Stalk Bicycles combines art and transportation with the bamboo bike
on December 22, 2011
Perhaps you’ve seen one around town. You might have caught yourself doing a double-take or stopping to ogle its long, supple lines, the graceful curvature of its frame, the straight-up beauty of something so simultaneously striking and functional.
That’s the thing about a bamboo bicycle the first time you see one: it kind of takes your breath away.
“People say they look more like art than practical pieces of transportation,” says Lars Jacobsen, who builds bamboo bikes – fully functional, technical bicycles with traditionally-made metal components and frames made from bamboo – for his Oakland-based company, Stalk Bicycles.
They’re not something you’ll find in a shop window or see on display in a showroom. Even the venerable Craigslist will leave you empty-handed. If you want to seek one out for yourself, you have to go straight to the source. If you live in Oakland, that means going to Stalk.
Stalk Bicycles is located in a high-ceilinged cinderblock compound of art studios and workshops in West Oakland. From outside its padlocked and barb-wire fenced façade, you can hear the sounds of I-580 overhead and glimpse the brightly-lit parking lots of the East Baybridge Shopping Center in Emeryville a few blocks to the north.
Stalk owners Lars Jacobsen and his business partner Nick Chan, friends since their college days together at UC Santa Cruz, run their bamboo bicycle operation out of one of the building’s studios, a 700-square foot workshop that has everything they need to craft their stunning, handmade bikes.
Inside the studio, frames in varying states of completion are suspended overhead from a homemade wooden rack. On another wall hangs a piece of plywood, studded with neatly organized rows of pliers, wrenches, saws and many other tools. Blue light spills from a crack in the door to the sanding booth, a closet-sized room-within-a-room where the bikes are sculpted down with electric sanders. At a workbench, Jacobsen sifts through a pile of computer printouts of bike schematics for projects in the works or coming down the pipeline. A thin film of dust covers everything in sight.
“Using bamboo instead of traditional frame materials allows us so much space for design and aesthetic,” Jacobsen says as he points to a whiteboard drawing of a beach cruiser frame he’s been brainstorming. It involves bending a bamboo tube to mimic the retro curves typical of the cruiser design style. For this particular bike Jacobsen is considering experimenting with an approach that would essentially turn the bamboo inside out and weave it together in a crossing pattern, a totally new technique he’s never seen done before. “Because it’s a nonstandard material, we’re able to do nonstandard frame styles,” he says.
Each bicycle boasts a frame handcrafted from bamboo, most of which is grown in the Bay Area. Jacobsen said a number of nurseries in Auburn, Watsonville, and Berkeley specialize in growing multiple bamboo species that are both structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. In the early days of Stalk, Jacobsen and Chan would do all the harvesting themselves, but now they supplement their stock with orders from the Yucatan and are considering branching out into acquiring bamboos from Taiwan and Vietnam.
Bamboo comes in a wide variety of sizes and colors, ranging from pale blonde to a rich, speckled brown, depending on the species and the age at harvest. The Stalk frames are held together at the joints, called lugs, by hemp fibers treated with heat, pressure, and a bio-based resin produced in California. The frames are light – the tubes themselves typically weigh about 20 percent less than aluminum — but the lugs and remaining component parts of each bike add some heft, making each frame between four and six pounds. That’s a quite a bit heavier than the fanciest carbons but directly comparable to aluminum (about four pounds) and steel (five to six pounds) frames.
Besides, in addition to being a visually striking and environmentally sustainable material — bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, and plays an important role in sequestering large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere — it also makes for bicycles with an exceptionally smooth ride.
“They do want you want a bicycle to do,” Jacobsen says. “They disappear beneath you.”
Jacobsen explains that the “buttery” feel of riding a bamboo bicycle is due to the material’s molecular makeup. The cell walls of bamboo are composed of a thick cellulose matrix, called lignin, which acts as a shock absorber. Because high frequency vibrations don’t travel through it well, all the force from road jolts – every time the bike goes over a pothole or a bumpy section of asphalt – is absorbed by the frame instead of transferring jarringly to the rider. The structural characteristics of these bamboo poles, which are mitered together to create each frame, combine to create this unique damping effect, which means one thing: a super smooth ride.
And while Jacobsen says he’s pleased that the material is sustainable and environmentally friendly, it’s really this last point that is the sticking one.
“Bikes have to be made for the riders,” Jacobsen says. “One of our biggest challenges is legitimizing the material. People don’t believe it can take abuse.”
In the fifty or so bikes that Stalk Bicycles has made since incorporating last August, Jacobsen says there have been no bamboo failures. Even one bike that got hit by a car survived with its frame intact; the lugs cracked and the wheels bent, Jacobsen says, but the bamboo held.
“Bamboo is like carbon fiber that grows up out of the ground in tube shape,” he said, referring to the material’s remarkable strength and flexibility.
The idea of making bicycles from bamboo dates back to more than a decade ago in the United States, when legendary bicycle designer Craig Calfee, who made his name pioneering carbon fiber bicycles for three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, made a bamboo bike as a gimmick for a trade show. Calfee now produces them for his Santa Cruz-based company, Bamboosero .
Jacobsen saw his first bamboo bike a number of years ago, when fellow co-founder and college roommate Zack Jiang showed him one he had made. Jiang, who recently left Stalk to move on to other things, was inspired to build a bike out of bamboo while he was living in China. Jiang, who grew up and went to school in America, traveled to China after graduating from UC Santa Cruz to pursue sustainability work with a green city concept the Chinese government was developing at the time. The first bamboo bicycle he made actually debuted in a public square in Beijing; Jiang had built his first prototype for German trick rider Ines Brunn, who performed a number of acrobatic balancing feats on it there.
When Jacobsen saw Jiang’s creation, it was love at first sight.
The two of them, together with Chan, jumped into learning everything they could about bamboo and bicycle engineering. The read stacks of books that still litter the workshop, dog-eared and marked up with post-it notes. They tested everything. Jacobsen rode one of the first frames 4000 miles before he found a crack in one of the lugs. They weren’t built up enough, not compressed enough. So they went back to the drawing board. They built them up bigger, and kept tinkering. They bought a vacuum compressor and kept testing.
“It’s such a new industry that you can’t just go out and find people to teach you the process start to finish,” Jacobsen says. “There are so many industries that we draw from–carpentry, engineering, art, horticulture, geometry, sustainability. You never stop figuring it out.”
But that doesn’t mean people don’t try. Jacobsen receives at least three emails a day, every day, from folks wanting to know more about the technical aspects of making bamboo bikes. Most requests include wanting to see how it’s done. He likes obliging his curious fans, but bamboo bike-building isn’t is day job; during the week, Jacobsen works full time at the Oakland Social Security Administration Office as an analyst. Some would say he builds bikes on the side.
But not Jacobsen. “The job that pays me is my other job,” he says, face cracked into a grin, his eyes shining beneath square-framed glasses. “I spend a lot of my time at my job thinking about this, as you would any mistress, I suppose. But when I get off work and get here it’s like starting the day all over again. I get to burn off some steam and work with my hands and live the dream.”
While his dream job may not have been making him money up to this point (the first 40 or 50 bikes were sold at a loss, sacrificed up to the altar of learning) that’s finally about to change. Stalk, which is currently comprised of Jacobsen, Chan, and two interns, makes about five bikes at a time, each one taking between four and eight weeks to complete, and each one custom-built from top to bottom, with the precise needs and desires of their future owners in mind. An extensive consultation is the first thing that happens before even a single bamboo tube is cut. The riders talk about how they’re going to be using the bikes – for commutes, for carrying loads, for speed – and what they want the aesthetic of the bike to be, from the species of the bamboo to the color of the rims.
The custom bikes are pricey: Jacobsen said the cheapest frame he ever made was $350, though he says wouldn’t ever do it again. Right now he’s putting the finishing touches on a bike with a top-of the line lightweight racing buildup that will run around $4000. But starting February 15, the company is releasing its first standardized bamboo bike available for purchase. The “Mantra” is a unisex commuter bike, designed for urban use, with a simple, functional aesthetic. The single-speed will cost $2250, and the eight-speed version will run $2500. By cutting down on the amount of custom part ordering and custom frame building, Jacobsen says they’ll for the first time be selling at a profit, which is good news for any start-up. He says the pre-orders – word about Stalk Bicycles gets around via social media, bicycle events, and networking with other Bay Area companies – are already piling in.
While the production of the Mantra bikes will in some ways diverge from the strictly cottage-industry approach that the company has had in the past, Jacobsen says Stalk will continue to work closely with customers to build custom bikes and persist in pushing the boundaries of what is possible with bamboo. Because it’s not about the money, he says; it’s about doing what you love.
“If you have all or even a few of the skills needed to do this, you could be using them elsewhere to make infinitely more money,” Jacobsen says. “It definitely weeds out the ones who are passionate about it.”
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