A B.C. bicycle manufacturer is joining an emerging new trend by using an unusual material to build bike frames: bamboo.
Al Roback, founder of Vancouver-based bike company Grass Frames, was inspired by the idea of using bamboo while on an exchange in Japan.
“While studying Japanese and the Japanese culture, I started a gardening co-op and a bicycle co-op and messed around making some furniture out of the local bamboo,” he says.
“I was quite impressed by bamboo’s strength and aesthetic.”
The idea stuck with him. When he returned home to Vancouver Roback convinced long-time friends James Moore and Joshua Armstrong to help him develop his vision, and Grass Frames was born.
“We’ve had a lot of interest,” he says. “Our main focus at this point has been getting [the bikes] into stores. So we’re in some very heated talks with local stores.”
The hand-crafted bikes consist of bamboo frames attached to the standard handlebars, seat, pedals, tires, and gears.
Bamboo bikes are not only lightweight (1.7–2.2 kilos) and long-lasting, says Roback, they are also eco-friendly due to natural materials and organic production processes. The bamboo frames are bound with hemp fibre and reinforced with plant-based epoxy resin. The bamboo and hemp are grown organically without pesticides or fertilizer, and the epoxy resin is made with an organic non-toxic material derived from plant oil.
The process of treating the bamboo and handcrafting the frame takes about 40 hours, which is ultimately reflected in the price—starting at $2,100 for the frame alone, with a complete bike costing $3,350.
“It’s not an entry-level bike, but for a handmade bike [the price] is definitely comparable,” says Roback, adding that the ride quality is on par or better than a carbon fibre bike.
“As a road bike they work extremely well.”
Currently there are few Canadian bike makers using bamboo in their designs, but the trend has been popping up around the world since the mid-nineties, as manufacturers look for eco-friendly, affordable alternatives to steel or carbon fibre bikes.
The use of bamboo in bike components can be traced back as early as 1895 and enjoyed a renaissance in 1995 led by well-known industry leader Craig Calfee, who was among the first to experiment with both carbon-fibre and bamboo materials.
Bamboo is an ideal bike material because it has a higher tensile strength than many alloys of steel, is scratch-resistant, and absorbs vibration extremely well.
It also requires little energy to source, can be grown in most environments, and has exceptional regenerative properties—some species have been known to grow over a metre within 24 hours.
According to a recent economic analysis of the bamboo bicycle industry, since the sector is still in its infancy, new builders play a critical role in establishing the market if bamboo is ever to be widely adopted.
“Until demand can be better gauged, large manufacturers will likely wait along the roadside while the early movers in the market invest energy and dollars building demand and establishing bamboo as a viable frame alternative,” reads the analysis.
“A growing number of bamboo frame builders entering the market, however, foretell promise for the industry’s outlook.”
Roback says once consumers try bamboo bikes they’ll be hooked, but it will take time for the idea to catch on.
“I don’t see a mass market flood,” he says. “First you have to hear about it and then you have to be intrigued for a while. Finally, when you take it out for a test ride you will confirm that yes, next time you get a bike this is the bike you’ll look at.”