Last time we were having it out with longtail cargo bikes. Longtails are all over the internet blogs, but now we’ll talk about a much rarer beast: the long john.
What are we calling a long john? Well the namesake for this genre is the Danish bike that was first produced around 1938. Still being produced today, the bike’s key features are the front cargo area and a linkage steering system. There’s been some comments pushing to separate bikes that have a long, low cargo section behind the front wheel, and those bikes that have a shorter cargo section sitting above the front wheel. From a frame builders perspective, the need for a linkage steering system makes these two variations much more similar than they are different. There are some makers today building the short and high variation preferentially (see Bilenky). For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just lump these two variations together under the long john moniker. We’re also going to include bikes that have a cargo box or seats built onto the cargo section, as it’s no great feat of engineering to add the box or seats if the frame already has the space.
What are the advantages of the long john? Well, in the long/low configuration, very heavy loads can be carried, but as distinct from longtails, long johns do quite well at bulky loads. The cargo section, or in some cases cargo box, doesn’t require the load to be separated and balanced like a longtail’s cargo deck and side bags frequently do. And the low center of gravity improves stability. In the case of long johns fitted with seats, the advantage is that the seats can be totally enclosed and child passengers need not actively balance themselves on the bike. In fact, neither are uncooperative children likely to upset the rider’s balance.
Where do long johns suffer? Much like longtails, they can be cumbersome to maneuver. Sitting so far behind the steering access takes some adapting. Much like a longtail, the long john is a big, complex bike and it’s unladen weight is on average more than comparable longtails. The bigger ones are probably even less car rack friendly. The short john variation minimizes this, as to be expected from a smaller, lighter bike. Lastly, long johns are less suitable to offroad riding than a longtail. The front wheel is too small to float a large load on soft surfaces, it’s harder for the rider to see the technical line for steering the front wheel, and the rider cannot unweight the front wheel at all.
It should be acknowledged that the long john design has developed primarily as a city-dweller compared to the longtail’s backcountry roots. From the consumer’s perspective, the market offerings are in many cases highly refined products. Bakfiets of the Netherlands makes bikes that have all the traditional amenities of European city bikes including enclosed chains, internally geared hubs, and rain shield for the cargo bay. And importantly, the manufacturers of long johns have long ago perfected sturdy kickstands (or to be more precise, center-stands) for these bikes
I’m in Portland OR today, and I’ve already seen a couple of the Bakfiets bikes with forward childseats. In Copenhagen, I saw so many of this type of bike with fully enclosed passenger capsules. Besides ferrying children, I think the lonh john is the ideal type of bike for multi-stop deliveries since the loading is a no-brainer, and I have seen a few of these used by mail services in other countries.
The long john bike is something of a rare animal; the path to ownership is probably different from that of a longtail. I mean, with a longtail, it’s like a regular mtb just longer at the back and heavier. Do you own a long john, Bakfiets, filibus, or some other variation? How did you come to choose that bike? Where do think that type of bike excels or suffers?…
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