Bamboo bikes for the masses

Craig Calfee hopes to prove that one person with one idea can make a difference in some of the poorest corners of the planet. The maker of some of the most exclusive and sought after carbon-fiber bikes on the market, Calfee plans to use his knowledge to teach Africans how to build themselves bamboo cargo bikes.

Why bamboo?

How can carbon fiber technology trickle down to African villagers?

By Matt Pacocha

Calfee with one of his concept bikes at the 2008 North American Handmade Bike Show.

Calfee with one of his concept bikes at the 2008 North American Handmade Bike Show.

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Craig Calfee hopes to prove that one person with one idea can make a difference in some of the poorest corners of the planet. The maker of some of the most exclusive and sought after carbon-fiber bikes on the market, Calfee plans to use his knowledge to teach Africans how to build themselves bamboo cargo bikes.

Why bamboo?

Calfee made his first bamboo frame about ten years ago and his product line has included a bamboo model — a high-end design sold in boutique shops — for the past three years. Besides its classy aesthetics, Bamboo’s vibration damping and stiffness make it perfect for frame construction, says Calfee.

But one reason he likes the material so much is its low carbon footprint. A carbon fiber or metal frame might be lighter on the road, but, from a green perspective, nothing treads more lightly on the planet than a bamboo bicycle, he says.

The concept bike — not exactly as planned for Africa.

Photo: Matt Pacocha

His bamboo frames are built using a method similar to his carbon fiber bikes. The smoked bamboo tubes are selected based on a rider’s size and desired feel, then mitered and the junctures are wrapped with an epoxy-soaked carbon. Some customers choose a hemp wrap for an even more natural look.

While his bamboo frames are treasured by the well-heeled for their ride quality and green chic, somewhere along the way Calfee realized the material could make a lot of sense — socially, environmentally and economically — at the extreme other end of the bicycle price spectrum.

How’s that?

Well, for one thing, Calfee says bamboo frames can be built cheaper even than Chinese metal frames. Most of the materials, except the resin, can be sourced even in small African villages. Their assembly requires no electricity or expensive tools. The frames are easily repaired, even in small villages, without welding. And frame production could give local craftsmen an entrepreneurial opportunity while cultivating a sense of pride. And of course making bicycle transportation available cheaply increases economic opportunities with minimal environmental effects.

Calfee did a study last year to see if villagers would accept bamboo bikes and be interested in building their own.

“We found out that in fact, yes, they’re really enthusiastic about something that gives them self sufficiency, uses a local resource and results in a product that they really need; in this case a cargo bike,” Calfee said.

Calfee’s concept goes a step further than bike donation programs like Kona’s BikeTown or Tom Ritchey’s Project Rwanda, that give second-hand or new bikes to key community members, like aid workers and entrepreneurs, so that they can reach and help more people.

“[By] bringing an industry there that can use local materials and local skills — they’re very skilled with their hands — there’s no reason why they can’t make a lot of stuff that we would consume or they could consume locally. This is made in Africa for Africans.”

If it grows, it’s green.

No matter where a bamboo bike is built, Calfee’s favorite attribute is how good they are for the environment.

In Africa bamboo is common, but carbon fiber, or hemp, that’s used to join the bamboo tubes, isn’t. So after a bit of research Calfee found a locally grown substitute, the sisal fiber.

“They use it for insulation in their buildings,” he said. “It comes from Northern Africa. We’ve tested the fiber compared to a hemp fiber, bamboo fiber and jute fiber. The sisal is surprisingly strong but it’s a coarse fiber so it’s not as easy to work with, but it’s functional so it does the job and it’s really cheap over there.”

Dropouts, head tubes, bottom bracket shells and epoxy resin will have to be imported. Calfee’s project depends on its ability to get these items to the local builders.

“We want to make sure that supply chain is maintained by a profit-making individual who is motivated to keep it going,” he said. He says charity-based programs often die slow deaths as volunteers burn out.

“They really don’t like being in the position of asking for a hand out; there’s a lot of pride associated with that. When I showed them the sample bike I brought over they were like, ‘we have bamboo here. And this wrapping, we have fiber like this. We can make this bike here.’”

For more information go to Calfee’s Bamboo Overview Web site.

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