Longtail bicycles feature an extended wheelbase, placing the rider centrally between the wheels. This permits larger, heavier loads to be borne about the rear wheel than traditional bike designs.

  • Contenders: Xtracycle EdgeRunner Electric and Yuba Spicy Curry


    We now have two kinds of mid-drive longtail cargo bikes for you to try back to back: Xtracycle's EdgeRunner 9 and 10E, and Yuba's Spicy Curry. Heck, you could even buy either or both, yesterday.

    These represent a convergence of thinking in the upper echelon of the world's longtail cargo bike makers: all two of them. Xtracycle and Yuba are fierce competitors, so there's a certain tension discussing them side by side. So many toes in such a tight shoe. But the competition is fertile, the one company driving the other to ship better, first, or cheaper bikes and accessories. There's a whole lot of copying going on, too.

    Xtracycle pioneered the longtail cargo concept with the FreeRadical hitchless trailer. The FreeRad was a breakthrough product that proved hard to sell as great base bikes became hard to find, with too many conversions exhibiting too much flex to make good urban family car replacements. Yuba's founder left Xtracycle to make a complete heavy duty bike version, the Mundo. Xtracycle answered the challenge with a one-piece version of its own, the lighter weight EdgeRunner, lowering the center of gravity of the cargo area with a smaller rear wheel. Unsurprisingly, Yuba has followed with a smaller rear wheel and lighter weight on the new Spicy Curry.

    What's new to both companies' flagship models is the best kind of electric assist for cargo: mid-drive. This means that the motor doesn't power a wheel directly, but instead takes advantage of the same variable gearing on the bike that you do. It's a mechanically more complicated approach than hub motors, but decisively better when you need lots of low-speed torque as well as a decent top end.

    We've been personally involved using, breaking, inventing, patenting, manufacturing, refining, selling and promoting mid drives for longtail cargo bikes for almost 15 years in the form of our Stokemonkey product. There remain cases where Stokemonkey is the best approach, but suddenly now with both Xtracycle and Yuba offering mid drives as a factory option, those cases are much less common.

    So how do these two contenders compare? Here are our first impressions:

    Yuba Spicy Curry

    It's the bang-for-buck winner, or is at least poised to assume that position if its assist proves reliable. The drive unit, by volume leader Currie Technologies, is more powerful than that of the Bosch assist on Xtracycle's offering. It is lighter than an unassisted Mundo. It has a lower step-over than EdgeRunner, and an even lower rear deck. It is better fabricated and specced than earlier Yuba products, with more sensible features like lights and fenders included in the base price than EdgeRunner, even at $1500 less. The ride is very stiff and confidence inspiring: massive aluminum tubing braced every which way. The jury is out on the various modular accessories forthcoming, but Yepp seats pop right into the deck with zero fuss. The assist, while potent, is less refined in feel than that of the EdgeRunner, tending to be balky at low speeds and exhibiting a comparatively on-off quality at higher. Still, it's super fun, with almost universal rave reviews from early test riders.

    Xtracycle EdgeRunner 9E, 10E

    Sophistication. Xtracycle's products have long shown greater attention to detail, and a certain aesthetic cohesion lacking in Yuba's. This is no different. Everything about Spicy Curry is new to Yuba, while this is Xtracycle's third generation of EdgeRunner, and it shows. Are these differences -- each small but adding up -- worth $1500 or more? Depends on what's important to the rider. If you've been ambivalent about electric assist because you take pleasure and pride in your skill and strength on a bike, fearing that a motor would diminish this experience, then the Bosch assist on these EdgeRunners may win you over. It is by far the most refined electric assist we've yet experienced, nearly transparent, never making your skill and strength feel redundant, nor training you insidiously to pedal or shift differently just to coax more or less help out of the motor. Where the Spicy Curry's assist seems to come on full tilt whenever you're moving the pedals, simply sensing cadence, EdgeRunner's clearly is doing something more nuanced, apparently reckoning power from torque and cadence together, and complementing your moves like a good dance partner. It feels great.

  • Ride with Ross (Founder & CEO of Xtracycle)

    xtracycle edgerunner bosch

    Help Ross haul party accoutrements from New Seasons back to Clever Cycles and then celebrate the release of the new Electric Edgerunner.

    Watch Ross shop, ask Ross questions, help Ross pick out beer, wine, food and other refreshments and then load-up the bikes and haul everything back to Clever Cycles on a fleet of demo Electric Edgerunners. We'll be celebrating the release of Xtracycles's latest offering and our partnership over the years that has helped get so many cargo bikes rolling around Portland, Oregon and beyond.

