Bamboo Bike – Renovo Pandurban

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.

Reservoir

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.

25 thoughts on “Bamboo Bike – Renovo Pandurban

  1. Your bicycle is rare and beautiful. Congratulations. Their extensive delays and their lack of communication is odd, a symptom perhaps of a business on the edge of either great growth or failure. Many companies are very thin in staff and they fail to manage the pending clients. Your blog is welll done. I am interested in keeping tabs on the life of the bicycle. Thanks for taking the time to share your insights and experience.

  2. But, will it blend?

    Joking aside, I want one. Badly. I’m /really/ impressed with their frame test results:

    “The Cervelo Soloist (S2) is our gold standard in this test, considered by many to be one of the best all-round racing bikes made.” See how they stack up in the chart (REALLY WELL, in some cases better):

    http://www.renovobikes.com/testing/

    I’d love to start bike commuting into DC. It’s surprisingly easy from Arlington, VA, but I only have a racing bike and have been flirting with acquiring an urban/commuter….

  3. Wow, as I was reading your thread it was as if I has written it myself. The only difference is that you have your bike and I’m just enter the 2nd week after I sent my final payment and was told one more week. I sent in my deposit the 1st week of Jan. and was told 6 to 10 weeks. In March I was in Portland so I dropped in on the factory. I must say Ken was great and treated me to the nickel tour of the facility (very impressive). Anyway, I enjoyed reading of your experience. I can’t wait for mine to arrive.

  4. Rob – thanks, glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right, this kind of thing is not uncommon for small businesses focused more on the product than on the marketing. I hear it’s the same with custom guitar makers.

    Gilbert – will it blend? Damn right it will! (just need the attachment). Yep, those test results are very impressive. Go for it – get a commuter! Makes every day at work way happier.

    Scott – that’s an amazing coincidence. Which one did you order? Dang, I was in Portland just last month for business – I totally should have swung by. Can you post here when you get yours? Would love to see pix.

  5. I received my Pandurban yesterday 10/13 that I ordered 1/7. It’s identical to yours with the exception of the drivetrain. As a techy nerd I talked Renovo into outfitting my bike with a NuVinci N360 CVT hub. Although the hub is on the heavy side it’s well suited for a commutor bike. Combine this hub with the ride of the bamboo frame and this is the smoothest quietest bike I’ve ever been on. It’s incredibly beautiful and well made. I haven’t even had it for 24 hours and allready the long frustrating wait is becoming a distant memory. Thanks for your post. Scott

  6. Congrats Scott! If I recall, the Nuvinci internally geared hub was one of the options available with the order. I thought quite a bit about it, but decided against at the time. So it’s working out well for you? How many gears do you get with that?

    BTW what city are you in?

  7. Hi Shacker, The optional hub offered originally by Renovo was an sram 9 speed uint. The NuVinci is a CVT design that offers infinate gearing between the high and low ratios. Google nuvinci for the tech lowdown. It’s very smooth and quiet and suits this bike very well. I’m in Crystal Lake Il. in the process of relocating to Bend Or. (bike heaven) in December. Come on out, let’s go for a ride. Scott

  8. Oh, oh, oh… I visited Renovo’s shop months ago (Ken very kindly gave me the tour) and decided I had to save for a Pandurban. And then I went to a bike show, fell in love with the NuVinci N360 and decided the two belonged together. And now no sign of the Pandurban. I’m the third slowest rider in Portland – I don’t race, I don’t tour, I just want a perfect commuter bike. My 26 year old Bridgestone can’t possibly last forever…

  9. Be patient – I placed my order last Sept – and by Sept I mean Sept 2009. Just got my today Nov 2010 – woo hoo – what a beauty she be.

  10. Finger, toes, and everything else that might be that flexible crossed… I hope once they get caught up they put the Pandurban back on their web site, and start taking orders again. If they really take more than a year to deliver, I guess I don’t have to save up enough to pay for the thing immediately.

    But a coworker just had two new bikes stolen – serially – cut free of what they were locked to. I love my old bike, but it’s kind of comforting to realize that very few others are lusting after it. (Some, because they’ve told me, but there can’t be many.)

    mh

  11. I was worried about theft before ordering the Pandurban, but a friend pointed out that thieves might actually be more reluctant to lift a highly unique bike — harder to get away with fencing it since it’s so easily identifiable. Not sure whether it’s true, but it makes sense (in contrast, the most commonly stolen car is the Honda Civic).

  12. They’re back! If you’re on Renovo’s mailing list, Ken Wheeler sent you an e-mail this afternoon announcing that they’re breathing again. Plus, the Pandurban section has a link to this blog. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the bike is considerably more expensive (I had been reporting it as $2K, and it’s now almost $3K. That’s one way to keep from being overwhelmed with orders…) They’re now also offering it as frame only, for those of us who want oddball parts like the NuVinci.

    Oh well, if I can avoid more expensive cat repairs, I’ll start saving.

  13. Whoa, that is quite a price jack – I believe I paid around $1700 when I ordered a year ago. But you get a lot of bike for that :) So cool that they linked here! Thanks for the headsup.

  14. My bike is the R3 – I’ll post a picture when I finish building it. Be patient for thosee that have ants in their pants.

  15. i’ve been riding my pandurban almost everyday for exactly a year now here in Portland. I got the 9 speed derailleur model with rack and fender’s, without the hub generator. It is geared perfectly for my purposes. It is an extremely smooth and stable ride. I’m sure some of that has to do with the larger 32mm tires compared to my carbon and steel framed bikes which i use 25’s on, but it totally absorbs everything the road throws at it. It has held up well and been ridden in all kinds of conditions. It gets regularly loaded down with groceries and half racks of beer, no problem, even when loaded lopsided. Everywhere I go here in Portland it attracts admirers. Some people want to know if it is a paint job or decal’s, they can’t believe their eyes. Unfortunately I had the same experience others have had with their seeming inability to deliver their product in close to the promised time frame and the total lack of communication once the order is placed, although my experience was not nearly as bad as others, only 10 weeks later than promised. I am sure they’d like to do better. In the end it was worth it, i am more than pleased with the bicycle and the post purchase service i have received.

  16. Note on raw materials here:

    There were/are some contradictions and discrepancies in the new description of the Pandurban, and I asked (by e-mail) about them. Ken’s response was “We offer the Pandurban in lam. bamboo or hickory now, but are considering dropping the bamboo due to supply problems.” Didn’t get a comparison of hickory vs bamboo, although there is some description of hickory’s qualities elsewhere on the site.

    (And I also offered to help them edit, a need they do recognize. The response was “Heck yes I could use a proofreader or copy editor, are you in Portland? Have you been to our shop?” No response to my “Yes and yes” yet.)

    mh

  17. Supply chain problems with bamboo? I thought it was incredibly abundant. Maybe there are specific strains of bamboo that work for them or something. Odd. Also, I thought hickory was a very heavy wood, no? But maybe they need less of it since it’s harder.

    My Pandurban is a hybrid – mostly bamboo but the rear triangle is hickory (or some other light colored wood). I assume they did that for extra strength.

    Nice of you to offer to edit their copy! Very cool.

  18. Not as cool as it sounds. I’m desperately hoping to get a price break for my efforts, too. Yes, I compulsively want to fix the web site issues, but I hadn’t convinced myself I could afford $2,000 on a bike I don’t need; it’s 50% harder to convince myself I can afford $3,000.

  19. Neal, that Elwood rocks! Now you’ve got me all jealous. Amazing that your customer experience woes were so similar to my own (even worse). And what bum luck that you ended up with a defective frame construction. But in the end, you’ve got the bike, and you’ll love it for years to come. Enjoy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *