Nor Cal Company Promotes a More Functional, Load-Hauling Bicycle

By Pete Gauvin

Kayak, guitar, camping gear, map. Kipchoge Spencer “slowboating” in the Trinity Alps. Photo courtesy of Xtracycle

For the most part, American society celebrates the bicycle as merely a toy and exercise machine. We love our 17-pound carbon road bikes, 6-inch travel “freeride” gravity chasers, wind-cheating tri mounts, hill-flattening cross-country steeds, chro-mo single-speed hardtails, and flip-flop-daydream beach cruisers … among other micro-niche two-wheel subsets.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Cycling can be a whole hell of a lot of fun, full of thrills, great exercise and a fantastic way to explore on and off road – as countless articles in this magazine over the years can attest. That’s all well and good.

Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of our movers and shakers, many of whom are cycling enthusiasts of one stripe or another, dismiss – or never ever consider – the practical aspects of the humble bicycle.

The upshot is, we’ve got plenty of folks who can haul ass on a bicycle. But only a scant few who do any real hauling.

Ross Evans and Kipchoge Spencer consider that a shame – and an opportunity of potentially global consequence. One which the two Stanford educated kayakers from North San Juan (north of Nevada City) have continued to pursue since they co-founded Xtracycle LLC – Sport Utility Bicycles in 1998.

The idea behind Xtracycle is to maximize the versatility and usefulness of bicycles for everyday endeavors, whether planned or spontaneous, and provide a green means of transporting oversize loads from two-by-fours to surfboards and whitewater boats. Essentially, the Xtracycle exists to eliminate many of the excuses people find not to ride.

The patented design accomplishes this by extending a bike’s wheelbase by 15 inches so that balky and heavy loads (up to 150-200 pounds) are manageable – unlike with a mere rack and panniers, basket, backpack or messenger bag. With an extended wheelbase loads can be carried down low, between the wheels, for stability and safety.

Xtracycle offers two ways to become an SUB driver: Adapt your existing bike with their cleverly-coined “hitchless trailer” conversion kit, the FreeRadical ($399), or buy a complete bike model ($599 to $1249), which they produce by teaming up with various bicycle manufacturers, including Breezer, Surly, Electra and Marin.

“It performs like the bike you had before but it’s easier than pulling a trailer,” Evans says of their best-selling FreeRadical kit, which works great with old hardtail mountain bikes collecting dust in the garage. “It makes your bike feel more like a Cadillac.”

With soaring gas prices and environmental consciousness pervading even the most auto-centric suburban hinterlands, they’re finding a growing market. Sales have more than doubled in the past year, Evans says, and they’re banking on that trend to continue. A bit of sales tracking suggests that they’re selling SUBs to everyone from urban hipsters to suburban moms, surfers and kayakers. This summer they’re setting up an office in the East Bay and plan on expanding their massive workforce of five.

“We started out by saying, ‘How can we make a bike that enables the lifestyle we want to live?’” says Evans, 32. “Most people don’t get much of a thrill out of driving, whether stuck in traffic or paying for gas. We said, ‘Let’s see if we can make the bicycle more useful so we can follow our creative impulses and outdoor interests while providing a green alternative (to transportation).’ With an Xtracycle there’s no real tradeoff or compromise, and getting there becomes part of the adventure.”

Evans first conceived of the hitchless trailer while majoring in engineering and product design at Stanford, and then developed it while welding bike trailers in Nicaragua as part of a “Bikes Not Bombs” project he managed in the mid-‘90s. The ability to carry tools and other loads enhanced employment opportunities for villagers.

‘What about bike trailers?’ you say. ‘They’ve been around for some time. Aren’t they a more flexible option for carrying loads with your bike.’

Yes and no. While bike trailers certainly have their place, Evans and Spencer argue that the ability to hook and unhook a trailer has inherent shortcomings when put to the test, and unpredictability, of everyday life. As they exclaim on their website, “Imagine if you had to attach a U-Haul to your car every time you went to the hardware store!”

With an SUB, on the other hand, you have the freedom to structure your day, or night, on an impromptu basis. The first trip to the grocery store in weeks? Load it up. A sunrise surf session? Golden. A few pitches at the climbing crag? Throw in the rope and rack. Cello practice? Strap it on. Twilight round of golf? Why not. A ride home from the brew pub for an over-hopped friend? Hop on and hold on.

A trailer, they say, is more likely to be left at home because it compromises how a bike handles. Load capacity, comfort and handling are superior with an SUB. And those differences will ultimately determine how much you actually ride.

That’s the thing about bikes. They’re only useful when ridden.

A FreeRadical “Hitchless Trailer” Kit for converting existing bikes is $399. It includes base frame, two saddlebags (“FreeLoaders”), vertical loading racks for big objects, removable “Snapdeck” platform for passengers and top-side loads, plus longer cables and chain.

For more information, or call 1-888-537-1401.