As I write this, its been about two years since I received my first cargo bike in a box: A dirt-cheap $750 Mongoose Envoy. I planned from the beginning to completely tear it down and only use the donor frame. The Envoy is what you would call a midtail. Not huge, but still pretty big.
I found I liked the cargo bike concept so much, I wanted to go bigger. Next I built up a Surly Big Fat Dummy (BFD). That bike is as big as they come in terms of a side-loading (panniers) cargo bike. Its a longtail.
I ran around for about a year on the BFD, putting about 1600 miles on it. I used it for an everything-bike: cargo, shopping, commuting and even mild-difficulty offroad trails. As oversized as it was, I found it fun and practical and had no plans to leave it behind. I could have stopped here.
But I do love a project. Almost on a whim, in early 2021 I called a USA dealer for the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt and asked if they had frames in stock. They did. So I built a third, completely different kind of cargo bike: A frontloader. also commonly known by its Dutch name of bakfiets (“box bike”).
The Bullitt is my newest arrival in the stable … but I already have over 1300 miles on it. What does that tell you?
Which do I prefer, and why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Where are the hidden gotchas? Being in an unusual position to have experienced them all directly, and to have them all still in front of me, here goes nuthin’:
The Mid Tail (Mongoose Envoy)
What Was I Thinking?
I wanted a cargo bike without spending big money for one. I wasn’t sure I would like the idea. Cargo bikes are crazy-expensive. Cheaper ones are only really expensive. This one was downright reasonable.
In the DIY ebike community, a Mongoose bike is considered a great donor if you are looking for a strong, reliable frame as the foundation of a build. The Mongoose Dolomite borders on legendary in this regard. Great bones, so to speak.
The Envoy is exactly this. It presents as a low-cost bike complete with included big panniers and wideloaders, so it can effectively be put to work right out of the box. You can do exactly that, although some parts are in sore need of an upgrade (the brakes, in particular).
So in the end, I built myself a very capable bike with top quality components. Lets focus on the resulting platform advantages/disadvantages rather than getting hung up on those components. I wrote a whole series on that build so we can let it stand separately.
What Is It Good At?
If you are on a budget, this is perhaps the best way to start
A mid can be a lower cost to buy into. Cargo bikes are notoriously expensive so this may be a deciding factor. You can do as I did and buy into the Envoy as a donor platform; then upgrade incrementally as time and budget permits… but the frame is the frame so if you find yourself wishing for more capacity, thats the hard limit of a mid tail. Still, even after a complete rebuild with top components I ended up spending half or less of what a more grownup cargo bike would have cost me.
It has surprisingly good cargo capacity
This may be more true if you go and roll your own cargo bags the way I did. At about 77L each bag, my Great Big Bags are quite a lot larger than the ones included with the Envoy. Bags the size of what I built are darn near the biggest out there (Yuba makes 80L bags guaranteed only to fit their own bikes).
Big bags mean big volume, but not big weight capacity. Your wheels and frame will dictate that. Different bikes have different specs so be sure to find out what the bikes you are considering can carry, both for cargo and total system, which is the weight of the bike, rider and cargo. You have to do some digging, but Mongoose publishes a 130-lb maximum cargo capacity for the Envoy (they do not publish a system weight limit). They break it down to 90 lbs on the center rear rack and 20 lbs each for the wideloaders.
Reality is a pannier load will hang off the center rack and be bolstered by the wideloaders, so the lower number for the side rack is not worrisome. Especially since I added some extra bracing to enhance the wideloaders’ strength.
Speaking of strength, If you are looking to stretch any bike’s carry capacity, look to beefing up the wheels. In particular wider rims so you can fit larger tires.
Mongoose developers employed by the company who posted in internet forums at the time of the Envoy’s release stated these limits were not, strictly speaking, upper limits and represented what Mongoose had safely tested during product development. If I hadn’t done a bunch of research I would not have known this. So do some digging on Facebook cargo groups and look for online forum posts (this is true no matter what bike platform you are considering) for details and experiences on the bike you are researching.
I was carrying two double-wide sleeping bags and pillows so this is not the heavy load it appears to be.
