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Originally published June 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 27, 2007 at 4:07 AM

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From sturdy bamboo, a new way to pedal

Funny where an idea will take you. Ten years ago, Luna the dog — part pit bull and part Labrador retriever — was gnawing on...

Los Angeles Times

Funny where an idea will take you. Ten years ago, Luna the dog — part pit bull and part Labrador retriever — was gnawing on a piece of bamboo growing behind Craig Calfee's bicycle shop outside Santa Cruz, Calif.

Luna was adept at crushing wooden sticks with her powerful jaws. Give her a piece of wood, and she would chew it to splinters in no time. But the best she could manage with the hard, round stalks of bamboo was a tooth mark or two.

And that got Calfee to wondering: If bamboo was strong enough to withstand Luna, why couldn't it be a bicycle frame?

Calfee since has gone from building clunker bamboo bikes to fashioning sleek, pricey racing machines that turn heads in even the snobbiest pace lines. He has built 91 bamboo bicycles, enough for their reputation to spread across the country. And, perhaps as important, enough for Calfee to have faith in his unusual contraptions.

This week, he was due to arrive in the West African nation of Ghana, intent on making bamboo bikes for the desperately poor.

Craig Calfee is no ordinary bicycle-shop owner. He's considered one of the country's elite bike builders, someone who creates machines for the likes of Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France. He fashions the lightest of bike frames from carbon fiber.

His shop is outside Santa Cruz, a community known for its laid-back style. His only link to the Third World is a long-ago trip to Africa. Yet somehow, more by accident than design, Calfee and his bamboo bikes might provide a means for rudimentary transport in the emerging world.

A new sensation

In a sense, Calfee is part of a bamboo craze sweeping the United States. Bamboo suddenly is chic, now that it's being made into everything from baby-soft T-shirts to baseball bats. Gone are the days when it was the stuff of cheap curtains and tacky lawn furniture.

"The uses are almost endless," said Dan Keesey, president of EcoDesignz, a Gardena, Calif.-based company that sells everything from bamboo clothing to furniture. "You can eat off it, wear it and sit on it."

And sleep on it, eat with it, walk on it and fish with it. In Calfee's case, you also can ride it.

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He still has that first bike he made a decade ago. He uses it to run errands but doesn't bring it to the shop much because a customer might get the wrong idea. The bike has a big split in the wood — which he's repaired — and its mustache handlebars aren't exactly state-of-the-art.

Catching on

"A little rough" is how Calfee describes it — an experiment that worked well enough to tool around town. But the novelty was infectious.

"I built a few more for friends," he said. "I was just playing around with it, not taking it seriously. But people started asking about them, so I decided to start offering them to the public."

Among the believers was Ken Runyan of Emmett, Idaho, who owns a hardware and bike shop and saw Calfee's bamboo creation at a Las Vegas trade show. He ordered one to sell (the frames go for $2,700) but ended up keeping it. He found he liked it better than his other bikes.

Word spread. Calfee started thinking about his unusual form of transportation. The plant itself — a member of the grass family — was common throughout Asia and Africa. And bicycles, he knew, meant transportation, which often translates to jobs in the Third World.

Going to the Web

In somebody more energetic, Calfee's musings could have led to philanthropic solicitations. But Calfee's a bike guy from Santa Cruz. So instead he put a small item on his Web site, calfeedesign.com, saying that a bamboo bike could have some value in developing nations if someone took up the cause.

What he hoped for was a grant writer or angel to get the project going. The blurb linked to a Calfee-written paper outlining the virtues of bamboo bikes, including the availability of materials, the lack of need for electric tools and increased mobility and access to jobs and markets. Included was a picture of a bamboo bike frame whose pieces are lashed together with hemp fiber. Calfee figured that someone with cash or connections would see the site sooner or later.

Getting connected

Five or six people saw the Web site item and did call, but nothing happened. Calfee then received an e-mail from David Ho, a hard-core cyclist from New York who was thinking about buying one of Calfee's custom carbon-fiber bikes.

While he was on Calfee's Web site, Ho clicked on the bamboo-bike link.

It happened that Ho worked for the Earth Institute of Columbia University, a nonprofit that focuses on sustainable development and the world's poor.

The two men discussed both carbon-fiber bikes and bamboo bikes. Ho sent Calfee a copy of "The End of Poverty," written by the institute's director, Jeffrey Sachs, often cited as one of the major thinkers on Third World economies.

Calfee said he had "vaguely" heard of Sachs and liked the ideas in the book. Ho started drumming up support within the institute for the project.

Multiple goals

The institute eventually financed this week's trip to Ghana for about $25,000. Calfee, Ho and one other representative from the institute will be in the country for 10 days. They will be living cheaply to stretch their dollars, a good portion of which will be eaten by airplane fares.

Ho said they want to find people interested in making the bike frames, as well as sources for epoxy, resin and sisal — a fiber used for making rope, sacking and insulation. The bottom line, Calfee said, is to be able to make a frame without using power tools.

Said Ho: "The other part of our visit is to look in rural areas for what they are using for transportation and how to improve it." In particular, Ho said, he wants to focus on the special needs of women, because they often tend to crops, do chores, control money and need transportation.

Calfee says he's no Pollyanna and realizes there will be pitfalls. But he also thinks success in Ghana could mean success in other places. And they have to start somewhere.

"It's very much in the beginning stages," he said. "We might fail miserably. But it might just take."

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