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People have been using bamboo as a material for bike frames for quite some time. There were even companies selling bamboo bicycles around the turn of the century:

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These guys were on to something! Bamboo bikes are back and they’re better than ever! A lot better. These days, high-end bamboo bicycles are successfully competing against their carbon fiber brethren in races as well as in the showroom. Think of the time and money mankind has spent trying to engineer the perfect material for a bicycle when, all along, mother nature was growing it in her garden! With a little bit of inspiration, engineering prowess and strive for excellence, Nick Frey, owner of Boo Bicycles, is showing us exactly what bamboo is capable of. Like many of the great names in bicycle brands, Nick is also is a professional racer. He races for Team Jamis Sutter Home. Want more? He holds a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering! Can you guess what one of his design projects was?

To keep track of what Nick is up to you can visit him at nfrey.blogspot.com. He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk The Sustainable Cyclist about bamboo and the bicycles his company is producing.

 

(The Sustainable Cyclist): Would you tell me a little about your background and what sparked your interest in bicycle design? What sparked you interest in bamboo?

(Nick Frey): I recently graduated from Princeton and now run Boo Bicycles and race for Jamis Sutter Home, the top professional team in the country.  I have been racing on the road for nine years and have been on some of the most successful teams in the country at all ages, raced in Europe and at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 2007, and am a multiple National Champion.

Boo Bicycles is the evolution of what began as a mechanical engineering design project at Princeton.  Three classmates and I were a part of a very successful project to build a bamboo bicycle, and we were inspired by Craig Calfee and his bamboo creations that we had seen at various trade shows.  We knew Calfee Design could produce a work of art that you could ride, but we wanted to produce a high-performance racing bicycle from bamboo and carbon fiber that would rival titanium and carbon fiber bicycles.

The project was so successful that we started a company to produce them, Sol Cycles, but we all had so many things going on between mechanical engineering courses and starting a company that we were unable to succeed due to lack of time and energy.  However, I knew we were onto something and I could do this after I graduated, so I started a new company called Boo Bicycles.  I do not make the bicycles–they are made by a team of expert craftsmen led by James Wolf in Saigon–but I design, test, market, and sell the bicycles worldwide.  We have formed a very successful relationship.  As a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he has an incredible eye but his quality and attention to detail is unparalleled.  James has over 15 years of experience working with bamboo, designing and building furniture and complete buildings and bars, so he compliments my experience in the cycling world perfectly.

 

(SC): People have been making bicycles out of bamboo in Asia for a hundred years or more. Why do you think this is the case? What is it about bamboo that lends itself to use in a bicycle frame when compared to other types of wood? What about compared to other types of bicycle material such as carbon fiber, aluminum and steel?

(NF): Bamboo is an incredible plant as well as building material.  Here’s this for a quick summary: it is one of the fastest growing plants known to man, it is one of the most efficient means of sequestering carbon dioxide known to man, it is one of the strongest natural materials known to man, it grows back after being cut, and it spreads like a weed.  It is truly one of the world’s most amazing living things, plant or animal.

Bamboo has been used in everything from water wheels to scaffolding for skyscrapers because it is readily available, easy to work with, and very strong and durable.  Use in a bicycle frame is just another application for which it is perfect.  One of the most interesting characteristics is the ability to dampen high frequency vibrations, meaning a stiff and light bicycle frame can also be very comfortable, a property that is unique and very desirable in a bicycle.

 

(SC): Many people these days understand that bamboo is a versatile sustainable resource. It is abundant, grows quickly, and can be made into bicycle frame tubing with little production because, well, it grows as a tube. Where do you see bamboo as a bicycle frame material headed as we get deeper into the 21st century?

(NF): Actually, that’s not entirely true.  Our tubes go through an extensive treatment process over the course of four months to maximize stiffness and durability, and then every tube is drilled out internally to a specific wall thickness to minimize weight and tune the ride characteristics for each frame size.  We preserve the natural finish and shape of the tube rather than using a laminate because we feel Mother Nature has perfected the material, and we only need to massage it to make it into a top-end racing frame.

