Builder of bamboo bicycles hopes to help Third World

June 24, 2007|By J. Michael Kennedy | J. Michael Kennedy,Los Angeles Times

Funny where an idea will take you. Ten years ago, Luna the dog -- part pit bull and part Labrador retriever -- was gnawing on a piece of bamboo growing behind Craig Calfee's bicycle shop outside Santa Cruz, Calif.

Last Sunday, Calfee was due to arrive in the West African nation of Ghana, intent on making bamboo bikes for the desperately poor.

Chew toy to bicycle. Whimsy to good deed. Santa Cruz to Ghana.

Not that this story is anywhere near finished. It's still anybody's guess whether something will come of this project.

Which brings us back to Luna, may she rest in peace.

Luna was adept at crushing wooden sticks with her powerful jaws. Give her a piece of wood, and she'd chew it to splinters in no time. But the best she could manage with the hard, round stalks of bamboo was a tooth mark or two.

And that got Calfee to wondering: If bamboo was strong enough to withstand Luna, why couldn't it be a bicycle frame? Since then, Calfee has gone from building clunker bamboo bikes to fashioning sleek, pricey racing machines that turn heads in even the snobbiest pace lines. He has built 91 bamboo bicycles, enough for their reputation to spread across the country. And, perhaps as important, enough for Calfee to have faith in his unusual contraptions.

Craig Calfee is no ordinary bicycle shop owner. He's considered one of the country's elite bike builders, someone who creates machines for the likes of Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France. He fashions the lightest of bike frames from carbon fiber.

His shop is outside Santa Cruz, a community known for its laid-back style. His only link to the Third World is a long-ago trip to Africa. Yet somehow, more by accident than design, Calfee and his bamboo bikes might provide a means for rudimentary transport in the emerging world.

In a sense, Calfee is part of a bamboo craze sweeping the United States. Bamboo is suddenly chic, now that it's being made into everything from baby-soft T-shirts to baseball bats. Bamboo has arrived.

He still has that first bamboo bike he made a decade ago. He uses it to run errands around town but doesn't bring it to the shop much because a customer might get the wrong idea. The bike has a big split in the wood -- which he has repaired -- and its mustache handlebars aren't exactly state-of-the-art.

"A little rough" is how Calfee describes it -- an experiment that worked well enough to tool around town. But the novelty was infectious, albeit on a small scale.

"I built a few more for friends," he said. "I was just playing around with it, not taking it seriously. But people started asking about them, so I decided to start offering them to the public."

Word spread that the bamboo bike was for real. Calfee started thinking about his unusual form of transportation. The plant itself -- a member of the grass family -- was common throughout Asia and Africa. And bicycles, he knew, meant transportation, which often translates to jobs in the Third World.

In somebody more energetic, Calfee's musings could have led to philanthropic solicitations. But Calfee's a bike guy from Santa Cruz. So instead he put a small item on his website, calfeedesign.com, saying that a bamboo bike could have some value in developing nations, if someone took up the cause.

Five or six people saw the Web site item and called, but nothing happened. Then Calfee received an e-mail from David Ho, a hard-core cyclist from New York who was thinking about buying one of Calfee's custom carbon fiber bikes.

While he was on Calfee's website, Ho clicked on the bamboo bike link.

"He had some ideas jotted down about how bamboo bikes could be used in these settings and what the advantages might be," Ho said.

It happened that Ho worked for the Earth Institute of Columbia University, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sustainable development and the world's poor.

The two men discussed both carbon fiber bikes and bamboo bikes. Ho sent Calfee a copy of The End of Poverty, written by the institute's director, Jeffrey Sachs, who is often cited as one of the major thinkers on Third World economies.

Calfee said he had "vaguely" heard of Sachs but liked the ideas in the book. Ho started drumming up support within the institute for the project.

The institute eventually financed this week's trip to Ghana for about $25,000. Calfee, Ho and one other representative from the institute will be in the country for 10 days. They'll be living cheap to stretch their dollars, a good portion of which will be eaten up by airplane fares.

Ho thinks the short time should be enough to at least cover the basics, including talking to bamboo suppliers and lining up bicycle fanciers. They want to find people interested in making the bike frames, as well as sources for epoxy, resin and sisal -- a fiber used for making rope, sacking and insulation. The bottom line, Calfee said, is to be able to make a frame without using power tools.

Said Ho: "The other part of our visit is to look in rural areas for what they are using for transportation and how to improve it." In particular, Ho said, he wants to focus on the special needs of women, because they often tend to crops, do the chores, control the money and need transportation.

Calfee says he's no Pollyanna and realizes there will be pitfalls.

But he also thinks success in Ghana could mean success in other places. And they've got to start somewhere.

"It's very much in the beginning stages," he said. "We might fail miserably. But it might just take."

All because of Luna and her bamboo chew toy.

J. Michael Kennedy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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