Riding The Spine

Xtracycle: Sport Utility Bicycle Review :

 

      I first encountered an Xtracycle about 7 years ago at the annual Friends Of the River gathering/swap meet. I was wandering around the warehouse, past piles of used life jackets, rafts and coolers, and had paused to try my hand at distance life-line throwing (trying for a bucket about 40 feet away) when some one rode past me on a bike. This in and of itself was a little unusual, being that we were indoors at a river rafting convention, but the minor peculiarity of the event would have passed unnoticed (river folk are prone to such things) except for the singular and striking fact that this cyclist was carrying a kayak! Or rather, that his bike was.

      Being a biker and proponent of car-free living, l was immediately intrigued. I didn’t follow right a way, (l was occupied with rope throwing) but l meandered in the wake of his passage, and was rewarded with a slightly larger than normal business card which contained, inscribed in red ink, the following message:

     

Xtracycle

Sport Utility Bicycle (S.U.B.)

Be A Good Buterfly

http://www.xtracycle.com

     

      This l stuffed in an already over-loaded pocket and wandered off in search of free Odwalla juice…

      A year later I moved to Santa Cruz and faced with the reality of bike commuting, quickly saw that l needed a “truck”. Remembering the bike at the F.O.R. gathering, I found (re-discovered) the long neglected “dreamcard” and made the second “big” purchase of my life (the first had been buying power tools before leaving for college).

      My “Freeradical” arrived almost instantly (a day and a half after ordering)Thus starting a 6+ year relationship with Xtracycle.

      I won’t say that having an SUB instantly changed my life, but that wouldn’t necessarily be too much of an exaggeration. Suddenly, l could carry anything on my bike, and let me repeat: anything. In course of the next few years, I picked up hitch-hikers, carried groceries, tools, camping gear, musical equipment (including multiple power amps), propane tanks, 20ft lengths of lumber, school books and a myriad of other quirky things. In short everything that l might have otherwise needed a motor vehicle to transport. Thanks to my Xtracycle, biking became my main form of transportation. It allowed me to carry almost anything, almost anywhere, and a lot of this riding/hauling was necessarily on dirt & single track. It was incredibly liberating to be able to blast through tight single track with an Army-surplus foot locker strapped to each side of the bike, or to ride my bike to the beach carrying a friend and their surfboard. I have happily ridden an Xtracycle equipped bike for the last 6 years.

WHAT IT IS??

The Xtracycle Free Radical is a revolutionary idea – a trailer that is part of the bike; ie no linkage, no extra wheels, no cumbersome appendage pushing you down hill, tugging as you struggle up hill, and resisting your steering. The Freeradical is a frame extension, that bolts on to the rear end of a regular bike frame, and moves the rear wheel back 2 feet. Creating space for spacious expandable open-ended panniers (Freeloaders) and a platform (Snapdeck) strong enough to carry passengers, all without sacrificing the feel and flexibility of riding a bike. The long wheel base has the additional benefit of a low center of gravity, creating increased stability. Which means that not only is there room for passengers and/or lots of cargo, but you can comfortably ride with it, even mountain bike. There are of course some trailers, notably BOB and ExtraWheel, which allow mountain-biking, but not with the impunity of an Xtracycle – imagine for instance the impossibility of catching air while towing a trailer, something l do when ever possible with my Xtracycle (just because I can).

Xtracycle

How It Handles

      The extra length does have some less fortunate side effects: a SUB has a harder time clearing obstacles (like logs) and is more prone to hitting the chainrings/bottombracket than a regular (short-wheel-base) bike. Turning is also a little different, slower and a bit less responsive than a conventional bike(but much more responsive/mountain-bike-able than riding with panniers). The length of the Xtracycle forces the rider to turn with their hips/body more than with the bars, which isn’t really a bad thing – you get used to it quickly, and it actually improves your riding. And the long wheel base/low center of gravity, make an Xtracycle equipped bike immensely more stable/steerable than a bike with (front and rear) panniers – no weight on you front wheel resisting your attempts at stearing.

DETAILS

      The FreeLoaders (bags) are quite ingeniously designed so that once familiar with the system you can fit almost any load, and stow the bags compactly when you don’t need them. The newest model has some significant improvements: The bags now include zippered and Velcro closing pockets and expandable mesh end-nets to keep small things from falling out, while still allowing long and oddly shaped objects to be carried.

FreeLoaders

      Unfortunately, the updated model did away with the hypalon (rubberized nylon fabric – used for rafts and waterproof bags) which had originally formed the interior (towards the wheel) part of the bags. Hypalon is much more durable and waterproof than the cordura nylon they now use and the bags get holes more readily from rubbing on the frame. Also when the road is wet, the fabric leaks water (sprayed by the tires) into your cargo.

      Every The Snapdeck (wooden top part) seems to have deteriorated in quality in recent years as well – I have had the same Snapdeck for more than 6 years, and it is in remarkable shape given that it was stored out doors in a costal climate for it’s entire life, while Jacob’s deck is already de-laminating and he has had it for only about 5 months. This slight deterioration in quality appears to coincide with a fairly large price increase, and manufacturing being moved to Taiwan, all of which makes a long time Xtracycle supporter a little bitter. Their product is still quite excellent, however, as is their customer service.

Snapdeck

CUSTOMER SERVICE

      I have had my Xtracycle for a long time, and use it quite heavily, probably more so than most people, and have managed to break three Freeradical frames. The first was due to a legitimate manufacturing error (bad weld), the second to overuse/overloading (they are rated to 200lbs), and the third presumably to the rigors of mountainbike touring. Each time Xtracycle replaced my frame with no questions asked, within days. They have also been exceptionally helpful and supportive throughout our journey: giving us discounts on equipment, and shipping replacement parts to obscure post offices – as touring takes it’s toll on things like buckles and kickstands.

      Xtracycles are not designed or marketed for long distance touring, but they rise to the challenge quite well. Suffering only minor malfunctions caused by the repetitive stress of carrying the same load all day every day for months on end.

      Minor malfunctions, except that we have managed to break two Freeradical frames in the course of our trip – the breaks were easily repaired because the frames are steel (readily welded), and Xtracycle promptly sent replacements, but it did shake our faith in the product’s long term durability a little (3000 loaded mountain miles is more than most users will ever ask of their Xtracycles, but we were 60 miles from assistance…) The most vulnerable part of the system is (in my opinion/experience) the attachment points – simply because the Xtracycle bolts on. Three of the four Xtracycles (and one bike frame) l have seen brake have fractured at these points.

      Realizing this (I think) Xtracycle has formed a partnership with Surly to create a dedicated long wheel base frame (called the Big Dummy) for heavy duty applications like long-term mountain-touring. An exciting development for us, combining as it does the best of both worlds, modular cargo carrying capability of the Xtracycle system, with the strength, stiffness and stability of a purpose built frame (especially a Surly). (Although, almost unbelievably, you still have to buy the Freeloders and Snapdeck (about $200), after spending $750 on the frame.)

The Big Dummy

      In conclusion Xtracycles are an amazing innovation, an indispensable aid for car-free living, and are great for touring (much more versatile and less cumbersome than using trailers or panniers), especially if you don’t want to limit your self to pavement. They are worth the (fairly hefty - $400) price – you WILL ride your bike more often and be able to do more with it. And your SUB comes with a life time of unbeatable customer service.