It is a sight rarely seen anywhere, and certainly not in a small, rural town like Greensboro — a dozen or so people, mostly college students, cruising along Main Street on a bicycle built from bamboo, looking like some bizarre merging of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gilligan’s Island.”
The students ride past a few too many empty storefronts in this economically depressed area of west-central Alabama — approximately 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa — before stopping at HERObike, where they proceed to take apart their curious creations and then build them back again, hopefully better than before.
This odd-looking scenario is the result of an equally unusual collaboration between University of Kansas Industrial Design Professor Lance Rake and the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO), a community development group in Hale County, where Greensboro is located.
In an effort to improve the area economy, HERO has started or helped start several small businesses in Greensboro over the past decade, including the popular Pie Lab restaurant. Since bamboo grows abundantly in Hale County, the organization began working with the Bamboo Bike Studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 2009 to create bamboo-frame bicycles.
The original bikes were based on a rudimentary design — the bamboo basically was just cut and used without any alterations — but it was enough to spark interest from Rake. He learned about HERObike when John Bielenberg visited KU. A Maine-based graphic designer, Bielenberg and his Project M work with nonprofits to create new businesses. During his Kansas visit, Bielenberg talked not only about HERObike he had helped form but also about the innovative approach this small Alabama town was taking toward economic development.
Rake was intrigued. So he contacted HERO Executive Director Pam Dorr and, in 2011, made a trip to Greensboro to work with the shop’s small staff on creating a better bike. He came up with the idea of splitting the tall tubes of bamboo and gluing the pieces back together in a stronger, hexagonal shape.
“The idea was based on the tubes used for a traditional bamboo fly-fishing rod, ” Rake explained. “People make these bamboo fly rods, and they’re beautiful and high-performance. It’s something that is nice enough that you can pass it on to your kids. I thought it would be good to make a bicycle that had those same qualities. A hex tube is strong, but like the fly rod it’s also kind of bendy, making it more shock resistant.”
Rake returned to Kansas and continued to experiment with the design, picking up ideas by attending bike shows. He came back to Greensboro in 2012 to work on incorporating carbon fiber into the hex tube composite, which improved the bike’s performance by strengthening the material and reducing the vibrations. He then took a semester sabbatical at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, where he learned more about bamboo through the country’s numerous basket weavers.
By 2013, Rake was ready to introduce an actual product, which would be sold through HERObike. Dorr helped raise nearly $45, 000 through Kickstarter to fund the project, and that summer Rake returned to Greensboro with associate professor Andrea Herstowski and six Kansas students. They spent two weeks at the HERO shop building and rebuilding bikes — teaching the students about design and working to improve the product. Rake and Herstowski returned this year in July with 11 students and an intern.
“We come here, and in three days I want them to be riding our new bikes, ” Rake says. “That starts with harvesting bamboo in the field. They actually go out and cut it down. Then we plane it, dry it and cure it. Then they have to learn about putting a bike together, and the best way to do that is just to do it. And then do it again and do it again. I want them to build it quickly, and then take what they learn from that and use it to guide a lot of the rest of what they do.”
The original design, called the Semester, has been warmly received. Dorr says HERO shipped nearly 100 bikes through the first half of 2014, more than their original goal for the entire year. One of the bicycles went to actor Peter Coyote, who found out about the bike shop through an association with Bienlenberg, and then provided the narration for HERO’s three-minute Kickstarter video.
“When you ride a bike with an aluminum alloy frame, you’re just vibrating to death on some of these Alabama back roads, ” HERObike manager Adam Fowler says. “But the bamboo frame is very shock absorbent. You don’t even have to wear special padded bike shorts. It’s a very smooth, stable bike.”
It is also an expensive one. The basic Semester bike sells for $850, while the more elaborate models can cost $1, 500 to $2, 000. So when Rake and his students returned to Greensboro this year, he says the goal was to create a more affordable bamboo bike.
“We don’t really want to be making $1, 000 bikes exclusively, ” Rake says. “So this year we started buying cheap $100 bikes, then cut them up so we could replace the (metal) tubes with bamboo tubes and get some of the ride and feel that we get in our Semester bikes. We take a $100 bike, add $100 of value to it with the bamboo, and sell it for $250 or $300.
“We’re thinking that might be a really good product. I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to market it. Ultimately what I’m trying to do as a designer is just fill the pipeline with product. We don’t really have a marketing arm or business development side to this stuff. We’re just hoping that people stumble onto it and like it.”
HERO certainly likes it. Dorr says the bike shop has a total of seven full-time and part-time employees and has also brought in more than 30 students this year from KU and the Georgia State University department of marketing. In addition to the completed bicycles, she says, the shop sells about 10 kits per month that enable purchasers to construct their own bamboo bicycles. Rake also is working on designs for bamboo skateboards and paddleboards that eventually might be part of the shop’s product line.
“By partnering with Kansas or any university, we’re able to access knowledge and learning that we normally wouldn’t have in a rural town, ” Dorr says. “So they can bring us technology that we can use to develop new products, which in turn creates jobs and job training. So that partnership really works well.
“What we want to do is create a profit and have that money go back into our community development work. Our goal is to have every shop on Main Street full, with people learning job skills and finding work here at home. That’s our dream.”
A dream that is no more unrealistic than the sight of a bunch of students from Kansas riding around rural Alabama on bamboo bikes.
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
Text by Cary Estes • Photos by Art Meripol