It is not supersized
A midtail Is bigger than a regular bike, but its not enormous. Its a LOT easier to manipulate around a crowded garage. The mid-size nature of it also makes it easier to ride in tighter spaces. Please note that my midtail IS 8 feet long thanks to the 46″ longboard deck I put on the back. I highly recommend the skateboard deck as a cool mod, but remember moderation is not always a dirty word. My first, shorter 33″ deck may be a more sensible choice.
Given the limited garage space at the Envoy’s new home, I may pull off the 46″ deck (left image above) and go back to the original shorter deck. I’d need to re-mount it one set of rack bosses further inward. Or something.
Skinny, flatless tires, or mid-size? I stuck with the big poofy ones due to their increased load capacity and amazing difference in ride comfort.
What Does It Suck At?
Its not a truly heavy-duty cargo bike
…in the sense that its not the right bike to repeatedly, regularly use the kind of available extra space I have given the bike, with its upgraded panniers, front rack etc. If you are planning to go truly XXL on your cargo bike’s duty cycle, a midtail is probably not the smart choice.
Balance is a serious challenge
Balance while riding when loaded heavy can be a significant effort. The nature of a mid-tail bike means you are hanging stuff off the sides to carry along with you. As in: Panniers. Maybe even supersized cargo-bike-sized panniers (plus more bags on the front rack). When you start getting to be really serious about your loads then balance naturally becomes an issue.
I’ll bet balance under load is the reason Mongoose sells the Envoy with large – but inexplicably narrow – panniers. Only a lawyer working for the manufacturer could love a bag like that.
While I haven’t personally experienced this, I have heard many smaller women state that having kids on the back of their bike is not a great situation. In addition to kids being kids (squirmy and fidgety) their weight is very high up in back which can make the bike a challenge to safely balance when standing still. This is all dependent on the individual rider and the size of the child or children.
Does my mid-tail have a place in my stable?
Yes it does. I am lucky enough to have two homes, one of which is in a very hilly area where distances are short, the climate is mild and my shopping needs are lighter. Despite many steep hills its a lot easier place to ride a bike around. The Envoy is my shopping bike at that residence. Being smaller than the other two behemoths discussed below, it also fits better in my smaller available garage space.
Is it an auto replacement?
Not quite. I still have and need a car to supplement this bike. If I wanted to pack 50 lb gravel bags home 1 at a time, I could use the bike. Or take the car and bring home 8 of them. The mid tail is good for maybe 90% of my local car trips.
The Long Tail (Surly Big Fat Dummy)
What Was I Thinking?
Having loaded my midtail to the point where I was thinking I had maybe outgrown it, I wanted something bigger. In particular, the increase in ride comfort and quality when I went to plus-sized tires on the Envoy made it clear that fat tires – with much larger air volume and taller load-bearing sidewalls – were a big plus for a bike that carried a lot of weight around as its job.
One thing I have learned in my cycling life is that, where equipment is concerned, don’t take half measures. Its a lesson that has bonked me on the head time and again. At the time I figured this was one more of those hard-way lessons when I supersized to a fat longtail. The Surly Big Fat Dummy personifies the expression ‘Go Big or Go Home’. Thats what I was after: a rolling freight train capable of handling heavy loads.
What Is It Good At?
“Wow thats quite a bike.” “Dude that thing is cool.” “Jesus H. Christ what in the hell is that?” Allow for time to have conversations if you park it in a shopping center. Pull up a shopping cart to this thing and spend 15 minutes loading it and it will be a rare thing to get through that task without a passerby stopping to strike up a conversation. Also windows rolled down at stoplights. At 8 feet long, with wideloaders added, a skateboard deck almost 4 feet long and oh yeah the biggest tires and deep dish carbon fiber wheels… People notice, and they like it.
Don’t think this is unique to me because I have made the bike into a rolling spectacle. Fact is, cargo bikes in the USA are still a rare sight and many people have no idea what they are looking at.
I mean really big. There have been a few news stories over the years where someone blows a gasket, steals an army tank and runs amok on city streets, bulldozing over stuff, causing panic and generally doing the things we all wish we could do while stuck in a traffic jam. Riding a ginormous longtail is a little like that. You can pretty much roll over anything. Nobody feels compelled to step in front of you and it sure seems like you are sitting about a foot higher in the saddle than you would be on any other bike (you’re not but it feels like it). You’ve got a level of stability that just isn’t possible on any other bicycle, fat tired or otherwise thanks to the long wheelbase that crosses the county line.
