Bamboo bikes: green and growing

by Marie Autrey

photos by Jesse Brown

Mattress King. Lemon Ice King. The King of Queens. For an American city, New York has an awful lot of kings. You can’t go more than a couple of blocks without passing a passel of these upstart monarchs. But there are some guys in Brooklyn who might just live up to the title, although they’re too modest to claim it: they’re leading people in a new way. They’re expanding their influence across national borders. And they might just make history. Meet Sean, Justin, and Marty, Brooklyn’s Bamboo Bike kings.

"Here, look at this." Sean Murray turns the computer monitor toward me. The screen shows a page from a Victorian bicycle catalog, the frame’s tubes on it marked by a series of circumferential bumps. "Bamboo goes way back." He flips to another site, then another. Bamboo bicycles abound, all surrounded by the florid adjectives of 1890s ad copy. "We’re not inventing anything new here."

Sean is just being modest. Frames, forks, and even handlebars were made from the woody grass as early as 1892, reliant on the material’s springiness to pad that era’s dusty wagon tracks. But those were essentially steel frames with the long tubes missing, and bamboo poles socketed into the lugs. The bamboo tended not to fit closely, and shrank as it dried. Few of those frames have survived, and the ones that have, nobody dares ride. Bamboo Bicycle Studio, where Sean and the other two kings hold court, has taken the old idea and brought it into the 21st century. Furthermore, they’re preparing to spread beyond the continent, to make two-wheeled travel not onl – y sustainable and renewable, but also local.

"People are capable of building their own bikes." When Sean makes a statement like that, it’s hard not to believe him. He’s got a quietly earnest manner, and the kind of curly, not-worried-about hair you’d see on a J. Crew model. He used to teach school, and if he says you can learn calculus, or debate politics, or even build bicycles, you’re willing to give it a try. As if to prove his point, there’s a young Asian man at a workstand behind us, carefully wrapping the bottom bracket joint on a frame.

The studio is hosting a build for high school students at a downtown museum, and this guy probably didn’t skip vocational ed to be here. He’s dressed in a white oxford shirt under the rubber apron and gloves, but he’s winding carbon fiber ribbon around the tube junction, squeezing voids and bubbles from the resin with a gooey finger. At that moment, there were 117 bamboo bikes on the road, each one built by its owner. The youngest builder was 15, the oldest, 68.

Motivated velo-nuts have been building their own frames for many years, through classes at United Bicycle Institute, among others. But these are highly technical experiences, where the participant has to learn metalwork in addition to framebuilding, with classes taking 4-10 days. Bamboo’s students walk in Saturday morning and ride out on Sunday. And while a steel bike class makes a mess out of two thousand dollars, the bamboo bike – that’s bike, with wheels and components and your ass on the saddle – leaves change from a grand. (Frame-only classes are currently $632.) Clearly, these guys have found a new way of doing things. A kit and a book are in beta testing, if you’d rather not leave home. For left-coasters, a San Francisco office opened at the beginning of 2011.

But why bamboo? Why not hickory, like an axe handle, or ash wood, like an archery bow? "Bamboo comes naturally in a tube, and the density of the fibers is higher to the outside of the tube," explains Justin Aguinaldo, the second king. Justin’s shorter and slighter than his two compatriots, and moves with a studied intensity. It comes as no surprise to learn that he also works as a bike messenger. He picks up a bamboo sample from the workbench. It’s the diameter of a shot glass, as long as a pencil, and light enough that it almost doesn’t exist. The surface is the color of bread crust, hard and slick. Bamboo is composed of cellulose fibers, which run the length of the stalk, and a spongy matrix of lignin to hold the cellulose in position. It’s a little like fiberglass or reinforced concrete, combining high-tensile fibers in a hardened goo that maintains their shape.

Aside from its apparent perfection, there’s a lot to say for availability. The process starts in suburban yards in New Jersey and Staten Island. Gardeners plant bamboo as decoration but it can get out of control fast. Not confined to tropical zones, at least 18 species prosper in metro New York. Gardeners (or their neighbors) find it has spread beyond its bed, and the bike studio is happy to harvest. Stalks are selected for diameter, density, and integrity.
The green bamboo travels from the Zen garden to the workshop where it’s dried and prepped for use. No one will reveal the details of the preservation process, but it involves drying in a solar kiln, and a coat of tung oil. Many procedures at Bamboo Bike Studio change from batch to batch, tweaking ease of use, sustainability, or just to see what will work. Occasional bikes get built with deliberate flaws. Justin is clearly warming up to his topic. "You have to figure out which concerns are assumptions, and which ones are valid. So we’ll build a bike with something that we assume will break, and we’ll test it to find out."

