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Niloc 10-05-12 12:16 PM

Thoughts and opinion on building an Xtracycle
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Hi folks, I thought I would share my experience on building an Xtracycle cargo bike using the Free Radical and a host bike. Perhaps it will be of use to those considering doing the same. I was considering responding to some posts but thought I would just put it out there in one place. Warning: Opinion lies ahead!

Host bike selection (or donor bike to think of it that way):

First of all I'm sure the dedicated Xtracycle frames like the Big Dummy and especially Xtracycle's own new frame the Edgerunner would be the best selection, but are costly. I'm only addressing the host bike for the Free Radical and folks with a little DIY in them.

Xtracycle says almost any bike will work, and I'm sure that's true, but I think it's worth putting some thought into the matter, and not just using that old bike collecting dust in your garage just because it's there. Maybe it does fit the bill, but if not, go down to your local used /recycled bike emporium, Goodwill, or get on Craigslist and find someone else's dust collector for like $50 or less. Exchange your dust collector while you're at it. My opinion: 26" wheel mountain bike with a rigid fork. 700c mixte frames may be tempting and I know of one converted to 650 that looks nice, but you want sturdy and beefy and lower to the ground, so an overbuilt mountain bike frame just makes sense and are easy to find. Rear suspension will absolutely not mate with a Free Radical and would be pointless anyways. Front suspension is also pointless. If your bike or the one you find has a front shock, no problem, just replace it with a rigid steel one. You can find those cheap at the used places, or online from Surly and others. Let me be clear, a front shock on an Xtracycle is at best useless extra weight, and it also will likely degrade the handling of your bike. A Free Radicalized Xtracycle, b/c of the length and design is plenty noodley and springy all on it's own and with the decently wide tires you should run on it, you don't need a shock pogoing around as well. It's not like you are going to be hucking dirt drops on it down a mountainside.

I found mine with the Free Radical already attached off of Craigslist. It's an old (reeally old) school mountain bike from mid-80s. It has worked fine with the mods below (which should be considered with any Mtn bike) but I'm considering swapping it out for what I think would be best option: an overbuilt aluminum frame mountain bike with a sloping top tube. Think of a late 90s Trek, Specialized, etc. I saw a frame only last week that would have been perfect except the size was too small for drumroll... $25.
I'm a fan of the old ways, including lugged steel, but a stiff, oversized Alu tubed frame I think would work well in a Free Radical set-up which tends to be a little too springy. The more modern style of mountain bike frame geometry with the steep sloping top tube would be nice because of the step over factor. It's hard to swing your leg around the seat to mount an Xtracycle, especially if you have kids back there, so having a lower top tube makes sense.

Remember you'll need a frame with a chainstay bridge to mount the Free Radical. Those are the majority so it shouldn't be a problem. I think Xtracycle has a way around that, but why bother since you can easily find a bike with a chainstay bridge and your build will be more secure with one.

Get that weight low:

In my case I'm using the bike to haul around 90+ lbs of children (in two units) and/or their crap, kids bikes, a family grocery load, etc. You want to get that weight as low as possible for stability and control. Especially important with kids since you can't stuff them down low in the cargo bags, they have to sit on top :) What I ended up doing was building up a 24" rear wheel. This lowers the rear end and has several other benefits as well, here's the list:
  1. Lowered the rear end by about an inch (from the standard 26" mountain bike wheel)
  2. Allowed me to cut down the Xtracycle cargo racks by 0.75 of an inch, thus lowering the load even further. Yep, used a hacksaw, no turning back now!
  3. Corrected the bicycle geometry. In my case anyways, the Free Radical resulted in the host bike frame being tipped forward from normal (I could easily tell, b/c the parallel top tube was no longer parallel), so lowering the rear end helped correct that. I suspect the 24" wheel would help, or at least not hurt, the geometry and handling with many mountain bike Free Radical set-ups.
  4. Slightly lowers the gearing. Running a smaller rear wheel will lower your entire drivetrain's gearing, not a bad thing on a cargo bike.
I note that Xtracycle stole my idea as their new custom frame has a 20" rear with a 26" front. OK so one potential downside is that you can no longer use rim brakes on the rear b/c the brake mount posts are now too high to allow you to mount cantis or v-brakes to engage a 24" rim. I didn't consider this a problem because:

A disc brake, on the rear at least, makes a lot of sense.

