For the Chinese, potted stalks of “lucky bamboo” have an auspicious meaning. At the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, you will find bamboo being put to auspicious use in the making of environmentally friendly, high performance bikes.
Bamboo Bike Studio is an offshoot of Columbia University’s Earth Institute’s Bamboo Bike Project. The studio was founded by three men with unrelated careers, engineer Marty Odlin, school teacher Sean Murray, and bike messenger Justin Aguinaldo. They met as the engineering team for Bamboo Bike Project where the challenge was to build bikes from simple materials with the notion of replacing poor-quality bicycles in rural Ghana and Kenya and, teach Africans to make their own durable, long-lasting, and light bikes.
One of the fastest growing grasses in the world, bamboo can grow up to 24 inches per day. A versatile raw material, bamboo is used in a variety ways from construction, transportation, textiles, and musical instruments; its shoots even serve as a food source for animals and humans. Bamboo Bike Studio uses bamboo that originates within the tri-state area—P. Angusta bamboo as well as “iron bamboo” from Mexico. Because of its composite make-up of strong as steel fibers and its flexibility, bike frames made from bamboo provide great shock absorption compared to those made from steel or cheap aluminum. And Murray vouches for the quality of a smooth ride, “Bamboo frames are as tough as any I've ridden. I rode my very first one through 7,000 miles of NYC potholes—it still rides fine. Our frames also stand up to abuse from New York City bike messengers—among the most demanding riders anywhere.”
The Red Hook studio consists of one-room with high ceilings; there you’ll see the work bench with a wide assortment of tools and cut bamboo. Weekend workshops are intense, and as Murray says, “People walk into the studio to a pile of sticks on Saturday, and ride out on a brand new bike on Sunday.” To build the bikes, the studio provides cured bamboo that’s has gone through a sustainable and non-chemical heating treatment, which reduces infestation and rot. After it’s been baked and dried, the green bamboo acquires a beautiful golden hue. Once the bamboo has gone through its transformation, it’s off to the races. Special tools including a Japanese pull-saw that easily cuts through the bamboo. Along with an assortment of other riggings and parts, the bamboo tubes are joined together with carbon and fiberglass lugs (the team experimented with natural fiber lugs, but they proved not to stand the rigors of rough riding). Workshop participants are able to build a frame for $632, or one of two fully-built models: the Local—a cruiser—or the Express—a road bike—which has more riding oomph for $948.
Although not much cheaper than buying an already manufactured steel or aluminum bike, half of the fee in building a bamboo two-wheeler goes to a great cause—funding factories to mass-produce the bikes for rural Africans (the factory is slated to open this September). In countries like Ghana, the bicycle is primary vehicle of transportation. In addition to individual use, bikes can be employed for other transport purposes like bringing goods to markets or as boda boda taxis (taken from the English “border-border”). Murray notes that with the average per capita income of $700 a year, the abundance of bamboo and using local materials it’s a win-win situation that will help fuel a bike-building cottage industry to fulfill local transportation needs in both rural and urban areas, as well as help raise income levels.
So the next time you’re considering a new bike, think bamboo and think Ghana. Or as the guys at Bamboo Bike Studio say, “The best bike is the one you build yourself.”
Workshops are currently offered in Red Hook, Brooklyn and a new studio was recently launched by Murray in San Francisco, California. In 2011, more workshops will be opened worldwide. For more information about Bamboo Bike Studio, please visit www.bamboobikestudio.com. For more information about Columbia University’s Earth Institute’s Bamboo Bike Project, please visit http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~david/duck-rabbit/bamboo/Home.html