Interview: Talking Bamboo with Boo Bikes Founder Nick Frey
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about bamboo bikes, with Boo Bikes right in the thick of it. Some has been good, some negative, but really when it comes to using bamboo as a frame material there seems to be a lot more questions than answers in the general population. After listening to a number of friends rave about their bikes after test riding them during the Cincy3 CX weekend, we decided it was time to sit down with Boo Bikes founder Nick Frey for a candid interview to try and find out what Boo is all about.
Find out how to grow a bike after the break.
Bikerumor: How did the company get started?
Nick Frey (Boo Bikes): I started the company myself, and James Wolf is in Vietnam and he is our frame builder, and so James and I have been working together for almost 6 years now. We first started working together on March 4, 2008, so coming up on 6 years now. When I started it, the company was just a school project while I was at Princeton in Mechanical Engineering. It was a junior year design project, and we had seen Craig Calfee bring some bamboo bikes to NAHBS and we were like, “oh my god, that’s so cool!”
But we knew from an engineering perspective Bamboo wasn’t just a novelty material, it is an incredible composite that nature has come up with that rivals carbon fiber and is actually better in certain ways. It’s actually really unique stuff.
Bikerumor: Who is currently involved in the company?
Nick Frey: Now it is me, James Wolf, and Drew Haugen who is my partner as of a year and a half ago. So drew is the guy back in Fort Collins who is putting together our Kickstarter bikes right now. I brought Drew on when we wanted to start Aluboo, because with Aluboo we had this awesome frame design that’s way lower priced, but it’s going to be a whole other… We actually started it as a completely separate company.
Bikerumor: So that was my next question basically, what is the division between the two arms of the company and how will that work out in the future?
Nick Frey: So it’s actually two companies that have merged now, so it’s one company. Both brands will still exist but we’re moving towards using Aluboo just as a frame model instead of like a whole other brand. So it’s actually going to be more and more integrated but it started out separate.
Bikerumor: So what was the reason for the separation?
Nick Frey: We were really worried about… from day one, because of the way bamboo bikes kind of started and were first sold, they were thought of kind of a novelty, or green material like…
Bikerumor: Like building bikes in Africa or something?
Nick Frey: Yeah, yeah, like you know no one has ever thought of it as a performance option or viable alternative to carbon or ti or steel. So that’s been our biggest concern is being seen in the wrong light. So since day one we have raced in the UCI circuit, we’ve raced professional level in mountain bikes, road bikes, cross bikes, everything and we’ve been trying to get away from that conception as fast as possible. With Aluboo, because it’s a lot lower price point and it’s not a full on custom bike like a Parlee, Serotta, or Moots or whatever, we wanted to have it be a separate brand because we didn’t want people to confuse the high end custom Boo bikes with the more affordable Aluboos.
So I think we’re not as susceptible to that as much as I thought. People seem pretty open to it, and I’m actually surprised at how high performance the Aluboo is. So I’m not as afraid of having them connected.
Bikerumor: So for Boo, you started recently offering stock frame sizes where it previously was custom only, right?
Nick Frey: Yeah, so it’s helped us lower the price a bit and it’s helped us reach out to dealers a bit because a lot of dealers aren’t super stoked on having to wait on custom bikes. We’re going to have inventory in the shop in Fort Collins starting in March, so James is actually building the frames right now, and the goal is to be able to turn around an order in a few days or for dealers to have the bikes ready on the floor.
Bikerumor: How long does it take to make a Boo?
Nick Frey: The actual frame construction time is really difficult to pinpoint, it depends on what’s included. That bamboo treatment alone takes over a year. From the point of harvesting to the point of a frame being done is close to 2 years. But we have a huge stockpile of the best bamboo in the world that James harvests. He literally cuts the stuff down, he maintains the crops, the combs – which are clumps of growth that can be up to 100 years old. Some bamboo spreads these runners and others is the clumping kind which is what we use. There are over 2,000 species – it makes hardwood varieties look like…
Bikerumor: So is the bamboo grown on farms? In the wild?
Nick Frey: Yeah, ours is grown on a plantation in Vietnam and it’s extremely, well, it’s the hardest and stiffest bamboo in the world. Even the weakest bamboo is still very stiff by weight compared to any other natural material. So you’re talking about the best of the best. It’s extremely similar in bending stiffness to carbon fiber.
Bikerumor: What about the rotational stiffness?
