However, to get the best out of a front fork rack, some bike geometry issues should be addressed, and these old issues stir fresh controversies in randonnee circles.

Randonneur riders are a traditional lot, with many riders seeking custom builders to replicate old French archetypes for that style of riding. Among more zealous advocates, Jan Heine, historical cycling author and accomplished randonneur, has often stated the superiority of older bicycle designs. Besides his affinity for 650B wheels and 6sp freewheels, he prefers bikes with a particular front end geometry. In design terms, these bikes have very little “trail”, a parameter determined by head angle, front wheel diameter, and rake (steering offset). The effect of geometry on handling is complex, but in general, a bike with a lot of trail will be very stable at speed but the front wheel will tend to flop about clumsily at low speed, while a short trail bike has tight low speed handling but can be a little too flighty at high speeds.

On a typical with 700C wheels and a 73 degree head angle, the modern builder would specify a fork with about 45mm of rake, giving a trail of about 57-58mm. However, those old randonneur designs might have over 70mm of rake for a trail in the 30s (mm).

Perhaps the relevance of these numbers fails to impress, but this is shockingly different from what the industry as a whole follows. What gives? Are those randonneur riders all tweed cap wearing/friction shifting eccentrics, or has the industry duped the cycling consumer? I say consider the function before analyzing the form. [


Carrying bags or panniers is necessary for randonneur rides, as those rides emphasize speed and self-sufficiency, and the older bikes generally carried a saddle bag and a sizable handlebar bag, putting the food and maps in the most accessible position. That front handlebar bag will affect the handling of the bike, making the bike sloppy at slow speeds and perhaps a little unresponsive at higher speeds while descending. Bill Davidson of Davidson Bicycles argues that the decreased trail is primarily an attempt to return proper sporting characteristics to the loaded randonneur bike.

This issue comes full circle to the porteur bikes. These bikes have the front loading issues of randonneur bikes, and in historical fact many French porteurs and randonneurs purchased from the same framebuilders. The bikes for both groups of riders shared similar geometry, since both carried a load that rode off the steering axis, either from the fork or the handlebar. A fork rack mounts and more rake make a capable porteur. There are innumerable bikes out there that simply have a big basket mounted to the fork, but while undoubtedly useful, these bikes are obviously less refined

I guess that of the cargo bike genres that I set out to discuss, the porteur is the least well-defined from a “regular ol’ bike with a big rack”. But I find it particularly interesting because of its performance.

As I see it, this bike is something akin to an mtb with an Xtracycle longtail conversion kit (known as the “Free Radical”) because a porteur would not require permanent modification. With the addition of a front fork with rack mounts and more rake, you could convert your existing bike into a porteur. Some bikes will be better suited than others, in either structure or aesthetics. A carbon road racing frame would be a nonsensical choice, but a lugged steel bike could be superb.

Let’s stitch this entry up by getting to the pros and cons. On the plus side, the porteur is great for loads of medium bulk and/or weight, may have a sporting demeanor, and you can keep an eye on your cargo if you simply dropped it on the rack. The rack tends to even out the rider’s weight, balancing the bike. With the weight off the rear wheel, the bike handles rough roads at speed well.

In the negative column, with poor design the rack becomes awkward and a handling liability. With the load relatively high, the bike without a rider wants to fall over; some sort of stand would be sorely missed. The fork and rack designs are anything but standardized, so the porteur and bikes converted into them largely rely on custom builders. Finally, the porteur bike cannot compete with either long johns or longtails in terms of absolute capacity.

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