Some of what I am colorfully describing here is specific to the Big Fat Dummy, but really the whole ‘big’ thing is true of really big cargo bikes period.
Steel is real, and the chromoly frame does have some flex in it to make your ride nice and comfy. This is not the bike for the super efficient cyclist to pursue the World Hour Record in. Its a bus. Even longtails made with stiffer alloy frames will get some flex into them due to the sheer length of the frame.
It can carry a lot of stuff
More than you can load into it. I branched out and expanded the carry capacity on my midtail with a front rack for two more panniers. Well, utilizing my Version 2.0 Big Bags, the longtail has more than 270 (Two Hundred and Seventy) liters of rear pannier capacity, supported with a 9″ wide floor integrated into the frame. PLUS the nearly 4-foot long aircraft carrier deck in back, AND the front handlebar basket. A front rack would be stupid overkill. Figure the increased carry capacity is the reason a longtail exists vs. a midtail. Do not bother considering one that doesn’t have the ability to carry a lot, as thats the reason they exist in the first place.
My record on this bike was actually on my first shopping trip. Four 36-paks of soda cans, two per side, plus some boxes of crackers and another 20 -30 lbs of bike lock and tools (mostly the big bike lock). When all was said and done, I was at a total system weight of well over 500 lbs, and those great big bags were filled out and full. The many-miles-long ride home was fortunately on a bike path with underpasses and almost no street traffic. And still it was very tense – not to mention slow going. There’s no way my midtail would have been able to handle that, even if I had bags big enough to do it.
What Does It Suck At?
Its. Freaking. Big.
If you don’t have plenty of parking space, you are screwed. Plain and simple. That means at home and any other place where you expect to regularly park this thing.
Broadening the above narrow point by a bit: Pick any problem you care to name associated with XXL size. A longtail has that. Will it matter to you? There’s the question. I have found that despite the size, the BFD is surprisingly nimble once I got used to it. Will your longtail of choice be so forgiving? Better do some in-depth test riding to find out.
It has all the balance issues of a midtail
Only those issues are magnified. Now… don’t get me wrong here. Lots of people ride these bikes and their worlds do not end. In fact the balance issues I am digging in on are just a fact of life for most cargo bikers. But this is likely because they simply don’t know any better as the next entry in this comparison is something of a rarity in North America, so almost nobody knows how much of a difference there is.
We’ve crossed over into the land of proper cargo bikes, and this is big money territory. Unpowered, the Big Fat Dummy listed for over $3,000 and thats before you put the motor in, or build your wideloaders or do anything else. The BFD is no longer in production, but the electrified Big Easy lists for $5249. Thats not expensive for a proper longtail that is manufactured with components you can expect to be reliable and long lasting, as well as a motor you can count on to actually work right under heavy load – both in hills and the flatlands.
Does it have a place in my stable?
Yes, but only because the one I own is a special type that includes bikepacking and trails in its toolkit. There is nothing I dislike about my longtail. Once you embrace the horror of riding a bike this size, it expands your idea of what a bicycle can be and what you can do with it. ‘Auto replacement’ starts becoming a reality for more than just moving yourself and your kids around.
If it weren’t for the fact that the Bullitt was a project that was calling my name, I would still be riding the Surly Big Fat Dummy day in, day out. Although I have configured it to be happiest on trails (and overland … where there are no trails) it is still perfectly usable as a commuter, as a go-to-the-store bike or even as a trail bike.
Is it an auto replacement?
At this size and carry capacity, it could be, easily. I have carried three fifty pound bags of gravel on it (one on each side and one on the top, center). I’ve loaded a full shopping cart. My child is all grown up now but if she were still small she could ride on the back. A longtail is pretty much an auto replacement unless you need to take long trips out of town.
The Front Loader (Larry vs. Harry Bullitt)
What Was I Thinking?
I built it because I can. Honestly I did not need this bike. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to ride the thing. Or that I would like it. But I did know of the Bullitt’s reputation and the devoted following that all bakfiets riders seem to have for the platform. Plus I had an idea for a new approach to a two-motor AWD build that I wanted to put in play (Spoiler Alert: it came out freaking awesome).
What Is It Good At?
