Jack Orlik talks to bamboo bike creator Dan Vogel-Essex…
The workshop stands in a triangle of land carved up by industrial bars of steel: frontiers formed by the S-Bahn and national railway tracks that bring trains thundering past every few minutes.
“It’s a shame you didn’t get to see it in the sun. It can be really quite beautiful”, says Dan Vogel-Essex, gesturing over the scrubland that was once a trainyard. The sky has clouded over, and the thick metallic smell of rain begins to permeate the air.
Dan tells me that the land and its buildings are rented as a community from the Deutsche Bahn, and run by a committee chosen from those working on the site. Despite the relics of defunct urban industry – the shallow impression of the old turntable, and the paved ground, forcing the plants through narrow cracks in the concrete – Dan is right. It does seem quite idyllic.
Dan takes me into a building, and down to the cellar. To the right, dozens of bicycles hang off racks attached to the wall. In the room to our left, there’s a man working on a beautiful blue racer from the Eighties. “This is Stefan”. Stefan says hello, but gestures with his oily fingers that shaking hands might be difficult.
“We started out thinking we could earn money by fixing up old bikes, but I soon realized that that was a whole lot of work for not much cash”. That’s when he decided to start building bicycles from bamboo. He gestures to a frame hanging on the wall – a Heath-Robinsonesque construction bound together with twine.
“That was the first one. It broke pretty quickly.”
“What was wrong with it?”
I ask if there are any advantages to building bikes from bamboo. How does it bear up against metal and glass-fibre framed bikes? “Well, there are no disadvantages,” says Dan. Stefan sidles into view, absent-mindedly cleaning up with a greasy rag: “You have to look at it as a material in its own right.
Every material has its pros and cons. Aluminium is cheap to produce, but it’s hard and uncomfortable. Steel is nicer to ride, but it can bend. Bamboo is free growing, and easy to fix. And it’s comfortable to ride”.
Looking at the near-mint 30-year-old steel frame in the middle of the room, I express my doubts that a bamboo bicycle would last as long. Dan takes me to the racks next door and pulls out two bikes.
“I rode this all winter, and it’s fine”. I’m amazed – the freezing, wet and cold winter months of Berlin have done no damage at all. “Is it varnished?” “No. Stefan varnished one of his, but there’s no real difference”. I lift another bike; it’s as light as a feather. “That one, Light? That’s the heaviest one we’ve made. Try this.”
Dan hands me a bicycle that I could carry with my little finger. As a competitor to traditional metal-framed bikes, bamboo can could hold its own pretty well. But Dan’s not that interested in bamboo, or in bicycles themselves. “They’re not something I dream about at night”.
He likes the idea of offering bamboo bike construction as a high-end customer service, and hopes to be making them as a business within a year. Thinking about them as “a product”, though, Dan says that the bikes lose their fascination. What really excites him is the place they have in an ongoing trend of the 21st century. “The bamboo bicycle is a symbol for a change in our expectations of materials. There.”
What makes the bikes special is their use of composite materials; specifically, Dan’s home brew of resins and natural fibres – the stuff that holds the bamboo bars together. “Lots of people say that renewable energy won’t work, because electricity can never produce the heat needed to smelt metals like steel”. Composites are a solution to this problem, but using them to replace more traditional man-made materials would require enormous changes to the manufacturing processes that the industrial world has grown up with. And, as Dan says, “It takes a long-ass time to change anything”.
The technology is there, though: laser-measuring technology exists that can make minute adjustments to machinery operated on irregular materials; research into the epoxy resins that can be mixed with natural fibres has “skyrocketed” in recent years. Consumers now care about where things are made, how it’s done, and what they’re made of.
For Dan, the popularity of the bamboo bike is testament to this: “In the future, when they look back on history, and they look back at the change from non-reusable materials to natural composites, the bamboo bike will be there as a side note, saying that this was one of the first products accepted.”
Before I leave, Dan takes me upstairs to his office. “This is what I dream about,” he says, thrusting a bunch of papers into my hand. They’re covered in beautiful drawings – hundreds of sketches of one-person cars. Dan tells me that they would be electric, and made of natural composites.
“These are the future. I was so pissed off when the US government bailed out the auto industry. The government halted innovation! I’ve got friends who work for GM. Do you know what they call it within the company?” “No?” “The Titanic.” Walking once more though the post-industrial yard surrounding the workshop, Dan’s ideas seem to echo in the landscape: nature and artifice working together to create something strong, beautiful and slightly futuristic.
This article first appeared in Issue 5 of The Manzine, a venerable, non-aspirational magazine about the male phenomenon.
All images by Jack Orlik