Friday, April 1, 2011

longtail cargo bikes: they rule

In the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly, publisher/editor/main writer Jan Heine undertook a test of the Surly Big Dummy, the longtail cargo bike that has become almost ubiquitous around Portland and other bike-friendly cities.

Jan rode the bike with several loads of cargo, including boxes of mail and on another ride with his children riding on back. In every case he mostly didn't like the ride. It was slow, it didn't carry big loads well, and the frame was too flexible for his liking.

To be fair, Jan is an engineer by training and a lifetime bicycle rider and enthusiast. He has extensive experience as a racer and randonneur, and has tested hundreds of bicycles over the years. What he has to say about bicycle design is often spot-on. But sometimes, Jan's bias towards front-loading bikes -- those sleek, French-designed "Porteur" bikes with the big front racks and fork rake designed to require a front load over the axle just to stabilize the handling -- shows in his opinions. I would say that's the case with his review of the Surly Big Dummy, a rear-loading, longtail cargo bike whose geometry is decidedly not influenced by French constructeurs.

Let's be fair also to the design of the Surly. Lots of BD owners have figured out all sorts of ingenious ways to extend the cargo capacity of the bike, either by the way they load the cargo on or by adding pieces to the framework to accommodate larger or oddly-shaped items. Lots of BD owners haul stuff all over town -- including up and down some significant hills -- with virtually no problem at all. About the only thing objectionable about this bike, in my opinion, is the name "Big Dummy", which I think was a bad idea. But I'm happy with the bike's performance:

out with the old

out with the old

(Both photos taken December 2009)

I think that if you're going to haul big loads by bicycle you simply have to adjust your relationship with "speed" and embrace the fact that the bigger the load, the slower the ride. No problem.

Happy riding, wherever you head this weekend.


Richard said...

That is SO Portland. :)

slow rpm said...

Good point about the 'Big Dummy' name,BLJ.I feel the same way about those 'dummies' books. What are they saying? That you have to be a dummy to read them?Anyways,it looks like a mighty fine bike to me.Are they American made?



orc said...

And it's not as if a longtail is that much slower than a bobtail; I find that my trek 1000 xtracycle has a cruising speed of a little less than a mph than my bobtail. Sure, it's a hour difference over a 200km loop, but that's a edge case which most people will never see.

I'd suspect that one thing that racy people might not like about a longtail is that if you stand and step on the gas the rear wheel will happily break loose and just spin. I see that all the time on hills.

bikelovejones said...

Ian -- sorry for the slow response.
All Surly framesets are made in Taiwan. Surly offers a complete, built-up version of the BD with disc brakes. Most folks prefer to buy the frameset and build to their own spec. (My BD has V-brakes and pure friction shifting).

Vik said...

Here's my Ode to the Surly Big Dummy: