It wasn’t the very first question out of my mouth, but it was close.
“How can bamboo be stronger than metal?”
A tinge of exasperation swept across Diego Cárdenas’ face, but he launched into an explanation anyway.
“Metal has the characteristic that if you bend it, it starts to take on that form; it has a certain flexibility if you apply force to it,” he said. “It’s resistant, but the truth is you can bend a piece of metal and it stays bent. Bamboo receives force and sends it back to you. It doesn’t have that flexibility, the plasticity. Bamboo will do nothing until you hit it hard enough to break. In terms of compression, it’s the same; it’s much stronger.”
Later, he explained that this was the No. 1 question that people ask him about his bamboo bikes, his face giving away his fatigue at convincing people of this one simple fact.
Knobby and earth-toned, Cárdenas’ bamboo bikes appeal to cyclists who want something completely unique but also super slick. Their base prices range from the more economical — about 8,000 pesos — all the way to bikes costing in the neighborhood of 35,000 pesos.
He started building bamboo bikes in his mom’s garage in 2010. The first model was just for him. But when he rode it through the city, people peppered him with questions: where and how they could buy a bike just like it? After a while, he was convinced that bamboo bikes might be a good business.
In his shop, Bamboocycles in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City, sit delivery bikes, skinny-tired street bikes, fat-tired mountain bikes and piles of bamboo tubing and carbon fiber, the latter for the lugs that connect the bikes’ bamboo frames.
A returning client (who already owns two of Cárdenas’ bikes) arrives to discuss the recumbent bicycle that Diego will build for him in the next few weeks. Three other customers test out models, riding up and down the street.
“I mountain bike,” says one of the women. “Not here, but in Mérida. There aren’t really mountains, but there are a lot of different types of rocks; I was using an Orbea brand bike and they are relatively heavy; if you pick this one up, it’s so light.”
The weight of Cárdenas’ bikes is frequently mentioned as one of their best virtues. That and the fact that the bamboo absorbs more vibration than metal, making for a more pleasurable ride, especially in a city known for its potholes and uneven pavement. Oh yeah, and there’s the fact that this bike is biodegradable and will be folded back into the earth at the end of its lifetime – though that won’t be for a while.
“If you maintain [the bike] in a place without too much humidity or too much sun,” says Cardenas, “It could last all your life. The example that I found from the 1800s, it’s still around.”
He’s referring to the inspiration for this entire project, an 1890 bamboo bike that he stumbled upon while studying industrial design at the National Autonomous University.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I want one of those,’” he said.
While the process of perfecting the design was laborious — how do you ensure alignment in a tube that is a natural, organic thing? — bamboo as a plant had impressed him; it produces 30% more oxygen than other trees and is one of the fastest-growing plants on the globe.
Cárdenas had already experienced how liberating it could be to move through a city by bike while studying one summer in Europe. When he came back to Mexico City’s traffic and mayhem, he just didn’t want to get back into a car.
Bamboocycles ended up in the national spotlight in 2016 when he presented the project on the TV series Shark Tank México, although he didn’t get the financial support he had hoped for.
Today, he is proving his critics wrong. There are 2,200 Bamboocycles bikes out in the world, bought both nationally and internationally, all owned by cyclists who got its appeal right away.
“There are clients who will never be convinced [to buy one] no matter how many facts you put in front of them,” says Cárdenas, “and then there are people that you don’t have to say anything to and they just show up. Word of mouth is my best publicity.”
Lydia Carey is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily.