Longtail Vanilla #1

Sacha White of Vanilla here in Portland builds drop-dead gorgeous bikes. From a distance, most look like they could have been built twenty to fifty years ago; from three feet to inches away they are simply startling in elaborate, sensuous detail, integrating the best new bike technology with timeless design sense and unbelievable craftsmanship. His talent is incandescent. He’s barely thirty. Where’s he going?

Sacha and his family — wife and two kids — are car-free. They require uncommonly practical bikes. Naturally, this led them to take an interest in Xtracycles, and they’ve been riding one for months now. Seeing our family getting around on Xtravois might have hastened the inevitable:

I’m severely flattered that he too chose a mixte-like construction.

Sacha built this longtail as a wedding present for his assistant Ben. That meant improvising speedily after hours, and the night and fog of secrecy introduced some modest errors he points out too quickly. He and Ben finally let me photograph and ride it nevertheless.

Ben’s a very lucky man. This is the lightest, most comfortable longtail I’ve ridden yet, at least unladen. Single-speed pending a little work, upright, sprung and softened with air, steel, leather and cork, it just floats over the harsh old concrete and basalt streets, up curbs, over the grass, dreamy. Perhaps more importantly, it looks like an object of burning crazy love instead of cool dull utility; it erases the line. That kind of genius just might save us.

19 thoughts on “Longtail Vanilla #1”

  • AC

    Could a mixte longtail be made more stable with some kind of cross stabilization?
    Maybe an X — left chainstay to right seatstay, left seatstay to right chainstay?

    Or would this be misplaced in terms of where frame flex occurs?

    It’s great fun to watch the evolution of the longtail design. A lot of people might
    not think to modify their bike, or might be apprehensive about doing it “wrong.” A
    purpose-built longtail would ease those fears.

  • Vanilla goes long with new Xtracycle frame…

    There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Xtracycle, the company that sells kits to convert bikes into longtail, cargo-hauling machines. Besides besides a great company with a solid product, much of the recent excitement has revolved around the ne…

  • Allan

    Beautiful. I like the direction Sacha took it. It is a Mixte through and through. Seems a family/grocery hauler more than a “cargo” bike. Lends to a more light and elegant aesthetic.
    As Todd attests, the ride characteristics match the look.
    Again, beautiful!

  • Allan

    Oh, and please, please how about some shots without the bags? Anyone that knows anything wants to see the whole rear triangle! :-)

  • Bill Manewal

    Yes, Allan, bagless shots would be nice.
    I’m impressed with Surly’s approach, i.e. having the rainbow arch to reinforce the back part of the frame. My Xtracycle fractured just behind the lugs (replaced promptly under warranty!). I’ve since beefed up my frame by running stainless aircraft cables and turnbuckles from the bottom rear to the top front of the rear frame on each side.
    See here:


    And I’ve also had thoughts along the lines that AC wrote about: brazing on a horizontal X brace across my Instigator’s chain stays. But in actuality, the current rig is stable enough even with heavy loads that I haven’t felt the real need to carry this out. If I ever want to do it, I thought of first clamping the X brace in place with u-bolts to prove the concept before brazing that lovely frame. Of course such a move would just add to the frankenstein nature of my ride as opposed to the svelte mixte frame above. But there’s something to love even about monsters, when they work so well!

  • Julian

    Holy smokes, that’s pretty.

    And holy smokes, a single speed cargo bike. I bet it’ll be a real workout for uphills and accelerating from a stop while loaded.

  • Todd

    AC, my thoughts about flex are in flux. Stiff is mostly good, but not always, especially if getting it involves lots more material (=heavy). My Xtravois is quite stiff and heavy. Heavily loaded, it feels really good. Unloaded, it’s still pretty good, but a bit like an empty schoolbus. I suspect that the tires don’t stay in quite as secure contact with the ground at speed over rough stuff as they would if the frame were more supple. Going back to regular retrofit Xtracycles, I kind of appreciate the lighter whippiness. The Xtracycle people did a really good job; they made good compromises in this area.

    It’s an old bike design problem: how to accommodate some vertical compliance without introducing too much torsional and lateral flex, while keeping the whole structure light and strong? Really fat supple tires are an easy way. 2.35″ Big Apples are great.

    The trouble case with some retrofit Xtracycles is when climbing or accelerating with a heavy load, when the rider is more likely to need to stand and mash rather than spin. The bike can twist rather severely, with the load acting like an inverted pendulum. Learning to move your body around the bike instead of rocking the bike in this situation is important. I’m guessing that the Vanilla bike, right now, doesn’t fare too well in this scenario either. I’m also guessing that Big Dummy errs on the stiff/heavy side. Both bikes are prototypes, though.

