The Soul of a Grown Machine
Environmentally friendly and fun to ride, bamboo bikes are catching on
Some bikes are made in a factory. Others are grown in the woods.
Boutique bicycle manufacturers are vying to shake up a cycling world accustomed to machines made of metal or carbon fiber by building theirs from something more natural—think bamboo or oak. The aesthetic is unique, the ride lively, and the manufacturing method ecologically friendly, say representatives from Renovo and Calfee, two U.S. companies leading the charge.
Right now these high-end, handcrafted machines start at $2,000, and so far, only a few hundred have been made. But plans are afoot to market them for wider consumer use, and even to make low-cost models for use in developing countries.
Ken Wheeler founded Renovo in Portland, Ore., in February, with the aim of building environmentally sustainable bikes.
“It’s always bothered me that bicycles represent a clean healthy lifestyle, but the materials are anti-environmental,” he said. “The smelting of aluminum, steel, and the processing of carbon fiber, are not environmentally friendly.”
But a wooden bike is also pretty, he argues. Buyers can choose from 15 different types of wood, and the bikes are custom made in his shop. A nine-ton, Italian-built robot helps with the precision cuts, which lets Wheeler use lightweight, hollow tubes. Depending on the wood and components chosen, a bike can weigh 16 to 20 pounds, less than many aluminum and steel-framed varieties.
Joe Hall, a tri-athlete from Fairview, Ore. who rides a Renovo made from Douglas fir, says his bike is ideal for dampening vibration. “It feels solid, it’s smooth, and it’s quiet,” says Hall. “It floats over a rough road.”
To the environmental purist, there’s one snag: some parts are still made from carbon fiber, which takes lots of energy to produce.
For a bike that approaches the ideal of a “grown machine,” riders can turn to Calfee Design, near Santa Cruz, Calif., which has been making bikes from bamboo since 1999. Quick-growing bamboo has proven remarkably suited to bicycles, said James Weinberger, a repairs manager with the 15-employee company. The frame is made almost entirely from bamboo, and the joint from hemp resin hardened with an epoxy.
Like wood, bamboo offers a forgiving ride. Frames weigh a competitive four pounds. The bamboo is smoked and heat-treated before being sealed with tung oil and polyurethane to protect it against the elements. “Ten year-old frames are still going strong,” Weinberger said.
They’re strong enough for racing, too. Team Vegan, a 60-member California team of vegan riders, recently received six of the bikes. Bradley Saul, the team’s athletic director, likes their sustainability. “We were attracted to the values the bike inherently has,” says Saul. “Plus bamboo is pretty strong stuff.”
Chris Reed, a partner at Bike RX Depot in Mill Valley, Calif., agrees. “Chris Calfee got the idea when he saw [bamboo] scaffolding being used for high-rise buildings. If you look at 60 floors of scaffolding, you figure a bike will hold up.” They also ride well, endure crashes better than carbon fiber frames, and produce less waste while being manufactured, Reed said.
Solid wood bikes were pioneered in the 1830s, but proved too heavy to be practical. Lately they’ve also resurged as objets d’art: Italian designer Tino Sano and Dutch firm Beijh Concepts & Design have both designed bikes intended for viewing in galleries, not riding. But Calfee and Renovo aim firmly at the cyclist.
The sight of a wooden bike can still turn heads. Renovo has produced only 40 so far, and Calfee 140, for riders and dealers as far away as France and the Philippines. But they’re beginning to catch on more widely. In 2005, only eight percent of Calfee’s frames were bamboo; last year they accounted for 33 percent of the company’s sales.
There are skeptics, of course.
“Nobody’s ever come into my shop and asked for a bamboo bike,” said Charles McCorkell, owner of the New York City bike shop Bicycle Habitat. He also wondered whether wood or bamboo could stand up over time.
Still, you could see one on your block any time now. Team Vegan is building its fleet with Calfee’s bamboo bikes, and one Dutch firm’s proposal to develop New York City’s Governor’s Island into a park calls for including 3,000 wooden bikes for public use. Calfee is also working with Columbia University’s Earth Institute on a pilot project to see whether wooden bikes might be adapted for use in poor countries.