Grass Routes

WordsRachel Maria Taylor
PhotographyJody Daunton
IllustrationGrace Helmer

Bamboo is a silent superhero of the botanical world. Its super strength, über-fast growth, durability, flexibility, even its bacteria fighting feats, all contribute to its seemingly supernatural being.

Bamboo is a silent superhero of the botanical world. Its super strength, über-fast growth, durability, flexibility, even its bacteria fighting feats, all contribute to its seemingly supernatural being. Additionally, it possess (a sort of) telepathic power: bamboo's mass flowering is a little-understood yet incredible natural phenomena. A genetically programmed alarm clock alerts every bamboo plant of the same species – at irregular intervals, regardless of geographical location or climatic conditions – to flower at the same time, give or take a couple of years. To make this more impressive, bamboo has been known to flower as infrequent as 130 years.

This fascinating grass (yes, bamboo is the largest of the grass family) is deeply interweaved into the cultural identity and history of many Asian cultures, although it hasn't had quite the same prevalence in the West. Although bamboo has a near ubiquitous growth, Europe is the only continent (except Antarctica) not to have a native species of bamboo. Europe's earliest exposure – until it was later cultivated on the continent – came through the trade routes (perhaps originally only used as material to carry more valuable exports, such as tea). North America has three native species (of the Arundinaria genus) all naturally found in the eastern states of the USA. However, despite the lack of cultural significance in the West, the use of bamboo has gathered global momentum and fame in recent years as the question of sustainability has been pertinently pushed to the forefront of consumer culture, and bamboo's positioning within this has been both proclaimed and speculated upon.

Climatically bamboo is very versatile. The near 1500 species of bamboo can be found spread across far and disparate regions, from Himalayan Mountains to the sub-Saharan terrain, to Caribbean Islands to South Asian Forests. The different environments have influenced the evolution of a wondrous array of bamboos, and names like Giant Thorny, Silver Stripe, Tiny Fern, Chinese Goddess, Buddha's Belly, Umbrella Bamboo, Yellow Groove, True Gold, Tiger Bamboo, Dwarf White Stripe, only hint at what a huge variety exists. Some tower to great heights of over 30 metres whilst others will only stretch to an inch tall. Their colours and aesthetic patterning vary too, some with stripes, spots or speckles, and coloured in blues, reds, greens, browns, tints of pinks and purples, ebony blacks, and ghostly greys (a species appropriately named 'the Ghost Bamboo').

The first use of bamboo was recorded in China roughly 5000 years ago – some even claim to date its use back further still to around 7000 years. The Chinese were diverse in their use of it, adopting it as a construction material and for a whole host of utensils, tools, weapons, functional objects, as well as for decoration. Bamboo itself was a nutritious food, as were the bugs that collected inside the hollow culms. Bamboo is so engrained into Chinese culture that to them it is symbolic and its meanings are as varied and prolific as its usage: virtuous; gentleness; modesty; serenity; longevity; luck, to name but a few. Bamboo has afforded the Chinese a great wealth of products and derivatives that have enhanced their livelihoods and lifestyles. Traditionally, it is known as one of the 'Four Gentlemen of Honour' (or 'Four Nobles', depending on the translation and source), the other three being plum blossom, orchid and chrysanthemum. China, even today, grows over 400 species of bamboo and has the world's largest forested area of this versatile grass.

The first use of bamboo was recorded in China roughly 5000 years ago – some even claim to date its use back further still to around 7000 years.

The Yangtze River region is still today the largest producing area of Bamboo in China, and when William Edgar Geil, an American explorer, visited it roughly a century ago he wrote in his book, A Yankee on the Yangtze, about the prevalence of the plant and the local people's relationship with it:

A man can sit in a bamboo house under a bamboo roof, on a bamboo chair at a bamboo table, with a bamboo hat on his head and bamboo sandals on his feet. He can at the same time hold in one hand a bamboo bowl, in the other hand bamboo chopsticks and eat bamboo sprouts. When through with his meal, which has been cooked over a bamboo fire, the table may be washed with a bamboo cloth, and he can fan himself with a bamboo fan, take a siesta on a bamboo bed, lying on a bamboo mat with his head resting on a bamboo pillow. His child might be lying in a bamboo cradle, playing with a bamboo toy. On rising he would smoke a bamboo pipe and taking a bamboo pen, write on bamboo paper, or carry his articles in bamboo baskets suspended from a bamboo pole, with a bamboo umbrella over his head. He might then take a walk over a bamboo suspension bridge, drink water from a bamboo ladle, and scrape himself with a bamboo scraper.

Bamboo has had a plethora of applications and it means many things to many different peoples: from musical instruments to martial arts weaponry; to symbolic use in folklore; to warding off evil spirits; to even the very belief that bamboo provided the genesis of human life. Bamboo has penetrated many cultures worldwide, a phenomena that has picked up pace in recent times with the help of globalisation and ease of exportation. Its attributes, as a material, make it desirable for a great many products and architectural elements. Therefore, it is no surprise that, as we have become more inventive with our product design, we consider bamboo as a viable material for its construction.

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In the Nineteenth Century a whole host of inventors (mainly German, French and British) contributed to the evolution of the bicycle. The early two-wheelers (sometimes three or four) were mostly constructed of wood, right down to the tyres (until inventor John Boyd Dunlop provided a practical way to take Charles Goodyear's vulcanised rubber and produce commercially viable rubber tyres in 1888). In 1876 the popular 'safety bike' was designed by English engineer Harry John Lawson, superseding the penny-farthing, although it was J.K. Starley's 'Rover Safety', designed in 1884, that became the forerunner for the modern bicycle, and it was only 10 years later (in 1894) that a patent was filed for a bamboo bicycle. It was patented by British company Bamboo Cycle Co. Limited, although, for whatever reason (most likely the expense), bamboo bikes didn't quite catch on and the company collapsed just after the first bicycle boom at the very end of the nineteenth century.

Back in London, the same city where the bamboo bicycle was first showcased, is a new initiative called the Bamboo Bicycle Club. It was created in 2012 by two friends, James Marr and Ian McMillan. James, a product designer, and Ian, an engineer, blended their skills with their passion for bike-building to create a unique business. They built it upon a fantastic set of principles: open source learning, sharing knowledge, and creative craftsmanship with a clear nod to sustainability.

The idea was conceived whilst James was living in Canada, where he ran a small bike business. He notes, "I used to fix up old bikes and sell them. Although, I was never happy with any of the bikes I had – I had loads and loads but they were never what I wanted. I really wanted to build my own frame, and when I saw a bamboo bike I started to get obsessed and I thought, 'I'll give it a go'." Upon his return from Canada, James and Ian began prototyping and experimenting with bamboo bikes. Together, they found that using bamboo to build beautifully designed bicycles generated an exciting and unique experience – they quickly got a bug for it, and, subsequently, talks of building a business began.

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Today, in an industrial unit in Hackney Wick, East London, the pair run workshops to teach others how to build their own bamboo bikes. The space is light and airy with a wholesome mix of smells: outside's sun-warmed tarmac; the freshly cut bamboo (a smell that lies somewhere between cut lumber and cut grass), and a metallic smell that seems to linger in most workshops – likely to be from the old tools and bench vices. It is brightly illuminated by the natural light pouring in from the open shutter which bounces around the white-washed walls. The workbenches are littered with various containers all fashioned from raw bamboo culms. This, along with an array of bamboo bicycle frames (each with their own unique design) hanging overhead, a fully constructed bamboo bicycle and tandem-bike resting in the rafters, and shelves of bamboo culms piled at the back of the workspace, creates a complete immersion in a material that may feel fairly unfamiliar for many of those attending the workshop.

The workspace is busy with noise: sawing, drilling, chatting, laughing, giggling; even sounds so benign as the tearing of masking tape, reverberate in the acoustics. It drives an energy, and today's sunshine only enhances the high-spirits. Of course, the real excitement is generated from the engagement and enthusiasm of those building their own custom-made bamboo bike. The duo mention that the group is always comprised of an interesting bunch of people, which for them really makes the experience. People come from all over to attend the workshop, and James remarks that ordinarily they'd have at least one participant from outside the UK.

