A Bicycle Built of Bamboo Is the Ultimate Eco-friendly Ride

Bamboo bike
The frame of this bike is made from eco-friendly bamboo instead of aluminum or carbon fiber. Calfee Design

Bamboo is the fastest growing and most regenerative plant on Earth. And with more than 1,600 species in the world, its uses are limited only by our imaginations. It's been used for thousands of years to make everything from flutes to the elements of infrastructure. Today, bamboo provides the raw materials for oodles of things including textiles, flooring, furniture, toilet paper and even bicycles.

The superhero of the grass family, the real genius of bamboo lies in its flexibility, resilience and ecological sustainability. But when it comes to bike-building, bamboo is a unique alternative. It has a higher strength to weight ratio than steel, is more impact-resistant than carbon fiber and absorbs vibration better than any other material used for building frames. It's much lighter than steel, more comfortable than vibrating aluminum and cheaper than carbon fiber.


A Master Bamboo Bicycle Maker

Meet Craig Calfee, a master bike tech pioneer and owner of Calfee Design in La Selva Beach, California. In 1991, with the support of three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, Calfee built the first all-carbon bikes to compete in the Tour de France and is also a world-class innovator and manufacturer of bamboo bike frames.

"In 1995, I wanted to build a bike from a material not normally used for bikes," Calfee shares in an email, remembering what first inspired him to work with bamboo. "It was just a fun novelty concept to attract attention at the big trade show called Interbike. But I did want it to be rideable and perform well if possible and I wanted to take advantage of a fiber wrapping method I had developed with carbon fiber whereby I could join pretty much anything."


And the rest is history.

Why Use Bamboo?

So, what makes bamboo an ideal alternative medium for fashioning bicycle frames?

"Bamboo is available almost anywhere, often for free," Calfee explains. "It absorbs vibration better than any other frame building material. It doesn't require expensive tools to work with it. Plus, it doesn't require paint to make it look good — a basic clear coat will do."


Surprisingly, many parts of a bamboo bike beyond just the frame itself can be made from bamboo and much of it can be assembled without welding.

"The frame tubes are whole bamboo poles and the joints are fiber impregnated with epoxy," says Calfee. "We usually use hemp fiber, but any strong fiber can be used including bamboo fiber. We've also made handlebars, stems, seat posts and forks out of bamboo. Fenders and wheel rims have been made from bamboo as well. We developed the fiber wrapping technique that starts with mitering the bamboo tubes to fit each other. They are tacked in a fixture with glue, then removed from the fixture and wrapped with epoxy-soaked fiber. Then it is filed and sanded to a smooth finish," he says.

Bamboo bike
You can order a ready-to-ride bamboo bike or a DIY kit that will allow you to put together your own ride.
Calfee Design


Bamboo Has Its Own Special Challenges

Building with bamboo is not without its challenges. It has to be sealed properly to prevent splitting. And unlike manufactured materials, bamboo is by nature inconsistent in size, shape, diameter and thickness. But Calfee has had years of experience in determining what works and what doesn't.

"You just have to get used to the 'rules' needed for working in bamboo. Just like every material has its own idiosyncrasies or 'rules,' bamboo is no different," says Calfee. "For example, one must address the corrosion of steel when making items from steel. With bamboo, one must address the issue of splitting, which is caused by changes in moisture content. So, it must be sealed up very well," he says.


As for performance, bamboo bikes are suitable for riding in all terrains and even outperform other bikes in some ways.

"The vibration damping [the limiting of vibration] aspect is quite noticeable," says Calfee. "And it has been proven that reducing vibration reduces fatigue. Bamboo also withstands abuse better than carbon fiber or thin-walled aluminum. But its main feature is the ecological friendliness and easy availability. Bamboo sequesters carbon and therefore has a negative carbon footprint."

Bamboo bike
Singgih Susilo Kartono, the creator of the Spedagi bamboo bike, rides a Spedagi Dwiguna dual track bike in 2021 in Temanggung, Indonesia. It is Spedagi's mission to build a bike that uses natural materials and to empower his village as a sustainable and self-sufficient community.
Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images


Why Buy a Bamboo Bike?

Worldwide, thousands of bamboo bikes sell annually. Calfee — whose company builds both top-tier custom bikes as well as DIY kits — says that the aesthetic aspect of bamboo as well as curiosity about its performance are definitely purchasing factors, but that a desire to invest in a bike with ecological credentials is also a big draw.

"The DIY kits make it easy for people with carpentry skills to make a bike frame. For those with little experience making things from wood, there will be a learning curve. And the finishing work takes time to make it beautiful. If one has access to certain power tools, it goes faster. So, if you enjoy making things, the DIY kit is a bargain. Our newest kit is designed for making a lot of bikes so it's great for classes and groups to share in the expense," says Calfee. "The Calfee bamboo frames are made to order and are fairly expensive. The African-made bamboo bikes are quite a bit less expensive and we have some of those preassembled and in stock.


"One of the most interesting aspects not already mentioned comes from owners. They report that the bike seems to put them in a better mood. I assume that is related to the vibration damping, but it could also be the bike's ability to connect the rider to nature, which is a primitive human instinct," Calfee muses. "There are no barriers to understanding the structure. Where other bikes require a technical understanding of metallurgy or composites to fully understand it, bamboo just grows out of the ground."

Bamboo bikes meld technology and nature in a very immediate and sustainable way, making them viable as a means of transportation in countries that lack fuel and basic infrastructure, such as roads. Over the past 15 years Calfee has made some 20 trips to Africa where he's taught bicycle frame construction in the Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and Zambia, helping many businesses get up and running.

"One of the things that struck me early on with the bamboo bikes was that anyone could build one pretty much anywhere. Electricity is not required. The fixture for holding the bamboo in place while the tacking glue cures can be very simple or more industrial. That allows it to be a shade tree business in a developing country or a factory production — and everything in between," notes Calfee.

"It allows the business to grow organically, without huge up-front investments," Calfee says. "We've helped launch 10 small businesses in Africa and another 10 or so have been started by others by just copying the idea. A few have grown and prospered, exporting to Europe and North America. Others remain small shops making custom bikes for local use."

Calfee's hope for the future of bamboo bikes is that they continue to inspire people to consider more natural and sustainable solutions when designing products and choosing materials.

"It would be great to see school programs that use the bamboo bike as an example and experimental learning model for creative thinking," says Calfee. "The topics of biology, environmental science, geometry, hands-on fabrication skills, business management and entrepreneurship can all be taught with a bamboo bike-making course. The challenge is finding more people who consider the environment and who value handcrafted items rather than the lowest price when buying bicycles."