The Xtracycle just might save the middle class

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Imagine a unicorn appearing at your door, in the flesh, and asking to hang around a while. That would be pretty weird, because you always thought unicorns were mythical creatures like succubi or centaurs. But it would be a hell of a lot weirder if your new one-horned lodger turned out to be mild-mannered, always helpful, impressively strong when the occasion demanded, and a total natural with the kids. (Of course Teddy can come, sweetie. 🙂

olivia-on-xtracycle

[photo by Patrick Barber, aka hen power — thanks!]

That’s the way I feel about my family’s new Xtracycle setup. It’s a bicycle I never thought existed in American reality: a bike that is actually a useful and flexible form of family transportation. One that can carry a kid and six bags of groceries without creaking, tipping over, or making the steering go googoo. It eliminates the need for dozens of car trips each week — and it’s fun enough it eliminates the desire for those trips too.

The Xtracycle is that rare thing in today’s world: a green product that could actually make a difference. It could allow thousands of two-car families to switch to one car, and one-car families to switch to zero cars, and have more fun than they did before. Right now my family doesn’t own any cars. We have an Xtracycle, several personal bicycles, and a subscription to a carsharing service. It’s working well and it’s really cheap. Plus kids love Xtracycles.

photo by carfreedays -- see http://www.flickr.com/photos/81325557@N00/2444318865/

[photo by carfreedays under Creative Commons]

Initially I was cynical about the potential of the Xtracycle to really change things. From the outside an Xtracycle looks utilitarian, not revolutionary. An Xtracycle is basically a frame extension, one that can be added to almost any 26″-wheel or 700c- wheel bike. It lengthens and strengthens the rear triangle, and adds a large sturdy rack (rated to 200 pounds I believe) with some open panniers.

All very well and good, but it seemed like just another bike cargo accessory, and I thought I had tried them all. After all, I’m a “bike person”: I’ve spent long periods of my life (including this one now) carless, and frankly, it’s been a mixed experience, trying to live out my environmental ideals. So sit down and listen to the woe of Bottleman Agonistes.

There were some good times. Of course I have a basic enjoyment of cycling. And doing it for transport, not fun, meant I was out at weird times and had transcendent moments that people wrapped up in sheet metal and processed leather will never know. I rolled through the shimmering silence of winter midnights. I chased a crazy rabbit down a dirt road. I learned and mapped in my mind the secret geography of Portland’s public water fountains. And I held my nose high with a fine sense of eco-righteousness. At least I was making a difference <sniff cough>.

But righteousness is fine like watercress — it has no calories, you can’t live on it. No pro-bike propaganda I could come up with could keep me from the conclusion that, in America, bicycling was second class transport. I slogged through mud and diesel fumes while motorists slid by in air-conditioned splendor. I made my little hand signals for the benefit of drivers in 2-3 ton behemoths — a pathetic assertion of “equality on the roads” which would be quickly quashed if I happened to fall down among the traffic I was so “equal” to. And I felt frustrated that I sometimes couldn’t carry everything I wanted — let alone give a friend a ride home.

I had to face it. There was a reason kids and meth addicts mashed around town on department store Huffy’s while adult lawyers preened their way in Acuras. In terms of comfort, convenience, and safety, the Acuras were generally better. That’s why bicycling was the transport of the poor, of students, and of the odd. (Of course more people use bikes for recreation and racing, but I’m not talking about that — that’s not transport.)

Over time I pretty much lost any inclination I had to try to convert people to biking. If I ever got a live one (a potential convert), two questions really stuck in my craw: “Sure I’d like to drive less. But how am I gonna do my groceries? And pick up my kids?” I had no good answers there.

I learned from experience to avoid responses like “Adopt a more European mode of life, with daily shopping trips of 2 bags or less.” Or “Give up enriching activities for your kids for some abstract ideal of carbon dioxide reduction.” If you can pick up a girl with one of those lines, I will give you $100. (I’ll need video.)

I also felt the usual solutions they offered at the bike shop — front panniers, back panniers, backpacks, courier bags, and trailers — were not solutions at all. The biggest of those was a trailer, but I never felt secure transporting a kid in one — the kid was so far away, and the wide-set trailer wheels were problematic for navigation around obstacles. The capacity of most trailers (especially after being loaded with kids) was surprisingly low. And using a trailer required planning — you couldn’t use it for impulsive projects, like getting this great yard sale chair home.

Impulse use is one of the great features of a car, and one of the reasons they’re so popular.

My potential convert needed to hear about bikes that were actually sturdy and stable enough to carry a real load. But I couldn’t speak about them, because they seemed like unicorns — mythical, impossible things. (Somehow I blocked out all the cargo bikes I had seen in Montreal and Amsterdam — which is understandable since those places are, after all, other worlds.)

Then a month or two ago a unicorn arrived in my driveway. It’s an Electra Townie 8, a girl’s model with step-through frame, with an Xtracycle attached as well as a Bobike Jr. seat for the kid.

It’s not exactly the fastest bike I’ve ever ridden, but it’s amazing what it can carry. Here’s a typical trip: a 40-pound kid, a 60-pound bag of concrete, and 10 pounds of miscellaneous stuff. Or, lots of groceries.

Or flowers and detergent.

The weight is really well centered between the wheels, so handling doesn’t suffer. (I do need to use the low gears alot). The kid is close enough on his seat we can actually have a conversation. An adult could ride on that big board on the back, with feet on a couple of pegs I put in lower on the rack.

If I added a few more attachments I could carry long items like a surfboard or a sheet of masonite, or an entire Santa-style gift run.

This bike is not a lifestyle compromise. I’m not giving anything up, or “suffering for the sake of the Earth,” when I’m riding this thing. It’s just a functional and fun form of transport — safe from the stigma of poverty, and fun enough to be free of the stink of ecopiety too.

In other words, it’s a fine vehicle for the middle class. Sometimes I’ll be riding around with the kid and wonder why people are smiling at me. Then I’ll realize, I’d better smile back. There is nothing more happily bourgeois than riding a friggin’ unicorn.

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