Nature is still the best engineer — though good human ones take advantage whenever possible.
Here’s a terrific, hopeful story about a bike designer who got a dog-gone good idea about making bike frames out of a widely grown, cheap, strong, environmentally sound material: bamboo.
Now we just need to get BioD and this guy hooked up:
Funny where an idea will take you. Ten years ago, Luna the dog — part pit bull and part Labrador retriever — was gnawing on a piece of bamboo growing behind Craig Calfee’s bicycle shop outside Santa Cruz.
Which brings us back to Luna, may she rest in peace.
Luna was adept at crushing wooden sticks with her powerful jaws. Give her a piece of wood, and she’d chew it to splinters in no time. But the best she could manage with the hard, round stalks of bamboo was a tooth mark or two.
And that got Calfee to wondering: If bamboo was strong enough to withstand Luna, why couldn’t it be a bicycle frame?
Since then, Calfee has gone from building clunker bamboo bikes to fashioning sleek, pricey racing machines that turn heads in even the snobbiest pace lines. He’s built 91 bamboo bicycles, enough for their reputation to spread across the country. And, perhaps as important, enough for Calfee to have faith in his unusual contraptions.
In Calfee’s case, you can also ride it.
He still has that first bike he made a decade ago. He uses it to run errands around town but doesn’t bring it to the shop much because a customer might get the wrong idea. The bike has a big split in the wood — which he’s repaired — and its mustache handlebars aren’t exactly state-of-the-art.
“It’s a great bike,” said Runyan, 63, who rode it in Hawaii’s Ironman triathlon last year. “The bike continually gets double takes and questions. People look at it and ask if it’s really made of bamboo.”
So word spread through Runyan and others that the bamboo bike was for real. Calfee started thinking about his unusual form of transportation. The plant itself — a member of the grass family — was common throughout Asia and Africa. And bicycles, he knew, meant transportation, which often translates to jobs in the Third World.
It happened that Ho worked for the Earth Institute of Columbia University, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sustainable development and the world’s poor.
The two men discussed both carbon fiber bikes and bamboo bikes. Ho sent Calfee a copy of “The End of Poverty,” written by the institute’s director, Jeffrey Sachs, who is often cited as one of the major thinkers on Third World economies.
Ho thinks the short time should be enough to at least cover the basics, including talking to bamboo suppliers and lining up bicycle fanciers. They want to find people interested in making the bike frames, as well as sources for epoxy, resin and sisal — a fiber used for making rope, sacking and insulation. The bottom line, Calfee said, is to be able to make a frame without using power tools.
Said Ho: “The other part of our visit is to look in rural areas for what they are using for transportation and how to improve it.” In particular, Ho said, he wants to focus on the special needs of women, because they often tend to crops, do the chores, control the money and need transportation.
One group Calfee and Ho used for advice in preparing for the trip is the Village Bicycle Project, based in the unlikely locale of Moscow, Idaho. The project has sent more than 18,000 bicycles to Ghana over the last seven years, and provided tools and repair classes throughout the country.
David Peckham, the project director, has ridden bamboo bikes and describes them as “lovely.” But he also said there are pitfalls, even in Ghana, where the official language is English and bicycles are common.
“I can’t say whether or not this is going to work,” Peckham said. “As far as I know, they are going for 10 days. I think this is a terribly short amount of time to get something done. Also, they don’t seem to grasp how slow everything goes and how hard it is to get something done.”