What do we know about bamboo? First, that it’s a grass. We all know this because they tell us every week on QI, along with the fact that the koala isn’t a bear, it’s a fruit, and the largest land mammal is Santiago. We also know that bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant on earth, pandas like it for their breakfast and, obviously, that it’s used to make bicycles. What? You didn’t know the bike bit? Read on…
US brand Calfee have been making carbon fibre frames for over two decades and they added bamboo bikes to the roster four years ago. And when we say bamboo bikes, we don’t just mean they’ve pulped a few sticks and added a dash of the fibre to their carbon mix. No, far from it; the tubes of this bike are lengths of bamboo, complete with distinctive lumpy nodes – the knobbly bits that the buds grow out from.
The bamboo has been heat treated – not unusual in bike frame manufacturing – and smoked – slightly less common – to prevent it splitting, and is coated with polyurethane to seal it, while the lugs are made of hemp fibre. There is metal, of course, principally in the shape of the rear dropouts and inserts for the headset, seat post and bottom bracket, but this is an organic-looking machine, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
Our 56cm model was built to Calfee’s Pro road racing geometry – a fairly aggressive flat-backed setup with a 15cm tall head tube and 73.5°/73° frame angles. It’s also available in cyclo-cross, time trial/triathlon and mountain bike configurations. You can even get a bamboo tandem and, believe it or not, a Goodies-style triple – although we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that demand for three seated bamboo bikes is fairly limited.
Each frame is unique – well, you try telling bamboo to grow to a standard wall thickness – so weights vary from 4lb (1.8kg) to 6lb (2.7kg), ours hitting the scales at just under 20lb (9.1kg) completely built up (including pedals). The workmanship is gorgeous throughout and the attention to detail is superb. For example, the cables run through the head tube with the cable stops integrated within the frame. And rather than a plastic cable guide bolted to the underside of the bottom bracket, the cables run inside the BB shell. It’s a great piece of craftsmanship and about as neat as you’ll ever see.
All parts are off-the-peg and in our case that meant a full Shimano Ultegra groupset and wheels, Ritchey Pro Carbon forks, WCS Carbon Evolution bars and WCS 4-Axis stem. This setup costs £3,499 while a 105 version is priced at £3,250. You could opt to buy the frame alone for £2,349 or go for a custom build.
The obvious question is: why on earth would you want a bike frame that’s made from bamboo? Well, it’s certainly different. You’re pretty much guaranteed to be the only person on your local club ride aboard a perennial evergreen. And everyone loves the looks. We’d been outside the front door of the road.cc office for, ooh, all of five seconds when a stranger walked past and said, “Nice bike; what’s it made of?” You get a lot of that – every time you stop at traffic lights or catch another rider out on the road, in fact. A great conversation piece, a nightmare if you aren’t the chatty type.
Calfee also boast that, “If there were an award for ‘Bicycle with lowest carbon footprint’ (least amount of carbon dioxide emissions in the production of the frame), this frame would win, hands down”. They’re probably right, and it’s shipped rather than flown over from the US to boost its eco-friendliness. Plus, resources don’t come much more renewable than bamboo – it can grow at over a metre a day (just let us know when you’ve had enough of Wikipedia’s bamboo facts). And Calfee use only bamboo that has been sustainably harvested.
Okay, you’re impressed by its green credentials, but how does the bike ride? Although not a heavyweight, the Calfee isn’t especially light either and that’s reflected in its acceleration. It winds up to speed okay – it’s not sluggish, but it doesn’t set your senses on fire.
It’s a similar story on the climbs where you find yourself having to work that little bit harder to stay with ride-mates than you would on a bike a couple of pounds lighter. And there’s a noticeable degree of sideways flex at the bottom bracket when you get out of the saddle that takes some getting used to. It’s not a crazy amount of movement but you certainly don’t get the stiffness of a similarly priced carbon fibre frame.
What you do get, though, is a hatful of comfort. Calfee claim their bike has even more vibration damping than carbon so we decided to test it properly by doing a century ride first time out – in for a penny and all that. The result? It feels great. Along with the carbon fork and cockpit, It smoothes over rough road surfaces beautifully and stops unavoidable potholes jangling your teeth loose. It’s a very comfortable bike. It might not have the all-out speed of a lightweight whipper-snapper, but you’ll be happy enough to sit in the saddle and keep the old legs spinning all day. If that’s what you’re after, give it a go. You can even hire one for a while from the UK importers (www.rawbamboobikes.co.uk) to help you make up your mind.
