Riding Bamboo – Nature’s Bicycle Material

In my years of riding bikes I’ve piloted my share of exotic frame materials, from aluminum to titanium, 853 to carbon fiber–but easily the most interesting of the bikes I’ve ever owned was grown, not machined.

I’d already ridden a Calfee Dragonfly for years when I made the mistake of asking Craig Calfee on a whim if he had any of his bamboo frames in my size. I’d loved the bamboo bike since I first saw it in his California workshop but at the time I had been fantasizing about creating a bike with a set of parts I was removing from another bike.

Not only did Craig have a frame in my size but he had one that had just come back from a dealer where it was built as a show bike–Calfee was changing the lug design of the bamboo bikes from carbon to hemp and the carbon-wrapped frames were coming back to Calfee. He’d just gotten back one in my size and the older design translated into a discount on the frame and fork combo. Even better for me, I prefer the carbon-wrapped lugs to the new hemp ones.

Clearly there was some divine intervention at play here.

My bamboo bike (one of the few in my collection I’ve named, I call it Woodrow T. Bamboo–Woody T. Bamboo for short) is made from a natural, sustainable material (it’s actually a reed, not wood) that grows abundantly in many parts of the world. As a side project, Calfee is spearheading an effort to create a bamboo-bike-building infrastructure in Africa.

The Bamboo frameset from Calfee is only a distant cousin of the African breed, much more sleek and in every way designed to be raced and ridden. Frames weigh from four to six pounds (depending on the size of the frame but also on the particular qualities of the batch of bamboo) and the tubes are specially treated to prevent splitting. It’s a process vastly more ecological than creating carbon fiber or making steel.

When riding a Calfee Bamboo it’s nearly impossible to go unnoticed and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to the feeling that a Ferrari owner experiences when tooling around the neighborhood.

The most common question I get is “is that painted to look like wood?” and when I reply that it’s actually bamboo the frame is immediately touched and most people tap it with their fingers in disbelief. Many people might be upset at this, but I actually like the interaction because it is a great conversation starter with non-cyclists.

As a follow up, people tend to ask “why ride bamboo?” which seems to be as nebulous a question as “why ride titanium?” or “why ride steel?” It’s the sort of question that really means “how does it feel to ride bamboo?”

The answer to that is more difficult than one would expect because bamboo lacks the convenient cliches to fall back on. Steel is “comfortable,” aluminum is often “responsive” or “harsh” depending on who makes the frame. Bamboo doesn’t have a comparison exactly.

In terms of ride comfort it’s on par with steel bikes–the natural tubing really seems to provide a flex and dampening that’s not present in carbon or aluminum bikes. While it’s on par though, it’s completely different at the same time, the bike tends to just vanish under me and I forget that I’m riding anything at all.

It climbs adroitly as well, though not as well as an ultra-light carbon bike might and that’s due to both the additional weight over something like carbon and the flexibility of the frame. That’s not to say that I can feel the frame flex under me, the carbon lugs and the tube selection prevent real noticeable flex but just as a seatpost with elastomers takes out some of the road vibration a bike from bamboo takes out some of the pedal induced force. It’s not a bad thing, you’re just unlikely to win a KOM jersey.

Even though the type of bamboo used is selected based on its tendency to grow straight, nature’s idea of straight and a machinists idea are two different things, Woody’s top tube has a noticeable waggle to it that I think gives it a distinct personality. It’s in line at the lugs, but the middle bows a slight bit. The thin seat stays are slightly asymmetrical as well, something else I love about it.

Thanks to an inattentive motorist on a rainy day last season I found out about the durability of bamboo when I had to lay the bike down to prevent making a driver’s door/human/bike sandwich and the fall put a slight crack into the headtube lug. Not the bamboo, the carbon wrapping around the lug itself. The bamboo stayed true in a collision with the pavement that took out the shifters and would have totaled a carbon frame. The bike went back to Calfee who turned it around in about two weeks and it’s as good as new.

Currently Woody is built up with a mix of cast off (but excellent) parts from other bike upgrade projects including SRAM Red cranks/bottom bracket and Force components and with the Mavic Ksyrium wheelset in the photo the bike weighed in under eighteen pounds including pedals. (It’s currently sporting some nice Velocity wheels with wood grain printing which makes the bike a tad heavier.)

Calfee sells an Alpha Q Sub 3 fork with a matte finish that really nicely compliments the frame. New the Bamboo frame (without the heavenly-sent discount) costs around $2700, making it either extremely affordable or astronomically expensive for an exotic frame material, depending on your point of view.