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The Sea Otter Classic was this past weekend at Laguna Seca Raceway here in Monterey, CA. Since we live here, my wife and I had the oppurtunity to ride seven miles up the road to visit, watch some racing, and check out arsenals of products, services, and organizations all related to cycling in one way or another. A day pass was $10. We thought about riding in the Gran Fondo, but we figured we ride around here all the time, and $95 can come in useful in so many other ways. I still want to do it next year. Maybe I can work with Riders One to get some riders into other races as well. These guys are just getting going and I like the direction they’re moving. More on them later.

The raceway itself is a 40 foot wide strip of smooth pavement about 2.2 miles in length that forms a loop among the steep foothills of the Santa Lucia Range. In the middle of the loop are hills perfect for mountain bike racing, and flat areas for exhibits and festival activities. Surrounding the raceway on all sides are eight campgrounds, perfect for indulging in four days of nothing but bicycles, beer, and more bicycles.

I kept my eyes out for signs of sustainability, but didn’t find much. The Sea Otter Classic itself however is apparently dedicated to “sustainable development” as read in their mission statement:

“The mission of the Sea Otter Classic is to make people’s lives better through participation in sport and recreation and through celebration of an active outdoor lifestyle. We will accomplish this mission without compromising the ability of future generations to enjoy the benefits of a sustainable environment.
We have been committed to sustainable development of the Sea Otter Classic for 20 years. This concept encompasses ideas, aspirations, and values that will inspire all of us to become better stewards of the environment and that promote positive economic growth and social objectives. We understand that environmental protection does not preclude economic development and that economic development must be ecologically viable now and in the long run.”

I’m not sure I buy it. I’m sure there are some good intentions, but when it comes down to it, there is nothing very sustainable about the event besides getting more people on bicycles and promoting bicycles in general. Encouraging riders to actually ride to the event would have been a good first step. They could’ve offered a discount or something. I understand folks came from all over the world, so cars are expected, but how about a sign at the entrance that tally’s the weight of carbon all those cars used to climb the three mile long hill to get up to the raceway from the highway. We did see at least a few companies who are serious about either reusing materials, or using sustainable materials like bamboo. Cyclelogical was selling shirts made from recycled materials, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company ran their coolers with solar panels, and Calfee had bamboo bicycles on display. Pedro’s, a company that takes pride in its biodegradable products had a bike washing station and Clif bar is reusing wrappers to make bags. These are clearly moves in the right direction, but there is a lot more to be done. OK, enough with the babble, here are some photos. The whole album is at the bottom with some race photos and shots of the site.

I also get up close to another bamboo bicycle, this time made from bamboo laminate. Besides bamboo, Renovo also builds bicycle frames with other types of woods such as Padauk, Black Walnut, Port Orford Cedar, and Curly maple. They claim to use only sustainable sources of wood, originating mostly in Oregon, and their claims about wood taking the prize as the best material for making a bike frame are well argued. They are also beautiful. Here are some nice shots:

The fella in the backround is the Renovo artist. He’s been making bikes like this for about a decade. CNC maching is used to carve out the frame halves. Notice the butting in the seat tube! They are a small operation with just a few folks churning these beauties out. Here are some more photos. The laminated bamboo bike is the Panda and is the “economical” Renovo at just under $2k.

For one of their Panda bikes they used a belt drive instead of a chain. This drive system does not require lubrication and is being used more and more. The major drawback, of course, is that it is a belt and the bike has to accommodate the installation by allowing the opening of the right rear triangle. Not a problem on Renovo since all their chainstay to dropout connections are bolted together. I’m not sure what I think about this yet, but time will tell its story.

We also some some bags made of old tires and tubes from Totally Tubular Design in Santa Cruz, CA. Creative!

You’ll find more photos including some from the races we watched and of the site in this Picassa album:

Sea Otter 2010
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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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Besides the main three bicycle frame materials, bicycles these days are made from titanium, bamboo, magnesium, scandium, and wood.  I’m sure folks out there have made frames out of other materials, but these are currently the materials in production I know about.  I think anything else is obscure and rare.  Let me know if I’m wrong.  I’ll go through each one to tell you a bit about each one and how sustainable they are.

Titanium:  It is corrosive resistant, and will last a lifetime.  You can also recycle it if it ever breaks on you.  These are great things when it comes to sustainability.  Compared to aluminum, it is more dense, but much stronger.  Compared to steel, it is less dense, and about the same strength.  The reason titanium is so expensive is because of the process it goes through to be made.  The most common process, called the Kroll process, is energy intensive and involves multiple steps.  It involves some nasty chemicals as well.  Two of these include chlorine gas and titanium tetrachloride.  The production of titanium tetrachloride happens a couple different ways, but one of them creates hazardous waste that must be disposed of.  DuPont is a producer of titanium tetrachloride using the process that creates hazardous waste, and their reputation stinks for being earth friendly.  There are new ways of processing titanium that may be more environmentally friendly, but for now, I have to consider it a negative for titanium.  There is also the argument that because the titanium product will last forever, and the maintenance and repair is almost nothing, this offsets the high energy, potentially polluting process to make it.   The jury is still out on this one, but I think its better than carbon fiber and maybe even aluminum.

Scandium: When you see scandium written on a frame it really means “aluminum alloy that is made with scandium”.  Its just aluminum alloy, and should be categorized as such.  One thing that should be noted, is that the scandium used likely came from a country other than the US.

Magnesium: It has similar characteristics as aluminum, but is less dense, making a lighter frame.  You can recycle it, and it is produced from seawater or brine through electrolysis right here in USA.  It can also be alloyed with aluminum.  This material has not done well in the bicycle frame industry due to its reactivity, corrosivity, and difficulty to weld.

Bamboo: Praised for its sustainability, bamboo wins the prize for the most sustainable frame material.  It grows quickly and in a wide range of climates.  When your frame breaks you can replace it and not worry about the production that the metal went though, or whether or not you can recycle it.

Calfee Design

Calfee Design

It will decompose when your finished with it, and you can build the frame using your very own human power.  The carbon footprint in producing a frame from bamboo must be extremely low as well.  Look forward to an article dedicated to bamboo bicycles!

Other Woods: If harvested from FSC certified sources, I would have to think any wood frame would be just as sustainable as a bamboo frame.

Resourses:

Wikipedia; Titanium, Knolls Process, Magnesium, Scandium

EPA: http://epa.gov/wastes/nonhaz/industrial/special/mining/minedock/tio2/index.htm

Calfee Design – bicycle image

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