When we featured Earthbound's high pivot bamboo enduro bike
earlier this year, the response from many people was “What the hell?” We’re used to our bicycles being made from materials Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have approved of, so the idea of a bike made from a plant certainly raises many questions (and no, termites are not an issue).
Bamboo is not as crazy as material as you may first think though. After all, in parts of Asia bamboo is a commonly used material for scaffolding on building sites, and it’s not like the banking district in Hong Kong couldn’t afford steel if they wanted it.
Bamboo bikes aren’t a new thing either - each year at tradeshows you’ll likely find one guy at the back of the expo with a hardtail or a roadbike fashioned from bambo
o. For those used to riding with little or no bounce in their bike, the idea of ride quality becomes far more important, and the flex in bamboo is said to be something quite special indeed.
It is one of those things I have been wondering about for a few years now, a little itch of curiosity I have been wanting to scratch. So when I found out that the man behind Earthbound Bikes, Jason O’Nions, lives just down the coast from me, I wanted answers. Details
This bike is one you need to see in the flesh to fully appreciate the combination of refined detail and pure bodging. Take the green pearlescent flecks in the paint when it catches the right just right, or the scarab beetle on the top tube that glows gold from the right angle. The finish is on the lacquered carbon is just stunning. The bamboo itself is bigger than I expected from the photos too, giving the bike a surprisingly muscular stance.
Then you see the main pivot, which is a steel axle with a bolt on one end to pull it all together. It really illustrates the challenges for small frame builders - like trying to find the right size hardware, or having the tools to drill the threads into the frame. Jason confessed to me that the upper rocker link is from the Stanton he owned before this which happened to fit, and the idler is from a Forbidden Druid.
The rocker is made from two plates of CNC’d carbon. In true DIY-style, Jason explains to me that he couldn’t afford a CNC machine rated to cut carbon. So he took the cheap one he has and set it to run on the slowest setting and left it to run overnight to get a clean cut. On The Trail
As luck would have it, I am about the same weight as Jason, so to start with I could jump on the bike and go. Although Jason is quite a bit taller than me, so I knew from the beginning that his 495mm reach was going to be a stretch for my 1.75m (5’9") frame.
For the two test trails I selected the climbing was an easy drag on the road. While the weight of the bike feels fine for a bike with these intentions, it felt much heavier to pedal. This is not down to the kinematic, as even with the shock wide open the amount of pedal bob was fairly minimal. Having not spent time on bikes with idler pulleys in many years, it is hard to say whether this is down to the idler or not, or whether there is a significant difference between this bike and a more commercially-produced one, but it definitely felt like hard work.
When I got to the trails, no matter what I tried with the shock I could not find a setting I felt comfortable on. Opening and closing the lockout had very little discernable effect on the feel, and the sag ring showed I was sitting way too high in the stroke. Talking to Jason afterwards, he explained that the shock had not been tuned to the frame, so it is impossible for me to say whether my struggles to get it working were down to the frame, the tune or the design of the shock. It is hard to fault Jason for speccing it though, away from his frame building escapades he works as a teaching assistant and quite simply he found the suspension cheap online.
While this may all seem pretty negative, I think it says good things about the frame itself. The dominant ride sensation was a mismatched rear shock, the bike itself felt just like, well, a bike. If anything I was disappointed because I had high hopes for the flex in the bamboo, I imagined it would be a lithe, springy thing bouncing down the trail and to have the feedback from the frame overidden by the shock was frustrating. But maybe pairing that with a deadening high-pivot/idler layout is something of a mismatch. There was one instance where I felt like I was starting to get a grip on the bike, to see the potential I had hoped for and immediately a rock tore apart the rear tire and ended the test ride.
When Jason came to collect the bike we grabbed a loop around some of my trails together. Regardless of how I struggled with the bike, he wasn’t. On the loop I chose there is one section where you pass the ruins of an ancient farmers hut and the ground is covered with baby-head rocks. If your bike is working well and you’re feeling brave you can hold it absolutely wide open through there, pinballing through the rocks at around 50km/h. I have taught myself to stay off the brakes on my far more conventional YT Decoy 29, taking a few tries to build confidence. Jason had never seen the section before and stayed right there on my wheel.The Future
Jason insists that he does not want to make these bikes, that he did this for his own amusement and hopefully to bring some attention to his bikes. His focus is on the gravel bikes and hardtails he has also been making. That said, after much (friendly) bullying, I managed to get an estimated price for a frame like this. He says that he would have to sell them for around €2,500. Within reason you could set your geometry and the kinematic (I would probably take mine without the idler and with way lower anti-squat), although he would need more Stanton linkages to make them. A unique, fully-custom, handmade frame for €1,500 less than most commercially available high-end frames? These days that sounds like a bargain and for me it would be worth it for my curiosity alone.