Green Tuesday: Birth of an Xtracycle, Part One

The staff here at Bikecommuters.com strongly advocate bike commuting as one of many ways of reducing our impact on the environment, but we also really encourage utilitarian cycling such as grocery shopping, errand-running, date nights, etc. We feel that the amazing Xtracycle facilitates such a lifestyle…this baby is designed to do just about everything a car can do — hauling people and packages in a friendly, healthful, low-environmental-impact sort of way.

That being said, we’ve gotten a few questions submitted to us in the past couple months along the lines of “you know, I’m really interested in getting an Xtracycle…how hard are they to put together?” So, we figured we’d do a (mostly) step-by-step photo tutorial with tips and tricks for getting one of these beauties up and running. And, because this tutorial is photo-intensive, we also figured that it would be better as a two-part article.

Xtracycle kits come with a well-prepared and clear assembly instruction booklet, but it is always nice to see some additional photos and hear about some of the “ins and outs” of such an assembly. So, let’s get down to it!

How difficult is it to take this:
bare bike

and a box full of Xtracycle parts:
parts

and combine them to be a fully-functioning utility bicycle? It’s not as hard as you think…if I was pressed, I’d rate it as no more than an intermediate-level mechanical endeavor. If you’re comfortable replacing cables, adjusting brakes and shifting systems on your bike, the rest of this setup will be a piece of cake. However, if you’re not comfortable with such things, leaving it in the hands of a professional might be a better course of action — after all, you won’t ride it if it doesn’t work well, right?

Right off the bat, please let me recommend that you visit your local bike shop and purchase a “tandem-length” (3000 mm) brake cable with the appropriate leaded end for the type of brakes you’ll be using on your build. Although the good folks at Xtracycle include a long brake cable in the build kit, it was over 4″ too short for my application, resulting in a mid-build trip to a faraway bike shop that had tandem cables in stock. If for some reason you don’t actually need such a long cable for your build, rest assured that it wasn’t a wasted trip; you can use it next year when it is time to replace your cables.

Also, you may strongly consider prepping the interior of the FreeRadical frame with Boeshield, FrameSaver or plain boiled linseed oil — there are some tubes that could potentially collect rainwater, and you don’t want this great machine rusting from the inside out. Simply plug all the welding vent holes with tape, pull out the Xtracycle-provided tubing plugs and pour your rustproofing inside, allowing it to coat the insides of the tubes. Pour out the excess, let it “cure” for a day or two and get ready to build.

Tools you will need for assembly:
— 4, 5, 6 and 8mm allen wrenches
— Torx T25 wrench (only if disc brakes are used)
— 10mm box/open-ended wrench
— adjustable wrench
— cable/casing cutter (I used a Dremel-type tool with a cutoff wheel)
— grease/assembly lube/anti-seize paste to lubricate all mounting bolts
— small screwdriver to adjust rear derailleur
— chain breaker tool

First step in the build is to remove the saddle and seatpost, rear wheel, chain, rear brakes and rear derailleur from the “donor” bike. Flip the remainder of the donor bike upside down, resting the handlebars and the top of the seatpost on the ground. Trust me, this is the most convenient way to continue with the assembly as the Xtracycle’s “FreeRadical” frame gets bolted on.

parts
Rear brake body and rear derailleur removed from the donor.

Next, thread the long bolts and “special nuts” into the receiving holes on the front of the FreeRadical frame. Xtracycle provides spacer washers to use if the donor bike’s rear dropout thickness is less than 7mm, but I didn’t need to use them…the donor KHS Alite 1000 has really thick dropouts. Squeezing the bike’s dropouts together, carefully seat the “special nuts” into the dropouts and screw in the long bolts (leave them loose for now). In the below photo, you’ll be able to see how this is all oriented — arrows point to the T-shaped stainless steel “special nuts”.

special nuts

Make sure that the front tongue of the FreeRadical frame is above the chainstay bridge (if present) of the donor bike. Now, “sandwich” the bike’s chainstays with the FreeRadical frame on top and the Xtracycle-provided “front attachment plate” (with rubber pad) below. Run the long bolt and appropriate washers through the “sandwich” and tighten the bolt and nut, ensuring that the tongue is centered between the chainstays. Here’s a photo that illustrates this:

tongue over chainstay

And a view from the underside:

FAP

Now go to the special nuts and bike’s dropouts and snug those bolts up. Xtracycle provides torque values for both sets of bolts in their instruction manual. You may need to hold the T-shaped portion of the special nuts with an adjustable wrench to keep them from rotating while you tighten the bolts with your allen wrench.

The last step for this part of the build process is to place the rear wheel into the dropouts welded to the FreeRadical frame. Now we can roll this beauty outside and can complete the build outdoors with the assembly firmly grasped by a bike repair stand.

rear wheel in

Ok, take a break; you’ve earned a cold drink — and just as the instruction manual states, we’re over halfway there! Tune in next Tuesday when we complete the build…bolting on a new brake disc, the rear brake body and rear derailleur and running new cables and casings. Finally, we’ll put the V-racks and Snapdeck on, stuff the Footsies in their receiving holes and take this baby for a spin!


