In a world obsessed with cheap, mass-produced products, Levere – a long-time cycling aficionado and the founder of Erba Cycles – produces handmade bikes that are as stylish as they are eco-friendly. He is one of a handful of bamboo believers in the US, Europe and Asia working to establish a beachhead for the Next Big Thing in biking.
“I look at a brand like Tesla and like to think of myself in the same way,” says Levere, who graduated from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, also in Massachusetts, with a degree in structural engineering. “Tesla makes a beautiful car that’s more environmentally conscious and offers great performance. I’m building a miniscule version of that.”
The world of bamboo bike makers is small: more asteroid than Jupiter. Carbon-fibre bike frame pioneer Craig Calfee, owner of California-based Calfee Design, produces bamboo bikes; he also teaches people in Ghana how to make bamboo bikes and created a company to sell them called Bamboosero. Panda Bicycles and Boo Bikes in Fort Collins, Colorado; Stalk Bicycles in Oakland, California; and WebbWorks in Greenville, South Carolina, round out the enclave of US-based bambooistas.
In other time zones, bamboo bike-makers include Bambolution in the Netherlands, Bamboocycles in Mexico, Philippines-based Bambike Company and Bamboobee in Singapore.
But while the number of manufacturers is miniscule compared to the overall bike market, Levere, who built his first prototype in 2010, senses growing awareness. “My website traffic has been slowly growing during the last three years and I can tell visitors are using ‘bamboo’ or ‘bamboo bikes’ to do their searches,” he says. “Three or four years ago, they might not have even known to search for bamboo bikes.”
What’s so great about an invasive grass? A beguiling combination of strength, sustainability and sensuality. Bamboo is very light, yet still offers more tensile strength than steel – and it dampens shocks and vibrations better, too.
“The bamboo I use is three years old, so it’s quite thick,” says Levere, who purchases his stock from Georgia, Florida or Vietnam. “They use bamboo for scaffolding in Asia and you see it up to 60 stories high. I don’t think I’ve ever broken a piece of bamboo in all the testing I’ve done.”
Bamboo is the world’s fastest-growing plant, with some species growing up to 35 inches in 24 hours. That makes it virtually inexhaustible, ie sustainable. And bamboo regrows after it’s harvested, with no replanting required.
For bike fabricators, this is a boon because only a couple stalks are required to build a bike frame.
“I use hemp fiber or flax fiber to make the joints,” Levere explains. “I wet it with an epoxy resin and wrap it in a pattern. I have a wrapping schedule that took more than a year to develop. And the epoxy resin is made from a pulp-and-paper byproduct, so the frame is as ‘green’ as it can be.”
For all the virtue of Levere’s process, he has no delusions about its overall impact. “It’s not going to save the planet,” Levere concedes. “But it’s making a gentle step in the right direction – plus it’s a better-performing bike.”
An Erba bike also strikes the old-new balance squarely: retro but rugged, sensible yet stylish. It’s aimed more at urban dwellers than weekend-warrior gran fondo brigades – people who appreciate and will pay for singularity.
Even the least expensive model – an urban cruiser that’s also Erba’s best-selling model – starts north of $3,000 in the US. But as the political philosopher Thomas Paine once noted, what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.
“They’re not for everybody,” Levere acknowledges. “I liken it to buying a wooden canoe versus a fibreglass one. You have to look at value and what people are drawn to.”
Getting off the engineering track has been a tonic to Levere. “It wasn’t at all satisfying,” he says. “I could see what I’d be in 30 years and it was very depressing. I finally found out what I really wanted to do.”
That is, start a revolution from Boston.
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