Clare: So, Bambu Technologies focuses on building performance bikes out of reusable materials. What was the origin for this idea, why bamboo? And how did you get started?
John: Reusable and renewable materials! I actually started with professional development grants, I was able to get a grant for a pro bike course at the United Bicycle Institute. My original thing was that I wanted to be a mechanic at the Tour de France.
C: No way, really?
J: Haha yes, you know it was one of those pipe dreams.
C: How did that start?
J: I was just a bike enthusiast. For me to get around back in the day, the bike was the thing. You know, having the bike was just freedom. This was in the Philippines. All the way into college I couldn’t afford a car so the bike was the way for me. I did races… I did all of that stuff.
So, I was able to get this grant to do a mechanics course. UBI is pretty big and highly respected. At the same time, my good friend from the Philippines did a thesis at a doctorate program in Arizona. In the Philippines, a lot of people live in poverty, so he was trying to see how people could get another livelihood from what’s available over there.
At that time, Craig Calfee of Calfee Designs was doing a program with Ghana creating bamboo bikes and trying to sell them here in the States. Calfee is huge in terms of the carbon fiber bikes, he actually introduced the carbon frame through Greg LeMond in the Tour de France, and that’s how carbon frames blew up. It used to be that people were like “no, that’s plastic, no way I’m gonna ride that,” but they rode it in the Tour de France. And at that time, late nineties, Craig was looking at renewable materials.
But the bamboo bike is actually a resurgence. It existed in the late 1800s and if you go to the Netherlands, there’s a museum, and in the late 1890s the bamboo bike was around. So Craig kind of brought it back. Ater this bike school, UBI, we belonged to this network, so I stopped by Santa Cruz and happened to see Craig, who my friend was in contact with. I saw this bamboo bike sitting in his warehouse. So you know we jumped on that bandwagon, thinking “this is perfect!” Bamboo, in the Philippines, is abundant. And the binding fiber is called abaca. It was one of the main industries in the Philippines prior to the industrial revolution. If you look at fiber for ropes and ships, that was their main thing, so it used to be a good source of income for the Philippines. When the whole world industrialized, the need for abaca went down. I thought this was perfect. It’s there, it’s available, with a little bit of technology, we can build these bikes. But at that time, similar to carbon fiber before, people were like “this might be good for display, but it isn’t functional.” It was hard to put money into it when you see that all these frames that you build aren’t really moving. But anyway, I had friends who wanted to build their own, so I was like ok, let’s start with that.
C: So Bamboo and Abaca were both big products in the Philippines?
J: Mmmm not so much. Abaca was a huge one, but bamboo has always been a temporary thing. It’s poor man’s timber. The more I learn about it, the more reasons why I’m a big advocate for it. First of all, it grows three times as fast as regular timber, you can harvest it in three years. It grows as a tube. You don’t have to mine it so you’re not hurting much. I use plant based epoxy too. I want to advocate for it to be used: this is something we can use as an actual material, it's growing so fast. But the structure here in the U.S. is such that you have to get approved by a governing body, insurance won’t cover you… just like carbon fiber bikes before they blew up.
C: Do you think that bamboo bikes could start to become mainstream?
J: Yes! I think they’re starting to now, people are more open to design, to what’s a little bit more sustainable and environmentally conscious. It’s more accepted now.
C: Do you think that performance is at all sacrificed when using bamboo?
J: I don’t know about the Tour de France, but it’s perfect for gravel races, it rides so nicely and absorbs so much. A century ride, for example, is long on the saddle, all those micro bumps put a toll on you. This feels so much better. Obviously I have an old man saddle and am more upright, but bamboo has a natural flex. So if you think about racing and competition, you need to have your torque transferred, that’s why they like the carbon, it's so stiff. So this is a more relaxed ride. I’ve taken it mountain biking, jumps, and I have a race team in the Philippines racing these bikes.
C: What part of cycling culture has been the most important to you, why do you love it so much?
J: Mental health, believe it or not. The pandemic revealed a lot of things, and personally, getting on a bike helped me overcome that. And not just on the riding end but the building end too: there’s a lot more to biking than just riding a bike. It gives you so much opportunity.