    Stokemonkey changes my perception of the problem a bit, because as long as you’ve got juice, you never need to stand and mash; you can spin up anything with most any load, so paradoxically you can get away with a much more compliant/lighter frame than you’d want without power assist for similar duties. For example, with assist I prefer the lighter, more supple Super Monkey (based on Surly’s Karate Monkey frame) to my own heavy-duty Xtravois. Without assist, I think I might prefer an extra-beefy setup, more like an Instigator conversion.

  • Todd

    Allan and Bill, the Vanilla bike has the same cantilevered rear bridge tube as the FreeRadical, with presumably the same weight/strength compromise. I agree that the Surly truss looks like a smart address of the problem.

  • Allan

    Todd, thanks for the design discussion.

    I’m starting to modify my own way of thinking as well. I’m backing away from wanting a bike that can easily and regularly haul 200+ pounds of cargo to wanting one for 50-75lbs.

    I’m beginning to think it is about the space, not the capacity: Volvo Station Wagon vs Chevy Crew Cab pickup. So to speak. But, boy do I have a soft spot for those old 3+3′s with a full size pick-up bed. :-)

  • Allan

    One more thing, regarding torsional flex vs. supple ride trade-offs. I am inclined to think the Mixte design, with widely spaced lateral tubes, is the proper solution. And that’s what makes Sacha’s design so immediately beautiful… form follows function, the sub-conscious knows.
    Just don’t over-do it on the guage. :-)

  • tricky coyote

    I notice the interrupted Front Bridge. Is this for a shorter wheelbase, or to accomodate a bigger tire? If the former, I wonder how it shifts the load further behind the axle rather than between?

  • Todd

    tricky, that’s one of the errors i mentioned. it’s actually two — the initial way-too-short rear, followed by a compromised correction attempt. the metalwork is so handsome you’d think it was all by design. both bridges and the bottom bracket are also way too high. these are among the reasons it took so long to get photos; vanilla’s not the kind of outfit that lets such mistakes out the door. but see, it’s not out the door; this was a gift among shopmates, and i’m pretty sure we’ll see more mature realizations before long.

    having run into such difficulties with his own expert hands, sacha told me how much more impressed he was with the FreeRadical, and I’ve felt the same about Xtravois — best way to appreciate something is to try to improve it!

  • uroburro

    .02 cents on flex:

    My current running configuration is a Kona Dew Deluxe, which is not particularly a lightweight frame, with Xtracycle and 50-100lbs of cargo (SM + stuff). If a_sport_utility bike is the goal, this configuration is too whippy. Sporty here meaning the ability to deliver/withstand high-performance, as well as load-carrying capacity.

    Travelling at 20+mph with those loads, the bike’s torsional flexion while cornering begins to feel like 2 separate bikes; the rear wheel tracks at a sigificantly different rate than the front. This is particularly pronounced while negotiating a bumpy corner, where the backend begins to dictate the path through the corner by hopping over bumps and swinging through the air, however briefly, inducing a whip-like motion to the front-end. This means that the bike can alternately oversteer or understeer, depending on how the rear wheel attempts to negotiate the turn. I suspect this is due to the front-heavy nature of this X-conversion, combined with a fairly significant amount of rear-weighting. The unpredictability reminds me of the older rear-engine Porsche’s.

    I guess it all comes down to the goals of the designer and buyer. A leisurely cruiser with cargo-carrying capacity will probably not be the same design as a true sport-utility bike. Sign me up for the latter, while I look at and admire the former.

  • Aaron Goss

    While I appreciate the dual “chainstay” design, the frame looks weak, and will certianly fail
    under heavy load use in time. For grocery getting, it looks fine. However, shortening the
    chainstay length takes away from the ride of an Xtracycle.

  • Todd

    Aaron, I was surprised at the lightness of the structure around the interrupted front bridge too. But I think it’s too early to disparage as weak; it’s a work in progress. And it’s a kick to hoist and ride an Xtracycle/longtail so light. I don’t know for sure, but it felt to be within a few ticks of 30 pounds, maybe well under. That’s pretty interesting even if it might not be suited to hauling adult passengers for decades. Sacha does a lot of cyclocross and touring frames so I know he gets the strength/weight issues. Still my strongest impression of the novelty this frame represents is a clean beauty and builderly finesse seldom seen in “cargo bikes.” I think that’s important to how such bikes are perceived and adopted on a wider scale; great engineering isn’t enough.

