Majority of my self-supported tours thus far have pretty much been on a longtail cargo bicycle. This type of bike is ideal if you want to repurpose that old mountain bike that’s been sitting in your garage into a big-bad-hauling-machine. I use to be so happy and excited when I get to haul things with my longtail cargo bicycle. It was a badge of honor to be able to transport things on my own power without a gasoline powered vehicle. The longtail cargo bicycle made it possible for me to become car-free for a bit, but it became a versatile touring rig. Let’s find out what a longtail cargo bicycle is and what it takes to assemble one. We can then talk about the ride quality, as well as the pros and cons of touring with one.
What is a longtail cargo bicycle?
A longtail bike is a bike that is specifically designed to haul things through the extended length of a rear rack and bag system. There are bikes that have these extensions built-in, see Yuba Mundo and the Surly Big Dummy. My longtail cargo bicycle was actually built out of an extension called the FreeRadical from the company Xtracycle. I attached it on an old 1996 Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike.
Is it easy to assemble one?
I actually did the installation myself. Be warned that I am definitely NOT a bicycle mechanic. I acquired my skills volunteering at a bicycle co-op for a few months prior to taking on this project. The FreeRadical came with very clear instruction and diagrams. The general idea behind the assembly goes something like this.
Remove your rear wheel and rear derailleurs.
Attach the rear wheel to the FreeRadical rack.
Attach the FreeRadical to your bicycle free by the previous rear wheel dropouts and an attachment in the area where a bicycle kickstand would normally be installed near the bottom bracket.
Break your chain and attach more links to make the chain longer (the extra links are provided with a stock installation).
Change out the rear brake and derailleur cables (extra long cables and housing provided by the stock installation).
I might be simplifying this a bit, but these are really the general steps that are needed to build your own longtail cargo bicycle.
Is it easy to ride a longtail cargo bicycle?
Yes! With a FreeRadical attached to my mountain bike, riding was very easy. It didn’t feel any different from riding my mountain bike without the FreeRadical. The rack sits pretty low to the ground so the center of gravity is lowered for better handling. You also have to be conscious of how you pack things and make sure you put heavier things towards the middle of the bike to minimize impacting quality of the ride. I did have difficulties riding with adult passengers, but with items that were 100 lbs or less, the ride quality was fantastic.
What are the pros and cons of touring with a longtail cargo bicycle?
I don’t have to worry about how much I can carry. If I wanted to haul around a couple of gallons of water or firewood, I can easily pile it on my cargo bike along with bags and bags of gear.
I don’t need to buy special bags to hold my belongings as the FreeRadical has bags for you to put just about anything for a self-supported bicycle tour.
I am very visible to most cars. Although these type of bikes have become more common, it is still pretty rare to see one, and it’s a good thing when people notice, so they don’t run into you.
I always had people come up to me to talk about my ride. Many people were curious to know what the heck it is.
Because I could carry everything and anything, I found myself packing way too much stuff. This meant I was always hauling heavy loads and traveling inefficiently compared to other people who use regular touring bicycles. There is something to be said about being limited to what you can and can’t bring, which would make your ride more enjoyable.
I couldn’t take public transportation so easily. Because a cargo bike is so long, it is often equivalent to a tandem bicycle. Buses will not accept these types of bikes on their bicycle racks. Therefore, when you’re out there, you better know how to fix your own problems and be able to make it back on your own power or find someone with a pickup truck.
These things are heavy even without cargo. There were times when we needed to lift our bikes over partitions or railroad tracks and it took at least 2 people to do it. If you’re traveling alone, you better have a contingency plan if you hit a dead-end.
Although I’ve heard of people shipping their cargo bikes for destination tours around the world, needing to do so will cost you more money and time to assemble the bike back the way you want it. It’s much easier to pack and ship a normal touring bike.
I had to sell my longtail cargo bicycle recently, as I needed something more versatile to travel with on buses, planes, and trains. I rarely ever used it and it was stored at Sang’s place for quite some time. The way I see it, I didn’t need this bike and would rather sell it to someone who would take it out on some of their own touring adventures. Good bye, my beloved Xtracycle. It was great while it lasted, but you will be happier where you are now and I will have to move on without you.
Do you have any cargo bicycle touring experience? What do you like or not like about touring with a cargo bicycle (longtail or other)? I would love to hear about your experiences and your opinions.