26 Comments

  1. DMill June 17, 2008 5:52 am 

    This is great! I’ve been toying with (actually fantasizing about) the idea of putting together my own Xtracycle for some time now. I’ve got a great commuter bike (Giant FCR1) already, but it’s built more for faster commuting than hauling stuff. I’ve been scanning craigslist for an old hardtail mtn bike, but haven’t come across any Xtracycle candidates yet.

    Looking forward to the 2nd half.

  2. Marla June 17, 2008 6:12 am 

    Thanks for the how-to. I’ll be using it very soon!

  3. Rob Prouse June 17, 2008 6:22 am 

    Thanks for the article. I am hoping to build one soon too. Once you get it built up, please write a review on how it feels. I am trying to decide between doing this or getting a Surly Big Dummy. I have heard there is a lot of flex with this setup and would like to hear your thoughts on it.

  4. Ghost Rider June 17, 2008 6:55 am 

    Rob, I’ll give you a little preview of how it feels: AWESOME! I rode the bare bike for a while to get used to the handling characteristics before installing the FreeRadical, and once I got everything installed I was blown away by how unchanged everything was. Sure, it’s a bit slower due to the increased weight, and I can’t carve tight turns the way I used to, but in practical terms it feels no different than any other bicycle. That’s a huge + in my book!

    I have a theory about flex — while there is a bit of flex inherent in a long, unsupported steel tube (the main lengths of the FreeRad frame), I am convinced that a lot of the perceived flex comes from the bike it is attached to, not the FreeRad frame. Nearly everyone I’ve read about who reports flex seems to be riding a steel-framed bike. My donor bike is aluminum and has square cross-section seat- and chain-stays. I sure haven’t noticed any flex with loads up to 170 lb. Granted, I’ve only ridden my beast about 50 miles so far with far lesser loads (a 50 lb. child and a few bags of groceries)…so time will tell.

  5. Ghost Rider June 17, 2008 6:57 am 

    Oh, as far as Xtra kit vs. Big Dummy: you can always upgrade to the Big Dummy frame at a later point and simply reuse the rest of the hardware (v racks, bags and snapdeck). Right now, suitably-sized BD frames are scarce and I am sure there’s a waiting list for the next shipments.

  6. cafn8 June 17, 2008 7:08 am 

    Thanks for the thoughts on frame flex.

    I have an old rigid steel Trek mountain bike frame of uncertain age (“Big Fork” and lugged/butted construction) which I’d love to put back into service as a cargo bike, but I wonder if I would be happier with a Big Dummy, since either way I’d be starting from scratch with a bare frame.

    Speaking of starting from scratch, I would guess that building it beefy would be the name of the game. What other design opportunities could you take advantage of when speccing parts for an Xtracycle and not just using what’s already on the donor bike?

  7. Ghost Rider June 17, 2008 8:09 am 

    cafn8,

    the only other parts spec to consider is the rear wheel of the donor bike — 36 spokes, straight gauge, three-cross at minimum with a double wall rim. I’m violating a bit of that — I’ve got 32H rims/hubs, but then again I weigh less than 130 lb., and that’s what came on the donor bike. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on spokes, though!

    I’ve heard tales of people building a “tandem” rear wheel with 40 or more spokes and a beefy tandem rim/hub combination. While cargo weight on an Xtra isn’t directly over the rear wheel, the back end takes most of the abuse, so it makes sense to have the rear wheel as beefy as possible.

    Other parts considerations would be comfort — you’re going to want to ride your Xtra a LOT, so be sure to have a comfortable saddle and bar/grip combo.

    All the rest of the components on a standard bike are beefy enough for repurposing into a serious load hauler. I’d avoid carbon cranksets, though 😉

  8. Clancy June 17, 2008 9:37 am 

    Looks good but there is one area you might get some advise on your installation. I think the tongue bolt should be positioned in front of the chainstay bridge.

  9. tadster June 17, 2008 12:28 pm 

    I agree with Clancy.

  10. Ghost Rider June 17, 2008 1:40 pm 

    The tongue bolt is merely used to stabilize the front of the FreeRadical frame from “rise” …it matters not whether the bolt is in front of or in back of the chainstay bridge, as it is also designed to go on bikes without bridges altogether. The plate underneath provides a lot of “squeezing force”.

  11. 2whls3spds June 17, 2008 2:01 pm 

    Sweet! I guess this is the next thing I get to spend money on… I have a early 90’s Giant Iguana that I was going to make an expedition tour bike out of, but the more I think about it and Xtracycle would be much more fun…and useful 😉

    Does the Xtra come with a fender or can I use my bright yellow Freddy on it?

    Aaron

  12. Ghost Rider June 17, 2008 2:12 pm 

    The Xtra doesn’t come with a fender, but it has standard attachments for one, so using your Freddy should be fine. A fender helps keep the underside of the Snapdeck from getting waterlogged, too.

