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Building a bamboo bike

· Cycling,Bamboo Bike

Earlier this year, I made a decision – I am going to build a bamboo bike.

I always loved the freedom of being on a bike. The wind pushing against your face as you careered down a hill only just in control. You could go so fast and so far (fitness levels and associated hills permitting), and it was a great way to just enjoy being outside. A lot of my childhood memories involve two wheels. I was much better at using bikes than roller blades, which were the popular trend at the time.

Childhood memories of bicycles

One of my first memories is leading my younger brother down a hill in a park on our bikes when I was about 10 and he was about 5. As I reached the bottom, I deftly (I like to think anyway) weaved in between the roots pushing up the pavement, while he hit them like he was on a BMX track and went flying straight over his handlebars. It was in the day before mobile phones, so my mum had to find the nearest telephone box to call for reinforcements. In my defence, he was an accident-prone child, who was very familiar with A&E.

My own ‘worst’ biking injury came when I was 15. I borrowed my aunt’s bike to go for a ride in the local woods with my cousin. I always felt he was much cooler than me, so I was trying hard to keep up a very hardcore mountain biking exterior. All went well until the last 20 yards on the way back to his front door. We were late and bolstered in confidence after a great afternoon out riding. I flew around the corner way too fast in front of the local pub, leant too far in and the bike went from underneath me. My pride was bruised and I was a bit shocked, but I got up, brushed myself off, passed my aunt back her bike (of course she was stood with my mother outside their house) and stepped straight into my mum’s car… which is when I realised that there was a large flap of skin that had rolled up from my knee.

I’d taken off so many layers that I’d also taken off the nerve endings, so it didn’t hurt at all. By the next week it did hurt, a lot. Just in time for my French exchange experience with the school. I managed to not only climb into the school grounds with my exchange partner over a very high fence (apparently that’s what you do in France to be cool in the evenings), but also was forced to very slowly limp all the steps up top the top of the Arc De Triomphe. I arrived at the top just in time to hear the last sentence of the talk about the monument, then had to turn around and limp back down.

This briefly dampened my enthusiasm for bikes, but it returned after I started work somewhere where I could ride out during my lunch break. I’d borrow a friend’s dog, and ride as hard and far as I could in the hour I had with her running alongside. Soon after, I got my Labradoodle and it became my tool for wearing him out on the local military land. Or trying to, I’m not sure it’s actually possible to wear out a Labradoodle. My enthusiasm waned when I moved out of the area and my bike has fallen into disrepair in my shed – it has one of those wheels that just constantly has a slow puncture no matter what I do to try and fix it. Which, to be fair, hasn’t been much more than changing the inner tube, and huffing and puffing while poking it.

A zero waste bike ride?

However, a passing conversation at the Love Her Wild weekend had me agreeing to go on a zero waste bike packing trip and without a working bike to do it. I did some cursory research into bikes, mostly got overwhelmed by the choices and the price. Then I saw a post from Ivan Bellaroba, who I met at RGS Explore last year. He was talking about his bamboo bike that he’d made in Columbia.

Turns out, there is also a Bamboo Bicycle Club in London. ‘Ideal!’ I thought.

Because...

  1. I like quirky things. 
  2. I like eco (obviously) and bamboo grows quickly, uses less water than other materials and will eventually degrade back into our natural environment.
  3. Plus, they look great and that never hurts (see the Bamboo Bike London Instagram page). I like to fly the flag for good-looking environmentally-friendly alternatives – we've been fighting an uphill battle since the hasty introduction of hemp dresses.

I think a bamboo bike might be made for me… or ‘made by me’ in this situation.

More importantly, if I build it, I should be able to fix it. This is quite important if I plan to do on-going long-distance journeys on it.

Why now?

The odd thing is that I’ve read many books about cycling long distances and none of them have inspired me to actually do it. They always sounded long and painful, coupled with a feeling that most long distance cycles seem to be 'against the clock'. I think the difference is the tying together of adventure and purpose that really gets me going – or ‘adventure plus’ as outdoor philosopher and adventurer Kate Rawles calls it.

After deciding to build a bamboo bike, I discovered that she had also built a bamboo bike and then went on The Life Cycle – a bike journey across South America to visit projects looking at the importance of biodiversity and biodiversity loss. I’ve since also read her earlier book, The Carbon Cycle, which was about a previous trip across the Continental Divide in the US to explore attitudes towards climate change. Interestingly, she also sailed on Sea Dragon on the voyages that informed the creation of eXXpedition – another fact I wasn't aware of until I was exploring her website.

What is the plan?

The group that I am riding with are planning on going on a purposeful bike ride in spring 2020 – it will be zero waste… but probably with some other broader purpose too. I’ll write more about that later.

First, I need a bike and I’ll be building my bamboo beauty at the end of this week. I am planning on sharing more of that story when it happens, but this does rely on me following what is going on and if the detailed email they sent me in advance is anything to go by, this is going to be a steep learning curve.

You can find out more about the Bamboo Bicycle Club London here.

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