What? A Bamboo Bicycle?
Some of them might look a little silly—brown and fat, with swollen joints like an injured high-school basketball player. But Craig Calfee, the respected (and highly successful) pioneer of carbon fiber bicycle frames, swears by their strength, their flexibility, and their ecological value.
Story and photography by JEFF GREENWALD
Bicycle designer Craig Calfee likes to talk about the time a film crew tried to stress-test one of his bamboo bike frames. Three men—each weighing about 200 pounds—piled onto one of the two-wheelers in his California showroom, and away they went. The ride didn’t last very long.
“The bamboo frame held up just fine,” Calfee recalls with a grin. “But the wheels collapsed.“ For the next test, Calfee supplemented the metal wheel spokes with bamboo struts: Problem solved.
In 1991, with the support of three-time champion Greg LeMond, Calfee built the first all-carbon bicycles to compete in the Tour de France
Calfee, who grew up in Cape Cod, worked as a bike messenger in the mid-1980s while attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a highly regarded school of design. In his off-hours, he helped fabricate Olympic-class kayaks. Those two experiences eventually synergized into designing and building carbon fiber bicycle frames. In 1991, with the support of three-time champion Greg LeMond, he built the first all-carbon bicycles to compete in the Tour de France.
Dressed in a casual black jacket and shades, Calfee, now 54, looks more like a biker than a bicycle builder. Today, his workshop in La Selva Beach in Santa Cruz, Calif., assembles some of the most advanced carbon fiber racing bicycles in the world. But Calfee focuses almost equal attention on a more prosaic material: bamboo.
“One afternoon, in 1995, my dog Luna and I started playing with a bamboo stick. I was sure it would break, or splinter—but it didn’t. I’d never realized how strong bamboo was. It inspired me, and I built my first bamboo bike as a gimmick for a trade show.”
“Where is it now?”“In the ‘permanent collection’—hanging on the wall next to my first carbon bike.”
Bamboo is not just strong; it’s also durable, attractive, and sustainable. In recent years, the widely distributed plant—a fast-growing member of the grass family (Poaceae)—has provided the raw material for everything from fishing poles to flooring to bed sheets. Bicycle frames, traditionally made of welded metal tubes, are an inventive use for this plentiful plant (though not exactly new: the first bamboo bike was built in England, in 1894).
Bamboo’s secret lies in the quality of its fiber. Microscopic tubes in the culm (stem), called vascular bundles, give the plant a strength comparable to light steel. It’s also similar to steel in terms of weight (at the same stiffness), though considerably heavier than carbon.
“What a bamboo frame has that all other bicycle frame materials lack,” says Craig Calfee, “is vibration damping. Bamboo wins head and shoulders above everything else for smoothness and absorbing vibration.”
“The idea of bamboo bikes has really grasped people,” Calfee says. “People generally want to live in harmony with nature; it’s an instinctive thing. And when you see the frame of a bamboo bike, you immediately understand that we’re combining technology and nature in a direct way.”
Bamboo bike frames are assembled using two techniques. First, the heat-treated poles are measured, cut and mitered together. Then—since welding isn’t possible—the joints are wrapped. “We use fiberglass casting tape,” Calfee says, “the kind they use to set broken bones, instead of our old mix of epoxy and fiber. It’s a much cleaner process. And it’s very fast, curing in 10 minutes.”
“What a bamboo frame has that all other bicycle frame materials lack,” Calfee observes, “is vibration damping. Bamboo wins head and shoulders above everything else for smoothness and absorbing vibration—both of which contribute to a comfortable ride.”
A ride along the coastal bluffs bears this out. The path is packed dirt, rutted by the recent rains. But the ride never feels stiff or jarring. A hundred yards west, the Pacific ocean froths with whitecaps. I feel at one with the bamboo frame beneath me: a comfortable blend of state-of-the-art and Flintstones technology.
Along with their artisan appeal, the availability of bamboo makes these bikes an ideal cottage industry for the developing world. Calfee is already tapping into this potential. His signature bikes, made in California, run upwards of $3,000. But he also directs a project in the Congo, the Transport to Market Bicycle Project (see below).
During the early 1980s, Calfee traveled across Africa and developed an affection for the continent. “Transport in the Congo is a real challenge, because of the terrain, lack of fuel and difficulty maintaining roads,” says Calfee. “Bicycles stand out as the obvious solution.”
