There were those who found it a little odd that after a summer guiding tours around the Indian Himalayas, we’d choose to spend a couple more months bike touring in equally mountainous SW China. For some reason, they even thought we’d be tired of riding by then. Little did they know that not only where we very happy to have the opportunity to spend more hours in the saddle nosing around new places, but I was also thinking about what bike I was looking forward to riding when I got home. Sad, yes.
Funnily enough, of all the bikes in the shed, it was my trusty Spesh Rockhopper that I’d ‘Xtracyclatised’ (more about that here) before leaving for India that kept popping into my mind. It was the bike I’d ridden back home from Australia close to ten years ago. Pulling the aged Spesh out of retirement, and metamorphosing it into the cycling equivalent of a pickup, had given it new life and opened up the world of ‘longtails’ to me. These long wheelbase hardtails use a variety of modular loading styles to carry all manner of stuff – be it shelves, canoes, ladders, boxes, cardboard, animals, even people. They’re a bridge towards surprisingly easy car-free living, without too many of the compromises some people might associate with it.
Of course, there’ve been fully fledged cargo bikes around for years – Mike Burrow’s Eight Freight is perhaps the ultimate evolution for serious load hauling in the city. Let alone the millions of people around Asia make do with all sorts of heavy, unwieldly, bare-bone-basic trikes – in China they’re often electric assisted, in India they’re just manhandled along the road. ‘Longtails’, as they’ve been dubbed, have opted for a slightly different approach. Having taken their cue from Xtracycle, they’re closer in looks to a conventional bike, so probably appeal more to people who don’t want to look too ‘different’. They share a lot of mtb components, like wheelsize, drivetrains and disc brakes, so you can mix and match parts, cut costs and even recycle kit you already have – often the underlying drive behind these projects. Although they’re not as capable as fully fledged cargo bikes, they can easily handle what most people need to carry, with added versatility and even surprisingly good off road ability.
(picture lifted from Commute By Bike)
Surly’s much anticipated Big Dummy kickstarted a lot of renewed interest and pips all others for sheer utilitarian cool. This monster can handle 2.5in tyres, with mudguards. The curved top tube looks great and has a practical reason too, by lowering clearance for riders of different heights. I’m not sure if a bike like the Big Dummy makes complete sense for touring, though these guys, traversing the length of the Americas offroad, would certainly disagree. Or maybe it’s just that you’d need to approach touring with a different mindset: less of a beady eye on the scales and distances covered, and more on the fun stuff you could bring/buy along the way. Like solar panels and a sound system… The Big Dummy makes use of Xtracycle’s innovative modular loading system, and all the bits you can get/make for it.
But just as interesting is this far more affordable offering from Yuba, in the shape of the Mundo. Unless you get in quick and order one in the next couple of days, it’ll cost upwards of £460 in the UK, depending on build and spec. It’s rated to haul a massive 200kg – where leg power permits – thanks to a beefed up wheelset. Similar to Xtracycle’s ethical outlook (who are involved in World Bike), the whole concept is closely tied in with a model for developing regions too, and a percentage of profits goes towards Re-Cycle, who ship second hand bikes to Africa. This is a bike that aims to be strong, simple, practical and carry a message too. Like the Xtracycle gear, it’s being distributed in the UK by Loads Better.
Kona’s UTE is another contender. It will be interesting to see what accessories are available for it, or whether it’s just a stand along product – Kona say there are some in the pipeline. Cost is £580, which includes a mechanical front disc and an 8 speed drivetrain. Kona are also involved in some overseas bike-related donation projects.
Here’s my Rockhopper: the Green Machine. I ended up getting it resprayed new leaf/spring green by the guys at Argos, having a couple of dents filled in too, and some new ‘old’ decals for the finishing touch. Almost all the bits are from my spare parts box or borrowed off other bikes, including some lovely old XT thumb shifters so I can run a cheap 8 speed chain and cassette. The Xtracycle concept involves various straps and modular shelves to suit different loads, and a kickstand which makes loading much easier. I like the ‘cinch-it-all-on-somehow’ concept; it seems to suit my personality. The bolt-on Xtracycle appendage (called a Freeradical) means the frame’s a tad flexy, but that’s ok as it helps to float over bumps – thanks also to the monster 2.25 Big Apples I’ve now squeezed in, which just pop up curbs like the bike has a couple of inches of travel. Storage isn’t an issue. I hang it upways off a normal bike hook, supported by its tail, so no extra room is needed.
A bunch of specialist framebuilders in the US have also built some custom longtails, like this lovely creation from Tony Pereira and a Pugsley snow/sandbike-inspired behemoth from Traffic Cycles. The guys from Riding the Spine have written an ode to it here, and demystified all those chain lines and clearance issues that arise from running close to 4″ Endomorph tyres. Independent Fabrications also displayed a longtail at last years North American Handbuilt Bike Show, powered by a Stokemonkey. And I’ve heard of a couple of other manufacturers considering models too, so watch this space…