I've never had disc brakes before, and I don't run them on my other non-cargo bikes. I don't have a problem with the stopping power and utility of rim brakes. However I pretty much had to go to a disc brake when I went to a smaller wheel, and in use it makes a lot of sense. If you are going to go to a 24" wheel, which I highly recommend, then you may as well use a disc-compatible hub in the build. Being a modern thing, the Free Radical frame has a tab on it to mount a disc caliper. In my case, it allowed me to make other improvements as well. My host bike rear wheel was so old that it had a 120mm OLN (hub width) with a 5-speed freewheel. The Free Radical is designed around the modern standard of 135mm OLN. My axle was mounted with a whole pile of cludgy washers to get it out to 135mm. Since I was building a new wheel I naturally used a 135mm freehub and put a wide range 8-speed cassette on it. I could have used a 9-speed too of course, but didn't see the need. So building a 24" rear wheel not only lowers the load, but gives you an opportunity to add a disc brake and to modernize or improve your rear wheel gearing. Here are the advantages of having a rear disc brake:
  1. Mainly, you get a very effective drag brake. Heavy bikes, like tandems for example, have been set-up with special drag brakes on the rear wheel for years to help control speed on descents. Living in a hilly place like Seattle, I find this to be a critical feature of a heavy, long and somewhat awkward xtracycle. Many times I have riden down hills with my kids on the back, feathering that rear brake most of the way to safely control my descent. The disc brake works well for this b/c it modulates really well and doesn't overheat and fade like a rim brake would. I feel much more confident on these descents knowing I've got that disc brake back there.
  2. Due to cable routing and hanging issues you really shouldn't use cantis on the rear (I know, my bike came this way). V-brakes won't have these cable problems. However access to the rear brake to make adjustments is a minor PITA with the Xtracycle racks and bags in the way. The disc caliper is a little easier to get at, and it's true, once set up they need very little adjustment.
  3. If you're a retrogrouch like me, don't worry, the entire mechanism is hidden behind the cargo bags, no one will know!
Note, I still run a cantilever on the front wheel and that works just fine. If you have or want a disc brake on the front, I'm sure that would work great, but I haven't had problem stopping the bike with the cantilever. Of course a V-brake would work as well. It may seem a little odd to have a set-up with the more powerful brake on the rear end, but in the Xtracycle case it works well. Note that if you do want a front disc brake, then your host bike will need to be modern enough to have a 1.125" threadless headset, since disc rotor tabbed rigid forks are only available in that configuration - trust me I've looked. In the mountain bike world that puts you in the mid to late 90s or later, so still a good range of years.

Center kickstand:

I consider this to be an essential, non-optional Xtracycle component. Mine came with a only a side kickstand and loading the bike was awkward, frustrating and in the case of children as cargo, downright dangerous. Without one the bike will fall over on you sooner or later. A cargo bike needs a center kickstand to be stable and loadable by one person. Xtracycle's model works well and I just had to bite the bullet and buy it ($150). I'm going to fabricate leg extensions for it by cutting down a kid's handlebar to make it even more stable - there's a youtube video about how to do that. Xtracycle also sells extensions.

So I have other opinions about the handlebars and shifters, etc. but that's getting more into personal preference and whatever works for you. Photos of my Xtracycle are attached. They are fun build, fun to ride, and good for you and the planet - go for it!

Hmmm cost. I didn't keep track and it would vary depending upon your scrounging and DIY abilities as well what you need in the final product in terms of the rack and accessories, but I think you could build a center stand equipped bike with basic racks for around $600-700.

kiltedcelt 10-05-12 03:22 PM

Nice looking build. Seems like a good idea building with the smaller rear wheel too, especially with the disc brake choice. I'll be building my Xtracycle pretty much standard with the 26" wheels that the donor mtb came with. I like the idea the smaller wheel and disc brake but I've got budget issues and besides, I don't know how to build wheels, let alone ones with such an asymmetric dishing as disc brake wheels have. My other issue is that the donor frame is a '94 Specialized Stumpjumper with a 1" threaded steerer. That kinda locks me into using V-brakes on the front for sure. Still, I could certainly build a smaller wheel at some later date and try the disc brake idea. My budget is also going to prevent me from purchasing the Xtracycle center kickstand so I'm looking at ways to fabricate one myself. I do have access to a shop where I can do some stuff like tube bending and even welding if necessary. I'd like to see close up photos of someone else's center kickstand just to see how Xtracycle makes theirs.

