Thursday, April 21
At Last! The Xtracycle Review You've Been Waiting For
I have a "new" bike: the Cannonball X. But I can’t really do a proper product review of it as a complete bike. The donor bike is a 1994 Cannondale M300. It's been a good bike for me for many years. As part of the Xtracycle conversion I stripped it and had it powdercoated. The only remaining components of the original Cannondale bike are the frame and the front derailer.
What I would like to do is give you my impression of my bike as it relates specifically to the Xtracycle extension. I'm going to go through the positive and negative aspects of converting a vanilla solid frame mountain bike to a longtail cargo bike. I'll try to limit myself only to the aspects of the new creature that are directly related to the Xtracycle and how it affects the bike. I will also compare it to the Kona Ute where appropriate despite the risk of potentially angering other members of my household. So here we go.
ON CREATING A FRAMEWORK
First off, I added an Xtracycle ClassicCargo FreeRadical to my donor bike. It came with the FlightDeck as opposed to the SnapDeck. At first I was a bit bummed, but I think I'm going to be happier with the FlightDeck as I work on adding back rests for my diminutive passengers. I'd still love to have a spare SnapDeck to swap out for special occassions. I have V-racks and gray 2010 FreeLoaders (bags). So far the ClassicCargo has worked well. I had originally wanted to go with the BigStoker, but in the end I decided the cost of adding the footsies, cushion and stoker bar for the initial build was not justifiable.
ON EVOLVING NEEDS
Before the conversion I had been using an Axiom Streamliner rear pannier rack and one pannier for my commutes. When I wanted or needed to haul one or both of my kids as a passenger we used either the trailer, a tow bar/kids' bike or both. With the Xtracycle I just let one or both kids climb on the deck, slip their feet in the FreeLoaders and they hold on to the edge of the FlightDeck. Its nice for my four year old because the FlightDeck has a handle in front that allows a better grip for a passenger.
Still, a stoker bar would be better and that's in the works. For my commutes post-conversion I stow everything in a daypack and just drop it in my left side FreeLoader and cinch the strap down. When I get to my destination I unsnap the strap and take out the backpack. Easy as pie!
It's very nice to be able to take off a jacket or sweater and just drop it in a FreeLoader, cinch down the strap and go. There's no messing with double buckles, a draw string, rooting around in the bottom of a pannier or in accessory pockets for stuff. The FreeLoaders allow ease of access and facile organization for all types of rides.
The FreeLoaders have a built in pocket with heavy duty velcro closures. I keep my pump, u-lock and cable, a spare tube and a patch kit in one side and usually drop my phone, wallet and keys in the drivers' side pouch.
Nothing bounces out of them and they are waterproof, with the outer FreeLoader flap shedding additional water with a drain hole in the bottom. They also protect little legs from moving parts under the deck and behind the V-racks and provide a nice stirrup for riders. I've carried a week's groceries no problem, something I could never have accomplished with my commuter panniers.
ON WEIGHT, MASS AND MOMENTUM
As far as weight management the Xtracycle is amazing. The bike handles surprisingly well with an eight year old passenger and a load of groceries. It seems as if the low slung FreeLoaders greatly benefit handling by keeping the weight low. I definitely notice a difference in handling between my Xtracycle and my wife's Ute that carries its ample panniers much higher. Even loaded down the Xtracycle ridese like a bike. The single kickstand has worked better for me than the double kickstand of the Ute. In fact, my Xtracycle has fallen over just once, and then from a gust of wind, while the Ute topples any time there is more weight on one side than the other.
At first glance you realize a bike with an Xtracycle extension is longer than a conventional bike. Your mind instantly factors in the effects of a longer wheel base and the bags that make the rear of the bike wider. And your preconceived notions about the handling of the bike as it relates to the longer wheelbase would be correct though not as extreme as you would imagine. Also, the bike appears more massive with the greater length and Xtra material. So you would think it would weigh more and you would be slowed down in your travels, but I have yet to notice a difference in my commute times, even when I've been tempted (with greater cargo capacity) to carry heavier loads.
Having pulled a two wheeled bike trailer for a few years now I instantly appreciated the Xtracycle's narrower profile. Also, even though the bike seems ridiculously long it doesn't ride like a tandem. It can be tight getting through intersection "porkchops", but usually the bike clears obstacles with plenty of room to spare even when I think its going to curb check with the rear wheel. My completed Xtracycle and the Ute are almost exactly the same length. Both fit in an elevator and only poke out of my cubicle at work a few inches. The main difference is that the Ute, while long, has a shorter wheel base, while the FreeRadical puts the rear wheel a bit farther back. This does affect the comparative handling of the two bikes, but not by much. Compared to a trailer though, the Xtracycle is definitely more streamlined and compact. Calling it a "hitchless trailer" is a very apt description and reveals one of the most redeeming qualities of the product. My Xtracycle rides like a bike and goes places a bike can go, and it has a back seat and a trunk like a car.
