March 23, 2016
Growing Sustainable Frames
By Dutch Franz
Photo at right: Monsoon Cycles of Seattle uses locally grown bamboo and hemp fiber wrapped joints in the construction of custom bamboo bikes. Photo by Tyler Thirloway
Ken Wheeler of Renovo Bikes in Portland, Oregon, began exploring the structural properties of hardwood as an engineer looking for material to make innovative airplane designs.
A longtime bicycle touring enthusiast, Wheeler started thinking about wood as a suitable material for high-performance bikes and wondered if he could make a hollow wood frame that was as strong as the industry leading carbon frames.
After a little tinkering and some tests, Wheeler was successful in creating a revolutionary lightweight frame as strong as traditional metal frames. Wheeler also found that the wood frames were stiffer and had greater vibration dampening qualities than many carbon bikes on the market.
Renovo began selling bikes in 2008 at the beginning of the economic downturn and only sold three bikes that year. Seven years and thousands of bikes later Renovo has a dedicated following and is striking deals with retailors across the globe. Wheeler likes to think of the company’s bikes as high-performance pieces of moving art.
The performance characteristics of Renovo’s sustainable frame were proven in 2015 when Payton Mayness won the U.S.A. State Cycling Championship in Texas on a Renovo bike she had received only days before the race.
The affinity for biking as both recreation and a way of life in the Northwest has not been lost on those who are committed to pushing the
eco-friendly envelope while making quality bikes.
Bicycle frames manufactured using sustainable materials are unique in design and offer the discerning rider performance characteristics better than most carbon fiber frames.
The people who make and own these bikes are as fanatical about performance as they are about the environment, so it is no surprise that the Pacific Northwest has become a hub for a growing sustainable bike manufacturing industry.
Technically a Grass
Bamboo is another popular material for building bikes because it’s light-weight and has greater tensile strength than steel and withstands compression better than concrete. Technically a grass, bamboo grows incredibly fast and produces 35 percent more oxygen from carbon dioxide than trees.
The unique qualities found in bamboo and wood frames translate into greater power efficiency and a smoother ride. The material is also aesthetically pleasing in overall frame design.
Wheeler says the stiffness of these frames keeps riders from experiencing the “death-rattle” during fast descents and offers more stability when loaded down for long touring. These sustainable materials also have excellent power transfer qualities and greater rider control.
Tyler Thirloway of Seattle’s Monsoon Cycles began like many Northwest startups: in his garage.
Thirloway has always been concerned about the environment and thought it would be fun to make a bamboo bike. He taught himself the trade and after seeing the popularity of his work, he made a business of it.
Now making custom bamboo bikes for clients around the region, Thirloway pushes the sustainable limits by using a plant-based epoxy and hemp-fiber wrapped joints.
Monsoon fosters a local connection in manufacturing materials by using bamboo from local nurseries. Thirloway says the locally grown Henon bamboo has a good strength to weight ratio and does not crack during his two-step drying process.
A custom bike will take around two months to emerge ready-to-ride from the Monsoon shop and he encourages riders to place orders early. There is currently a two-month waiting list for one of the company’s custom high-performance bamboo bikes.
Room to Grow
While sustainable bike manufacturing occupies a stable niche market, a common theme among local builders is that the market still has room to grow. One of the problems sustainable bike builders experience is encouraging riders to look beyond the unconventional materials and to understand that the bikes are high-quality riding machines first, and an eco-friendly option second.
“A lot of people think they are cool and interesting,” said Thirloway. “But it is hard to get them over the novelty of the material.”
There is also a movement by manufacturers to help advance sustainable bike making in developing countries where bamboo is plentiful and biking is a major means of transportation.
For now, sustainable bike manufacturing is very much a local affair with dedicated and skilled builders making high-performance bikes for the local market.
As companies like Renovo and Monsoon streamline manufacturing techniques and expand into growing markets around the globe, the sustainable bike may become a more popular option for the Pacific Northwest eco-conscious rider.
Dutch Franz is a fat bike enthusiast and was one of the first writers in the region to cover the sport. He has reported on everything related to bicycling, from trend setting manufacturing to the opening of new terrain.