Erstellt am: 19. 7. 2012 - 18:40 Uhr
The Bike That Was Grown
I felt quite special as I whizzed around the pond at Vienna`s Karlsplatz. A couple of glamorous looking girls looked up at me in a way that you might have described quizzical, but that I knew was admiring. Now that is something that rarely happens to me, and since I couldn’t fairly put it down to my ten euro sunglasses, I reasoned that it must have been the bamboo bike. I was commuting to work on a contraption that is basically made of a form of tropical grass more popularly thought of as spaghetti for pandas.
There is a lot if excitement surrounding bamboo right now. Once considered as a weed in many areas, it is now estimated that we have found some 1,500 uses for bamboo, which is mature for harvesting after just 5 years - giving it the title the "timber of the 20th century". You can eat the young shoots or you can build with the mature bamboo. You can cook it up and weave with it. Or you can take avantage of its strength and flexibility and build a bike out of it.
I first wrote about bamboo bikes two years ago (of course you remember) when I came across a project providing locally produced strong bamboo-framed cargo bikes at an affordable price in Ghana, the country I used to call home. It seemed to me like a great idea – bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant in the world that releases 35 per cent more oxygen than the equivalent amount of trees. It`s resilient and requires minimum pesticide. And the production in charismatic but poor Ghana is a boon for local business. Instead of importing Chinese clunkers, these bikes were literally “homegrown” and then made by hand in local workshops.
The bike I was riding through Vienna had also been made from Ghanaian bamboo, but it was very different beast to those sturdy cargo bikes, which are built to carry goods on rough roads and often pushed as much as they are ridden. My bike, which had been hand-made by the Lower Austrian based Bambooride company, was a green-tired skinny road racer. It was stiff and fast and sleek looking. The three corners of the main triangle are strenghened with a resin of hemp fibres. It was a bit like riding a sailing boat.
“The frame is from Ghana, the rest is from Pukersdorf,” laughed engineer Alex who was accompanying me on my test ride. He says it would be only a little more expensive to produce the bamboo here in Austria but that the partnership with the Ibrahim Nyampong’ workshop in the suburbs of the Ghanaian capital Accra was an important part of the project.
“For us partnership means that we provide Ibrahim with technological Know How and also the sort of tools that he needs which aren’t readily available in West Africa.” That includes materials sent from Austria that Ibrahim then uses to sell bikes to other customers as well, says Alex: “We are really trying to be fair trade.”
Ibrahim cuts the bamboo from two forests a couple of hours north of the capital Accra. Selecting the right bamboo is the most difficult part of the process, says Alex. “It can’t be too dry or it is at risk of cracking and it has to have the right diametres.” The bamboo is then cured ecologically to protect it against weevils, termites or mould and left for months to dry and mature.
The Austrian Bambooride company is only 18 months old, and Alex estimates there are less than a hundred bamboo framed bikes out and about on Austria`s streets right now. But this new ‘trend’ with a long history. The first patent for a bamboo bike was filed in England in 1894. And why not? Once properly cured, bamboo is reputed to be as strong as steel but is also flexible. It comes really grown in hollow stalks of varying diameters which can be used for different parts of the frame.
It`s hard to gage a bike's quality in one test ride but it was a fun taking tight corners on a frame that is only slightly heavier than carbon . The frame`s strength was proved beyond doubt when, this time last year, two engineering lecturers from Oxford University used bamboo mountainbikes to power through Europe`s toughest mountain-bike race, the Trans Alp.
So could this ecologically sound technology become main-stream? Will we ever see the majority of cyclists astride bamboo? Alex doubts it. He thinks bamboo bikes, which now retail at around 2,000 Euros, will remain a niche: “The technology doesn’t lend itself to industrial production.” It`s a very manual process, he explains, which is great for the business model of the workshop in Ghana. But as soon as you get into the tens of thousands, the sort of numbers you`d need for industrial production, then it would no longer work."
No revolution in movement then, but a green experiment and a little bit of Africa on the streets of Austria which I think is a good thing. Bamboo has been dubbed green gold in Africa as its potential is slowly recognised. If managed well it could be a carbon-capturing, sustainable industry. This autumn, I`ve been talked into cycling through Uganda – maybe I should ride a bike that was born on the continent as I climb the green hills of Africa? We`ll see.