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Once upon a time Switchback did a story

Switchback Riding Grass

And you’ll never guess who was in it! Boy we’re glad we got a dedicated studio space once we finished prototyping.

Switchback Riding Grass

Blocks from the center of the fourth largest city in China, down a small side street, past a nail salon and a mini market, across from a spa or appliance center — it’s not really clear — is a little bike shop blasting out Johnny Cash. And inside that bike shop, amid racks and rows of neon fixed-gear supplies are a couple of young Americans, Jacob Klink and Larry Adamson. Clad in cycling caps, jeans shorts and sporting eternal 5 o’clock shadows, their typical days find them creating some of the city’s most colorful bikes, which they customize and sell to an ever-expanding loyal customer base. But tucked away above the shop floor is a new creation. Despite having a long standing history making fixed-gear and track bikes, their most recent project is anything but: a rugged mountain bike made almost entirely of bamboo.

Klink and Adamson came to China—as many young, English-speaking foreigners do—to teach English and do a little exploring. But it wasn’t their jobs that brought them together; it was their love of biking. “We met at this fixed-gear shop in Beijing called Natooke,” Klink tells me. Though they had left their bikes behind in the states, neither of the young fixie-riding teachers could stand being off two wheels. So they exchanged working in the shop for the use of a few rental bikes, going out on long wandering rides into China’s heartland. Before long, they walked away from their schools and opened up a new branch of Natooke: a “green banana”—as Natooke means in Chinese—of their very own, 1,100 miles from Beijing, in Chengdu.

With little more than a year of service under their belt, they’re now at the center of an extremely devoted riding group whose sole purpose is, as Klink tells me, “to have a lot of fun.” But their real goal is to encourage people to fall back in love with riding bikes, which would be good, considering the horrible pollution and congestion of a major Chinese city like Chengdu.

A lack of bikes didn’t used to be a problem in China. In the 1970s, there were millions of riders in Chengdu. Two-wheeled transportation was the ideal conveyance for the rapidly growing socialist country. But, by the early ’90s, that trend had fizzled as many traded in their pedal-power for sleek new electric scooters. Mopeds and cars now rule the chaotic streets of Chengdu, instead of bikes. The result is an incredibly polluted city, with air quality so bad at times that you can’t see more than 100 yards or so. It’s a problem significant enough that shops, like Natooke, sell athletic air-filter masks to customers who want to avoid the harmful effects of sucking in monstrous amounts of pollutants while they charge around the city, darting in and out of a sea of traffic. Moving the city back toward bikes makes a lot of sense, both for the pollution-curbing benefits and for the simple reason that it’s typically faster to get somewhere on a bike.

Though Klink and Adamson didn’t get in the business to tackle environmental issues, it’s a peripheral benefit of being in the business of bikes that they can no longer ignore. Though the majority of their time focuses on building beautiful custom-designed fixed-gear bikes, they have fallen in love with the farmers, techniques and benefits of building with bamboo. What started as a side project, they now have an eye set on creating a thriving bamboo bicycle line.

It’s not hard to see that using bamboo is clearly more sustainable than steel or aluminum. The indomitable grass is completely sustainable, fast growing, cheap to maintain, and tolerant of living in a massive range of climates. In fact, there are more than 1,400 species of bamboo growing around the world, each type good for a different purpose, from flooring and building materials, to paper and, now, bike frames. But with so many types of bamboo to choose from, it’s not always easy to know what kind you need.

You’d think that living in a country that is virtually synonymous with bamboo would have its obvious benefits for harvesting supplies. Though it seems that with great supply can come great difficulty. When Klink and Adamson go out to look for a specific type of bamboo, they’re often met with confusion. “When compared to other people who DIY bamboo bikes in the States and their difficulty in getting bamboo, we have a hard time for a completely different reason. Even though we speak Chinese fluently, from town to town they might call a specific kind of bamboo by completely different names,” says Klink. And even if they can find the right kind of bamboo, it’s not always easy to convince the farmers to even talk to them, much less sell to them. “The growers here sell by the tens of thousands of stalks. So to ask for a few hundred is a joke,” Klink adds.

