The problem with bamboo bikes has always been that they're cool in theory, lame in practice – clunky, slow, basically unridable. That is, until now. Colorado-based Boo Bicycles, the brainchild of Nick Frey, 26, builds high-performance, super lightweight, handcrafted racing bikes from a blend of bamboo and carbon fiber. The company began as a design project when Frey was a junior at Princeton, studying mechanical and aerospace engineering. A serious racer who'd won a national championship in 2007 (he'd go on to take another title two years later), Frey knew how a top-of-the-line road bike should feel. As a brainiac, he understood that bamboo's form fit that function.
"We knew bamboo's unique properties gave it great potential," says Frey. "It has a Young's Modulus – a measurement of stiffness compared to mass – closer to carbon fiber than any other material, natural or synthetic. It's stiff and lightweight, but the truly incredible aspect is its ability to dampen vibration and provide a smooth, lively ride."
Bamboo is also one of the more sustainable materials on earth: It absorbs CO2 better than anything except ocean algae; it doesn't contribute to soil erosion; and, unlike steel or titanium, it requires no harmful mining and processing. So it makes for a bike you don't have to feel guilty about buying.
For his assignment, Frey constructed a model that was good enough to take to a race. A picture of it made the Velo News website, where it attracted the attention of James Wolf, 43, a RISD grad who'd move to Vietnam in 1995 to work with bamboo. Wolf contacted Frey to offer his expertise ("Nick's approach was refreshing compared with other bamboo bike makers who come from a more hippie-dippy 'I'm gonna save the world' place," Wolf says), and soon enough, the first Boo Bike, an elegant blend of carbon fiber and tam vong – so-called “iron bamboo," the strongest species of the plant's 2,000-plus varieties – was born.
The only downside? Like most high-end, custom-built race bikes, a Boo is pretty pricey, with a base price around $3,000. The solution: the company's more affordable next-wave model, the Aluboo. Its versatile frame – aluminum joints with inserts made of that same super strong bamboo variety – has been designed to meet the needs of "90-95 percent of the population," according to company co-founder and CEO Drew Haugen, 28. Because the ready-made frame doesn't require as much individual attention from Wolf and his team of craftsmen, the bike's base price is significantly lower: $1,200. But several elements can still be customized to suit different purposes, even from season to season.
"This one frame can be run as a single-speed, a road bike, a cyclocross bike," Haugen explains. "You could ride it as a fixie in the summer, then swap out a few features and have a road bike from October to February."
Bonus: It's a truly good-looking bike. When an Aluboo prototype arrived in our offices, bike nerds kept popping out of the woodwork to ogle it, pet it, and lift it up to admire its lightness of being. And our testers found it handled the mean streets of New York City – from potholes to cobblestones – with the ease of the finest German automobile. [$1200; aluboobikes.com]