Bamboo Bikes: The Ultimate Eco-Friendly Ride

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Carbon fiber and aluminum are so 2009. This year's best bicycling model is made out of bamboo and hemp. A new generation of manufacturers are coming up with some of the most environmentally friendly transport yet. Lighter, stronger, more comfortable and these bikes have also got a much smaller carbon footprint.

Craig Calfee is known as the Zen master of bamboo-bike builders. In his workshop on the Californian coast, only a hundred meters from the tumultuous waves of the Pacific Ocean, the frame designer builds breathtaking bikes out of the fast-growing plant, the largest member of the grass family.

But the American, who has become well known for making bikes out of plant materials, has some competition. The number of experts who are making bicycles out of renewable raw materials is growing. Among them are Brano Meres, an engineer from Slovakia and professional cyclist Nick Frey also from California. German engineer Nicolas Meyer is also working along this line, but not with bamboo. Instead he has built a triathlon bike out of hemp.

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Photo Gallery: Bamboo Is the New Biking Black
Still, Calfee is an old hand among all of these newcomers. Before this latest venture he was long known as an elite bike builder, having pioneered carbon fiber, custom models for riders like Greg LeMond, a three time winner of the Tour de France. Then, in the mid 90s he was looking for an idea that would attract attention at a bicycle trade fair. But he wanted more than just a nice idea. He wanted something that would make the general public who came to his stand stop and stare.

It was actually his dog that gave the brainwave. While the pitbull-labrador cross was playing he got hold of a piece of bamboo. When the dog let the piece of bamboo go, Calfee picked up the stick and saw that it was virtually unscathed. What a fantastic material. Calfee found the idea electrifying. He had found what he was after: the bike he was making for the trade fair would have a bamboo frame.

Bamboo Bikes are a Much Smoother Ride

Bamboo is native to all of the earth's continents, including North America and for the new bike prototype Calfee used Californian bamboo. The frame was a little too flexible but it fulfilled its primary purpose: getting a lot of attention.

After the trade fair Calfee withdrew to his workshop and began to experiment with bamboo in earnest. As environmentally friendly and sturdy as the material was, it also had its flaws. One of the biggest disadvantages was that it split easily, down the middle. To solve this Calfee smoked the bamboo and also tempered it with heat. (Today the bamboo has to go through a four- month process before it can be used.) He also coated hemp or carbon fibers with epoxy resin and used them to bind the bamboo tubes together.

Around a hundred frames later, Calfee had finally built a bamboo bike frame he could believe in. His verdict: The vibration absorption of the bamboo frame was better than that provided by a carbon fiber frame. "The bamboo bikes are a much smoother ride," he says. He also found that the bike had impressive impact resistance and was tougher than carbon fiber and less prone to fracturing. These results were confirmed after the bamboo frames were tested at the EFBe bicycle testing laboratory in Germany. But such hardiness has a price -- a mountain bike frame made out of bamboo will set the average rider back around $2,700 (€1,879).

In the meantime, Calfee has also won a number of prizes for his bamboo bikes. Among them, "Best Road Bike," "Best Off-Road Bike" and the "Peoples' Choice Award" at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. On his Web site Calfee himself writes that if there were a prize for the bike with the lowest carbon footprint, one of his bamboo bikes would win it "hands down."

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