I’ve written a bit about my plan to transition from carrying my daughter on the front of a cargo fixie to carrying both her and my young son on a longbike, and that project is finally on the road. I’ve condensed the research, initial build and corrections into a single post, and I’ll post again in a while after I’ve gotten more miles on this beast and resolved some additional concerns. But overall, it’s been pretty great.
Longbike Considerations: The first thing I want to mention is one of those obvious things that you really only think about after you find them in practice. Long bikes are long. And heavy. I knew both of these things conceptually, but it took some adjustment on my maiden voyage. More on that at the end, but suffice to say, this is not the kind of riding one might be used to on a normal commute, recreational ride, what have you. That said, when you’re carrying cargo, or kids, or both, you can’t really mash along with reasonable control anyway, and I’ll tell you, the front loading on Rapscallion (with my near 3 yr old, her seat, the front Gomoh rack, two bags of groceries including wine) was VERY tricky to handle in dicey situations, so I figured the days of zipping along with her easily were over. I had a long run of being able to do some pretty barrier-free rides with her on the front, but eventually she got just heavy enough to warrant a change. What really drove the project, however, was the desire to carry both kids at once. That’s a trailer (which kids fall asleep in) or a longbike. So! The compromises associated with a larger, heavier bike are worth the function. Frankly, aside from the fact that any additional material on a bike will increase weight and change ride dynamics, the fact is you WANT a ride carrying heavy cargo to be both longer wheelbase and heavier for a lower, stable center of gravity.
The Bike: I started with a Cannondale 29erTrail4 which I got a great deal on. I decided to use a 29er out of curiosity, so I could technically have one outside of this project. It would require some adapting and converting to make the Xtracycle Free Radical work, but I was down for the crime*. I reviewed that bike here, being the first factory bike I’ve purchased since about 1999, and in general, it is what it was supposed to be: a rugged, clean, aesthetically pleasing 29er with disc brakes and entry level parts. Based on this build experience, I have some additional caveats on that review, about the durability of the components, but overall it was still a great investment. I got to ride it up Tam shortly before building Longjohn (you know, all my bikes and their villainous names) and man, it was fun! Not the lightest bike by a mile for this type, but you pay for that accordingly.
The Free Radical: I didn’t use the Free Radical Family Kit from Xtracycle, per se, but built it up from component parts such that I could have Zoe on their to start, and then add Matteo’s seat in a few months. I got the Xtracycle parts from biketrailershop.com who were great, once I called to ask some clarifications on the order. They walked me through some recommendations based on prior experience (use 4 Whatchamacollars, not 2) and I was good to go. Sadly, the stuff arrived much more quickly than I anticipated, and I wouldn’t have time to actually build for another three weeks, so the parts haunted me in the shop.
29er Adaptation: So a 29er Xtracycle conversion is not officially supported by Xtracycle themselves. Based on their refusal to answer questions about it, I strongly suspect they are cooking a 29er compliant version of the Free Radical. In any event, I read a few build reports from others that have tried it, and collected some notes about what would be required. For one thing, the Xtracycle is currently 26-inch mountain, or 700c road, compliant, but not 29-inch mountain. What that means in basic terms is that the size of the 29er rim, combined with the brake used, won’t work with the frame as it ships. The Free Radical ships with standard disc brake mounts for a 26-inch wheel, and you can get an adapter for caliper brakes if using a 700c road or touring bike wheel. The 29er is an ungodly mix of both. The size of the rim pushes the brake placement way out from where it normally mounts on the frame, so an adapter plate is required. You are also limited in tyres. Your typical 29er tyre has no hope of fitting. I thought it was the TOP clearance, and was going to experiment with increasing the height of the Flightdeck using nylon washers, but in the end it was the fore and aft points of the box frame that surrounds the new wheel location that limits the tyre in overall diameter. I had done my homework and determined that people reported success with 37c tyres. I played it safe and stuck with a 35c, and I’m glad I did, as I still was pretty tight. Front was wide open.
