As an advocate for sustainable transport and an environmentally conscious consumer, I have long been fascinated by the humble bicycle and I am not alone. Sport England's Active People survey recently revealed that over two million adults in England now ride a bike every week, but what greener options are there for alternatives in a sea of internationally mass manufactured carbon and metal? I set off to a back street workshop in east London beneath the shadow of the Olympic Park to find out.
James, a keen cyclist and engineer, initially became interested in using bamboo for frame building when researching, designing and building himself a bike. After refining and testing his designs he soon started receiving requests asking to buy his frames. James turned down these requests and instead invited potential customers to come hang out with him for a weekend and build one for themselves. The Bamboo Bicycle Club was born.
The fact that you build your own bike from scratch means you not only get to pick the tubes you like the look of best, but that the possibilities are literally endless in terms of design. The result of which is an equally diverse club membership. During our visit we meet Magnus, a snowboard instructor who was building a fat bike for snow riding over the coming season in Switzerland; Fellow Permaculture magazine subscriber Kate who was building a very much on-trend gravel adventure bike; Archer lived only a stone’s throw away, but was planning to raffle his bike in order to raise money for his upcoming London to Singapore cycle tour, however I feel he may fall in love with it and change his mind; and Scott who had travelled down from Scotland for the first time and was building a classic single speed road bike.
Bamboo has been proclaimed by many as the world's most renewable material: it's naturally pest-resistant, grows incredibly fast and can actually help rebuild eroded soil. The finished product has a higher compressive strength than wood, brick, or concrete and a tensile strength that rivals steel, despite remaining extremely flexible. These unique characteristics combine to make an ideal frame material. This has been verified by a team of researchers from Oxford Brookes University who concluded that, “bamboo frame’s show significant improvement in ride comfort performance compared with their aluminium counterparts”, (Thite et al, 2013, pp.1287-1304). In addition bamboo is also relatively light, easy to work with, cheap and when it comes to the end of its life you can pop it into the compost bin.
It takes just three or four years from seed to harvest and because bamboo can be coppiced, it just shoots right back up again. Bamboo, therefore, can be easily grown without any chemical fertilisers or pesticides making it a truly organic and sustainable option. While the many different varieties allow for builders to pick the one with the most desirable characteristics and finish, ensures no one bike will be the same.
With the vast majority of bamboo originating from Asia there are questions relating to the full environmental cost of its use in terms of global transportation footprint and fair-trade credentials. However, bamboo is an extremely adaptable plant and can be grown is a wide variety of other locations, including right here in the UK. James is attempting to alleviate these issues by seeking partnerships with UK growers and has recently been in touch with the Eden Project. The aim, to use locally grown materials to produce locally build bikes.
How it works
It is the heart of the bike, the frame, that you build from bamboo, with other components being added separately once finished.
You have a jig set in the angles you require. The angles are chosen depending on what type, size and style of bike you are building.
You select your bamboo tubes in terms of length, diameter and aesthetics based against desired ride characteristics and personal preference.
Next you cut each tube to the required length and angle, aligning them together in your jig.
In order to bond the tubes first an epoxy is used and later the joins and secured with resin and hemp wraps.
Each frame then takes time to dry and the joins to harden before the final touches can be made, with many customers opting to sand down the joins before painting in order to give the frame a more polished finish.
Once painted the frame is ready to be built up with parts and can start its new life as your bike.
Workshops are currently at high capacity, with on site production being out stripped by demand. In response to this and in order that more people are able to build their dream frame out of renewable and sustainable materials without having to travel to London James has recently launched his Home Build Kits. Allowing members to construct their own style of bamboo bike at home using the same methods taught in the workshops. The result of which has been a huge success and has helped grow the club's membership base all around the world.
The Bamboo Bicycle Club is also keen on spreading its ethos of sustainable engineering accessible to all and has developed a number of educational offerings.
James believes that by building something for yourselves you will naturally value the product more and what better way to capture this then designing, building and riding your very own bike?
The Bamboo Bicycle Club is just one of a growing number of worldwide bamboo bike manufactures catering for an eclectic and growing number of riders.
Development of an experimental methodology to evaluate the influence of a bamboo frame on the bicycle ride comfort. A. N. Thite , S. Gerguri , F. Coleman , M. Doody , N. Fisher, Vehicle System Dynamics, Vol. 51, Iss. 9, 2013
Andy makes up one half of LookMumNoCar, a cycling obsessed, high carb vegan couple from the UK who after cycle touring the world are now exploring more of their own backyard. Follow their pedal powered, banana fuelled adventures at LookMumNoCar.co.uk
Watch: Eco-friendly bamboo bicycles
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