Back in January 2010, I donated my old Gary Fisher mountain bike to the Peace Corps in Africa and took a leap for my next ride – decided to buy a custom-built bike from a small shop in Portland called Renovo, who specialize in wooden and bamboo bikes (laminated, not raw bamboo stalk like some other bike makers do). Renovo sent me a body measurement chart and the wife diligently took to me with a tape measure, so the resulting frame and parts would be dialed in perfectly for my dimensions.
Renovo builds some incredible stuff – every one of their bikes, from road bikes to mountain bikes to commuters, is a work of art, made with love and incredible craftsmanship. These guys know what they’re doing – in a former life, the Renovo guys were building wooden airplanes.
Read the Why Wood? section of their site for more on why it makes a great building material. Short version: Bamboo (and the other select woods they use), has roughly the same tensile strength as carbon fiber or steel, but better vibration absorption capabilities; plus dings won’t lead to micro-fractures that can result in frame failure down the road. And unlike bikes made with traditional materials, dings in wood can simply be sanded out and polished. In fact, the most likely reason you don’t see more wooden bikes on the road is because it takes a different set of skills to work with – as a base material, it’s somewhat resistant to mass production. Wood is a medium better suited to craftsmen than to factories (wood, by the way, is not a new material for bike construction – it’s been used since bicycles were invented).
Thought a fair bit about whether I was up for the advertised six-week wait – I commute by bike almost daily, and didn’t have a spare to fall back on. But I went for it anyway, and looked forward to the bike arriving around the start of Spring. Long story short, 6-weeks turned into almost nine months before the bike finally arrived. At one point their milling machine broke. Then they decided they needed to redesign the frame for additional strength (I’m OK with that :). Then they lost a mechanic. Or two. It got really frustrating as I watched spring and summer melt away, and I had to borrow one sub-par bike after another (thanks so much friends, no offense!). At a certain point, I realized it was going to be a looong wait, and bought a temporary bike off craigslist to get me through the summer – a classic 1972 Schwinn Letour, just for fun. Great memories, but turned out to not be as fun to ride as it was to look at. A slight flat spot on the flat rim meant weeks of clunk-clunk on the way to work, which got annoying fast.
(Now for sale again, if you’re interested :)
Last Thursday, a big old box arrived at our house and I left work early to start the build. There was more to it than sticking on the handlebars and front wheel – it was up to me to re-assemble the headset, fenders, rack, lights, wheels, seat, pedals, handlebars, etc. I believe what they did was to pre-assemble the whole thing, get it dialed in and tested, then disassemble just enough to get it into the smallest shipping crate. I’m OK with that – I was in the mood for a minor bike build, and loved every minute of it (buyers can also take the box to any bike shop for a professional build).
The hardest part was the derailleur and chain assembly – had to google for “SRAM Powerlink chain” to figure out how that little brass-colored connector thing worked. Everything came out perfectly, except that the rear disk brake is rubbing a bit and I don’t have experience tweaking bike disk brakes – will take that to a shop for refinement.
Lubed up the chain and gears with a bit of White Lightning and was able to get everything together in time for the next morning’s 5-mile commute to UC Berkeley where I work… and experienced true bicycle paradise for the first time. It’s hard to describe how the experience differs from the bikes I’ve owned in the past, except to say it was smoooooth. Bamboo has vibration absorption properties that steel and carbon just don’t have, but without being mushy in the least. Though not especially light, it isn’t heavy either (and most of the extra weight comes from all the mod cons I decided to leave on for now – rack, fenders, lights, kickstand, espresso maker, hot tub….)
Despite not being a bike for weight weenies, the Pandurban is super-responsive, and reaches cruising altitude in seconds. And the angles are perfect. Feel like I’m riding a bike custom made for my body — because I am. That’s an experience you just can’t get with a factory bike off the shelf.
The next day, headed out on a nine-mile round trip ride with my son along Nimitz Way (a paved fire trail) in the Berkeley Hills, on an absolutely spectacular day. Miles did fantastic, and so did the Pandurban. This bike just floats, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Nimitz Way is an old asphalt fire trail, and fairly bumpy, still felt like I was walking on sunshine. The leather seat is firm with just a bit of cush, the grip angle is just right for my body, and it feels just as good sitting as it does standing on the pedals and cranking. The gear action will take some getting used to – just one sprocket up front, and nine behind. Twist shift feels familiar from years on the Gary Fisher. Wouldn’t mind having one more low gear, but it’s fantastic in the highest gears, which I’ll only use on the steepest downhills.
Next day did a six-mile round trip along the Bay Trail to breakfast with family on flat ground along the seashore, and again felt like I was sailing. The Pandurban is a bike I can see myself riding daily for years to come.
Unfortunately, it looks like Renovo have now discontinued the Pandurban (in fact I don’t see any commuter bikes on their site now) – I may have gotten the last one. There’s a part of me – the minimalist part – that wishes I had opted for a more stripped down model like the R1-Road. But even though all those extras add weight, I really do use my rack, light, and kickstand, and would be reluctant to give them up. While the Metropolis handlebars wouldn’t have been my first choice, gotta admit they’re damn comfortable. The cork grips complement the bamboo perfectly and feel great.
I’m also in love with the dynamo lighting system. The front hub uses magnets to generate power for the headlight, which is incredibly bright — brighter than my old battery-powered Night Rider, which I had to charge weekly. Resistance on the front wheel is completely negligible – you don’t even feel it. Almost looking forward to the time change so I can start really enjoying the light. Dynamo is the way to go.
Have to be honest with myself – the vast majority of my riding is to work and back, not doing 75-mile day trips like those dudes in Spandex. It was a practical choice, and I’m sticking to it.
Or view the Flickr set to see these photos with captions.
OK, I’ve got to be straight up here: Renovo make an incredible product, but their business skills leave something to be desired. I was reluctant to wait six weeks, and never would have ordered if I had thought it would take longer. But with delay after delay over the course of nine months, they never once contacted me about additional delays – every single time it was me writing them, “Hey, can I get a status update?” Even in the final stretch, after they contacted me to say the frame was done, and that I could send the balance of the bread and it would be ready by the end of the week… it was another two weeks of waiting. The whole process was incredibly aggravating, and I came close to canceling the order many times, but friends cajoled me into sticking with it – “It’ll be worth it!”
They were right.