    When: Sunday June 28th 2015 12-5pm

    Where: Clever Cycles SE 9th & Hawthorne

    We'll have a fleet of the new Bosch Edgerunners to test ride

    Free swag from Clever Cycles & Xtracycle

    Bring the kids and decorate your bike with goodies from the Xtracycle Sprinter van

    Snacks & refreshments between 4-5

    Let us know you're coming on the Facebook Event page

  • Xtracycle reinvents its own with EdgeRunner, and some backstory

    Starting today, we're thrilled to begin accepting orders for the first small production run of Xtracycle's new EdgeRunner longtail cargo bikes, due to arrive at Clever Cycles in early January. These, along with their whole 2013 product lineup, are the most exciting things we've seen in years at Interbike, the bike industry trade show in September. I'll tell you why below, but a test ride is worth more than a million words. We have a demo EdgeRunner; ride on over to try it!

    EdgeRunner is Xtracycle's boldest entry into the category they virtually invented over a decade ago with their FreeRadical hitchless trailer. Unlike the company's previous conversion kits and Radish package, EdgeRunner is a one-piece frame, offering a much stiffer, stronger, more refined ride. Alluringly designed in light resilient chromoly by multiple-NAHBS-winner (and world bicycle speed record holder!) Sam Whittingham, EdgeRunner's foremost technical improvement over otherwise similar longtails is a 20" rear wheel, which lowers the center of gravity of the load, and is stronger too. The smaller wheel also allows its axle to be further rearward than other longtails having the same overall length. The handling improvements of a load borne lower and more completely between the axles is hard to overstate. Finally, the smaller wheel produces more torque when electrified: EdgeRunner will come in an electric assist version!

    Alongside the new flagship complete bike, Xtracycle is also introducing completely new accessories called the Hooptie (which is a railing/monkey bar assembly to help passengers feel more secure), Stirrups (for little feet), UTube/RunningBoards (which provide foot support for even a second passenger in the aft position), and the SideCar (which is a sidecar, 250lbs capacity, crazy inexpensive). The bags and other key accessories have been made both better and cheaper too, so we'll be able to offer complete Xtracycles at unprecedented low prices in 2013. How about a complete folding Xtracycle for $999, the Cargo Joe? Next Summer, Xtracycle will introduce new longtail conversion kits called Leap 26 and Leap 29, cheaper, stiffer, and more broadly compatible than its original FreeRadical kits.

    Taken together, this thunderclap of new design work probably exceeds all previous Xtracycle development since 1998, when the company formed. Xtracycle has re-invented its own. So what happened? Well, as all this new work began, inventor and CEO Ross Evans got re-invented as a father! Carrying kids has always been one of many applications for an Xtracycle, but never before has the company shown such a tight focus on meeting the needs of families. We've practically raised our kids on the back of our Xtracycles, and we've set up hundreds of families with such setups over the years. As parents, Xtracycle's product line has never been more closely aligned with our core values, experience and vision for bicycles as everyday urban family transport.

    Xtracycle and Clever Cycles: the backstory

    Xtracycle's products have had an incalculable positive influence in our lives. Clever Cycles would not exist if not for this influence. I (Todd) have told the story in fragments over the seven years this site has existed, but never all at once. That whole tale is too long, but a summary will explain why we're so proud to lead Xtracycle's renewed charge into Portland.

    I bought what I'm pretty sure was the very first Xtracycle product sold in our then-home San Francisco, in early 2001. AUT_3612_2 I was a little skeptical about converting a nice bike into a franken-hauler with a new product that had yet to prove its bold promises, so I bought a $60 MTB to convert. I sold my cargo trailer 2 weeks later: it couldn't carry passengers. Soon I began to regret having underestimated the goodness of the Xtracycle FreeRadical by joining it to a crummy MTB, so I got a nicer one. I hauled groceries, and construction and brewing supplies on it, and my wife and mom and dad (not all at once), all over San Francisco, or at least the routes that wouldn't destroy my knees and grunting reserves. I think I was the first person to attach passenger handlebars to my seatpost on an Xtracycle.

    Everywhere we went, every 20th person would act as if struck by some soft lightning, either staring gape-mouthed, or shouting out to us in amazement that such things existed. I began to feel like a reluctant revolutionary, riding a magical unicorn of a bike. Why didn't every biking household have one? We'd never owned a car, but this completely cemented our belief that we'd never feel the need, at least as long as we lived in a city. We became pregnant: we were going to raise our kid car-free, and Xtracycles were going to be key.

    how we rolled in 2003, san francisco And then the bike got stolen. I was secretly happy to be able to convert a third bike as a replacement, because I was becoming obsessed with the handling differences across bikes elongated this way. The third one rode best yet: an old Specialized Stumpjumper Comp, Tange Prestige tubing, hot pink. When our boy was old enough to sit up, we put him in a Bobike Mini seat up front, and it was like falling in love all over again. (To this day, my favorite part of working at Clever Cycles is being able to witness toddlers' first rides on their parents' bikes.)

    We visited Amsterdam, neither the first nor the last time. Wandering around town before dawn, jet lagged, I watched the city wake up and get on their bikes. Glorious bikes! Every block had several of the new Bakfiets.nl Cargobikes parked out front in the rain, and there were even longtails! I came across a large kindergarten at opening time, just as many dozens of families converged on it on their bikes with 1, 2, 3 or more children aboard or alongside, some asleep, their breath steaming in December's late dawn air, fit happy moms and dads in their normal stylish clothes, doing their normal thing. Not a single car or bus to break the sound of laughter, bells, cheery greetings and leave-takings. Time stopped. It was so beautiful, so humane. When time started flowing again, I cried. Reluctant or not, I knew somehow I was going to help this become normal in my own country.

    The remainder of that trip, I analyzed how the bikes differed from Xtracycles, imagining a mutually beneficial harmonization of standards. Returning home, now reviewing my bikey life through Amsterdam goggles, I became sharply aware of how many more barriers there were to the magical unicorn Xtracycle becoming normal, at least in San Francisco. Apart from the fact that this city has the highest car density of any in America, the terrain made using the bike's amazing cargo capacity somewhat forbidding even to very strong riders. I was fit enough to do brevets, and had a 18-mile daily commute with hills and headwinds, but still I arrived many places pouring sweat, even in the city's cool climate. My knees hurt. I was tired, tired in a way childless people can't really know. I began to research electric assist systems.

    IMG_129I bought a crank-drive electric bike, hacked the gearing extra wide, and turned it into what I think was the first assisted Xtracycle, in 2003. We charged it from our solar array. It was kind of thrilling that it worked at all, but I can't say it worked well. It was nowhere near stiff enough to handle the whole-family loads its motor would help it move up steep hills. Still, I rode it several thousand fast fun miles before its drivetrain failed expensively in under a year, and I didn't bother to fix it.

    IMG_577 IMG_758.JPG I wanted to replace it with the ultimate (or at least the first) one-piece Xtracycle, with allowance for an assist system equal to any terrain. I got to noodling, literally making a model in perciatelli, tubular pasta. This project resulted in Xtravois, still in service 9 years later. I'm proud that my original "stretch mixte" profile has become dominant among the many longtails to have emerged in the years following from artisanal builders as well as companies Surly, Kona, Yuba, Madsen, Rans, Sun, and even Trek. But where was Xtracycle, the progenitor and rightful chief commercial beneficiary of this concept? The child was gestating, keeping its powder dry: BOOM.

    We had built seven Xtracycles in three sweet years when I got laid off from my tech job. Our suddenly crushing San Francisco mortgage catapulted us to a new home in Portland, already more bike and family friendly. And much flatter, and wetter, about 8 miles on a side just like Amsterdam. We were unsure exactly how we'd make a living, except that it would involve Xtracycles, assisted when necessary. Months later, this site began, presenting our once-and-future assist product for Xtracycles, Stokemonkey. A year later, on a warm afternoon installing the second Xtracycle of our friends the Mullins, Dean Mullin proposed "let's open a bike shop!"

    In less than a year from opening, Clever Cycles was selling more Xtracycles than any other shop, a position only recently ceded to others in hotter growth markets. Xtracycles are thick on the ground in Portland now, no longer magical unicorns. We couldn't be more proud.

    We've never let up in beating the Xtracycle drum, even as the range of family solutions we offer has broadened dramatically, still guided by timeless moments of vision in Amsterdam. Even before we opened, we were pleased to beta test the first commercial one-piece longtail, Surly's Big Dummy, and we sell those to this day. Just last year, we designed our own successor to the original Xtravois, featuring a 20" rear wheel. We're happy to be off the hook to manufacture this bike, because now Xtracycle has made it nearly redundant, much lighter, prettier, and less expensively than we could. Everything that rises must converge!

    With the arrival of EdgeRunner, it feels like a large circle is closing to begin again. "Edge runner" refers to the growth habit of certain mycelia, fungal bodies who run rapidly and hidden along the edges of plant life, plant death, and soil. Edge runners' function is to catalyze new growth by reclaiming nutrients from complex dead matter, even the sometimes toxic wastes of human industry. They break down the old into the new, enabling generational change. The name EdgeRunner, apart from being a middle name of proud father Ross Evans' beautiful boy, befits Xtracycle's original hitchless trailer concept most plainly, recycling MTBs for practical use, inspiring, firing up the imaginations of thousands of people like us to reclaim our cities from car dependence. The present complete bicycle, not being converted from old, runs ahead in a broader course prepared by the first generation, reaching out toward families for whom cargo bikes are no longer mainly emblems of sacrifice, craftiness, and revolt, but more of practical aspiration, refinement, beauty: fresh culture.

    Once again, we have a demo model available for test rides. There is no substitute for test riding; we gave up trying to describe how bikes handle, fit, climb etc, over email or the phone years ago. But we think they nailed this one. It's the smaller of the 2 available frame sizes, non-electric version. We have a Hooptie, SideCar, and prototype of the new X2 bag for your trial as well. Cost is $1999 for the bike, with complete deck/bag packages starting at $149. A 50% deposit secures your claim to a bike from our small first shipment, due early January.

  • Xtravois 2.0, our Oregon Manifest bike

    Have you read this article before? Jump to the Postscript describing event day.

