When gas prices gushed over $4 a gallon earlier this year, bike shops were (and still are) swamped with people who suddenly wanted to use pedal power for commuting, socializing and shopping. Attracting particular attention are so-called "longtails" -- extra-long SUBs (sport utility bikes) with welded-on racks designed to haul big, bulky cargo, whether it's a 200-pound load of bricks, surfboards or three or four bags of groceries. Here's a look at four of the most popular SUBs I tested at the recent Interbike trade show in Las Vegas.
-- Roy M. Wallack
A solid workhorse
Yuba Mundo Cargo bicycle: Integrated, six-speed, steel longtail bike and cargo frame with built-in rack and low-slung side-load platforms designed to carry 440 pounds.
Likes: Solid, simple execution of the cargo-bike concept. Side-load platforms double as passenger footrests. Includes tough 48-spoke rear wheel. Quite stable due to long wheelbase (a foot longer than that on normal bikes) and its ability to carry items low to the ground. I carried a 42-inch Coleman cooler filled with beer and soft drinks on one side with a 200-pound man on the rack for several miles. Customize-able with accessories, it can be turned into a tandem or triplet with two optional child seats, and used for bike camping or deliveries via a strapping system ($60) that'll hold surfboards and chairs; side bags hold big coolers ($99). Frame has a low top tube to accommodate a wide range of users.
Dislikes: Although surprisingly nimble, it has the turning radius of a tractor trailer. Though the basic six-speed drivetrain keeps costs down, it has a limited performance range. The size makes it hard to transport and useful only if you are going to truly use it.
Price: $900. (415) 823-8074; www.yubaride.com.
For the long haul
Surly Big Dummy: Army-green, steel-framed longtail with a modular rack-cargo system designed to carry 200 pounds of gear as well as a 200-pound rider.
Likes: Stable ride and huge hauling capacity, very much like the Yuba Mundo. I transported a heavy-set man, who claimed to be 250 pounds, on dirt roads for 30 minutes. This bike is different in that it is sold as a frame and fork only with an incomplete cargo subframe designed to work with Xtracycle's modular rack system and accessories. Includes four water bottle mounts. Availability of high-performance components (I rode a 27-speed with disk brakes) aids in negotiating steep hills.
Dislikes: Must purchase components separately and have bike shop assemble. Although the bike is solid-feeling, I'd argue that the snap-in, plug-and-play cargo components can't be as inherently solid over time as an all-welded design like the Mundo.
Price: $1,025 (frame and fork); bike as tested was $2,200. (877) 743-3191; www.surlybikes.com.
Xtracycle FreeRadical Longtail kit: Bolt-on sub-frame that can stretch any standard bicycle into a big rig. It is credited with originating the longtail concept in 1998.
Likes: Most economical cargo-bike option, if you pair it with an old mountain bike you already own (but don't use). The FreeRadical pushes the bike's rear wheel back 15 inches. The $269 base kit includes an extra-long chain and brake and shifter cables, plus a kickstand; rack and bags add $200. Many other accessories are available, including a tandem seat, PeaPod child seat and various fabric carriers. Has a 200-pound carrying capacity, not including rider.
Dislikes: Despite feeling sturdy, it can't be as inherently stable as a purpose-built cargo bike. Must pay minor fee at bike shop for assembly.
Price: $269; $489 with rack and bags. (888) 537-1401; www.xtracycle.com.
Wheels of fortune
Kona AfricaBike One: Burly, simple, standard-length steel bike, only in matte black, designed for less-developed nations. Includes welded-on rear rack, snap-on handlebar cage, fenders, step-through frame, bell and theft-deterring rear hub lock.
Likes: Comfortable, upright riding position. Theft-deterring hub is a great idea. Helps the world: For every two AfricaBikes bought, Kona donates one to home healthcare workers in Africa, which reportedly enables them to cover six times more territory in a day than on foot. About 1,500 have been donated so far, Kona says.
Dislikes: One-speed drivetrain restricts breakdowns but limits range and functionality. Rack is strong, but does not include low-placed brackets that easily balance heavy, bulky items, as do the longtails above. Small size limits cargo capacity. An option: Go to Kona's aluminum-framed, rack-integrated Ute longtail ($895).
Price: $375; $449 for three-speed AfricaBike Three. (800) KONA-USA; www.konaworld.com.
Irvine-based endurance cyclist Roy M. Wallack is the co-author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100." Reach him at email@example.com.