  13. Moe June 17, 2008 2:45 pm 

    Regarding the Xtracycle Freeradical installation, I installed mine with minor glitches (not enough shifter housing). I don’t consider myself an ‘advanced’ mechanic, in fact, this was the first time that I install a rear derailleur and shifting cables.

  14. Joe June 17, 2008 4:32 pm 

    I installed my Xtracycle no problem at all. I agree on the cable comments, I too had to delay the installation while I tracked down a longer cable for the rear dérailleur. Also, I think a disk brake on the rear is a good idea. I have a linear pull brake on the back – with Koolstop pads it works great, but there’s a lot of flex in that Xtracycle brake mount so the lever always feels a bit squishy. As for wheels, I have a 26″ 32 spoke as well, I’ve had the whole 300 pounds of load on the cargo bike with no problems at all, so I think if you are just going to do around town errands any good 26″ wheel well true is going to work. For touring, I’d want a much better wheel in back. Overall, the Xtracycle is fabulous. I have mine on a Buzz V from REI, which makes a great conversion (good gearing, fat tires, low cost when on sale) and there’s no frame flex on the steel frame until I hit the very upper end of the load poundage and go too fast. A guy really shouldn’t go 20 mph with a weeks worth of groceries on the back anyway! I’ve been car free for about 2 years, the Xtracycle helps a lot with that lifestyle. One of the best returns on your dollar and I highly recommend it!

  15. Rick June 17, 2008 7:39 pm 

    Putting my X together was not nearly as hard as I would have imagined. If you are debating… make the jump.

    Here is what I carried today: 150 pounds of play sand, baby formula and two 12 packs of Great Lakes beer that were on sale for $12 each.

  16. john g June 17, 2008 9:02 pm 

    nice pics and how-to. i can concur re: flex. i have an X on a steel, 90s vintage Bridgestone MB3. especially when loaded with groceries, kids, etc. but, altogether not bad, and you get used to it quickly. my build went smoothly as well. xtracycles rock. i love it, the kids love it.

  17. Ghost Rider June 17, 2008 9:16 pm 

    John, nice to “see” you around these parts. I loved what you did over at your blog with the alternative Kona design ideas! I think I might have even commented over there…

    Xtracycles FTW!!!

  18. cafn8 June 18, 2008 6:11 am 

    Joe,
    Re: flex in the rear brake mount- a disc on the back does seem like the best way to go, but if a person still wanted rim brakes (maybe they already have a set of wheels they’re in love with that just don’t have disc hubs, for instance) a set of hydraulic rim brakes might do the job. Magura HS-33’s (and 22’s and 11’s) have a brace built in and might also reduce the squishiness that comes from long cables stretching. I’ve had a set on my old Gary Fisher mountain bike ever since it lost the canti cable guide (the little noodle brazed to the side of the seat post) and love them. On the other hand, for the price, it might make more sense to just spring for discs. Just another option, for what it’s worth.

  19. Smudgemo June 18, 2008 8:47 am 

    A brake booster (bolt-on arch) would be cheaper yet for rim brake improvement. I’ve got one on each end of my tandem, and I can’t complain about squishiness when braking hard with a full load. That being said, I put Avid mechanical disks on my X and they are all kinds of awesome. I think they are right up there with the hydraulic Juicy7’s on my mtb. Inexpensive, too.

  20. Smudgemo June 18, 2008 8:48 am 

    Ahem. That should read “discs.”

  21. Ghost Rider June 18, 2008 8:54 am 

    I’m with Smudgemo — brake booster arches work, and they’d be ideally suited for the brake bosses on the Xtra frame. Plus, no one really uses them any more, so they are available for cheap on Ebay! I’ve got some garish blue Odyssey ones on my Patriot rig.

  22. Val June 18, 2008 10:07 am 

    One small additional tip: for longterm longevity and stress distribution, it is a good idea to put a “radius washer”, also called an “arc washer”, usually used to mount caliper brakes to a curved frame surface, between the forward tongue and the chainstay bridge of the parent frame. Yours looks sort of square, so this would not really work in this case, but anything you can do to maximize the contact area at that point will help. For that frame, I would be inclined to file a custom shim to fit in between there, though that would involve a bit of work.

  23. Ghost Rider June 18, 2008 12:24 pm 

    Good tip, Val — despite appearances in the photo above, the chainstay bridge is dead flat, but I like the idea of creating a shim to spread some of the clamping force out.

  24. Joe June 18, 2008 1:49 pm 

    Cafn8 – Smudgemo – Ghost Rider

    Thanks! I think I’ll look into a brake booster – ugly maybe, but outta sight on the Xtra anyway, and I think that’ll make the difference on the feel of the brake. I’d still say go Disc, but I’m cheap so a metal bit sounds very good.

  25. Clancy June 19, 2008 8:49 am 

    Val – second the thanks on the tip. Simple enough, should be Xtra’s install kit.

  26. David November 15, 2008 4:36 am 

    I put my Xtracycle together mostly single handed in a fairly short time.
    It rides like a dream but there are a few mods I’d like to make.
    I think the idea of the curved shim makes good sense as my chain stay is quite narrow.

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