Niloc 10-05-12 04:25 PM

Hey Kilted you might be able find a 24" wheel cheap - it's a standard on bigger kids' bikes, think of a 10 or 12 year old. However it won't likely have a disc compatible hub, so you'd be stuck for brakes, but if you're talking about welding then you could get a pair of v-brake mounting posts relocated on the Free Radical to allow them to work with a 24" wheel. Xtracycle's kickstand is pretty slick and fits into their system such that I doubt you'd be able to replicate it for less than just buying theirs. Not to say you couldn't make a center kickstand that would work but it's not going to be like theirs. There's a guy in Seattle that makes the be all and end all of cargo bike kickstands, but it's even more expensive than Xtracycle's, in fact they sell it. Lots of pics on this site:

Good luck with your build!

PDub62 10-08-12 11:39 AM

Kilted, I'll second the opinion on using Xtracycle's centerstand; it is absolutely essential for safety if you're loading kids. I am very impressed w/ the design; very stable, quiet (when deploying and retracting), and well integrated into the design. It's pricey but well worth the money. I am planning on investing in the extenders for a little extra stability but they aren't a must in my opinion.

Niloc, great write-up. I like the idea of going w/ the 24" wheel. My Xtracycle was built up with my first mountain bike - a '94 Univega that I had not ridden in years. I had added front suspension years ago and one of the first things I noticed after bolting up the Xtracycle was that the fork sagged alot (which makes sense; pushing out the rear end puts more of the load on the front wheel, hence more squat) so I put the old rigid fork back on (luckily I had kept it). The other modification I made was to replace my old stem w/ an adjustable stem tilted up as high as it would go in order to get it to a comfortable position. I had assumed that my old bike just didn't fit me right and hadn't considered that the Free Radical may have tipped the geometry forward. Going w/ a 24" wheel may improve the feel even more for me. And I like the idea of going w/ a disk on the back. However, I will point out one thing w/ your disk brake advantages: keep in mind that disk brakes can and will fail due to overheating. I've experienced it first hand on our tandem when riding in the mountains on a long descent where I was using it as a 'drag brake'. It's unlikely you'd have the Xtracycle as loaded up as I had our tandem (280 lbs for tandem and stoker + 50 lbs loaded trailer) but it's something to keep in mind. That being said, I definitely prefer disk brakes over v-brakes or canti's and have that on my list of potential upgrades for my X.

cboynyc 07-26-13 03:01 PM

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I built a Free Radical up on a '93 Trek 930 (powder coated frame, fork and frame attachment Surly Sage Green). Was thinking about running 22" BMX on rear built with disc breaks and 24" up front. Any thoughts? Main goal is to lower everything a bit and get a smaller wheel on back. Attached photo is of current build set up. Redline mini-BMX bars and Cannondale stem serving up stoker bar duties. XT linear pull brakes in rear and DX canti's up front.

Niloc 09-18-13 09:57 AM

cboynyc, nice bike there. I've taken my host bike off the free radical and I'm looking for that Aluminum sloping top tube bike as described in my post. Among other things it was hard to clear my leg of the frame while mounting without kicking my kid in the face! Do you have that problem with the Trek 930?

Of course I like your idea of lowering everything with a smaller wheel on back, as that's what I did. You'd be taking it a step further than I did, so my main piece of advice would be to make sure you still have adequate ground clearance with your pedals. I suspect you will as mountain bikes are designed with high bottom brackets for obstacle clearance, but you might want to double check before you go to this expense and trouble. And if you do it, I recommend cutting down your xtracycle cargo racks to take advantage of the the smaller wheel, and get that weight lower. But I didn't go much more than 0.75 inches, to make sure that my xtracycle bags still fit the attachment points.

Let us know how it turns out!

greg00 11-18-13 05:11 PM

cboynyc, did you already convert your bike to 22" rear / 24" front?
I'm thinking about doing the same with disc brakes and Nuvinci hub on a F700 Cannondale.
I read about people succeeding in 24" conversions, but never saw a 22" rear wheel in a FreeRadical kit.
My goal is also to lower the rack a much as possible for better handling with 2 kids on it.

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