It's 8am on a Saturday morning and I'm standing in a freezing cold warehouse in Hackney Wick, London holding a hacksaw. In front of me is a sheet of paper covered in angles and equations. Piled around the room are stacks of bamboo. By the end of the weekend, I'm meant to have turned some of it into a bicycle frame. I think of the last time I did woodwork and my fingers go numb.
I'm at the Bamboo Bicycle Club, the country's only bamboo bike building course. Founded a year ago by friends James Marr and Ian McMillan, they have been giving up their weekends to help people bring their bamboo bike dreams to fruition.
Bamboo, it transpires, is not as rickety as you may think. With a higher in-tension strength than steel, natural resistance to the environment and six times more dampening than carbon, the fibrous tubes provide a strong yet comfortable ride. As James explains: "If God designed a plant to build bikes with, it would be bamboo."
Although James and Ian's workshop format is something new (the only comparable business is based in New York), the first bamboo bicycles were showcased back in 1894, made by English company the Bamboo Cycle Co. Recently, no doubt due to the renaissance cycling is enjoying, a growing number of companies have been offering bamboo frames. Panda Bikes, Zam Bikes and Grass Bikes are an aptly named few, although even high-end bike manufacturer Calfee Design has been offering some impressively slick custom models.
The custom-build element of bamboo bicycles is central to what makes them so appealing. What was previously a luxury reserved for those with a certificate in welding or a very big budget is suddenly accessible to anyone capable of using a saw. I can proudly say I am one of those people.
Preparations for the workshop begin a week in advance, with a discussion about what style of bike you want to build. Personally, I feel that any bicycle made out of organic matter should be a laidback affair, something to cruise around on rather than race. I opt for a frame that contrasts with the stiff geometry of my existing one and go for a "Classic English" for an upright, gentle ride. When I arrive at the workshop, the precise list of body measurements requested from me have already been transposed onto a personalised diagram of my frame. This is the plan that I will follow. James, who makes wind turbines and Ian, a civil engineer, have put a lot of effort into simplifying the highly technical process of frame building. Four years of experimentation has also meant they have worked out the best methods for construction. "The first bikes were spec'd on metal tubing and were way too thin," says James, who has been riding his current bamboo bike for over a year. "They flexed all over the place. We've had some ropy rides… I've had bikes fall apart on me.
"When you buy a bike you're so far removed from how it's manufactured," he says. "There's no connection with the frame. By the end of our workshops people become really connected, getting much more obsessive, lining up nodes on the wood… that's really nice to see. I don't want to sell bikes. I've had people offer £1,000 to just buy a frame and I've said no."
The first step is setting up the jig – the structure used to hold the frame in place – then to select your bamboo. Things to watch out for are cracked pieces, knobbly nodes and pieces that are too thin. Of course, finding pieces that are the colour you want is just as important; some people like the frame to be consistent, others like a mix of light, dark or speckled. James and Ian are strong believers in making your bike look exactly how you want.
"But don't get too attached to your pieces," James warns, as we raise our saws. The fibres on the outer layer of bamboo have a tendency to flake off, weakening it and rendering it useless. The rest of the afternoon is spent fixing each piece of the frame into the jig, slotting in the bottom bracket, seat tube and handlebar tube using an epoxy glue to hold it in place until it can be properly bound. The idiosyncrasies of bamboo as a construction material means unexpected adjustments can suddenly become necessary. At one point the coincidental alignment of a kink and a node on my two chain stays (the narrow tubes running alongside your back wheel) threaten to render my frame useless, but luckily, after some careful checks, Ian confirms that yes, there is just enough space to fit a wheel.
Besides, most things can be fixed by a spot of whittling with a Stanley knife. If all else fails you can simply bin it and cut off another length. Spare pieces are turned into pen pots, bike racks and ipod stands. It seems bikes are not the only thing you can make out of bamboo. Joining me in the workshop, which is steadily filling up with sawdust, splintered bits of bamboo and empty mugs of tea, are three others.
Ed Herbert, 26, a software developer from Cambridge with a background in engineering, found out about the workshop just six days previously and signed up immediately. He chose to build a touring bike to take him on a 1,000 mile cycle ride across France.
Also hard at work building a racing frame is Londoner Neil Cummings, 54, a lecturer at Chelsea College of Art.
"It's really interesting understanding more about the frame itself, how the angles of the tubes can make so much difference," he says.
"I've learnt much more about the bicycle and what an amazing thing it is." He looks at his frame, a sticky mess of branches and glue. "It's quite funny to think I'll be riding that." For Tom Brand, 26, an investment accountant from London, this will be the first bike he's owned.
"Riding it for the first time is going to be so different to riding one I bought from a shop," he says. "With that you just think, I just spent a load of money. With this, I think, 'I made something'."
On Sunday morning we return to the workshop bright and early to complete the final process; binding. After a shaky start, we begin to tightly wrap each joint on the frame with hemp soaked in an epoxy resin. It is pretty pungent stuff and very sticky.
After two layers, the binding is wrapped tightly with electrical tape, to keep it firm and ensure a smooth finish. All that is left now is for it to dry. In a few hours I will be an official member of the bamboo bicycle club.
While we saunter to the pub to wait, I take the opportunity to test ride Ian's bike to find out what it's really like to ride. Once I get over the self-conscious delight of the fact that it's made out of bamboo, and stop looking down at the frame and pay attention to the road, it becomes apparent why they love it so much.
It feels just as capable as any bike, but softer, more relaxed. I ride past a group of people who look surprised, but in a pleasant way. It feels more 'hippy' than 'hipster'.
"Every time I get on my bike I can't help smiling," says James.
"It reminds me of when I built it."
Weekend courses at Bamboo Bicycle Club cost £420.00 and include all the materials and tools you need to complete a frame. For more information visit: bamboobicycleclub.orgReuse content