To help them, Klink and Adamson turned to INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan. Based in Beijing, the organization is committed to promoting fair trade between bamboo farmers and buyers as worldwide interest in bamboo continues to increase. With INBAR’s help, the guys were able to narrow down a few species that would be of the right quality to work for their frames.

With INBAR’s help and enough perseverance, their search started to link them with the right materials and the farmers who would work with them. The long search wasn’t without its benefits however. What started as a simple shopping trip has turned into a newfound hobby for the pair: becoming self-
described “bamboo nerds.” Klink tells me, “We’ll be on a ride and I’ll see bamboo and think, wow, that’s so nice! Or we’ll be at a bar and start talking about fiber density and growth rate. It’s a lot of fun.”

So what makes a great bike bamboo? “Thick walled, high fiber content, and older is usually better,” says Klink, who goes on to explain that all these characteristics affect the way the bike feels, the way it torques, and how long it lasts, resisting to failures like splitting. “It took at least 10 different bikes before we found a bamboo we liked.” It’s at this point you realize that Klink and Adamson are not just typical DIY’ers, fiddling with sticks in a garage. They’re bamboo professionals.Once they have the bamboo they need, it’s a waiting game. Dry-curing the bamboo for at least three months allows water to escape and helps to make it easier to work with, and stronger. Cured pieces are then cut to rough size and, like a combination master chef and welder, the boys then heat them with a blowtorch or bake them. Klink explains to me: “Heating the bamboo at high temperatures caramelizes the sugars inside and helps the pieces to harden.” But it’s not without its challenges. “You have to puncture the interior walls that divide each bamboo node. Those sections are airtight and if you don’t make a hole between them, heating the bamboo is like waiting for a bomb to go off.”

Assuming no “bambombs” detonate, the hardened pieces are then cut to specific lengths and shapes and placed in the custom-frame builder, made from high-quality aluminum that they assembled themselves. “Having a good jig is a huge part of the process. It helps get the frame square and ensures that all the joints are true. It allows us to make bikes much faster when the jig is decent,” says Klink. Joints are tacked with a high-quality epoxy and then wrapped with a woven hemp, procured from a local farmer Klink and Adamson met on one of their rides. The material is another testament to their commitment to working with local farmers and traditional methods.

When the joints are wrapped and soaked in more epoxy, Klink and Adamson start the hard work, grinding and sanding down the rough joints for hours and hours, until they’re completely smooth. “Grinding the joints is definitely the longest part of the process,” says Klink, who estimates that the entire bike-building process takes upwards of 50 hours, from start to finish.

But the result is well worth the effort. When finished, the bamboo bikes they build are able to accept any of the typical components seen on a mountain, road, track or fixed-gear bike. Their newest mountain bike creation has disc brakes, big tires and proper low gearing. As for weight, the bamboo bikes are identical to similarly outfitted steel versions. So far, the two have built more than a dozen bikes and have several more in the ranks to be finished. They’ll sell them to loyal customers, rent them out to tourists and locals looking to tour the city on something unique, or use them as personal bikes. No matter how they’re used though, Klink and Adamson are committed to the project and hope to turn it into a serious business venture.

When the mountain bike is finished, like any bike, they’ll take it for a test ride out of the city and into the hills, among the bamboo where it all started. And they’ll start thinking of their next project, inspired by the grass that constantly surrounds them.

Switchback Riding Grass

4 thoughts on “Once upon a time Switchback did a story

  1. Nice! Any chance you can copy/paste the article content here, or upload some higher res images? I can almost read it but not quite.

  2. Thanks for sharing this article. As a proud rider of your bamboo bicycle, it’s neat to read about your story and journey with this project that many yet know about. happy pedaling 🙂

    1. Total positivity! There’s more stories to come on how we got started so keep your eyes peeled.

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