I see bamboo as the next big frame material.  There was steel for decades, then titanium and aluminum promised lighter weight, higher stiffness, and an improved ride quality (for the former).  Then carbon came along and reduced weight further while maintaining or increasing stiffness, but durability and ride properties often suffered.  It is quite difficult to reduce weight, increase stiffness and durability, and preserve a smooth and lively road feel.  Bamboo is never going to be as light and stiff as carbon, but it is close–and for 99% of riders today, they are not looking for the ultra-stiff race only frame anyway.  The ride quality and handling of bamboo is unmatched, and I feel that Boo is on the forefront of this movement–we make a race-winning bamboo-carbon fiber hybrid bicycle that blends the best aspects of both materials to make a unique and superior product.

 

(SC): Would you like to share some of the work you’ve done (and I’m sure continue to do), on the life span of bamboo frames? From my understanding, over time bamboo will develop longitudinal cracks. Is this preventable? What are some reasonable outlooks on bamboo frame life span when ridden on a daily basis?

(NF): The cracks that bamboo experiences are purely cosmetic when paired with carbon fiber joints.  We have done much structural testing on this, and the bamboo’s strength is not affected by longitudinal splits.  They are the result of a different contraction rate from the inner, younger bamboo material to the denser, older material on the exterior of the tube, so when they are dried during the treatment process, the material naturally wants to split.  We have invested a great deal into preventing splits through tube treatment processes as well as our bamboo source.

We have a ten year warranty on our frames and believe they are far more durable than most carbon fiber frames.  A Boo Bicycle is an investment and we want our customers to be happy for many years and thousands of miles!

 

(SC): Boo Bicycles makes high-end, artisan bicycle frames, but that’s not the end of the road for bamboo. There are programs in Africa that teach people how to make basic bamboo bicycles from their native bamboo plants. Is Boo Bicycles involved with any organizations that provide assistance to poor communities in need of transportation that have easy access to bamboo? If not, do you see Boo bicycles participating in these sorts of activities in the future?

(NF): Boo Bicycles is working with the Bamboo Bicycle Project as a consultant and a potential future partner.  I have personally taught the BBP’s founders some things about bamboo bicycle frame construction and I think they are doing great things in Ghana and have plans to sell low-cost sustainable bamboo bicycles throughout Africa.  It’s a ways off in the future, and Boo will be focusing exclusively on the high-end market for the time being, but a low-cost model is definitely something we envision for the future.

 

(SC): There is a place in New York City where you can go and make your own bicycle from bamboo. There are independent folks sprouting up left and right making their very own frames from bamboo in their back yard. The Sustainable Cyclist even has a research project of its own that involves building one. In a sense, this shows how accessible building frames with bamboo is here in the United States. Soon we may see many more people out there riding homemade bamboo bikes to work, and then hopping on their Boo for that weekend group ride or race. How is the rest of the industry going to react to this, especially the powerhouses like Trek and Specialized? Will they try to come out with a bamboo product line?

(NF): Interestingly the build-your-own-bamboo-bike operation in NYC is run by the very friends of mine working on the Bamboo Bicycle Project.  I think that operations like this are a reflection of the interest in the material, just like there an incredible numbers of individual steel and titanium builders.  It gives us confidence that more and more people will come to accept bamboo as a viable building material for bicycles, and we have focused on building the very BEST bamboo frame on the market.  While it is not very difficult to source bamboo, make a jig, and miter and wrap some tubes to create a frame, it is quite difficult to make a refined product that is stiff, light, responsive, and beautifully finished.  I raced our first bamboo bicycle, a Princeton design project, in the Rutgers Season Opener, but it was not stiff at all, not very light, unimpressively finished, and unrefined.  It has been almost two years since that first bamboo bike was built and it’s been an incredible amount of testing and refinement not possible with the expertise of James Wolf and the racing experience of yours truly.  This is why Boo will be positioned to take advantage of this growing wave of bamboo bicycle design, and also why manufacturers like Trek and Specialized will likely never get into it.  There is too much investment needed to perfect the frames and too much handwork–these will always be handmade, high-end, artisan frames.