Nobody knows what to make of it, but everybody likes it. I get asked all the time if you can fit a dog in the cargo box and of course lots of people do that, I respond. Just like the longtail, people want to know all about it. Just yesterday a couple in a car next to me at an intersection wanted to know if I would build them one (sorry I already have a job).
Load carrying is nothing short of unbelievable
As in unbelievably easy. Mid- and longtails use big panniers. These have to be load-balanced, as of course they involve hanging stuff off the sides. That means as payload increases, balance is a progressively more difficult challenge.
Not with a frontloader. At all. You just don’t notice the load is even there at first. Seriously, thats no exaggeration. When I started out with my first full supermarket load on the Bullitt, I thought something was wrong. I rolled away from the curb easy as pie with no consequences whatsoever to stability or balance.
It rides just like it does when its empty … until you hit the brakes. The laws of physics still apply and you have all the inertia of your extra weight load. But no balance penalty. And it feels like a miracle. On my longtail, when I loaded my 100+ lb Costco cart payload, I made it home rolling at about 8-10 mph… and that was too fast. Anything that got in my way like a pothole, small child or line of baby ducks… sayonara, sucker. No way could I make any sort of avoidance maneuver without crashing to the ground. No such problem with a bakfiets.
Loading it is the easiest by far
With a mid- or a longtail, you have panniers. My Great Big Bags are convenient, but they still have to be unstrapped, opened up, loaded evenly from side to side and then re-strapped to help support the load.
With a frontloader? Forget ALL of that. Its a great big open box. Just chuck your crap into it and go. Its also centered on the bike… so load balancing? Not something you care about anymore. Straps? Its a box. No straps. A lid, even? Entirely optional. My Bullitt is sized so the same great big duffel bag I used for the Great Big Bags 2.0 fits right into it: I can toss my stuff into the bag (which also eliminates rattling) and then lift it right out and carry it inside when I get home.
Do the math on that: its carry capacity is about half that of the longtail. In truth, you can stack stuff in the box higher so its not half, but its still a bit less. The increase in ease of carry and loading makes that loss of capacity worth it. Plus, I added a rear rack that lets me plug in a couple of 30L panniers, so I am gaining back still more of the capacity I lost vs. the longtail.
Its capable of as much range as you care to give it
My under-floor battery box could have easily taken a bigger battery if I had cared to put one in. I thought 32ah of 52v power was plenty. My ass wears out in the saddle before the battery does.
Is it an auto replacement?
As much as a bicycle can be, yes it is. The frontloader gives you enough cargo capability to meet most reasonable needs, while adding in grab-and-go convenience and ease of use under heavy load, both of which are lacking in a midtail or longtail by comparison.
What Does It Suck At?
Steering takes some getting-used-to
Its a little twitchy compared to any normal bicycle. You get the hang of it in about a day. In fact, switching from the Bullitt to any other bicycle is difficult. The first time I took 2Fat (a titanium-framed 2wd fatty) out after riding the Bullitt for a few weeks, I thought something was wrong with the bike. I was wobbling all over the place and couldn’t keep the bike straight. I had gotten used to the kind of subconscious correction necessary when there is a 20″ wheel 5 feet in front of you. You don’t realize its so different until you switch back to a normal bike. The solution is to make frequent switches back and forth to your other bikes.
Just like the longtail, a bakfiets is so big you had better have lots of space to park it. The Bullitt is just as long as my Surly but, thankfully, a lot narrower so there’s that at least. Parking this bike at a bike rack you have to park on one end or the other and face the bike sideways. Otherwise, you could end up taking the entire width of the sidewalk with the bike sticking out from the rack.
While the longtail tossed aside the whole idea of being budget-friendly, a proper bakfiets casts your budget aside by doing the breakup via text messaging. Its likely going to be brutal on your wallet. How brutal? An electrified Bullitt is going to run in excess of $6200. Probably you’ll be in for 7 grand by the time you have added in extras like a cargo box. Something like what I did? Well… thats more. Think thats how bad it gets? Price an electrified Riese & Müller Load 75. They start at over $9,000 and can be optioned up past $14,000. That $3,000 Mongoose build is starting to look a lot more attractive, right? Are less expensive options out there? Of course. But this bike is the apex predator of more than just crates and packages. Its coming after your wallet.
Does it have a place in my stable?
