Bicycles made from bamboo, that have been popular in parts of Asia and Africa are now gaining traction in the United States and other parts of the world.
"Once you get over the coolness factor and the beauty and the attention getting, the smooth ride quality is what attracts people the most," said legendary frame-builder Craig Calfee, who was inspired to build a bamboo bike after finding a piece of the plant in his backyard.
The bike pioneer, who initially built his first bamboo bicycle as an attention seeking device for a trade show, now has a successful line of them that he sells worldwide through his bike design and manufacturing business, Calfee Design.
There are also small bike-building start-ups popping up throughout the world that are using bamboo to build bike frames instead of carbon fiber, steel or aluminum.
Matthew Wilkins, along with two of his friends Chris Deschenes and Jon Torrey, co-founded Pedal Forward, an organization based in Washington, DC focused on building bamboo bikes and the global promotion of the bamboo bike movement.
"They are really cool and bamboo is a great building material. It is strong, unique and super cheap," said Wilkins, a recent graduate from George Washington University. His bamboo bike business idea was the recent winner of the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative University Commitment Challenge.
Bamboo is sustainable and an excellent shock absorber, and the material can have a higher tensile strength than steel when treated, Wilkins said.
"Bamboo is actually four times more shock absorbent than carbon fiber," he said. "It's the perfect material for bikes, and it is strong so you don't have to worry about it breaking."
The price of bamboo bikes can be as high as $3,000, which is due to the fact that each one is handmade, making each bike, "special" Calfee said.
"When people buy a bamboo bike, they are really buying a functional piece of art," Wilkins said. "It takes hours of labor so they are expensive."
There are different techniques used for making bamboo bikes, but the material has to be treated before it can be cut and formed into a bicycle frame. Epoxy then has to be applied to the plant and hemp or carbon-fiber joints added to complete the frame.
David Wendt founder of Three Penny Bikes, a bike start-up in DC, flame treats his bamboo and applies tung oil to harden the plant, and "the bamboo will change as its drying," he said.
Bamboo won't replace carbon fiber, aluminum or steel bikes, and "I think they are just different materials that can be used for different styles of bikes," said Wendt, who enjoys the intensive bike building process.
Wendt predicts that in the future the price tag for bamboo bikes will most likely drop.
"Bamboo will become cheaper as more people become more experienced building with it," he said.
But, bamboo bikes are not a new idea to hit the market. Calfee started selling bamboo bikes back in 2001, but he said the general public is just now catching on to the idea.
"It has been steady and has grown and it is definitely getting more commonplace," he said. "People are more used to the idea of it, and it is less of a crazy idea."
In 2007, Calfee also started the Bamboosero project in Ghana and Uganda, and has visited both countries and trained citizens how to make bamboo bikes in order to solve local transportation needs and create jobs. The plant, which is plentiful in parts of Africa, supplies local builders with raw materials needed to produce these bikes that are now sold and exported to the U.S. and Europe, and used by many Africans who can't afford to purchase a car, Calfee said.
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