How the Bamboo Bicycle Club Evoked the Memory of My Father

Bamboo bicycle, By Ji-Elle [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Bamboo bicycle, By Ji-Elle [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons


Last updated May 2, 2019

Bamboo bicycles have clear advantages over their counterparts. Read on to learn about bicycle frame materials and the Bamboo Bicycle Club, an organization that sells bamboo bicycle kits while providing world-wide education and support for people building their very own bamboo bicycles.


Often, it’s chance encounters that evoke the memory of a loved one. That’s what happened when I came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club on Twitter. Though, granted, social media platforms cannot guarantee a direct line to departed friends and family members. Unsurprisingly, the odds are slim. It’s in the fine print. But I got lucky: Serendipity followed me on Twitter, which led me to the Bamboo Bicycle Club, which apprised me of bamboo bicycles, which brought to mind my cycling days and a backroad bike trip I took with my father in 1979. And that’s a ride I’ll always remember.

A bike ride to remember

It was Christmas break of my first year at a small college in Mississippi, and I had flown to Stockton, California, to spend the holidays with family. At the time, my father was a member of a local cycling club and had signed the two of us up for a ride in the Sierra Foothills, which began in Jackson, California, and ended in Volcano, California, about a twelve-mile trek up winding, two-lane backroads. The reward at the top was pancakes and eggs at the Volcano Union Inn + Pub—a converted 1880s saloon and boarding house—before making our descent back to Jackson with laden bellies.

I hadn't thought about that trip in years, until crossing paths with the Bamboo Bicycle Club on Twitter. Bumping into them stirred long-forgotten memories and strengthened the ties between me and my father, who passed away in 2009. But at the time, I was unaware of bamboo bicycles. How could a bicycle made of bamboo stand up to the rigors of cycling? The thought of this piqued my interest.

Me and my father, 1978 Mendocino, Ca, from family collection

Me and my father, 1978 Mendocino, Ca, from family collection

About bamboo bicycles

early history of bamboo bikes

The Bamboo Cycle Company Ltd. first introduced bamboo bicycles to the public in London, England, in 1894. In fact, based on customer reviews, these early models enjoyed a loyal following among the wealthy. But as technology advanced, steel frames became an affordable option for a wider audience. So the bamboo bicycle business waned until recently with our culture’s shift to more sustainable goods.

craig calfee revives the bamboo bike movement

But a review of bamboo bicycle history would not be complete without a tribute to bike designer Craig Calfee, who got the idea to build a bamboo bike frame one afternoon in 1995 after he and his dog had been playing with a bamboo stick. He observed that the stick didn’t easily split or break. So he decided to build a bamboo bicycle as a fun project. Calfee went on to build bamboo frames for other bike enthusiasts and has used his bamboo bike construction skills to mentor small-scale builders in Africa and the Philippines.

bamboo bikes and diy kits

Because bamboo bicycles tend to be pricey, DIY bamboo bike kits have gained traction around the world. And their popularity appears to be growing, hence my encounter with the Bamboo Bicycle Club on social media. Though to fully appreciate the advantages of bamboo frames, I think it’s helpful to consider other bicycle frame materials, too.

bicycle frame materials

Frame materials used in making bicycles include aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, steel and wood.

Aluminum

Compared to other materials, aluminum frames have a short lifespan. So repairing them is costly. Also, aluminum frames are made from virgin aluminum, which uses open-pit mining, a manufacturing process with a hefty carbon footprint. But on the positive side, aluminum bike frames are recyclable.

Titanium

Unlike aluminum frames, Titanium frames are durable. But because titanium is difficult to extract and weld, it creates a lot of waste. And titanium frames are expensive.

Carbon fiber

Carbon fiber frames, although light and strong, have a habit of failing. And they aren't recyclable, not to mention that the carbon fiber industry emits a lot of greenhouse gases.

Steel

A steel bicycle frame can last a lifetime. It’s strong, recyclable and its CO₂ emissions are one-third of aluminum's. In addition to that, maintaining a steel bicycle is relatively inexpensive. So it has significant advantages over the other three options. But because steel frames lack stiffness, they are less responsive on the road than other frame materials. Therefore, they are not a top choice among performance cyclists.

Wood

An often overlooked bicycle frame material is wood. But manufacturing hardwood bicycles requires a lot of skill and an assortment of tools. Hardwood is also expensive. And it takes a long time to grow a tree.


For more information, take a look at this excellent article (icebike.org), which explains the complexities of choosing eco-conscious bike frame materials and some of the not so eco-conscious activities that often accompany cycling.


advantages of bamboo bike frames

Structural advantages of bamboo

Bamboo is lightweight, strong and durable. It owes its strength—similar to that of light steel—to microscopic tubes inside the plant called vascular bundles. Interestingly, bamboo bike frames are comparable to titanium frames: enduring long past their parts and accessories while retaining the stiffness that performance cyclists value, both on roads and trails. Though more than any other structural factor, it’s bamboo’s facility to absorb vibrations that sets it apart from other frame materials. For a smooth ride, you just can’t beat bamboo.

bamboo bike frames and Sustainability

But bamboo bike frames also supply a sustainable option for cyclists who care about the environment. As world-wide concern over climate change grows, bamboo bicycles present the most carbon-neutral bike on the market. It is, indeed, a renewable resource. And, on top of that, harvesting bamboo doesn’t involve open-pit mining or other extraction methods that emit a lot of greenhouse gases. So its carbon footprint is small—in fact, almost zero.