During nearly a dozen trips to Africa during the past ten years, Calfee has taught bamboo bicycle frame construction in Ghana, Uganda, and Zambia. Many of the companies he helped create now operate as bamboo-bike cottage industries. Some export to Europe, others build just for local use.
Building with bamboo does present its challenges. Unlike steel or carbon, you can’t just order tubes to precise specifications. “It’s inconsistent in shape, size, thickness, and diameter,” noted Lars Jacobsen, who co-founded the now defunct Stalk Bicycles in Oakland, California. “And dependability. If you’re building these things, you can’t just jump in headlong. It takes a lot of experience with the material to see what’s going to work and what’s not.”
“It’s a niche,” Jacobsen admitted. “But we hope that as sustainability becomes more desirable, bamboo bikes will become more appealing. I sold most of our bikes just by taking mine on public transit. I’m not riding up and down the train car; people approach me. ‘Is that really bamboo? Is it strong? How much does it weigh?’ It really helps us win the perception battle—where we face preconceptions about bamboo being ‘weak’ or ‘primitive.’”
After Stalk shut its doors in 2013, Jacobsen sold bamboo parts for a while, then left the bike trade to pursue an engineering and physics degree. Calfee, meanwhile, offers DIY kits, designed for groups and classes, at Shopcalfee.com. “You can make a beautiful bamboo bike if you do your own labor,” Calfee says. His tool set costs $600, and many types and sizes of frame can be made from it, with materials for one frame available for $200.
So far, the process of getting the DIY kits into classrooms (right now, the focus is on the high school level) is still in its test phase; although this 2015 video of Calfee’s bamboo bicycle workshop at the Qatar branch of Virginia Commonwealth University shows that the concept is sound. Four completed bikes emerged from workshop, using four tool sets, in four days. “The pressure was on,” says Calfee. “It normally doesn’t go that fast.” Calfee hopes for an official roll-out of his educational projects this fall.
There are now about a half dozen artisans building bamboo bikes in the U.S., including Greenstar Bikes in Minneapolis; Erba Cycles in Boston; and Renovo in Portland, Oregon, which makes a hardwood and bamboo blend. (These bikes sell for a wide range of prices, so if this option appeals, you can learn more about these vendors, and quickly get to their bikes, through our sidebar to the right, “Looking to ride some bamboo?”) But the fastest-growing market seems to be in Europe, with many companies importing their frames from Africa.
Calfee is keeping a hand in the enterprise, selling bamboo bike craftsmen the metal parts they need and helping them import hard-to-get materials such as epoxy. “The small scale builders I trained in Ghana, Zambia, Uganda, and the Philippines have all grown into small businesses,” he says.
His current focus, though, is fat-tire bamboo cargo bikes which, with electric motors, are ideal for seaside resorts. “That’s a retail product we could sell here in America,” he says. “So rather than get into the regular bikes in Africa, we’re doing one-size-fits-all electric bamboo beach cruisers.”
In 1991, Craig Calfee predicted that every bicycle in the Tour de France would one day be made of carbon fiber. Within eight years, he was right. Though he doesn’t have the same aspiration for bamboo, he is exposing them to continual field-testing and quality control. Some early carbon-frame bikes had serious design and construction flaws, which hobbled their acceptance. Bamboo, he hopes, can avoid that pitfall.
“A lot of people think that bamboo bikes are easy to make, so quite a few people have tried,” he says. “But bikes in general are difficult to build. When you design a structure that can hold a 200-pound person rolling down a mountain at 40 miles per hour, there’s a lot of risk involved.”
Despite the risks, though, the beauty and sustainability of bamboo keeps Calfee inspired. And while there always will be artisans producing high-ticket bicycles with modern materials, bamboo bikes seem to be getting embraced most enthusiastically by the DIY market.
“This new phase gives me a lot of hope,” Calfee says. “Because it’s the people who build their own bikes who become real bike enthusiasts.”
To learn about Calfee’s bamboo bike project in Congo, see The Transport to Market Bicycle Project.
And if you’re interested in purchasing a bamboo bike, don’t forget to read our short article, “Looking to ride some bamboo?” in the right sidebar column above.