One thing we really don’t know about is how well the Bamboo bike will cope if you stack it. Calfee reckon it’s ‘crash tolerant’ but, let’s be honest about this, we haven’t got a clue. It might be bulletproof; it might turn into kindling. We didn’t think that testing it on that front would go down too well with the suppliers. It does come with a 10-year warranty, though, which should go some way towards setting your mind at ease when you’re out on the road.
Distinctive mid-weight with plenty of comfort. As much a work of art as a bicycle
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Make and model: Calfee Bamboo road
Size tested: 56cm
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Bamboo frame with hemp fibre lugs
Shimano Ultegra groupset and wheels
Ritchey Pro Carbon forks
Ritchey WCS Carbon Evolution bars
Ritchey WCS 4-Axis stem
Michelin Pro 3 race tyres
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Calfee say, "This is not just a cool bike. It is appropriate for everyday use and for racing. The vibration damping is a performance advantage on longer rides."
We agree that this bike does offer a smooth ride that keeps you feeling fresh but in terms of stiffness for a given weight, it doesn't rival carbon fibre.
In purely performance terms, you probably wouldn't choose this bike. It's more the fact that it's bamboo – it's different from the norm, it's a green choice, it looks great – that might attract you.
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
The rating is fairly arbitrary because it's a unique frame. The build quality is superb. A whole lot of work goes into creating this bike.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
The bamboo is grown in Taiwan. The tubes are joined with hemp fibre.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Our bike is built to Calfee's Pro road racing geometry. Our 56cm model has a 56cm top tube, 15cm head tube and 99cm wheelbase. The head angle is 73.5° and the seat angle is 73°.
Other geometries are available: triathlon/TT, cyclo-cross and mountain bike.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
There's nothing too unusual about the geometry - it's a typical race-inspired road setup. The front end is a medium height.
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Yes, the most impressive feature of the ride is its smoothness. Very comfortable.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
We didn't find it incredibly stiff around the bottom bracket. It's not wet spaghetti by any means, but it's not at the top level for frame rigidity.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
It didn't feel as efficient as a carbon fibre bike of a similar price, especially when we got out of the saddle.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Neutral
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
We felt it was a pound or two overweight - which was especially noticeable on the climbs when we'd lose speed a little more quickly than normal.
But, on the plus side, it's comfortable enough to keep you feeling fresh all day long.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
Our bike came without a post and saddle so we fitted our own. We got on well with Ritchey's cockpit components which provide plenty of front end comfort.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
We like Ritchey's Pro Carbon fork for its light weight and shock absorbency although it's not the stiffest we've ever used.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
The Ultegra wheels are reasonably taut and they should prove durable as long as you treat them right.
Efficient power transfer isn't this bike's strongest suit.
Acceleration is fine but not amazing
Again, fine - but it can't stick with true lightweights
It's stable enough - we didn't notice any unwelcome twitchiness
As with sprinting, it's okay but can't compete with skinnier rivals
Solid, dependable Shimano Ultegra. Good performance
Gets pretty close to Dura-Ace performance at a much cheaper price
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
It's Shimano Ultegra throughout - slick function at a decent weight
Tell us some more about the wheels and tyres.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels or tyres? If so, what for?
The Shimano Ultegra wheels aren't the liveliest out there but they're good workhorses.
We like Shimano's hubs which last well as long as you adjust them correctly.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes, for its comfort
Would you consider buying the bike? No, because it doesn't offer what I'm after in a bike, which is lightweight efficiency
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Hmm, based on the usual criteria of performance and value for money, we' we wouldn't, but if you wanted a super comfortable machine with impeccable green credentials probably
Anything further to say about the bike in conclusion?
Looked at purely in terms of performance or value for money, it's hard to justify buying this bike. But its value lies in the fact that it's a thing of beauty, it's so different from the mainstream and it's very comfortable
Age: 36 Height: 184cm Weight: 74kg
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, sportives, general fitness riding, mtb,
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.