It's a miracle of sorts, transforming a pile of sticks into a traveling machine.
If you love bicycles and happen to be in London, England, then there's a place you should visit. It's called the Bamboo Bicycle Club and it's where bike-lovers gather to learn how to build their own rides. The Club has been operating for six years in Hackney Wick and has just moved to Canning Town this month. On the occasion of this relocation, it seems a good time to take a peek at what the Bamboo Bicycle Club is up to.
One of the Club's claims to fame is that it's the only place in the U.K. where bespoke bamboo bikes are built from scratch by first-time frame builders. In other words, you can walk in with zero bike-building experience and be guided through the entire construction process over a two-day course.
Another fun claim to fame is that this is where Kate Rawles built her bamboo bicycle. Dr. Rawles, an environmental philosopher, recently completed a 6,000-mile journey from Costa Rica to Cape Horn on a bamboo bicycle named Woody. At the end of her journey, which wrapped up in February, she wrote,
"As for Woody, the bamboo bike proved to be extremely tough and reliable, coping with extremes of heat and cold, rain, dryness and altitude. I had virtually no mechanicals on the whole journey!"
Bamboo is a terrific material for building bikes because it's so light and shock-absorbent. The cellulose composition disperses the road's bumps, rather than conducting them through the saddle. Frustration with a bumpy ride is what led James Marr, the Club's founder, to explore bamboo as a bike material:
"I was living in rural Wales and cycling 17 miles a day for work. By the end of my rides, I couldn’t feel my hands – all the vibrations had travelled up through the frame and numbed them. Think of it like this. If you knock a bit of metal, it will make a 'ting' sound, like a bell. If you knock a bit of bamboo, there's a dull, soft sound."
The idea of using bamboo to build a bicycle is not new; indeed, bamboo bikes have been around for a long time, with one patent dating as far back as 1894, but they are not as conducive to mass production as steel and aluminum, which is why they never caught on. Bamboo is, however, an ideal material for curious home-builders who want an even more personal relationship with their bicycle, or for whom the idea of a smaller environmental footprint is important. This was Rawles' main motivation:
"The heart of this bike is local and low impact. The joints are made from Yorkshire hemp soaked in a European plant-based eco-resin. The bamboo came from the Eden Project in Cornwall – truly a 'home grown bicycle' in these respects at least. In addition, bamboo is long lasting and, in theory anyway, recyclable. Even if it turns out impractical to recycle, it will certainly be biodegradable. How many of us have the option of composting our bikes, when that sad day comes?!"
I love the idea of being able to construct one's own mode of transportation. It fits in well with the slow living movements that are infiltrating food, fashion, and travel these days. At a time when we're increasingly removed from the production of almost everything we rely on in our daily lives, a bicycle-building course is refreshingly hands-on, creative, and useful.
The Bamboo Bicycle Club offers the two-day weekend course mentioned above, capped at six people with two instructors, and costs £495. Alternatively, you can buy a home-build kit for road, hybrid, touring, track, off-road mountain, and cyclo-cross bicycle frames. These start at £285 with free international shipping. When I quizzed Marr about how much experience one should have when purchasing a kit, he said it comes with a complete manual and video guides and has been built by people from ages 12 to 90. Even some schools are using the kit. The only thing you really need is some space to build.