The workshop is spread over the duration of two days, enough time to complete the full process of making the bicycle frame. Following this, Ian and James help their attendees to customise their bike further by advising on additional parts, making them ready to ride.

The full process should not be understated. The journey begins by understanding why the individual wants to build his or her own bamboo bike. People come to the workshops with a breadth of motivations as well as greatly differing levels of cycling and bike-building experience – by understanding people's wants and needs, helps ensure they'll create a bike that is really tailored to them. From here James fully designs (in CAD software) the bike, implementing his essential knowledge and expertise on frame geometry and bike mechanics. He uses the soon-to-be-owner's measurements, design preferences, ride ambitions and any quirks or additions they may want or need. Next, the duo set up each individual jig system to suit the bike's design and specifications. For example, a racing bike for a 6'4" bloke will require a very different set up to a Dutch-style cycle for a petite 5'2" woman.

A rhythmic pace picks up as confidence and familiarity grows; the timidness seen on day one has dissolved and the bond between owner and bike strengthens.

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From here on, with the assistance and instruction of Ian and James, it is the individual that takes the lead in working on their own bike. Firstly, they must choose their bamboo; fantastically, bamboo naturally comes in cylindrical forms, making the material perfectly suited for bike building. Then follows measuring, sawing, slicing, filing, bracketing, bracing and tacking the bike together; by the end of this process the bicycle's form really starts to take shape.

Now for the binding: strips of hemp fabric are doused in adhesive and wrapped around the joints – a little like the process of papier mâché (as it turns out those many hours in nursery school gluing newspaper onto a balloon was to come in handy!). With dirty aprons and white latex gloves – worn to protect the skin from the adhesives – some choose to include a pigment to blend into the hemp and glue to give the joints a distinct colour, furthering the bike's customisation. Around the room everyone works meticulously, moving methodically around the bike, taking immense care over their soon-to-be new mode of transportation. A rhythmic pace picks up as confidence and familiarity grows; the timidness seen on day one has dissolved and the bond between owner and bike strengthens. It won't be long until they'll be placing their trust – and life – in their new creation.

The beauty of custom-made bicycles comes from the creative freedom and control that the owner has over the build. Attention to bike mechanics and overall construction is necessary to make it a safe and stable ride, and the workshop setting allows people to feel comfortable, with expertise at hand when needed. Despite this, there has been a higher global demand for bamboo bikes, and Ian and James have responded to this by creating home build kits; they involve all the same processes as above, but without their assistance in the later stages.

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For Ian and James, the Bamboo Bicycle Club is a project that continually throws up new challenges to bike building, which for them, keeps it exciting and adventurous. There is a functional dynamic and 'a good balance of creativity and logic' (says James) in the way the pair work together. The two-man team believe themselves to be on a continual learning process, where they draw on each other's strengths and even out each other's weaknesses. The inherent pleasure of imparting their knowledge to others is a large part of the enjoyment of running the workshops; they love to see how satisfying it is for people to craft and create what they hope will be their primary mode of transport.

The bike's build is highly sustainable using manpower and natural construction materials, with the obvious added benefits of cycling post-build. Bamboo proves to be a perfect material for bike building due to its cylindrical shapes, strength and durability, and its absorbent properties that lend to a fantastic ride quality. It requires minimal processing compared to metal and alloy counterparts and it is a renewable material. Bamboo naturally regenerates from its complex root systems after being harvested, and can replenish to full size within one season; maturing to harvest-ready in only a few years. In bamboo's growth cycle, it absorbs a high amount of CO2, therefore another added benefit is that it works as a carbon-sink.

Bamboo production does face similar challenges to other 'fibre farms' and working forests, and it is not without its critics; there is always going to be the question of best practice. However, they do provide a good alternative to many other materials and bamboo's ability to grow in many different climates, in theory, means that the carbon footprint of exportation could be radically reduced. Perhaps future use won't be quite as widespread as Geil's depiction of the Yangtze River region, but it may be of interest for us to consider bamboo, for all of its qualities, as a viable material for future construction needs – including that of bicycles. •

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