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Bamboo bike quite the offshoot

Ten years ago, a Santa Cruz shop owner's dog got him thinking. Now he hopes his concept will take root in Africa.

June 18, 2007|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

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.

On Sunday, Calfee was due to arrive in the West African nation of Ghana, intent on making bamboo bikes for the desperately poor.

Chew toy to bicycle. Whimsy to good deed. Santa Cruz to Ghana.

Not that this story is anywhere near finished. It's still anybody's guess whether something will come of this project.

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.

Craig Calfee is no ordinary bicycle shop owner. He's considered one of the country's elite bike builders, someone who creates machines for the likes of Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France. He fashions the lightest of bike frames from carbon fiber.

His shop is outside Santa Cruz, a community known for its laid-back style. His only link to the Third World is a long-ago trip to Africa. Yet somehow, more by accident than design, Calfee and his bamboo bikes may provide a means for rudimentary transport in the emerging world.

In a sense, Calfee is part of a bamboo craze sweeping the United States. Bamboo is suddenly chic, now that it's being made into everything from baby-soft T-shirts to baseball bats. Gone are the days when it was the stuff of cheap, ugly curtains and tacky lawn furniture. Bamboo has arrived.

"The uses are almost endless," said Dan Keesey, president of Gardena-based EcoDesignz, which sells everything from bamboo clothing to furniture. "You can eat off it, wear it and sit on it."

And sleep on it, eat with it, walk on it and fish with it, to name but a few other uses.

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.

"A little rough" is how Calfee describes it -- an experiment that worked well enough to tool around town. But the novelty was infectious, albeit on a small scale.

"I built a few more for friends," he said. "I was just playing around with it, not taking it seriously. But people started asking about them, so I decided to start offering them to the public."

He made one for an ex-girlfriend in Tucson and another for a customer in San Francisco. He'd get e-mails from people looking to make an environmental statement. And word spread among hard-core riders that the bamboo bike cushioned road shock over long distances.

Among the believers was Ken Runyan of Emmett, Idaho, who owns a hardware and bike shop and saw Calfee's bamboo creation at a Las Vegas trade show. He ordered one to sell (the frames go for $2,700), but ended up keeping it for himself. He found he liked it better than his other bikes.

"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."

And, of course, there are the obligatory jokes: Keep it out of the rain so it doesn't sprout; use it for firewood if you get lost; you'll never lack for a toothpick.

But Runyan said he also noticed his times were faster on long rides. And when he cracked the top tube of his frame, all he needed was Super Glue to patch it up.

"It's still kind of a gimmick bike," he said. "But I wouldn't have any qualms about selling it to anybody."

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.

In somebody more energetic, Calfee's musings could have led to philanthropic solicitations. But Calfee's a bike guy from Santa Cruz. So instead he put a small item on his website, calfeedesign.com, saying that a bamboo bike could have some value in developing nations, if someone took up the cause.

But that someone was not going to be him.

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