Nick Frey: Yeah! So that’s what I’m stoked about figuring out. The reason the bikes feel like they do is that bamboo is extremely stiff in bending and rotational stiffness is not as high. A lot of times you tell that to people and they kind of look disappointed but then here is why this is a good thing. When you do an FEA of the frame and you check out the different loads experienced – you can be out of the saddle sprinting and really throwing the bike around like on a steep climb, sprinting, out of a corner, and when you do that you’re relying on the lateral stiffness of the bottom bracket and it’s essentially like this line from the rear axle through the bottom bracket and up to the head tube. That whole lower half of the bike.
If you look at a Cervelo R5 or Specialized Tarmac you’ll see huge tube sections on the lower half of the bike while the top tube and seat stays are very small. This is because the lower half of the bike is experiencing a huge amount of lateral bending. That’s what bamboo is amazing at is lateral bending stiffness. Then when you look at the front end, handling is not looking at the bending of the bamboo it’s relying on the torsion or the twist of the front end. Well, I’m actually a believer that you don’t want a huge amount of torsional stiffness at the front end.
You want a good amount – because that has to do with the precision of the bike going where you want it to and not feeling like a noodle. But, when you have too much front end stiffness, the bike goes exactly where it’s pointed. Exactly. And the moment you hit any rocks, or off camber section, stutter bumps, chip seal or rough sections in a crit – then the bike just goes exactly that direction since there is no give in the system. Whereas with our bike you can actually kind of adjust the steering in the middle of the corner and just throw the bike into it. You are really throwing the front end of the bike in before the rest of the bike gets to react – and it’s like a small split second thing.
Bikerumor: Sort of like the argument that a World Cup level downhill fork can actually be too laterally stiff?
Nick Frey: Yeah. There’s no give in the whole system except for the tires. Everything you feel on a bike happens where the tires meet the road. That is the only force that is acting on the entire system. Otherwise it’s the bike and the rider acting as one unit and the only thing acting on them is those two tiny contact patches. When you look at how the road feels relative to those contact patches, it’s like a translation of that contact. You have road and you have rider, and in between you have this bike and if it’s such a direct contact then you have no give except that surface between that tire and the road. And it might even be tiny little micro amounts…. [our dogs butt into the conversation competing for our attention]
A lot of bikes these days, they’re not even trying to make it stiff in certain ways but not others, it’s just across the board, just stiff. They don’t consider that there are three modes of stiffness – bending, compression and tension, and torsion. This is the danger, I hate to say it, of carbon fiber engineering – composite theory is so complicated and understanding how the plies interact, the people doing that are pure engineers, they’re some of the best in the world but a lot of them aren’t bike racers. They aren’t professional cyclists, they aren’t connoisseurs of bike riding, and so they think if it’s 8% stiffer and weighs 37g less, it’s automatically better. Not as many people add things up and realize, oh man, we actually want it to be more forgiving…
Bikerumor: So did you know all of this going into the process?
Nick Frey: No. [laughter]
Bikerumor: So if you didn’t know all of these things, what made you want to pursue bamboo as a frame material?
Nick Frey: Well, it’s actually the third property which is this stuff called Lignin which is a substance that is in the bamboo. A bamboo tube is essentially a bunch of really dense fibers that are mixed with Lignin inside the fibers, and it holds the fibers where they are. When you look at what the fibers do – all the bending stiffness is the fibers. When you look at the lignin, the lignin actually absorbs all the high frequency vibration. So that was our main goal was having a bike that could be stiff but would have a great ride quality. That was our thought; just straight up riding in straight line it absorbs a lot of roughness from the road. That’s great, that’s what we experienced, but we had no idea about how the different bending and torsional stiffness manifests itself until on the 29er especially, we saw that the bike really hooked up in the corners. If you get thrown off your line in the corner, the bike doesn’t just punish you.
Bikerumor: It seems like there really isn’t a lot known about bamboo for bikes..
Nick Frey: Yeah, it’s such an education process. I mean, people didn’t know anything about carbon fiber when it first came on the scene, it’s taken over a decade for people to be well versed and know what’s going on with carbon.
Bikerumor: So do you think that’s one of the reasons more companies aren’t looking to bamboo? Is it a matter of time, or is there something else that is discouraging them?
Nick Frey: That’s a really good question, um, there is a huge amount of stuff that we have had to go through to produce a bike that can be raced at that level and feel like it should, if not better. I think there is so much that is not part of the industry that would have to become part of it to get there, for a larger company to do it – I don’t think that any larger company would want to invest in the resources to do that. But if we have another one or two companies that pop up that can do a bike that is similar to a Boo it would be really good for us.