Also, bamboo grows in many parts of the world—providing people in developing countries with the raw materials to build durable modes of transportation while helping them create a source of income from leading classes and workshops that teach bike building skills. And utilizing local materials to build bike frames saves on carbon emissions, too, because it eliminates shipping. Though it’s important to point out that shipping materials by sea has a smaller carbon footprint than trucking them across vast swaths of land.

To summarize, bamboo bicycle frames are strong; can last a lifetime, if properly cared for; dampen the effects of bumps in the road; and offer a climate friendly means of transportation while meeting the needs of a wide range of cyclists. And if that’s not enough, at the end of their lifespan, they are completely recyclable. What more could you ask for?

Where to buy bamboo bicycles and kits

Of course, you can always buy a bamboo bicycle kit from the Bamboo Bicycle Club. And you can learn more about that, below. But, depending on your bike building skills and location, you might want to consider other companies and clubs, too. Some of the following websites sell complete bamboo bicycles—after all, not all bike enthusiasts want to build their own bicycle—while others offer DIY kits or a combination of both. Take a look at Calfee Design, Greenstar Bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes, Booomers, Boo Bicycles, Erba Cycles and Bamboo Bicycles Beijing & Beyond.

The Bamboo Bicycle Club: kits, workshops, custom designs and more

But if you’re intent on building you own bamboo bicycle, the Bamboo Bicycle Club of London is one well-loved choice and offers workshops where you can craft a complete bicycle over a weekend. Yet, they also sell a variety of kits—road kits, off-road kits, custom designs, educational build kits for schools and universities and parts and accessories—which allow you to build a bamboo bicycle at home or as part of a classroom activity. And, yes, they do ship globally!

Each kit includes complete instructions along with support through email, videos, telephone, Twitter, Facebook and Skype. But if you happen to be in London, a nice option is to attend a weekend workshop and build one on the spot. I wish. London, unfortunately, is a long way from California.

My Father’s obsession with bicycles

But what I like most about the Bamboo Bicycle Club is the beautiful bamboo bicycles, which brings me back to my father and his love of cycling. Because he valued both bicycle aesthetics and performance, he would have delighted in the natural materials that compose these handcrafted bikes. And, no doubt, he would have been tempted to build his own.

As a point of interest, my father opened a bicycle shop in the mid-to-late ‘70s in Gulfport, Mississippi. Though after moving to California in 1978, he changed careers while continuing to cycle well into his 60s. He was no stranger to the back roads of Siskiyou County, located in Northern California near Oregon.

My father, from family collection, Yreka, CA, 2003- working on his bicycle

My father, from family collection, Yreka, CA, 2003- working on his bicycle

cycling and type 1 diabetes

But something else I would like to share about my father is that he developed type 1 diabetes at the age of thirteen. That never stopped him from pursuing his interests, though. In fact, he was even more determined to do all the things in life he dreamed of: He raced sailboats, became a tennis pro, backpacked, taught school, coached football and built wooden boats in Maine.

saying goodbye

I visited my father in Yreka, California, two weeks before he had a fatal hemorrhagic stroke. Even though his memory had begun to lapse, on the weekend of my visit he was lucid. We confessed our love for an old Elvis song, "Cold Kentucky Rain," and laughed about the nature of squirrels.

Had I known about bamboo bicycles and the Bamboo Bicycle Club, we would have talked about that too—the light in his eyes and the tilt of his chin, betraying his newfound plot: a custom kit, no doubt. He was an adventurer to the end, always devising the next great plan.

My father standing by his bicycle, from family collection, Yreka, CA, 2003

My father standing by his bicycle, from family collection, Yreka, CA, 2003

Because of the Bamboo Bicycle Club, I now have a shared interest with my father that has drawn me closer to him, even in death. In fact, sometimes he swoops in to visit the club’s online gallery—both of us admiring the artistry of these elegant yet durable bikes. And I’m sure he has his favorites.

But I’m also grateful to the Bamboo Bicycle Club for recollecting the 1979 bike trip in the Sierra foothills and the eighteen-year-old girl who aspired to cycle across America— before she was swept along a disparate path at the tender age of 20. My memory of that young, callow traveler lives on. And, perhaps, one day, I’ll tip my hat to her undaunted spirit and breeze about the town on a bamboo bicycle. Who knows? 

—Laura

Please note: The Bamboo Bicycle Club didn't pay me or provide free merchandise for writing this post. And I'm not affiliated with them in any way. I wrote about them because they are just so cool! Also, please visit their website for up-to-date information. 


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