10 01 2010

The cycling world is always looking for the latest and greatest.   The offender now?  Bamboo.   Now if  various steels, titanium, aluminum, carbon composites, magnesium, reinforced plastics and hybrids as far as the eye can see where not enough.    Bamboo will make you ride farther, faster and absorbs the mystical vibration so that you are riding on a magic carpet…..

The worst thing about Bamboo….If we use it what will the cute Pandas eat?

If you only remember one thing about materials,  here it is.   You can build a good riding bike just about out of anything.   That includes Bamboo, wood, Carrot Fiber cables or hundreds of other things that I have not thought of.   The thing that should always be remembered is using the right material for the right application.   Good bikes are not about the material.  They are about proper design for the task at hand.   No one material can do this in all circumstances.

There is no reason why Bamboo should not  make great bikes.     It is a strong material, in some cases stronger than Aluminum and by weight stronger than mild Steel.   There are many applications in which bamboo should work really well.   City bikes, cargo bikes, utility bikes even overbuilt MTB and road bikes.

The main issue from a builders POV is that Bamboo is a natural material and that is its downfall for a very lightweight racing bike.   By default the material is not uniform.   It is wood (technically a grass) and because  of this the builder can never be sure of exactly what the inherent properties of the material are.  Builders/Engineers can be very confident that if a steel tube is made in X diameter and X thickness that it will perform identically each and every time.    With Bamboo you cannot.  How was it grown?  What were the conditions during growth?  What species is it?  How was it harvested? How was it cured?  How was it treated during assembly?   You get the point..   If we overbuild everything should be fine but I am distressed at how many of these new bamboo builders and companies are trying to target the racing crowd when in my opinion if you are trying to push the envelope of weight and performance you are better off using  material/s that will provide a known factor of safety.

Beyond the proper use issue, I think that mainly people are interested in Bamboo for the ecological benefits and the visual appeal.   lets look for a moment at how green Bamboo might be.   When people consider how ecologically friendly an item may be they have to consider the entire life cycle of that product.  This is called an LCA or an Life Cycle Analysis.   This analysis takes into account not only the production factors and costs but also how the product performs and finally how is it disposed of or recycled.   These analysis can be quite extensive and I can’t hope to fully investigate it on a simple blog entry.  To date nobody that I know of has done a LCA on a bamboo bike frame.

Here are some of my thoughts though.   Most bamboo bikes are really not that “green” .    Here are some of the main issues.

1.  If the bamboo is imported from another country than you have costs and pollutants created transporting the material.   Realize that no one just orders a a few bamboo poles and calls it a day.   You order a ton of it and then sift through the ones that meet your needs and most of it is rejected.   Bamboo is light but takes up a lot of space and therefore is very inefficient to ship.

2.  Much of a bamboo frame is still metal.    The headtube, bottom bracket, seat tube, drop-outs and cable mounts, brake mounts are all metal.   This represents more than half of the frame weight, so keep in mind that Bamboo only makes up a portion of the frame in the first place

3.  Epoxy and Carbon.   What is the joining material of the frame and what is its impact?   If the remaining part of the frame is all carbon and epoxy then by default even less of the frame is bamboo and has almost the same environmental impact as a 100% carbon frame.   There are organically based epoxies now but none of the bamboo makers that I know of use them.

4.   How long will the frame last and how will it be recycled.   Here is a very important one.  No-one knows how long a bamboo bike will last.   We know that a well crafted steel/ti bike can last lifetime and recycling these materials is straightforward.    We cannot yet recycle composites.  If a bamboo bike fails beyond repair, at this time the only thing that can be done is going into the landfill.   The same issue exists right now for all carbon based composites.   Landfill.    There are some methods on the horizon to do something about this but as of this moment they are not ready for prime time and not used almost anywhere in the U.S. and it will be some time before that may come to be.

5.   Made in another country.   I have no issue with making products in other countries, but if the point of Bamboo is to be low in carbon emissions and sustainable that has to be local.   One of the new crop of Bamboo builders is having their frames made in Thailand.    By looking at the pictures of the production area it looks sketchy at best.   The good thing is that shipping costs are low because they are using locally produced product but what procedures and epoxies are used?  Are the workers properly protected from chemicals and waste products?   Not in the pictures I saw.   Is the spraying of paints and coatings done in compliance with EPA rules and reducing VOC emissions?

6.   This leads me into my last point and my biggest peeve overall.   Price.   I read around the internet about how great bamboo would be if it did not cost so much.   Most of the comments are “well if it cost $700.00, I would get one.    Here is the rub.   Bamboo will cost a lot of money.   Why?  because you have to grow and maintain the plant and harvest correctly.   This takes a lot of time to do it correctly.   You have to prepare the material and then  fabricate it into a frame and finish.    All this requires just as much effort or more in some respects than just purchasing standard frame materials and constructing a frame.    Because of the non-uniform nature of a natural material it will never be a massed producible item.   Aluminum bicycles can be made in minutes with robots.   This will never be with Bamboo.  So the end result is that it will take many man-hours to build bamboo frames and this in turn adds greatly to the cost.    If you really want it green with locally sustainable materials, high tech bio based epoxies and manufacturing that is concerned with a low carbon footprint,  employee  safety and VOC emissions than you will have to pay a premium for that.   The alternative?   Just as with everything else bicycle buy it from Asia or Africa where labor is 1/100th of what it is here but then again if your purchasing decision was based on being environmentally friendly you pretty much just forfeited that entirely.

Now, to put my money where my mouth is I have started down my own road to building myself a bamboo bike.    Tucson it turns out is a great place to grow structural bamboo.   We have great temperatures and copious amounts of sun.    This last week I started my first grove of Bamboo.  I will be planting several varieties.  Bamboo doesn’t like desert soils so you have to dig a massive hole and replace all the earth with good growing soil but that was my exercise this week.    It will take about three years for the Bamboo to be ready.   I am not doing this to make money or a product.  This is for my own knowledge and enjoyment.   Here is the benefit though.   I will have multiple species to choose from.   I can harvest the bamboo when it’s just the right diameter for my projects and I can cure the Bamboo slowly and carefully to prevent any cracking or splitting.    It also doesn’t get any more local than my back-yard and the side benefit is creating a better space and shading for my home thus reducing my cooling needs.

Baby bamboo are so cute!

Remember this though.   The longer anything is used the greener it becomes.   New production by default is not a green process.   Using our existing bicycles or purchasing bicycles we know will last a long time and then keeping them.  That is green.

Look for Bamboo experiments to come!  Like all my bikes look for the new BohmBoo to be as unique as the rest of my creations.