When Carl Kurz, a bike mechanic, and transport planner Michael Replogle, started the ‘Bikes Not Bombs’ (BNB) movement in 1984, they could hardly have anticipated it would have resulted in a new type of bike and accessory system. BNB was a response to the United States giving military backing of the Contra attacks on Nicaragua. In the words of their strapline; it was to “use the bicycle as a vehicle for social change”.
Before going any further, you may wish to know that if you click on them, most of the pictures in this blog have a link to further information.
Why a Longtail?
Under the auspices of BnB, in 1995 an engineering student, Ross Evans, packed his welding kit and headed to Nicaragua. The mobility offered by a bike greatly increased a person’s chances of finding work. Evans realised that something more than a standard diamond frame bike was required if it was also to carry a tradesperson’s tools, be used by a farmer to carry goods to market, or transport a family. In response he invented the longtail bike as a sort of cycling equivalent to the Citroen 2CV.
Having returned to the USA, in 1998 Evans and his friend Kipchoge Spencer created Xtracycle. The purpose was to design, manufacture and sell a commercial version of his longtail bicycle. Six years later he also set up Worldbike, a charity, “…focused on designing innovative bicycle prototypes to advance development in poor countries.”
One of the first products from Xtracycle was the ‘Free Radical’. This was a conversion kit that could be used to convert most traditional diamond frame bikes into a longtail. In 2016 this was updated and replaced by the Xtracycle ‘Leap’ kit.
Open Source – Commercial Cohesion or Exploitation?
In 2008, Xtracycle attempted to create a set of standards for longtail frames. To support this, they put their own longtail frame specifications online and made it open source. By creating a ‘Longtail Standard’, they hoped to encourage accessory and luggage manufacturers to produce items that could be used regardless of which company had made the bike they were to fitted to. Sadly, whilst some bike makers followed the ‘standard’, others chose not to. Now Xtracycles documents are only available by arrangement with them.
The first company, other than Xtracycle, to produce a bike to the longtail standard was Surly with their ‘Big Dummy’. It can have the full range of Xtracycle specification accessories bolted to it. The design allows it to carry a load of up to 180kg – live or dead stock, including humanoids. Like so many cargo bikes, the addition of electric assist has meant that many more people have felt confident enough to give one a go.
Surly appear to want to create and maintain a certain mad Minnesotan image. They tend to make their frames to accommodate a degree of customisation by the user – especially larger tyres. Their reputation for this was not harmed when rumours started circulating that a beast of a longtail had been sighted on the hills and in the woods not too far from Surly’s base.
Unlike the Yeti, it turned out to be more than a myth and in 2017 the ‘Big Fat Dummy’ was released. The early bikes were supplied with 5 inch tyres like the one above but, I believe, they are now shipped with 3 inch tyres as standard. It’s worth checking before ordering. The strange looking bit at the very end of the frame is a combined trailer hitch and mounting point for the front forks of another bike.
Other than the one above, the only Big Fat Dummy I’ve seen in the UK was purchased as a frame and built up to the owner’s requirement by their local bike shop. The UK Surly dealerships that I have looked at on-line, offer the frame as well as built up bikes.
In 2013 Xtracycle got together with Tern Technologies to produce the Cargo Joe. This was a mating of the Tern Joe C21 with the Xtracycle Free Radical, to spawn a folding 26-inch wheeled longtail bike.
The Cargo Joe was such a success that in 2016 Tern developed the Cargo Node. It is built as folding longtail and has the Xtracycle compatible rack system
High, Low, or Just Don’t Know
Two clear trends have developed in the longtail market. One, like the Surlys above, keeps a frame geometry closer to that of the original diamond frame bikes; whilst other have gone for step through frames. The latter are easier to get on and off of, especially if carrying a bulky load or some children. The pictures of the Bicicapace ‘Justlong Sport’ and ‘E-Justlong’ below illustrate the differences.
Yuba have also opted for different size wheels to achieve a lower rear platform height – something that Xtracycle have also done with their ‘Swoop’.
Low rear platforms offer a number of advantages. They have become popular with parents who may have to lift young children in and out of rear seats or have children who wish to climb in; and offer the capability to carry bulkier loads. It also lowers the centre of gravity which can make the bike feel more stable. The drawback is that side panniers are not as deep.
The longtail I see the most around here is the Tern GSD which has electric assist and can be fitted with two batteries if required. One is fitted with two child seats (like the Cargo Node above) is used to carry twins to a local nursery.
The Tern GSD above is fitted with a front rack that takes a standard Eurocrate, and has a passenger carrying rear seat. An alternative arrangement allows for a rear shelf to be fitted that can carry Eurocrates above the panniers. I should perhaps add that it is not just children that can be transported on the rear of a Tern.
Talking to people who own and ride longtails, a consistent response is that it is more like riding a traditional bike than is the case with some other utility or cargo bikes. This is especially the case with the newer shorter wheelbase models.
Longtail Bikes; The new 2nd car?
The Tern owners I spoke with, all told me that they were not using them in any commercial way, but that they were a family alternative to having a second car. One had also cancelled a gym membership since getting their longtail. Another was using one for school runs, including in the rain, and shopping; as a deliberate attempt to reduce car use and contribute to lowering air pollution. Even if the cost of purchasing and just maintaining a second car is discounted; they estimate that the bike will pay for itself within two years. This includes third party bike insurance, annual service, depreciation and the cost of charging the battery. An unexpected consequence is that they now plan their shopping more carefully which has resulted in more savings.
Having said that, the blue Tern GSD above can be seen couriering documents around the City of London.
Is the Longtail Bicycle still “… a vehicle for social change”?
Whether you see them as utility bikes or cargo bikes, the original concept and purpose of the longtail has stood the test of time. It is still enhancing the life opportunities of people around the globe.
One example of that is Portal Bikes of Nepal. Portal is a U.S. based NGO supporting three organisations in Nepal: Portal Shelters, Portal Prefab and Portal Bikes. The first two are, following the 2015 earthquakes, providing shock-resistant shelters and buildings. Portal Bikes are providing employment through the building of the bikes. They then offer the bikes to those that have least. These are often on finance schemes, provided by Portal, that the recipient can actually afford with the repayments all going towards building more bikes. In many cases the bike forms the basis of a business which can then be used to support a family.
To make the bike even more versatile it can be fitted with a ‘power take off’, rather like an agricultural tractor. This innovation allows for a range of attachments to be fitted – currently a corn shucker and a (grain and bean) grinder are available. Initially the latter had me thinking more along these lines.
Clicking on the pictures above will take you to the Portal Bikes website. Should you wish to donate, click on the image below.
The founders of Bikes Not Bombs with their aim to “use the bicycle as a vehicle for social change” were not thinking of industrialised prosperous western democracies. The movement they started, however, led directly to the development of the longtail bike. As more countries are experiencing a degree of austerity, the growing levels of air pollution becomes more detrimental to human health, and the consequences of global warming are becoming more obvious; so, even in these countries, the longtail bicycle may become a vehicle for social change.
If you are interested in finding out more about Worldbike, click on either of the pictures below.
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