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Legendary bicycle builder Craig Calfee working on a handmade bamboo bicycle. (Jeff Greenwald)

Turning Bamboo Into a Bicycle

A cycling entrepreneur has turned to the durable plant as a low-tech and affordable option for building bikes

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 off 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 wheels’ metal spokes with bamboo struts: Problem solved.

Calfee, 49, grew up in Cape Cod. He worked as a bike messenger while attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and helped fabricate Olympic-class kayaks in the mid-1980s. Those two experiences 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 aviator shades, Calfee looks more like a biker than a bicycle builder. Today, his workshop in La Selva Beach assembles some of the most advanced carbon fiber racing bicycles in the world. But Calfee also focuses his attention on a lower-tech material: bamboo.

Bamboo: Stronger Than You Might Think

“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?”

“At my house,” Calfee says. “I’m riding it still.”

Bamboo is not just strong; it’s also durable, attractive and sustainable. In recent years, the widely adaptable plant—actually a fast-growing member of the grass family (Poaceae)—has provided the raw material for everything from fishing poles to bedsheets. Bicycle frames, traditionally made of welded metal tubes, are an innovative use for this plentiful resource (though not exactly new: the first bamboo bike was built in England, in 1894).

Bamboo’s secret lies in its woody fiber. Microscopic tubes in the culm (stem), called vascular bundles, give the plant a strength comparable to light steel. Weight-wise (at the same stiffness) it’s also similar to steel—though considerably heavier than carbon.

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