Duh. Why do you think I wrote this one up last? If you were reading above you already know how pleased I am with it. The Bullitt has become my commuter as well as my exclusive utility/shopping/runaround bike. You get used to driving around a bike that has a great big open box that you can just dump whatever into without a care for cargo management. Bunch of stuff come to the office from Amazon today? Toss it in and go. Need a three bags of cement at Home Depot? Do a curbside delivery order, have them bring them to you and toss them in (er… gently).
So given the choice to start over, which would I pick? Thats a tough one. Soon after I built the Bullitt and put it into service, I would have sworn it was the one bike to rule them all. But having lived with the Bullitt for a while and spent some time pondering what to do with the other two, it turns out I’m glad I have all three. And two garages.
The Frontloader Wins (city cargo bike)
If I need an on-road cargo bike+commuter, the Bullitt frontloader is the choice, hands down. The other two are not even close.
Thats not because of the brand or model of bikes in this informal competition. A bakfiets embodies a fundamental shift in the physics of cargo bikes that cannot be overcome by any bike that has to balance its load to the sides, with the rider further balancing the bike as it travels. A frontloader carries the load low – which is a big benefit all by itself – and centered, in front of the rider. The fanciest midtail or longtail in the world cannot overcome or even approach this inherent physical, mechanical advantage. Ride one once with a passenger or two bags of pea gravel and you’ll immediately, intuitively understand.
On top of that, a frontloader has convenience a mid- or longtail cannot approach. It is SO nice to just walk up, chuck your stuff into a big open box and go. No balancing, no fiddling with straps, no packing. Its just a big can on wheels. Since I do not have space issues with parking at home or at work, I don’t care that it needs a hangar to park inside. At stores, I can always find a parking space for it.
And… just because I don’t ride it on trails doesn’t mean its never done. You’ll find plenty who do this, although to be fair we’re usually talking about dirt roads on cross-country camping adventures, not an afternoon bombing down a mountainside. Do your research on your chosen bakfiets as some are more suited to off-roading than others.
July 31, 2023:
I liked the front-loading Bullitt so much, I built another one. I split my time living in two different towns, one where the land is all flat, and one where its mostly hills. The green Bullitt lives where the land is all flat. I found that while I had a bike I could ride, I missed the benefits of the frontloader so much I avoided riding when I would have to be on my long- or midtail for local errands.
This second one is geared for REALLY steep hills, and has a number of improvements in how I built it, since I learned some stuff doing v1.0 and all. The knobby Maxxis Minion 2.40″ front tire, and the fairly knobby Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour in back are necessary due to the deep, drifting sand I have to deal with on the Central Coast where the urban bike path is literally running along the beach in places.
The Long-Tail Also Wins (for trail-capability)
I have to say that most of my likes for a longtail stem from the Surly Big Fat Dummy’s unique properties as a fat bike. If we’re just talking longtail without the trails and wilderness capability, then I don’t see a reason to pick this platform over a frontloader.
But … If I need a bike that I can ride all terrain, where there are trails, or no trails at all, or on a camping trip where I ride thru the forest to gather firewood, or hump it up and down a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, its the Surly Big Fat Dummy for me. 4.8″ to 5.05″ tires air’d down along with front suspension means this bike can go pretty much anywhere. It takes more time and effort to load it up, sure. But when the road goes away, the Big Fat Dummy is a BFD. Its fun. Its crazy big. It can climb insane grades. Did I mention fun? And it can also run on the street, but thats not its forte.
What it lacks vs. the frontloader is load stability. Its a major handful to balance compared to the frontloader, whose solidity cannot be overstated. If I lived in a rural area with dirt roads, something like a BFD or a Salsa Blackborow might be a necessary choice.
The Mid-Tail Doesn’t Lose
If I am short on space to park, I’m not quite up to muscling around a two-wheeled locomotive, my needs aren’t in the big leagues (and I won’t have buyers remorse when I realize I bought into a lesser example of the genre), then a midtail is the one to pick. Its capability may be less but so are its demands on your muscles and the square footage in your garage. And motorwise, with a strong mid drive giving you assist that will stand up to hills while loaded with cargo, its every bit as capable and powerful as the others, with all the range you could ever want, so long as you pay the piper and put in a battery big enough to match your needs.
So for better or for worse, thats my take on these three different cargo bikes. Hopefully you’ve found some observation or other useful in here amongst these ramblings to help you on your own search.