High speed turns, especially when loaded, feel a bit different than on a conventional bike, but the Xtracycle still corners with stability and control. It does take some getting used to, to be able to carve deeply into turns, but its no more difficult once your brain reprograms to the new distribution of mass and momentum. Don’t let the fear of quirky handling keep you from converting your own bike. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how "naturally" the Xtracycle rides.
As far as manhandling the longtail beast into my building and through the office the most revered feature is the FlightDeck's built in handles. The front handle is very close to the modestly loaded monster's center of gravity, making it perfect for pivoting through tight cubicle mazes and through stubborn doors. I was happy to discover the Ute lived up to its promise of fitting in an elevator, and even happier when I discovered my Xtracycled bike fits just as well. Toe to toe for roof top transport the Xtracycle is way easier than the Ute, though the weight and mass of the donor bike plays a significant role in getting the whole affair up over your head.
ON OVERCOMING ADVERSITY
I've not had the pleasure of riding my new X in snowy conditions, so I can't speak to how the longer wheel base is affected by slick conditions. I speculate that there will be two factors that may have an adverse affect on handling. The first is that similar to driving a two wheel drive pickup truck on snow and ice. With less weight over the rear wheel the likelihood of slippage increases. You can counter the effect by putting firewood as far back in the bed as possible…er, or putting weight as far back in the FreeLoaders as possible to increase traction. The second is related. With less weight and a greater distance from the center of gravity I can foresee that the rear wheel could break traction more easily in fast or tight turns on snow or ice. Again, adding weight in the rearmost portion of the FreeLoaders and decreasing speed will mitigate this effect.
The only weather related problem I've had post-conversion was the sudden and dramatic build up of mud between my tires and fenders after a rain while traversing a short section of trail. It was easy enough to loosen the two front bolts of the FlightDeck, unsnap the FreeLoader retaining straps and set the whole rig off on the ground so I could get at the rear fender with some pliers to dig out the sludge. Once I had the bike rolling again it was easy enough to drop the V-racks back on the frame, still attached to the FreeLoaders and FlightDeck, snapped the retaining straps back on, then tightened the two front hex bolts back down and I was on my way. Taking the racks, deck and bags off in the field is quick and simple. This is one area where the Ute is a bit simpler though. With the Ute you just lift the pannier free and unhook the two lower hooks and you can get at everything under the deck. With the FlightDeck attached its not a quick process to remove just the FreeLoaders.
ON THE TURNING AWAY
There are two problems I've had with the bike. The first is more related to the build and to my specific derailers, but I thought the issue bears a little discussion here. The longer chain length makes shifting into my small ring in the front problematic. There is so much slack in the chain that the derailer doesn't apply enough tension to push the chain down. It shifts fine between the other two gears, but just not down to the smallest ring. I realize this is less a problem directly related to the FreeRadical, but it is a factor related to the overall build that might be a problem for you.
The second "issue" I have is that the FreeLoaders don’t provide much built in protection from the elements for your loads. I understand the trade off with the design of the bags. The way they’re made the offer a large cargo capacity with easy access. To include a cover flap or some type of enclosed bag is going to add to the cost, bulk and complexity of the bags. They've mitigated this somewhat with the inner pouches, but those aren’t going to help you if you’re carrying a load of groceries and it starts to rain. I may experiment with my backpacking rain cover and see if it adequately covers a large load in the FreeLoaders. If so then two of those stowed in the pouches would provide all the protection you'd need.
As I stated earlier, I typically stow everything in a semi-waterproof daypack and just drop it in the FreeLoader and cinch it down. And I'm of the belief that if you take it outside you should plan on it getting wet. Life is that simple.
Features I would like to add as funds permit: Footsies, stoker bar, MagicCarpet cushion, P-racks, WideLoaders, and possibly a LongLoader.
Overall the Xtracycle conversion has exceeded my expectations. My bike is still my bike, but better. The longtail bike inspires me to greater feats of bicycling heroics. Stay tuned True Believers! More to come…
In the future I will address surfability, off-road handling, touring capabilities and family bikepacking on the Xtracycle.