For well over a hundred years bike frames were made of steel, and nothing else. Then along came aluminum – stiffer and lighter. Titanium took lightness and strength even further and some frame builders even experimented with exotic alloys of scandium and magnesium. Carbon fiber is now the material of choice for high-end machines, but recently a new material has popped up.
About Bamboo is a type of grass and grows incredibly quickly – up to a meter a day – and there’s plenty of it about. Bamboo has a lot of characteristics which bike builders really like. It’s lightweight, strong, has good longitudinal stiffness and good vibration damping characteristics, making it comfortable. In fact it compares favorably to carbon fiber in all areas. Throw the facts that it’s fast growing and cheap into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a potential winner.
All well and good, but can it really be used to build bikes? It can, and is being used, from simple low-tech designs in Africa to high end racing machines in America.
Bamboo is a natural product and has to be treated before it can be used. An attack of woodworm on the frame could be catastrophic. So before a frame is built the bamboo is heat-treated to kill any bugs and to dry it out. It then has a resin coating applied, which protects the bamboo. The tubes are joined together using hemp, which like bamboo is a natural product and expands and contracts in tune with the bamboo.
Bamboo bikes are catching on. And they’re not just ridden by environmental evangelists who’ll compromise performance for green credibility. Calfee Design is a high-end cycle manufacturer that has built bikes for riders on the professional circuit. They have been producing bamboo bikes since 2005 and now make racing and mountain bikes from bamboo. Of course, they’re not cheap. They’re hand built (it takes around 40 hours to build one frame) and you can expect to pay around $2000 for the frame alone.
Bamboo bikes are praised for their ride comfort. Because bamboo flexes they’re extremely comfortable (aluminum, which has limited flex is renowned for its harsh ride). And they’re fast too, transferring power from the pedal to the wheels quickly.
Bamboo bike building is a fairly low-tech process and can be run as a cottage industry (unlike building bikes from carbon fiber). If bamboo bikes catch on it will be great news for developing countries that grow bamboo and manufacture bamboo products. Bike building can bring employment and skills to areas which really need them. But first of all bamboo has to enter the consciousness of the cycling public; perhaps it’s time for some high profile cyclists to forego carbon fiber in favor of bamboo, and see if a few wins can propel bamboo bikes into the big league. -MARK LEE