 

(SC): Whats next for Boo Bicycles?

(NF): We will be growing our brand at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, Eurobike, and Interbike in 2010.  We will be building our dealer network to include one top bicycle shop in each major metro area, and I have a network of sales representatives riding and racing Boo around the country, spreading the word.  There will always be a focus on refining and improving our bicycles, bringing out new models, and advancing the product.  For the near future, Boo’s focus is on increasing visibility and sales while maintaining excellent customer service.

 

(SC): In closing, please say anything you’d like about sustainability within the bicycle industry.

(NF): The bicycle industry is fragmented.  There are racers and commuters, freeriders and BMXers.  We need to come together to promote certain causes, and green/sustainable is one.  The entire bicycle industry can benefit from this through improved sales, and while it may not seem that racers and commuters have anything in common, that is simply not true. Many of my racer friends commute to work for training, and many of my racer friends actually STARTED racing after riding more and more when commuting.  It should not be a fragmented or divisive industry because, let’s face it, just riding a bike is green and healthy!  I would like to see, at minimum, at acknowledgment that cyclists are all part of the same family, whether a top professional or a two-mile commuter.

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A while back I ran across an article on the web about the sustainability of the bicycle by Edwin Datschefski of Surrey, England.  I browsed around his site BioThinking and realized that this man is an expert in sustainable products, and quite passionate about what he does.  His company, Truecology, offers consulting services to increase the sustainability of your product, whatever it may be.  There are many products within the cycling industry that could benefit from Edwin’s services.  The Sustainable Cyclist had the wonderful opportunity to ask Edwin a few questions.

The Sustainable Cyclist (SC): Hi Edwin, Thanks for taking the time to talk to The Sustainable Cyclist.  Could you tell me about the history of truecology and your interest in sustainable products?

Edwin Datschefski: I’ve only just started Truecology in May 2009 as an attempt to fight against the dumbing down and dilution of sustainability that seems to be happening at the moment. I’ve been a sustainable design consultant for 16 years now though I think it all started when I read Victor Papanek’s book Design for the Real World which must have been in 1976 or so …

SC: How important do you think sustainable products are today and into the future?

Edwin: Every product in the world — all 100 million or so — has to be redesigned to be entirely compatible with nature — that’s 100% sustainable, not just with a little bit of greenwash or a bit of recycled plastic here and there.

SC: Tell me your thoughts on the sustainability of the bicycle industry, how it can improve, and what The Sustainable Cyclist can do to help.

Edwin: It’s always baffled me what a great thing bikes are but how the entire cycling industry seems to be blissfully unaware and continues to manufacture bicycles and components with seemingly no regard at all for the environment. Aluminium, carbon fibre, PVC, lots of energy- and pollution-intense materials in use there, lots of Asian manufacture where pollution standards are low, and so on.

SC: Have you seen any cycling or outdoor related products recently that your impressed with?

Edwin: No — Pedro’s are the only products I have found that are remotely green — recycled plastic tyre bars and recycled tube saddle bags. That’s a rare drop in a huge ocean of indifference.

SC: Do you ride a bike?  If so, could you tell us about it?

Edwin: In the late 80s used to have a Mark I Moulton that I loved and I went to the Moulton Festival in Bradford upon Avon and met Sir Alex, I loved that bike and used to think nothing of cycling from Bristol to Oxford for lunch (though I didn’t come back the same day and was a pretty sweaty lunch guest!).

SC: Finally, please say a few words about how you’d like to see the bicycle industry change, and where the most important change must happen.

Edwin: The next step is quite simple and I’d like to have a go if someone want to chip in with a few facts about current bicycles as I’m a bit rusty (pardon the pun) in the latest trends. I would simply want to do a very rough life cycle analysis of typical bicycles available for sale today and compare their environmental impacts from extraction of raw materials to eventual disposal. I’d look at a steel bike, an alu and a carbon I think, whatever the biggest selling style is at the moment.

