Bamboo Bikes: Q & A With Matt Michaelson

Today’s high-end bikes are engineering marvels of carbon fiber that are built to be ultra-light and highly efficient. Many bikers are constantly looking to keep ahead of their competitors by having the most advanced gear, but that’s not the only thing that comes into consideration for dedicated riders.

Zambikes is a bicycle frame manufacturing company based in a small community in Zambia. The frames they build are light, sturdy, sleek, sustainable; and they’re made almost completely of bamboo. Aside from drawing a lot of attention to their riders, these bikes help to create jobs within the developing country as well as benefit the communities that they’re distributed in.

Northeastern University student Matt Michaelson has been buying and distributing bamboo bikes in his hometown of Portland, Oregon with the hope that the bikes will cause some cyclists to think a little harder about where their money goes when buying an expensive bike.

Wenger Blog: What sparked your interest in selling these bamboo bike frames?

Matt Michaelson: I heard about the company through digging around on the internet. I started doing research and came upon Zambikes on like, page 20 of Google. It was cheapest option and I appreciated their philanthropic aspect. I eventually called them wanting a bike and sent them a money order, which not many people would want to do since it’s going all the way to Zambia. After asking a lot of questions, I found out that they needed someone in the U.S. to help distribute their bikes.

How are these bikes helpful to the people of Zambia?

MM: So, the way that the business model works is that they grow the bamboo next door, so there is a real sustainability aspect to the operation. The business in Zambia generates revenue within the community to build steel bikes as well. What that does is, if you didn’t have a car, a bike expands your lifestyle tremendously; people can trade goods to neighboring businesses which improves trade and economic activity while also improving community and drawing ties to more villages. They also build carts that are set up with tents called Zambulances. They use them to find pregnant women in hard-to-reach areas and transport them to medical stations.

Can you talk a bit about the construction of these bikes?  It seems like it would be difficult to be precise with bamboo.

MM: The bikes are heat-treated, which makes them very durable. In Asian countries, Bamboo is still used for scaffolding, so when you think about it, lives are literally hanging on bamboo. For the joints, they use a hemp fiber and lacquer glue in order to keep the bike sturdy and reinforced. The seat tube is also reinforced with steel just because it’s hard to get a perfect cylinder with bamboo

Do you see these bikes being used competitively or do you think that they’re just for commuting?

MM: The bamboo bikes are lighter than most steel or aluminum-frame bikes, but not as light as carbon fiber. I’d say that you could definitely use them for competitive racing, but the elites will probably go for the carbon fiber. One of the real benefits of the bamboo, though, is that since it has fibers running lengthwise through the frame, it will not only be strong, but it will flex and absorb some of the vibrations of the road.

 Are there more than just road bikes available through Zambikes?

MM: I can special order mountain bikes, but right now I’m focusing on road since it’s a lot more popular.

Portland seems like a great place to sell these bikes, given its high volume of bikers and its alternative culture. Have you been successful in distributing them so far?

MM: There is definitely a lot of interest in Portland. It’s amazing; I’m constantly stopped by interested people. I’m going to school in Boston right now and there’s a huge difference. Folks here just aren’t as willing to ask questions and talk to you.

When did you start investing and later selling the bikes?

MM: July of 2012. Right now I’m working with a graphic designer and web designer; trying to make [the business] a bit more legit. 

Are there any other dealers in the area?

MM: Very few. I guess you could say that the wooden bike movement started in San Francisco, but as far as bamboo bikes go, there’s not much competition yet.

What are your plans for the future of the business?

MM: Once online, we’ll see who’s buying geographically, that will influence how we go about advertising and distributing. Right now, the biggest interest is in Portland. We still have a lot of market research to conduct. I’m buying wholesale and upping the price a bit right now, but I eventually want 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) status. For now, the frames cost $750.

By Robin Johnson