If you look at titanium, it took a critical mass of companies to do it before people saw it as the way to go if you want a super high end bike. Then, even carbon fiber it took a certain critical mass of companies and riders, and then it was like everything became carbon. If you look at the timeline of that, no material has stayed on top for more than 15 years recently. It’s approaching 15 years for carbon fiber. I think you’re getting to the point that people are beginning to dislike the fact that their bike is super super stiff, or that it’s basically disposable and they’ve broken them, or they hate the fact that everyone has one or is the same bike year after year with basically a different paint job.
Bikerumor: I’m assuming there is a lot more to bamboo bikes than just replacing the tubes with bamboo, so what can you tell us about your process that isn’t a trade secret?
Nick Frey: [Laughter] Well, we use tube to tube construction, which is how a lot of high end custom carbon bikes are made like a lot of Parlees. So they use an Enve composites premade tube and then hand wrapped carbon lugs. So that’s the same way we do ours, just that we use bamboo tubing instead of Enve carbon tubing. We’re always playing around with the layup of each joint, the modulus of carbon used, the epoxy, the resin, all that stuff has a huge effect on how the bike feels and rides but it doesn’t look any different.
The tricky part is honestly the interaction between the bamboo and the carbon which is honestly probably the reason no one else has really done a frame like ours. Actually we’ve had a number of people say “we’ve heard there were different rates of thermal expansion between bamboo and carbon which is why you couldn’t do it.” No, they just couldn’t do it. It hasn’t been anything like that, but it’s been other stuff that we have dealt with.
Bikerumor: What is the most challenging aspect of working with bamboo?
Nick Frey: It’s getting the raw material. You know, James has exclusive access to the plantation, he’s the only one who has access to it. Getting the raw product is extremely difficult. Because there are so many different species, and there is so much that you have to know about bamboo just to get it – you can’t buy the bamboo that we use. There is no way to get it.
Bikerumor: Uh, so how does one go about getting access to a bamboo plantation?
Nick Frey: You have to, well, it’s super sketchy as far as Vietnam or any part of the world where bamboo grows. It tends to be in the jungle, third world, you know, it’s not something that’s engineered. It’s just growing there. So this guy owns the plantation that is extremely high quality stuff and we essentially pay 3 times as much to have exclusive access to his plantation and James maintains it. In exchange for that, we get the best bamboo in the world and then you have to treat it. You have to have the entire body of knowledge to understand what time of year to harvest – they actually harvest it at night under a full moon, only one time a year.
Nick Frey: Yeah, and it’s so much like art, and old time experience like “oh we should wait another day.” They’ll actually take ribbons and go through and only pick certain poles from certain combs or clumps. It’s actually kind of like harvesting grapes for wine. Vintners have the same thing, and it’s this old school, guys doing it their entire lives kind of thing. So, unless we sold another company bamboo I don’t really see much competition…[laughs]
Bikerumor: Would you consider yourself the biggest bamboo bike manufacturer?
Nick Frey: Yeah, definitely. It’s mostly been others trying on small scales doing one off bikes for some press and not making more than a few frames. We have it down to doing geometry and having a frame constructed in a few weeks, and then having it here.
Bikerumor: Are all of your bikes made in Vietnam?
Nick Frey: Yeah, James Wolf and his wife have a work shop there and they do all frames. Boos, Aluboos, anything we ever make – that’s where it’s made. He’s lived over there for almost 20 years now. His wife’s name is Lamb…. (married to James Wolf). She runs the business and accounting, and he does all of the creative and a lot of the design work actually. The engineer puts together what it needs to be, and then he helps figure out how to actually do that.
Bikerumor: So you do all of the engineering and then send it to him?
Nick Frey: Yeah, and most of the engineering was really in the first three years and now it’s more of small things like modifying our drop outs. When Skylar crashed at the world championships and ripped the rear derailleur into the rear wheel, the whole frame was pretty much cooked since it broke the dropout. That was painful since the rest of the frame was still good, so now we have the entire driveside dropout replaceable. Now it doesn’t use a replaceable hanger which results in improved shifting performance. The whole thing is replaceable and you can switch out to singlespeed without a hanger and it allows for use of a belt drive.
Bikerumor: How did you get hooked up with James in the first place? Is he just known as the bamboo guy?
Nick Frey: He actually emailed me on March 4, 2008 which was two days after an article in Velo News that was about my school project. They just put it up on the site, and James saw it and emailed me, and I was kind of like, “man, who is this crazy guy in Vietnam?” [Laughter] I still have the email, and on March 4th each year, I send it to him and I’m like happy anniversary!
