Could bikes made from bamboo be the future of sustainable transportation? Tom Lawson takes one for a test ride
The standard bicycle – simple, practical and surely about as sustainable as it gets when it comes to transportation, right? At least that’s what I thought until I came across Bamboo Bikes, a UK company specialising in bike frames made from that most versatile of grasses.
Bamboo Bikes make mountain bike frames by hand in a workshop in Scarborough using bamboo poles held together with flax fibres grown in Belgium, adding extra sustainability to the already eco-friendly method of transport.
But for managing director Rachel Hammond, the beauty of bamboo bikes doesn’t lie solely in their environmental credentials. As a keen cyclist, it was the high quality of bamboo frames that first sparked her interest at a bike exhibition in London four years ago.
“It caught my eye and was different. Bamboo is a lovely material,” says Hammond. “When you actually ride one, it completely changes your perspective. I really don’t enjoy riding metal bikes anymore.”
As importing the bikes from the US was the only way British riders could take advantage of the creations, Hammond decided to start her own company here, and since launching in 2011, the business has made 50 bamboo bikes, one of which I took out for a test ride.
I’ll be honest, at first glance it looked a little like chunky sticks taped together with parcel tape. But riding it around a woodland area, it proved it to be much tougher than you’d think; it felt as sturdy and comfortable as any regular bike.
“At first glance it looked a little like chunky sticks taped together with parcel tape, but it felt as sturdy and comfortable as any regular bike”
“We’ve worked hard to get it comparable with other materials on the market,” says Hammond. Indeed, in tests carried out by Oxford Brookes University, which helped design the frame, bamboo was better able to absorb vibrations than aluminium. It’s lighter than alloy, has higher tensile strength than steel and is stiffer than aluminium. On the downside, it doesn’t beat carbon fibre for weight, meaning it’s unsuitable for ultra-lightweight racing bikes.
Currently, the range of bikes is limited and everyday cyclists may have to wait a while to ride bamboo. Prices start at £1,199 for frames alone, with complete bikes costing up to £2,499. However, more models are in the pipeline.
Hammond also admits that there is still a way to go in terms of sustainability, as the bamboo is currently shipped from China and the resins used to hold it together are made from non-biodegradable chemicals. “We’re by no means saying that this is the greenest bike ever, but we try to be as conscious as we can. We have started looking into more ecological and local sourcing, but it’s a long process,” says Hammond. “You have to know the durability, so you have to wait three or five years to see whether it lasts.”
Nonetheless, bamboo remains a natural material, absorbing carbon dioxide as it grows and avoiding the energy-intensive manufacturing processes of metal bikes, making a bamboo bike much more sustainable than your average two-wheeled ride.
As a cycling enthusiast, I found the differences in performance between metal and bamboo pretty minimal. Being on a par with other high quality mountain bikes suggests that bamboo could become accepted as a mainstream bike-building material.
“People laughed at carbon fibre when that came out in the early eighties and now it’s considered in line with other materials,” says Hammond. “In the last couple of years there’s definitely been a growing interest for bamboo.”
The concept of bamboo bikes is by no means new. Back in the 1800s, the Bamboo Cycle Company produced them in Wolverhampton, before they were eventually outdone by metal. But perhaps with this newfound build quality and increasing environmental awareness, they might stick around for good this time.