Then we could compare the different materials and see which ones (if any) was best.

We’d also have a good idea of the emobdied impact and embodied energy of a bicycle — how long it takes in terms of saving transportation fuel before you have ‘paid’ ecologically for your new bicycle. It may be unexpectdely high or it may be groovily low. It’s unknown at this time as no-one seems to have done this basic assessment which would be routine in most industries like packaging, automotive etc.

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Buying a used a bike instead of a new one is a very sustainable approach to cycling.  There are a tremendous amount of used bicycles out there that are just sitting in basements, storage units, etc. waiting for a new owner.  Seth Stattmiller, owner of Re-Cycle in Minneapolis Minnesota, is a true Sustainable Cyclist, and is doing his part in providing riders with quality, refurbished bicycles.  I’d like to thank Seth for talking to The Sustainable Cyclist.

The Sustainable Cyclist: Hi Seth.  To begin, could you tell me about the history of Re-Cycle?

Seth: Re-Cycle was born in the late summer of 2005. I was dating an eBay junkie. At a yard sale, she made the suggestion that I buy a pair of vintage bikes and try to sell them on CraigsList.  I made some easy money and got hooked. I knew almost nothing about bicycles. Within a year I got dumped, rented an apartment, filled it up with bikes, bought Re-Cycle.com, and started paying my bills with refurbished bicycles. In 2007 I rented a warehouse and took the business to the next level. After a year, the business was ready for the next step. We moved to our current location on Hennepin Ave S at 24th (Minneapolis) and Re-Cycle became a regular “bike shop.”
SC: Could you tell me about Re-Cycle today?  What is Re-Cycles mission?

Seth: Our mission is to provide Minneapolis residents safe, reliable transportation at a reasonable price (our bikes are guaranteed for 30 days). In our nearly four years of operation, we have reduced Minnesota’s carbon footprint by almost 1 million pounds of Carbon Dioxide (see Re-Cycle.com/carbon.aspx). Sustainability is key to what we do, but we are a bike shop first and environmentalists second. It is critical for our customers to ride out the door on a product they can count on. The CO2 bit would not follow if we weren’t providing bikes that people can actually ride.

Most of our customers are getting their first bike after the one their parents bought them in Junior High. We spend a lot of time educating our customers on what style they might like and how to properly size a bike. Our prices usually fall between Wal-Mart and Erik the Bike Man, but we almost always have something in the $30 to $75 range and occasionally we stumble on something we price at more than $1000. In the end $250 will get you something very nice at Re-Cycle. We are a full service shop with experience working on more than 100 years of technology.

None of the bikes we touch were land-filled and only bent frames ever get scrapped. We support several non-profits with bikes that don’t sell. Lately we’ve even been working with a group that ships bikes to Africa.

SC: Do you foresee an increasing demand for used, refurbished bicycles over the next decade or so?  Why or why not?

Seth: The used, refurbished bicycle market is following two other forces: the greater bicycle industry and the CraigsList trend of buying used. The green revolution is happening, but it’s a warm breeze, not a raging hurricane. Money comes first. 2008’s $4.00 gas prices put a lot of people on bikes. With gas prices at nearly half that, the urgency is gone. In four years we have doubled our bicycle sales every year. That’s not going to happen this year. Now, a shop that is less than five years old is not indicative of the rest of the industry, but it gives you some picture of where people’s motivations stem from. In my opinion, the used bicycle shop follows almost the same trends as the new bicycle shop with only one significant exception. People’s impressions of new bike shops are already formed. Used bicycle shops, on the whole, are still catching on and it’s not necessarily the first thing people think of when shopping for a bicycle. But as shops like Re-Cycle gain a foothold in a community and a reputation for quality products, growth in the used market is likely to be stronger than growth in the established “new” market. People have to get comfortable with something they are less familiar with. But they are becoming comfortable.

