MANILA, Philippines - Bike frames have come a long way from steel and aluminum to exotic alloys and carbon fibers. Now, in the Philippines, they're going all the way back to bamboo.
The "bamboo bike" is turning into the latest hot item for environmentalists here, with its low carbon footprint. Bamboo is also tough and light: Bamboo bike frames weigh about seven to ten pounds.
The bikes are made by KawayanTech (Kawayan is a Filipino term for bamboo), a company whose objectives are to develop "indigenous forms of bikes and other alternative means of transport," including bamboo bikes and bamboo skateboards as "social entrepreneurship," according to its mission statement.
It was founded in 2009 by members of the University of the Philippines Mountaineers club, including Hecky Villanueva, an urban anthropologist; dive instructor and resort operator Boy Siojo; visual artist Eng Chan; US-based educator John Climaco; and Eric Cadiz, an electrical engineer who also runs a motorcycle dealership.
Within months, the group had a business plan to develop products balancing profits with social responsibility -- including a bike with a frame made from tough bamboo. When one member of the group, Mr. Villanueva, died of brain aneurysm in 2010, his wife, Tammy, took on a bigger role.
"People will usually think metal bikes are better because they've been tried and tested," said Ms. Villanueva. "But bamboo bikes can be symbolic of being environmental; (they) show support of a livelihood program or social cause; (and they) represent who you are -- a fun, healthy, earth-loving citizen."
Ms. Villanueva said more than just being a means of transportation, the bamboo bike is also a work of art. Typically, the company sells the frames only, so that bikers can pick out their own components so that each of the bikes can have a custom, personal feel.
Each one is handmade. The company gets its bamboo from suppliers in multiple parts of the Philippines, relying on varieties that are hard and durable, including some that are used for furniture and in construction. The bamboo is then dried to avoid splitting, with abaca, a plant fiber, used to join the poles together. The only power tool used in production is an electric drill, which runs for a maximum of three minutes per frame.
People who use the bikes say they provide a smoother ride than some of the most sophisticated metal alloys, in large part because bamboo naturally absorbs shocks from bumpy rides.
"For the past few months before I got the bamboo bike, I was riding a full suspension rig -- I was used to soft and flexible rides," says Jong Narciso, a seasoned mountain bike racer who recently picked up a bamboo bike. When he took it for a spin, "the bamboo was absorbing the bumps and chatter of the road and trail," he said. It also handled jumps well. "The frame was able to take the abuse," he said.
So far, KawayanTech has sold over 80 different kinds of bikes, including a child's bike for toddlers and bigger children who are learning how to ride called a "Push Bike," which sells for P5,000 ($119). Higher-performance bikes, such as mountain bikes also made of bamboo frames, are sold for P20,000 ($476), while commuter or "city" bikes cost P10,000($238).
KawayanTech also produced the Philippines' first electric bamboo bike, the Electric Eric, designed and built by Eric Cadiz, who earned the nickname "Electric Eric" after being struck by lightning while on a mountain several years ago. It includes a motor but also many components made from bamboo, including seat stays made of laminated bamboo.
The company also plans to build bamboo skateboards and wheelchairs.
Despite the enthusiasm from some serious bikers, the eco-friendly bikes have yet to crack the mainstream market. Joni Bonifacio, an organizer of biking tours in Catbalogan, in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, does not believe in the durability of the bamboo bike frames.
"The bike fames are not available in our province. Bamboo frames are not good for rugged terrain. If I go to the mountains and the bike experiences jumps and bumps, the frame might break," he said.
Some other bikers -- like Lalaine Agarma Barroga, an organizer of Bikexplore Philippines who works at the Milo Caca Bike shop -- say the bamboo bikes are just too expensive for what they provide. Such bikes are "not durable compared to alloy or carbon," she said. "This type of frame is for recreational use only."
Ms. Villanueva dismisses those fears, noting that metal frames themselves can split -- and are dangerous when they do. "A bamboo bike cannot split in two because of having so much fiber," she says.