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culture

Bikes of Bamboo

In a Kensington Market laneway, a fledgling business is making bike frames out of some unusual materials.

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Zef Kraiker wanted to build bike frames. He’d been working at bike shops for six years, but no established frame builder would take him on, even as an apprentice.

“It’s tricky, because you really have to have an in with someone, or you have to have some kind of background or skill to make yourself really valuable immediately,” Kraiker said the other day in the converted Kensington Market back-alley garage space that now serves as his very own frame-building workshop. Yes: by opening his own business in December, he has managed, at last, to make himself into a full-time frame guy. But not exactly the type he set out to become.

Rather than using steel or aluminum alloy, he makes all his frames out of bamboo.

“When I first saw a bamboo bike in a magazine, it was just breathtaking,” Kraiker said. “I had gone to school for welding, because I had this goal of becoming a frame builder, and suddenly welding was completely irrelevant. I was more interested in botany.”

The Toronto Bamboo Bike Studio is a small, gated-off area in the corner of a laneway garage, with just enough space for the two metal guides Kraiker uses to shape and assemble his frames out of iron bamboo, imported from the Yucatan.

Kraiker cuts large poles of bamboo down to size using a handsaw and then wedges them between blocks of balsa wood, with the metal parts of the frame lodged inside. (The head tube, seat tube, and bottom bracket all get this treatment.) He shaves the balsa wood down until it’s smooth, and then wraps it with layers of fiberglass, epoxy, and carbon fiber in order to bond the frame together. It’s a simpler process than traditional frame building. An amateur with expert guidance can do it in just a few days. The result, according to Kraiker, is a bike as durable as just about any that exists. “There aren’t many frames that can resist catastrophic failure as well as bamboo can,” he said. “It’s incredibly durable. It has strength characteristics that are equal to—or in some cases exceed—steel. It can be hard as concrete. And it still provides a smooth ride.”

(It’s true that bamboo is extremely strong. In Asia, where it grows in the wild, they use it to build scaffolding.)

There are three other Bamboo Bike Studios in other cities, all of them affiliated with the mother company, which is headquartered in Camden, Maine. Kraiker pays to license the name, and receives training and equipment from the organization.

The whole thing is an outgrowth of a 2008 collaboration between Columbia University and the UN’s Millennium Cities Initiative. The original goal was to invent a method of building sustainable bikes for citizens of the developing world.

The frames Kraiker makes in Kensington Market are certainly sustainable—bamboo is a grass, and where it grows, it grows fast—but affordable to developing-world dwellers they are not. To purchase one outright costs $1,100—or more, depending upon what custom features a buyer requests. For a minimum of $850 (again, depending upon customizations) customers can build their own frames under Kraiker’s guidance, with a kit.

“One of the things I really like about the bamboo bike studio is that now frame building is available to everyone,” Kraiker said. “It’s accessible. You don’t have to go to school for weeks.”

So far, the shop has turned out ten completed frames. If you see someone riding a beautiful bike made of sticks, you’ll know where it came from.

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