    A long time ago I asked Xtracycle’s product manager why the stays of the FreeRadical rear of the front bridge were curved instead of straight — wouldn’t it be stronger and lighter if straight? And the answer was basically that it looked unsexy straight. Since then I’ve looked upon the freerad as a sculptural object to admire. The curves also serve as emergency footrests and supports for the footsies, which function is served in the Surly design by separate arced tubes welded on to the straight stays. Which is really more functional?

    About those chainstays. Xtravois has a round boom between the bottom bracket and the front bridge. The Surly design has an ovalized tube. Sacha’s got twin stays much like a regular bike. My intuition suggests that round is best at resisting torsional, and twin stays best at resisting lateral flex, with ovalized somewhere in the middle for a given material weight. I think twin stays are prettiest paired with the double tubes above.

  • Allan

    Regarding boom tubes and torsional vs lateral flex: on tandems (which are not the same) the flex in the boom is almost entirely of the lateral variety. The captain’s pedaling causes the timing chain to pull the two bottom brackets together. This can even be seen: the timing chain’s shadow will show visible slackening with each power-stroke when pedaling up a mongo hill. The ‘whippy’ feeling stokers complain of on lesser tandems is not addressed in any meaningful way by a round boom tube. If the bottom brackets were actually twisting relative to one-another, one would have the timing chain binding, not slackening.

    Yet Cannondale used huge, round boom tubes. What was the net effect? Probably not much difference in ride, but a lot of wasted material. All this is a long way of saying, one has to be careful making judgements. Things that look stong aren’t necessarily so. The last 30 years of tandem development have left a lot of good-looking ideas by the way-side. Long-tails are some 6 years old. I reckon there’ll be a false start or two. :-) I’m glad there’s so many players taking to the field.

  • no one knows me here
    no one knows me here January 20, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Hi guys. I am watching and listen to this discussion with great interest and love the lines of the mixte longtails. I am sorry to the builders but I think the Surly Big Ugly, sorry, Dummy (unfortunate name, unfortunate) is one of the worst looking bikes I have even seen from either an aesthetic or an engineering point of view. In truth, I don't see that it has a engineering point of view. Its a lash up.

    I have ridden a Marin + Xtracycle 365 for a couple of year nows and, having done my initiation with insane loads, have now settled down to realise what I use it for and a lighter frame design would be fine. I really liked the look of your Xtravois and Vanilla has just now caught my eye.

    A request for 'open source' drawings on the web please ... or at least some drawing with problem/advantage items pointed out.

    A couple of questions/observations;

    a) why would one NOT want to make a ride as short as possible? Surely this is going to strengthen the rear end stop lateral (?) flex.

    b), I note what you say re bottom bracketing being too high. Used to road bikes, I find this with the Marin already and would like to go up to 700c on it, at least on the front. I only ride on tarmac and would like a less aggressive ride.

    Would it be possible to have the seat tube extend downwards below the chain stay to hold the bottom bracket shell, as on some consumer model bicycles (mostly cruisers/shoppers)? I don't know the name of this. The X would also allow for the third down tube of a classic mixte frame.

    My background is actually as a reformed biker (motorcyclist) and I am loving the lines of these frames. They are exactly like the 'classic' hard tail chopper frame and I reckon you frame builders could learn a little about finishes and details from looking at chopper design, e.g. on the Xtravois, the rear upright could be curved to follow the line of the wheel not straight.

    Just a word on the Muirwood, if ever it comes up. I cannot recommend it for use with an Xtracycle and would actually actively warn off it. The dropouts (?) are deeply recessed and interfere with the chassis of the Xtracycle. I bought a bike for specific use with an Xtracycle and wanted a steel frame and the shop put it all together but did not tell me or point this defect out.

    I am not entirely sure how much contact I have with the tophats going on down there. Was worried to begin with and always promised to go down with an angle grinder once the bike got older and "fix" things. Then, as I did not die, forgot about it. but is it still a concern, hence my interest in custom built frames.

    As an aside, I also do not appreciate the X's flat metal bracing brackets and cutting 'U-extension' onto tube where it joins the frame. Perhaps you or they could offer some machined spacers to fit narrow cross tubing? It could be more elegant. Again, I am waiting until I do a strip down to see how much damage is done by that painted metal to painted metal join ... which is bound to rust and lead to fracture at some point.

    Other wish lists are a fender busting, single hard/dry case storage container that could fit onto the mounting posts of the X ... or a frame to build the likes around ... or a box to fit in the space between the frame and the X which fitted onto the old brake bosses. I mount my U-lock there right now but it a great waste of very central space and it would be nice to have a little secure tool container etc.

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