Used is something that everyone is coming to understand thanks, in no small part, to CraigsList. Craig Newmark has done for the world of used goods what Al Gore did for global warming. Used has gone mainstream and used retailers are starting to show up on the radar of companies who have been turning over their own market with new products every few years. Americans especially have varied and changing tastes. It’s not always a desire to have something better that makes us toss out the old and find something new. Sometimes we just want to see if the grass really is greener. We want a change. But one person’s change is another man’s dollar. CraigsList is teaching Americans that the biggest difference between new and used might simply be the price.

The next decade of bicycle sales is going to depend on a lot of variables. Conditions within the greater economy seem to be the biggest factor, but gas taxes and vehicle fuel efficiency regulation can easily simulate those conditions for the bicycle industry. Certainly the world is coming around to the realities of climate change and that increasing urgency can only help fuel both the bicycle industry as a whole and the used market along side it, but I’m not counting on the greenies to pay for my yacht (though I’d be happy to accept contributions to the yacht fund). I suspect that used bicycle sales will have a slight edge over new bicycle sales, but the two are still in the same boat.

SC: Do you think buying a used, refurbished bicycle is better for the earth than buying a new bicycle?  Why or why not?

Seth: Manufacturing and transporting a new bicycle emits something on the order of 350 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air (see our estimates at http://www.Re-Cycle.com/carbon.aspx). I probably pump out 100 pounds of CO2 every week retrieving truck loads of bicycles from around Minneapolis. We order new tires, tubes, locks, and other accessories and those have to be produced and shipped. We have to light, heat, and cool our space, and not all of the lubes and sprays can be perfectly green, but all of our bikes are used and only two other Re-Cycle employees even own a car. So, if we sell one bike in a week, our carbon footprint is neutral if that purchase replaces a new bike purchase. There is no contest. A refurbished bicycle has nearly the same lifespan as a brand new bike, but almost zero environmental impact. And since our bikes are less expensive than new bikes, we can put more of them on the road with fewer resources.

SC: Do you see bicycle related products becoming more sustainable in the future compared to today?  How about the way everyday business is performed?

Seth: Quality Bicycle Products (QBP) is one of the major wholesale suppliers in the bicycle industry (headquartered in a Minneapolis suburb: Boo-Yah!). Take a ride out to their processing center (6400 W. 105th Street, Bloomington, MN). The first things you will notice are tall reeds and cattails growing in the parking lot. They built a run-off neutral facility within the last couple of years. QBP accepts used bicycle tires and tubes free of charge to be recycled into children’s playgrounds and track and field tracks. They have employee incentive programs for reducing carbon output at work and beyond. There are showers for people who ride to work instead of drive. The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, I think QBP is the exception rather than the rule, but I also think QBP is setting standards that the rest of the industry will increasingly be pressured to meet. I also happen to think that the rest of the industry is missing the boat (or yacht if you prefer). When I walk into other bike shops I see few hints of sustainable initiatives. There is still a lot more spandex than green. Meanwhile, the market is moving. Your average customer is still motivated most strongly by price and quality, but when choosing between similarly priced and performing products, the average cyclist is going to pick the green option every time.

The companies that can survive completely on green customers are still serving only small niches, but these small markets are growing. There are messenger bags made from recycled plastic bags, belts made from reused bicycle tires, wallets manufactured from old tubes. Twin Cities Green is a shop across the street from our shop. They sell furniture produced entirely from old bike parts. Cool stuff.

SC: In closing, please say anything you’d like to say about sustainability throughout the bicycle industry.

Seth: New York City is the one town I’ve visited where you can get by without a car or a bicycle. Los Angeles is the one town I’ve visited where you’d be hard pressed to get by without a car. For the average urban citizen, a bicycle can do 90% or more of what a car does for them. A bike, mass transit, and good friends (in that order) will take you to 99.9% of your desired destinations with a nominal increase in effort and planning. The bicycle is an essential part of living a sustainable life style (in some circles it is part of this complete breakfast.). The bicycle industry is coming along, but it is (and should be) dragged by the market.

SC: Thanks for talking to us Seth!  We hope you have continued success in what your doing. Bye for now!

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