Smooth rides for Bangkok’s first bamboo bike owner
Hardcore pedal enthusiast Dale Van Dusen is taking Bangkok’s growing bicycling scene to the next level -- by bringing the city its first custom-built bamboo bike.
It’s a trend that has spiked in North America. Over the past few years workshops that walk you through building your own ride made with Asia’s ubiquitous wooden weed have jumped in popularity in bike-friendly cities like New York and San Francisco. But Van Dusen, as far as he knows, is the first person in Bangkok to have a bamboo bike, though there is an organization up in Chiang Rai that makes them -- Bamboo Bike Maker.
The practice isn’t new. The very first bamboo bike appeared at an exhibition in London in 1894, but the technology used has of course improved significantly since then.
“Bamboo has nearly the same weight-to-strength ratio as steel, but has a certain vibration-dampening effect that metal doesn’t, so riding it feels slightly different than a traditional bicycle,” say Van Dusen.
The native of Michigan caught the biking bug years ago with a cheap US$100 special when he couldn’t afford a car, eventually turning into a serious rider who pedaled the 7,470 kilometers from Yorktown, Virginia to Florence, Oregon “for fun.” From short city jaunts to work and multi-province highway rides to off-road mountain biking, Van Dusen now has a bike for every occasion. But his fixed-gear bamboo ride is his favorite.
“Hand-making your own bike provides a certain sense of satisfaction that simply picking one off the shelf doesn’t do, and there’s also the added environmental benefit of having a bike built mostly out of naturally occurring materials. But to be honest,” he says, “I just really like owning something unique that I made myself.”
Global transport solutions
Bamboo bikes are also gaining traction in poorer countries as a dependable, locally made transport option that serves as everything from a village ambulance to a community-built product for export. Companies like The Bamboo Bike Project and Zambikes have built community programs that benefit poor villages in Africa.
However, building a bike for today’s concrete jungles and high-speed road rides isn’t something that can be done in an afternoon with a few sticks and some tape. The bamboo used must be carefully chosen for its quality and thickness based on each rider’s specific weight and measurements. Then, it is heat-treated to drive out any moisture, sealed against weather damage, and firmly fitted together. The joints are then carefully wrapped with carbon fiber and sealed with strong epoxy. Parts such as handlebars, wheels, pedals and a chain are the same as those you’d see on a traditional bike.
The courses conducted in the United States used to use locally grown bamboo, but eventually moved to bulk ordering form Mexico when demand grew. Van Dusen, who took one of the courses, is looking into producing them in Asia for himself and his friends first, and then perhaps as a business later down the line.
“It makes sense to build them [in Thailand], which has both the infrastructure for production and the climate to supply the raw materials,” he says.
But for now, he’s content to continue riding his bamboo bike through the streets of Bangkok, getting a better feel for how it moves and thinking of ways to improve design and construction for different applications.
“It’s great fun to ride -- the double-takes and stares from people on the street alone are almost worth the time that went into building it,” he laughs.