Oddly enough, they tend not to. Test bikes have been built with extra-light bamboo, or cracked stalks. "Or bug holes," interjects Justin. "You can ride a bike with splits in it for a long time. You have to have, like, four splits (for it to fail). These bikes don’t fail catastrophically."

The bottom bracket sits in a piece of high-density foam, with little nubs that slip into the tube ends. A thick overlay of carbon fiber ribbon wraps the joint to form a weight-bearing skin. The head tube is another block of foam, pierced and steel-sleeved to accommodate a standard headset. The riding stresses are supported by the epoxy-impregnated fiber, so the foam needs less strength, and the overlay of fiber is heavy enough to make the frame look as though it grew in one piece. Justin made one bike with leftover Styrofoam cadged from a construction site. "These bicycles, you can get as complicated and technical as you want, but you can also get as simple." All the cuts are straight across, no mitering required.

BikeCAD (a bicycle frame design application) provides the measurements, and each bike’s owner performs the labor. There are never more than four students for the three teachers. "So much of our procedure relies on execution," says Justin. "So that’s why we want to give people direct assistance, without any chance of miscommunication." During my visit, the students are wrapping the joints with marine-grade carbon fiber tape. They can choose to build the Local, a bike with an upright rider position, or the racier Express. Both are single-cog, so that chain slap won’t chew up the chainstay, and have 700c wheels.

So, how does it ride? Sean rolls his personal bike into the foyer. "It’s like, the worst frame I ever built. Took maybe six hours." Like any bike geek, I heft it: lighter than my Columbus Aelle-tubed fixie, but not radically so. After an embarrassing period of re-teaching my SPD feet about toe clips, I’m rolling. I’d expected it to sound like a sailboat in a storm, all creaks and groans, but it’s silent and solid. The sensation is of flying low to the ground: the pavement blurs by, but without the expected jar and clatter. A couple of hard sprints, with a lot of handlebar yanking, fail to upset it. Some lightly built frames let the head tube torque side to side, giving a disconcerting yaw under hard acceleration. Maybe a stronger rider could twist this one up, but maybe not. Even on some 19th century cobblestone, it remains unharried. All Bamboo Bike Studio frames (except the betas) use the same amount of joint wrap, the same lugs, the same types of bamboo. Maybe those Victorian inventors were on to something.

But making handcrafted bikes, as personal as your own thumbprint, isn’t the point. Like a great many monarchs, the bamboo kings are invading another country. This time, it’s Ghana. Why Ghana? Justin says, "It kind of got picked for us." The United Nations and Columbia University’s Millennium Cities initiative were looking to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and bamboo bikes seemed like a good fit. "They had bamboo there, they used bikes there, and the bikes were terrible." Ghanaian craftsmen will build and sell bikes that other Ghanaians can afford, using locally sourced materials. Hence the emphasis on sustainability, natural ingredients, and simplicity. If a Brooklynite snaps his bamboo frame, he rides the subway til he can fix it. But if it happens in Ghana, the rider can’t get crops to market or water to his home.

The Ghana bike resembles neither of the Brooklyn models. It’s based on mountain bike wheels, with an extended rear triangle and a substantial bamboo rack built in. A low, sloping top tube allows easy mounting, and makes it as accessible to women as to men. It’s got a coaster brake for simplicity. "Externally geared bikes were just out of the question, not just the front end, but on down the road," Justin explained. They expect to produce these bikes for about fifty dollars each, half the cost of the used-up Chinese cycles currently dominating the Ghanaian market. An investor has already leased a factory space in Kumasi and secured local commitments for harvesting labor. They expect to be in full production by the time you read this.

And what about Marty Odlin, the third king? When the studio was building frames with high school kids at a Manhattan museum, he was there, quietly encouraging the participants, then offering to run out for lunch. At the studio in Brooklyn, he hung back and let Sean be voluble and charming. With his deferential manner and basketball-star good looks, you might think he was the summer intern. But of the three kings, only Marty’s resume shows an engineering degree. The photos I saw from Ghana show Marty in the factory, out harvesting bamboo, and instructing the locals. Previously, he worked at K2 Sports in product design and development, and his engineering studies focused on sustainability.

Maybe that’s the way with kings: real power can be silent, its influence felt but not heard. It’s not mouthy salesmen and marketing blitzes that change the world; it’s the people who pick up tools and suitcases and bring people a way to help themselves. And three guys down by the piers in New York are doing just that. Justin puts it more modestly: "We’re just trying to get more people on bikes."

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