Lastly, and this was something I hadn’t read about before, the tongue (terminal point of the Free Radical) mounts to a special bearing plate that sandwiches at the terminus of the wheelstays and bottom bracket, or at the kickstand mount. It’s job is to keep the Free Radical from pivoting on the wheel axis. Well, the 29er’s wheelstays are too long. I had nothing to adapt to. I knew I would need a more rugged longterm solution, but I went about forging a scratch built bearing plate system of my own for the short term.
Drop Mount: The Free Radical mounts to the existing frame at the wheel dropouts. The attachment is a pair of French nuts and bolts, one for each side. I was struck that it seems like a common track axle would have worked equally well, but I guess less is more.
FAP Replacement: The stock bearing plate adapter for the tongue looks like this. As you can see, it’s not very wide, and it IS very thick. So, it’s intended to mount inside of the bridge between the wheelstays, essentially locking the tongue into that triangle. Since my tongue lands just to the OUTSIDE of that bridge, there’s nothing to lock into. I would need to span more widely and capture the wheelstays in a sandwich that would prevent the up-down pivot motion of the Free Radical but also the side-side wiggle of the adapter that will happen if that triangle doesn’t capture it (ie. wiggling at an angle or too far down the widening angle of the wheelstays.)
I spent some time at the hardware store hunting for misc. metal, preferably pre-drilled, to use as my bearing plates. I settled on some robust T-plates, which I quadrupled up, doubles on top and bottom, strung together with bolts and locking nuts and two different sized washers.
Here you can see the sandwich completed and installed. This is a hot spot for the short-term riding of the bike. Keeping these bolts tight is essential, and hopefully the replacement will materialize before too long, certainly before the second kid is added. But it was a pretty good solution to the problem, barring the availability of a lathe.
Whatchamacollers: The Free Radical is a base frame, which I’ve been talking about, and then two V-racks (really long C-shaped tubes) that slot into that rack to create the risers. Then the Flightdeck (the new recycled plastic top plate, replacing the Snapdeck, which has traditionally been essentially a skateboard deck) clips to those V-racks using hooks to clamp to it.
The Whatchamacollers perform two functions: they make the rack more waterproofed (the V racks slide INTO mounts on the Free Radical, not OVER them, which is the bike design equivalent of inverting your waterproof flashing in a building: it invites water IN) by sealing that connection point between V-racks and Free Radical using gaskets, and additionally, increases rigidity of the rack by beefing up that connection. That’s why I used 4 instead of 2.
Freeloaders: These are the saddlebags that you can use on the sides of the V-racks. They are designed like long square flaps of canvas, secured by buckles and straps. This provides enormous flexibility in carrying different shaped loads. Put kids on top and their feet get in the way somewhat, but still a great system. I’m told this current version is less waterproof than the last, who knows.
You strap them up, then drop the Flightdeck on top of that.
Wheels and Tyres: For my build, I was going with slicks, for predominantly road use. I still intend to take this up the mountain, but I wanted less rolling resistance in the day to day commute, especially when I’m hustling kids 12 miles to be with their Oma some of the week. I chose to use some rad Kojak rubber for the 35c rear, having seen the tyre on some commuter 26” wheels at a local shop. I used a fat Big Apple, sort of the standard for giant slicks, in front. It’s really pretty. Both by Schwalbe. So, this set me up with my 29er rims to fit the build clearances.
As you can see, the 35c offers about ½” fore and aft in the frame. All they need to do is replace these straight beams with arcs bowing outwards and they’d easily be able to accommodate the 29er with a fat tyre. Change the brake mount point, extend the tongue or change the adapter, and boom. Anyway, it fit.
Rotors: I beefed the rear rotor up from 160mm standard for MTBs to 203mm (the top limit on these, which came from the downhill MTB world) as this wheel carries a lot of riding live load. I read about the fact that the 160mm rotor basically evaporates under heavy load on a descent. So, that was that.