Bikerumor: Do you go out to Vietnam much?
Nick Frey: Never been.
Nick Frey: James comes over here every year for the handmade bike show which is huge for us, and he usually comes over a second time to visit his family. He’s from New York originally. Those are really the only times he visits.
Bikerumor: What kind of testing is performed on your bikes?
Nick Frey: I like to call it the “proof in the pudding.” We pretty much go out and thrash them as hard as possible and then if there are things that need to be improved, we figure out how to do it. I’m planning on getting into bench testing the frames now that I have this theory about the bending and the torsion, I want to test it and see just how accurate it is. But honestly, this goes back to my racing days when I raced professionally with a power meter and I became such a head case about it I was actually getting worse. I think that happens with a lot of people when they look at the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and I think that looking at a bike from a testing perspective and then trying to prove it on the road is a bit backwards. You try to prove it on the road, and then you go back and test it to see what’s happening. But if you don’t have people that know how a bike needs to feel and ride and sprint and so on, then good luck trying to engineer it.
Bikerumor: Is there anything that is required by law to approve a bike for sale?
Nick Frey: Not for anything that’s under 10,000 units. You have to do CPSC certification, but that’s like reflectors and stuff. The European standards, I hate to say it but you can have a frame that can pass all of the most stringent standards, and it still shatters in a crash the moment you put someone’s pedal into the top tube. The tests are extremely limited, and you can engineer around them. You can engineer a bike that will pass those tests but then you want to shave grams everywhere else.
Bikerumor: What kind of warranties are offered on your bikes?
Nick Frey: If you break it, we replace it. It’s such a rare occurrence; it’s not even a concern. If it’s something like you had a really bad crash, in general we’ll just offer a new frame at cost.
Bikerumor: Have you ever considered building a full suspension bike, or does the benefit of the bamboo…
Nick Frey: Yes. Yes and yes. I’ve considered it because a couple times I’ve been drawn to the fact that some of the market thinks they need full suspension, so we’re missing out on those customers. But I personally would never ride one, so that’s the first big issue is that I’m not going to sell something if I’m not going to ride it. Secondly, I feel that a lot of the events that people do, a full suspension bike isn’t necessary. The third reason is the bamboo actually does have such a good ride quality that you don’t have a lot of the harshness like many hard tails.
Bikerumor: So your average customer who walks into a bike shop, why should they consider a Boo or an Aluboo for their next bike?
Nick Frey: Boo, you should consider if you’re looking at another carbon bike. You’ll have the same acceleration, climbing and feel but it’s just so much more comfortable. It handles better, it’s more comfortable in a straight line, and it descends with more confidence. It’s more durable. Infinitely more durable. It’s an investment bike, it’s not a disposable bike.
Bikerumor: You’re saying the bamboo tubes are more durable?
Nick Frey: Yeah. One of the demos I do, for anyone that doesn’t believe me, is I take the pedal wrench from our tool box and whack the top tube – and nothing happens. People freak out, and I’m just like trust me it’s not a problem. I’ve seen carbon bikes damaged from just falling over. If you’re not convinced by the race performance, just watch anything we’ve done on Youtube in the last 4 years. As far as trying one, we’re doing this demo tour so that people can feel the bikes first hand.
For Aluboo, there are probably two big reasons to get one. First it just looks cool, compared to anything else in the price range. It’s just unique. Secondly, it’s so versatile. We use Paragon sliding dropouts that are interchangeable so you can run just about anything. One frame can do so many different things, it’s incredible.
Bikerumor: So the Kickstarter was successful, and that jump started the Aluboo company?
Nick Frey: Yeah, we spent all that money on the bus [Laughs]. No, it was great. The Kickstarter, we’re actually sending those bikes out now (two weeks ago at this point). So we’re hoping that each of those customers are just great early adopters and advocates and help spread the word.
Bikerumor: What does the future hold for you? What are you excited about?
Nick Frey: I’m excited to be honest, for the Tour of Battenkill. We’re going to be going to the handmade bike show, and Battenkill is only a few weeks after that in New York. In between we’re doing a big east coast swing, and I’m doing my favorite road race ever. I’ve done it for 4 or 5 seasons now. This will be my second time doing it on a Boo. We’re really excited about showing up with the bus and making a big impression.
We’ll be doing a big west coast swing this December after LA cross and then Bend, Oregon. So we’re doing Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and in between.
Bikerumor: How should customers track down your bikes?
Nick Frey: It’s easiest for customers to just call or email me. That way I can say go here, or do this and get them going in the right direction.