    The bike Quixote Cycles and we are entering in the Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Challenge is a 20″-wheeled Xtracycle-standard longtail with a step-through, one-size-fits-most frame, and a large frame-fixed front rack incorporating a stand. It features also very clean Stokemonkey electric assist integration, including optimal battery stowage. What follows is a super geeky breakdown of the design, its background and rationale.

    A travois (trah-voy) is an A-shaped arrangement of poles, loaded near the crossbar with stuff, to be dragged along the ground by human or animal. It works better than a wheeled cart when traversing very rugged, brushy, or snowy terrain. A similar arrangement of straight twin-lateral tubes occurs in a mixte-style bicycle, where it permits a rider to step through the frame in a manner that enhances lateral rigidity with an isosceles triangle from head tube to rear axle.

    Our Constructor’s Challenge bike is a major revision of the travois-inspired elongated mixte I designed in 2003 called Xtravois. This was the first unified-frame rendition of Xtracycle‘s seminal hitchless trailer concept, a class of bikes now known generically as longtails, with variants now having appeared from numerous artisanal builders as well as companies Surly, Kona, Yuba, Madsen, Rans, Sun, and even Trek. Xtravois was the fifth Xtracycle owned by my household in just two years, and eight years later it is still in weekly, sometimes daily service. I’ve never stopped noodling improvements.

    Goals with the original bike were to improve upon the variable handling, stiffness, strength and aesthetics of Xtracycle’s retrofit extension approach, as well as to serve as a development platform for our patented Stokemonkey electric assist product, designed to let people living in the hilliest places take full advantage of these bikes’ cargo and passenger capacity. Goals with the present revision were to apply insights gained over a decade of personal longtail use and in having sold thousands of utility bikes at Clever Cycles since 2007. In addition to the minimum Constructor’s Challenge required feature set of lights, lock, fenders, stand, and cargo capacity, our feature list includes items often lacking or ill-executed in other longtail designs:

    1. A true step-through cross frame design, important for ease of use when wearing a skirt or passengers are seated in the rear, that at the same time improves upon the strength and rigidity of typical diamond frames.

      Cross frames, of which mixtes are a type, pre-date cyclocross, and deserve wider revival for utility bikes. In purest form (such as in Pedersens), they are composed entirely of straight, round tubes joined solely at their ends into triangles, with each member in clean compression or tension. Our use of 20″ wheels in an elongated format allows this approach to achieve a distinctive rigor and clarity, obviating the bent or shaped tubes, gussets, or other “remedial” complexities that larger wheel clearance, wheelbase constraints, or cosmetic fancy might compel. It’s probably the most rigid longtail we’ve ever ridden, and that’s beautiful.

      Our bike takes structural cues from the Locomotief unisex cross frame, produced in Amsterdam between 1936 and 1955 (still in use!), and also from the magnificent contemporary Filiduo (another view).

      Jonathan Reed‘s expert fillet brazing skills found ideal application here, far outside the norms of any available weld-friendly butted tubeset. With fillets able to build up the joints, relatively thin-wall chromium molybdenum steel tubing was used throughout.

    2. A sophisticated one-size-fits-most scheme, because utility bikes are frequently shared by a few household or business members. Universal sizing also enhances resale, production and distribution economics.

      This consists of a tall quill stem and the “Adaptive Seat Tube” embodied in Henry Cutler’s WorkCycles Fr8 line of transport bikes. Note that the very slack seat tube does not meet the bottom bracket, but instead the down tube some inches ahead. This results in the cockpit length varying greatly with saddle height, and the virtual seat tube angle varying the same way it would in a series of separate frame sizes, becoming steeper as the saddle is lowered. A rider of 5’1″ feels as comfortable as one of 6’6″.

    3. Moderately upright seating appropriate to the urban environments in which utility bikes are most viable, where comfort and the ability to see and be seen above car-top level trump the aerodynamic and “full body workout” rationale for bent-over postures.

      This means not just handlebars that are closer and higher than on bikes built for speed or distance, but a relaxed seat tube angle (below 70 degrees). Bringing the pelvis rearward restores some of the butt-muscle deployment that the uprightness compromises, and makes it easy to put a stabilizing foot down at stops without needing to lean the loaded bike. We find, perhaps counterintuitively, that matching heavy cargo with the high-power ergonomics characteristic of sport bikes (mainly seat tube angles in the 70s) results in a comparatively harsh riding experience: faster, yes, but still feeling all too slow and difficult, as if underscoring the gravity of the load. A lower-intensity, gentler, safer game of momentum management tends to win in miles per year what it may lose in miles per hour, with electric assist options becoming attractive as grades, loads, distances and speed requirements escalate.

    4. Flexible, balanced cargo distribution options — a good place to carry large heavy articles when the rear deck is occupied by one or more passengers, or simply full.

      In addition to the open-source Xtracycle-standard rear rack, deck and sling arrangement, this bike incorporates a massive frame-fixed front rack. Heavy loads on frame-fixed racks do not upset steering as with fork-fixed racks, but they require a large height difference between the platform and the handlebars to avoid interference; providing this clearance is another reason behind our choice of 20″ wheels.

      There are practical and psychological benefits to having a front loading option. When hauling your TV to the dump, for instance, loading it in the rear to one side will result in an awkwardly asymmetrical balance, while lashing it to the rear deck makes it harder to watch for narrow load clearances, unwanted shifting, and plasma leakage. The front rack is a sociable place for a large neurotic dog, too.

    5. A robust, extremely stable stand that can easily be deployed and retracted while straddling the fully loaded bike. Integral to the front rack, our double-point center stand is nearly 2′ wide and out of the way of cargo and drivetrain alike. A hasp allows the stand to be locked in deployment, rendering the bike incapable of being rolled or ridden, as a soft security mode.

      This feature is adopted from historical cycle truck designs as well as the aforementioned Fr8 series of transport bikes.

    6. Low center of gravity with low-trail steering, and rear-offset wheel for secure handling with the heaviest loads.

      The strong, 20″ wheels improve handling by accommodating a lower center of gravity of both the bike and its cargo. This makes the loaded bike easier to lean into turns, and also to right again. Not only can the racks be positioned nearer the ground while still clearing the wheels, the rear wheel is offset aft in the Xtracycle-standard rack subframe relative to the centered 26″-wheel norm, allowing more of the cargo to sit forward of the rear axle, minimizing the shimmy that afflicts some longtails. Moreover, the rear-offset wheel results in a shorter cantilevered support arm to the rear rack bridge, obviating the truss structures found in other longtails. Finally, a small front wheel accommodates a shorter, stiffer fork for most positive braking response.

      Low-trail steering refers to the lack of any tendency for the front wheel to “flop” to one side, chopper-style, pulling into turns or diving away from handlers while being walked. It results in handling that is less reactive to subtle weight shifts and imbalances, and moreso to direct steering input; this is complementary to the relaxed seat tube angle that leaves the hands unweighted for light, precise steering control. Low-trail steering is particularly critical for large loads borne on the front rack, as in addition to the rider’s weight (borne disproportionately on the front due to the long rear end) these loads provide leverage for the flop of higher-trail steering. Gone are the wobbly false starts, forced foot-downs, and low-speed instability characteristic of so many other cargo bikes. Our trail is below 30mm.

    7. Ready accommodation of Stokemonkey or other electric assist systems, with discreet large battery stowage neither impinging upon cargo capacity nor upsetting handling.

      While Stokemonkey was conceived as a retrofit kit, it is most elegant to incorporate its mount into the frame design. Sam Whittingham of Naked Bicycles found the sweet spot with a longtail its owner calls The Big Bum, and we’ve followed his lead placing Stokemonkey between the chainstays, low and out of the way.

      Yet another benefit of a 20″ wheel offset rearward in the Xtracycle rack frame is that it leaves a void between the racks in front of the wheel that’s ideal for battery stowage: low, centered, protected, and not competing for space with payload.

      Stokemonkey can be removed completely from the bike in a matter of minutes, as it replaces no otherwise critical components the way hub motors do. But should a hub motor prove desirable, the 20″ wheel format will help coax maximum torque out of it, as naturally cargo applications require.

    8. Little is more better. In addition to the rationale for 20″ wheels cited above is their inherently superior strength to weight ratio. The importance of strong wheels to a utility bike is readily understood, but the importance of lighter wheels sunk in while riding a 16″-wheeled bike with a camping load nearly to San Francisco last summer: they make the load feel lighter. Particularly when climbing, not having to accelerate large diameter, touring-tough tires with every pedal stroke made a huge difference to my knee pain problems. Our choice of supple, smooth, 2.35″ fat tires, together with the long wheelbase and unweighted-hands ergonomics, eliminates the harshness on poor surfaces that little wheels might produce in other circumstances.

    9. Components selected for effectiveness and minimal maintenance stored out of doors year-round, as oversize, heavier bikes for urban use frequently must be.

      • NuVinci N360 infinitely variable gearhub. 360% stepless gear range, shiftable under load, while pedaling or not. Expected 20,000-mile no-maintenance service interval. Chain tension is managed with an eccentric bottom bracket, permitting the use of disc-brake-friendly vertical dropouts aft.
      • Shimano IM-80 drum brakes, extra-potent in 20″ wheels, weather sealed, squeal-free and do not require regular pad inspection, adjustment, and replacement like most disc brakes.
      • B+M LED hub dynamo lighting, wired fore and aft. Twin headlamps fork mounted below the front rack give the bike a certain emotional something car designers have long exploited: a face. The efficiency and longevity of LED lamps means there’s no reason not to run them by day, too, for extra conspicuity.

    What’s this? A 40-year-old 20″-wheeled longtail with step-through frame, upright seating, fenders and a kickstand, still in family duty! From when Schwinn meant Chicago, awesome:

    Postscript Oregon Manifest: what an exhausting, emotional day!


    Our rider Diana and her adorable daughter Violet got off to a good start, loaded up with 60lbs of water for 50 miles of hills. Diana is a strong rider and proud of it, so she didn’t use the electric assist until hitting the steeps of the West hills, too steep to pedal with such a load, no matter how low the gearing. And that’s when the battery cut out. O no! She pushed the heavy bike and its very heavy load of very aggravatingly dead battery and more up, up, up in the hot sun. Began jettisoning water to other riders, as there was no electric-enabled boasting to do.

    IMG_1646Diana completed the course in good time in spite of our apparent best efforts to sandbag her with an oversize load and faulty battery. As sorry as I am to have forced Diana to prove just how very badass and tough she is, I’m deeply awed and humbled at how resoundingly she did, smiling, gracefully, though red-faced and clearly at an extremity. I’m perversely happy to settle for this outcome: a demonstration of amazing human power over technological perfidy. As Diana quotes Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” We didn’t cheat after all. We said we would bring a gun to this knife fight. She was it.

    There was no helping the battery on the course. IMG_1571 It came DOA from near Seattle the day before the event after a 7-cycle bench testing/conditioning regimen and UPS screwups. The manufacturer drove down to fix it, which we did until after midnight on my dining room table. Pronounced fixed, I rode it up Tabor in the middle of the night and called it good at 2:30am, hours before we needed to hand off the bikes. Little did we understand that the fix wasn’t good, an apparent self-discharging condition that meant it was dead by the time the event started. High-end batteries are fickle, treacherous creatures, people! This is one reason we stopped selling them for Stokemonkey long ago, referring customers to specialists. Even the best specialists aren’t always 100% reliable, though this case is anomalously bad. Some will seize on this episode as evidence of the folly of assist, but the correct inference is that there’s no substitute for shaking down your gear hard before entering a competition. Our particular assist works beautifully, even on this course with a passenger and camping load, except for those rare times it doesn’t work at all.

    Battery woes aside, the bike handled the loads live and dead beautifully at all speeds and on all surfaces. All required systems worked. Everybody’s who’s ridden the bike, likes it. Diana loves it. The bike did not rank in the winnings. The bikes that did, while absolutely meritorious in their own ways, confirm my earlier stated belief that there is a deep disconnect between the stated goals of the event and the evaluation criteria. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that true, deep innovation in bicycles and more “seamless integration” of critical features is a significant step toward bicycles being used in daily life by more people. And the bikes that won? Didn’t go far in those directions either. To maintain otherwise reveals a thin grasp of bicycle history. The winning bicycles may represent the future of bicycling, but that’s because they are so firmly rooted in bicycling’s past, too.

    Another entry that did not win, that I admire deeply is Ira Ryan’s very restrained, meticulous, classic red bike. He apparently didn’t even try to play to the evaluation criteria, instead calling the bluff, holding firm to the truth that really… can you seriously say there’s anything major lacking in what we have long already had? Ira’s bike, especially ridden by speedy Ira, says “get real.” Apologies if I’m putting words in Ira’s mouth; we haven’t spoken.

    I left the event by rolling out the bike, strapping my folding utility bike in the back, and heading into the still night of the industrial district. My mind raced with joy and regret mixed, spanked pride, gratitude for all the souls whose passions flowed together in acts of generosity and artifacts of beauty today (you are the man, Ross Evans… a list of people who helped would be too long, but I can’t not mention Ross). And damn if the bike didn’t ride well!

    I rode fast, feeling spent and wanting home. Shortly I came across Dave and Katie with their children Jasper and Kestrel, both under 2. Katie was changing one of them on her highly customized Yuba Mundo longtail bike. I love these guys, car-free parents by conviction. Dave rode his Brompton. I rode with them, slower.

    Kestrel began to cry in the wood carrier her father built, her dark eyes searching the dark sky as her mother pedaled her along the kinked trace of paint, signage, sidewalks and ramps that are the bike route. The baby’s crying obviated a bell to alert the people under the bridges and sometimes in the way of our passage. A more universal language of priority. A baby’s cries usually create stress, but now I delighted in this powerful soothing reconnection to the real, and in the measured easy pace of our big bikes. Along the river bank, as Dave and I talked dynamo lighting and Katie’s hips gently swayed Kestrel’s cries softer, and then silent, I felt my own stresses fall utterly away.

    It has been a great pleasure working with Jonathan Reed on this bike. His mix of modesty, expertise, wit, passion and patient diligence is rare and wonderful.


  • Oregon Manifest: our Quixotic collaboration

    This year’s Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge, 23-24 September, aims to coax into being “the ultimate modern utility bike” through a design/build competition. With high-caliber design teams joining top bicycle artisans and Levi’s® as a sponsor, the event will bring to widest attention a set of problems and opportunities near our heart.

    We have partnered with Jonathan Reed of Quixote Cycles to create such a bike, now in final stages of finish and testing, and are excited and grateful for the chance to show it in such company. At the same time, we have some misgivings about the format and evaluation criteria of the event, the way they seem likely to influence the results, and the public messages they may send about utility biking. Utility bikes are our life, passion, and livelihood, so naturally we consider any related promotional activity worth criticizing.

    An earlier published version of this post raised some hackles among interested parties as rudely critical in tone coming unhelpfully late in the long process leading to the event, and more seriously flawed in propagating false hearsay, rumor and innuendo, some undead from 2009′s inaugural event, such as that this might be another Rapha-flavored race-with-six-pack pretending to be something else, that child passengers and other large loads might be barred, etc. After reflection and discussion, we, or rather I, (Todd) acknowledge laziness in some of my thinking, immoderation in seeking to entertain, and I apologize sincerely for the bad feelings resulting among people whose goals we share. Keep reading for criticism, always meant constructively but this time better informed in head and heart.

    Mandatory OM entry features include:

    • Anti-Theft System
    • Fender System
    • Lighting System
    • Load-Carrying System
    • Freestanding Under Load (while parked) System

    Since almost all of the thousands of bikes we’ve sold since 2007 have met most if not all of these criteria, not as accessories but as integral features, we were intrigued by the emphasis on innovation in the program’s materials. Modern (and old) utility bikes incorporating such features in a high state of refinement are, in fact, quite normal in some parts of the world, increasingly including Portland. It will be some time yet, probably never, before most of the utility patents issued for bicycles in the 1890s come to market. Is it lack of innovation preventing utility bikes from becoming “the transportation mode of the future for millions of Americans who want to live healthier, more sustainable lives, but don’t think of themselves as ‘cyclists’”? We don’t think so.

    Having sold so many utility bikes to just such Americans (and just as importantly, having failed to sell many more), we think the main challenges are not design related as much as psychological and sociological. And to focus on design imperfections only reinforces the real problems: few are ready to acknowledge that the problem is us, in our sense of entitlement to effortless speed, in our alienation from our bodies’ evolved locomotive function and historical living patterns of proximity to daily needs. As Jonathan says, “the big shift we’re after is in the mind of the public, not the design of the vehicle.”

    We think the foremost obstacles to utility bicycles going from thousands to millions, to them replacing the 82% of all car trips in America that are less than 5 miles, are the false beliefs that bicycles can’t, needn’t, shouldn’t carry children and a household’s weekly groceries such distances, because bicycles are a youthful pursuit and American adults — parents especially — need to own cars anyway. And if bikes could or should be up to family duty, they would need somehow to be light enough to offset the weight of the cargo, their riders’ lack of physical conditioning, and to make them easy to lift onto car racks. And finally, useful bicycles need to cost less than bicycles designed to win races, because, well, utility bikes aren’t something grownups who can afford cars aspire to rely upon, right?

    It’s a quixotic challenge, countering such beliefs. Frankly, we don’t think any bicycle design innovation will pierce these and many more plates of interlocking car-cultural armor. Real progress will continue with independent-minded people tilting these windmills with tools already existing (if sometimes hard to find) to live better, defying and dispelling myths of inadequate design.

    Bikes can and will continue to evolve in small ways, tracking industrial design, process and materials development as well as the restless currents of fashion. Occasionally many small steps, most traced already in the past, will occur together and appear to be a leap. Striving for better is grand, but diminishing returns are the norm, and actual regression a too common result. (As when, for example, features are integrated in so design-school cool a way that they are not serviceable independently of more costly structures, nor interchangeable with current and future functional equivalents. Modularity is a more practical design virtue than what the organizers seem to call for with “each design element/feature should meld seamlessly with the entire bike.”)

    This is the same as it ever was since the bicycle’s big-bang Jesus moment in the 1880s when two roughly similar size wheels with pneumatic tires and an indirect pedal drive to the rear wheel came together in a triangulated frame to make what everybody still instantly recognizes as a bike. If it could speak, it would say “I have forgotten more than you will ever know.” Many other OM entrants have voiced similar opinions, describing as arrogant or futile briefs to reinvent the wheel.

    Oregon Manifest’s Field Test for the ultimate utility bike is not one or a series of 5- or 10-mile rides with a household’s typical loads, but a 50-miler at “a brisk pace” with off-road sections and steep grades, carrying… “a small bag of groceries, an oversized postal box, poster tube, and/or a six-pack of beverage containers.” Small stuff, maybe only a six-pack. Only flat-fixing tools may be carried. Time to the finish line may be recorded, but appearances to the contrary it’s not a race: no points for quicker finishes within the cutoff times to each control station. This is to help identify the design that will appeal to non-cyclists as practical transportation for everyday life?

    We think it is misguided to evaluate utility bikes in a test appropriate to sport bikes, such as any brisk, hilly, 50-mile ride with minimal cargo represents.

    Organizers affirm that the Field Test is no race, but an imperfect attempt to simulate the stresses of perhaps a month of normal riding in a torture test. Since riding fast is harder on a bike than riding slow, so much the better for culling weak entries. We acknowledge this rationale, and the honest difficulty of doing better in a single festive day rich in awesome, sweat-kissed, countryside photo opportunities.

    Snark aside, the Hawthorne effect refers to the influence of an act of measurement upon the things being measured. If the test for a bike meant to be ridden only 50 miles a month will be 50 miles in one go, fast and hilly, the kind of bikes offered up for testing will tend to skew toward what the test demands, not real-life use cases. If tests show that it is good to drink 2 glasses of water a day for a month, what about 60 glasses in 4 hours?

    This matters because a bike that is nearly ideal for the most accessible, low-intensity, short distance utility applications will tend strongly to suck for hilly 50-milers, and vice versa: bikes that are great for fast steep extended effort tend … not to be ridden day to day, least of all by the non-cyclists this competition ostensibly aims to innovate toward. There’s some crossover, of course. But we sell some brilliant, popular utility bikes meeting all entry criteria the likes of which would be extremely difficult if not impossible even to complete the OM Field Test while bearing the loads for which they are designed. Thus the test effectively excludes design approaches of great demonstrated utility, favoring instead those of the same old, vastly overplayed sport-oriented priorities. If we’re touchy about this, it’s because every single day we talk to casual or non-cyclists ostensibly interested in a utility bike for daily errands, but who balk at features that would likely make the bike unpleasant or impossible to ride 50 hilly miles.

    Bicycles are frequently superior to motorized transport over urban distances. But over 50 miles, for the vast majority of humanity their relative slowness will always make them vehicles of recreation, duress, or the mix that is sport. Those non-cyclists, what do you think they might make of this challenge? These many people who do not know, and might even be terrified of the truth that they actually can ride a bike 10 or even 50 miles? Will they trace in the smiles and grimaces of the torture test riders hope that any day now, the bike that will integrate seamlessly into their modern lifestyle will be invented? Or will they dis-identify, recoil further from the dramatic spectacle these sweaty riders present? Are we overthinking?

    More troublesome than the distance and terrain for a utility bike is the lack of meaningful cargo. It’s not about a six-pack of beer versus water versus a poster tube, a melon or a dozen eggs: it’s about all of those things being almost nothing. Even the most non-utilitarian triathlon bikes can be fitted with 72-oz aerodynamic hydration systems, or pull well-designed trailers to carry much more.

    Since every bicycle can carry its rider and a little bit of almost anything, every bike is a utility bike to an essentially meaningless extent. As Kierkegaard said “When all are Christians, Christianity eo ipso does not exist.” We feel strongly that meaningful utility in a bicycle is almost entirely linear with cargo capacity, to the extent that it remains otherwise attractive to use in daily life conditions. More isn’t always better, of course, but if there’s a problem in general with bikes in America being not useful enough, it’s that they can’t carry enough, well enough. And the Field Test doesn’t test this seriously.

    We know the test will be fun in the way any athletic event is fun, but fun also in the opportunity to challenge the biases inherent in its conception. We can’t show our bike to best advantage with only the cargo required. Therefore, our Oregon Manifest bike will complete the 50-mile course carrying in addition to the little stuff six twelve-packs plus a little girl, a payload weighing about 5 times what we expect may be the lightest entries. The bike will be heavy, but more to the point, we guess the lightest in relation to its payload of all entries. It will be ridden by the girl’s car-free mother, whose broken thumb is in a cast (may be a splint by Field Test day).

    Her name is Diana Rempe, and she has ridden an early Portland-made Metrofiets cargo bike with her daughter and groceries aboard for years. She, and people like her represent the social innovation and inspirational example that transform not just industries, but societies. She’s the secret weapon. She’ll wear a skirt, sit upright, and she just might cross the finish line early.

    Our strategy? Cheat. Diana is strong, and no stranger to racing, but to reset the tare after shouldering a proper utility bike load, our entry integrates our Stokemonkey electric assist system. To our thinking utility is about pragmatism, about the bike’s ability to bear loads gracefully instead of the athleticism of the rider. Besides, it’s not actually cheating except in the minds of the pure. Our entry remains legally a bicycle, breaking no contest rules. Because it’s not a race.

    The point is certainly not that electric assist is essential to a modern utility bike, nor even often desirable. But neither is the ability to haul big weight over 50 miles with hills alongside people carrying almost nothing on far less substantial machines. We feel compelled by the structure of the event to show a more elaborate solution than we would recommend for most common real-life scenarios, at least in the flattish bike-estuarial calm of inner Southeast Portland. We’re not in the sporting goods industry. We wouldn’t even show up for a spandex knife fight. But if forced into that ring, we’ll bring a gun.

    In spite of all the critical opinions expressed above, we wouldn’t be participating in this event if we weren’t confident that great good can come of it, far broader good than our narrow, biased perspective as Portlanders, parents, sellers and users of utility bikes permits us now to understand. We can’t wait!

    Coming shortly before the event: full disclosure of our design. It has some innovative bits, even, but is mainly a novel conjunction of existing design elements: 5 or 6 old stones bringing down a dozen birds.

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