Big rotor! Also, I learned that it can be kind of tricky to reseat the brake shoes. If you tap the brake lever in the process of taking off or remounting a wheel with disc brakes, the brake pads clamp together and stay there.
It took me some judicious web research (remember I never worked with disc before) and then some careful work with my blade to get them open again and not out of alignment.
Shop Help: I knew there would be some need for shop assistance on this project from the start. It’s my heaviest bike by about 4:1, and it’ll carry my entire progeny, plus self! So, I wasn’t taking chances on self-taught hydraulic brake line application. You have to extend your rear brake and rear derailleur out to the new mounting points. So, there was the rear brake being slung. I also came to full stop on the derailleur for a simple reason: the hook on the derailleur hanger on the Cannondale was different than that on the Xtracycle frame, and the rear derailleur wouldn’t fit. It would need to be physically carved apart or replaced, and I wanted to see what the shop would say. So, I took the bike into 3 Ring Cycles in San Anselmo, the crew that I asked about Free Radical conversions a few times in the months, actually years, leading up to this project. Turned out I know the mechanic, and though he went on vacation shortly after I dropped the bike off, the guys took care of me. Here’s what was involved.
The first recommendation was to upsize the front rotor to match the rear, which we did. Next, when dismantling the rear brake line, the brake lever exploded. The levers that come on this model Cannondale are C-branded but cheap plastic. Rather than repair it, they recommended upgrading to a hardier brake lever, and I thought that was a rational choice. My children! They were able to order a disc brake mount adapter to get the brake where it needed to be, not only for this Xtracycle frame, but farther out yet, for the 203mm rotor. Finally, they were able to mod the rear derailleur and get it installed, so the bike was rideable. The next step is custom fabrication of that FAP plate for long term use. My plates are already starting to deform slightly. The shop have a friend who engineers custom parts for them, so when he has some time next month we’re hoping to build up a nice fat C-shaped adapter that will stay put. Pics to follow.
Maiden Voyage: I picked Longjohn up at the shop on Sunday while my daughter was napping, dreaming of robots and melons. It was pretty exciting. I love those guys at the shop. Brad and Lindsay took care of me. By the way, an unanticipated additional cost on this longbike project? BIGGER RACK. Thatswhatshesaid. Seriously, this is a tandem wheelbase. So I ended up getting a tandem compliant bike rack for a reasonable price online and started using that instead of my beloved Saris Thelma 3 (now available for sale)…
Zoe was stoked to see the new ride. I was concerned about her feelings about this. She watched me build it, she helped even, but once the reality was to set in that she’d be behind me and not in front on the bars, I was concerned she might be disappointed. Fortunately, one nice thing about the longbike is that there’s so much room, even with two kids on there they aren’t slammed against your back, where only Olivia Wilde should be. I threw the Yepp Peapod III seat on the Flightdeck, mounting the adapter plate towards the back, reasoning that in the coming few months before Matteo can ride, we could bring her trike along or what have you. Guess what: that was a bad idea. The eccentric load of my daughter so far out was very hard to keep stable up front. I got bar wiggle (leading to tank slap in motorcycles, self-slap here) and the back end wanted to slip out from under. So I quickly moved the seat forward to the front position and it was a much more stable configuration. We took a ride around the neighborhood, went to the store and loaded the Freeloaders up with groceries, even took a hill on the way home. She loved it. I admit I miss having her up front where I can talk to her and watch her, but it was a fine compromise, given the additional passenger in two months.
Up Next: I pulled the seat off and rode the bike in to work today (very stable) and am swinging by Tam Bikes to have them look at my rear brake and the chain tension, but otherwise I think we’re in business. My next planned change is trying out some angled touring bars I picked up for the project to replace the very wide flat bars of the 29er. We’ll see if it remains stable with those.
I’m just thankful the project was completed in time for a ride on her 3rd birthday!
Anyway, anyone interested in doing a 29er Xtracycle conversion, or frankly any Xtracycle conversion, feel free to hit me with questions. I’ll update with thoughts after I’ve ridden it more.