Turning Bamboo Into a Bicycle- page 3 | Science | Smithsonian
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

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(Continued from page 2)

Stalk handcrafts some 72 bamboo bikes a year, all built to order. And while Calfee and Bamboosero source their bamboo from Taiwan and Africa, Stalk buys mainly within California.

“Right now,” Jacobsen admits, “it’s a niche. But we hope that as sustainability becomes more desirable, bamboo bikes will become more appealing. I’ve 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.’”

Right now, Stalk charges about $1,500 for a complete, single-speed bicycle. “But we’d like to get that down below $1,000,” says Jacobsen. “Our goal is to make these affordable to more people.”

There are now about half a dozen artisans building bamboo bikes in the United States, including Organic Bikes in Wisconsin, Erba Cycles in Boston, and Renovo in Portland (a wood and bamboo blend). But the cheapest way to get one may be to build it yourself.

The Bamboo Bike Studio, with workshops in Brooklyn and San Francisco, offers hands-on classes where people with no bike-building experience at all can sign up and—for as little as $700—walk out three days later with a completed bamboo bicycle.

“After one woman finished her bike and rode it for the first time, she wept,” recalls co-founder Justin Aguinaldo. “She was amazed to learn she could do something like that.”

“We’ll soon be opening Bamboo Bike Studios in Toronto and Alabama,” says Aguinaldo, whose enthusiasm for the craft is contagious. “We’re also planning a tour, and taking the workshop on the road. There are lots of people who want to build bikes; they just can’t get to a studio. So we want to get to them.”

Also active in Africa, the Bamboo Bike Studio picked up where Calfee left off. Allied with the Earth Institute, it’s helping to launch a factory in Kumasi, Ghana. “If people can buy bikes made locally,” Aguinaldo observes, “they can avoid the higher cost of importing bikes from China.” Their ambitious goal is to turn out some 5,000 each year. The cost? About $75 a bike.

Catching Up on the Industry Leader

In 1991, Craig Calfee predicted that every bicycle in the Tour de France would be made of carbon fiber (they are). Though he doesn’t have the same aspiration for bamboo, he’d like to see the bikes gain wider traction— but that would mean rigorous field testing and quality control. Some early carbon-frame bikes had serious design and construction flaws, which hobbled their acceptance. He hopes bamboo can avoid that pitfall.

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