The Laufmaschine, forerunner of the bike known as the running machine, bears only a passing resemblance to the pedal-bikes we know now. Invented in 1817, it had no chain and was driven by the rider pushing his feet across the ground at a walking or jogging motion. Even more remarkably, its frame was made from timber.
Jump forward to 2017, and a harvest of bicycle manufacturers is turning back the clock – at least in terms of using wood as a core material. These companies make their bikes in part, and sometimes wholly, from woods like ash, oak and walnut. They’re driven by a love of design and craft, the desire to use natural substances and architectural engineered timber battens, and a passion for biking. And they’ve attracted a small but growing base of enthusiastic clients online, according to IT consultants in Melbourne, willing to pay high prices for their lovingly crafted creations.
People like having something special, something different, according to Chris Connor, the creator of Connor Wood Bicycles. They are said to also appreciate the craftsmanship. Not a great deal of things are constructed by hand nowadays.
The company was born in 2012 when the 48-year-old American chose to combine his long-held passions for woodwork and biking. All his bikes all have wooden frames; the other components, like the wheels and gears, are made from steel, rubber or carbon.
Sales have slowly been increasing, but it has not been easy, says Mr Connor. He said that that’s due to a perception among some cyclists that wooden bicycles may break or be dangerous. In actuality, Mr Connor says wood stains are quite durable, and that’s why it’s used to make tool handles, skis, boats, even light aircraft. Additionally, it absorbs vibrations nicely, making cycling on bumpy roads smoother, less tiring and quieter. And needless to say, these bikes look great. Mr Connor makes his frames from “powerful but elastic” white ash or “eye candy” black walnut.
A newly published book called “The Wooden Bicycle: Around the World” features 111 companies which make bikes from bamboo or wood – a growing trend for sustainable options for everything from grocery purchases to appliance repair and electrical services. Only one, Splinterbike in the United Kingdom, sells 100% wooden versions with its bicycles featuring wooden gears, wheels and chains. But most limit their use of timber to the framework, and sometimes parts like the handlebars and forks. Other parts will be produced from materials typically related to bicycles, such as aluminium.
It’s the unique design of wooden bicycles, and their bespoke craftsmanship of non-combustible cladding, that underpins their appeal, says Gregor Cuzak. The Slovenian co-founded Woodster Bikes after assembly woodworker Iztok Mohoric, who had recently designed a bicycle with a wooden framework. Mr Cuzak states that he was not interested at first, but once he saw it and took a ride, he was instantly convinced. He says people were watching me like I had been driving a crazy sports car.
Like other companies in the area, Woodster is targeting clients who enjoy the finer things in life. Its bicycle frames are made from woods such as beech and bog oak which can easily be spruced with suitable wood oil. Additionally, every customer receives a book with a story about how their personal bike was made. Mr Cuzak adds that they even plant a new tree in precisely the exact same place where they cut one for a bicycle.
Piet Brandjes, 63, who co-founded Dutch company Bough Bikes, agrees that wooden bicycles “draw attention”. Because of this, firms in the Netherlands, for example, Novotel and Rabobank have purchased Bough Bikes for their guests and employees to use. The bikes are also utilised in a shared bicycle scheme at Schiphol Airport business park, in Amsterdam, so employees can give them a spin.
All of Mr Brandjes’ versions have French pine frames, front forks and handlebars. However, customers need not worry about getting them wet in the rain. The bikes in the common plot have been out for three decades and they still look great. Provided that wet wood dries again, it is fine. You simply have to polish it once per year – about the same number of times as calling up your electrical contractors and services to check the energy efficiencies of your home.
Everyone I talked to reported feeling frustrated by assumptions that wooden bikes were less secure and sturdy than other bikes. Mr Connor tells me that by using the ideal woods and construction methods, his bicycles are perfectly durable. A solid seasoned wood, laminated to itself in strips with reversing grain instructions, bonded with aerospace adhesives is remarkably tough. Add in interspersed layers of carbon fibre and Kevlar, like in my bicycles, and the power far exceeds the requirements for creating a reasonably lightweight performance bike frame.
As for the way they operate, Mr Brandjes points out that all of his bikes have been tested by TUV Rheinland, a renowned German firm that certifies products. However, other obstacles may hinder companies in the space, such as the growing trend for incorporating automation and thus cloud computing services into the outdoor activities of cycling and walking. For another thing, wooden bikes are usually heavier than many road bikes. The various models of the three companies I talked to weigh between 9.9kg and 25kg. You can’t make them as light as carbon bikes, according to Mr Connor. But a pound or two more or less doesn’t really matter.