Crazy Bicycles


A bicycle, ever since its discovery sometimes in 1830-40 decade, remains the favourite personal transport of many people from all corners of the world. In developing countries particularly, it remains unmatched because of its low purchase cost, almost zero running cost and very little maintenance required.

It is believed that the first mechanically propelled 2-wheel bicycle was built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith, in 1839. Since then, people have been trying to make changes in the bicycle design, with very little success. The bicycles of first few decades had their pedals directly connected to front wheel, an arrangement still used in kid's tricycles. A bicycle with both wheels of the same size and a chain drive with pedals provided in the middle, appeared around 1870 and has remained a standard ever since.

The basic design of the bicycle is so perfect and good that people have now stopped trying to make any changes to it. Designers now concentrate more on the materials used for fabrication. We all know that a standard bicycle is made from steel today. Though it was not so in earlier times. The first bicycles were made of wood. After that, manufacturers changed over to steel tubes. High tech- High end bicycles used in racing, where weight is at a premium, use aluminium alloys or sometimes even carbon fibers.

I want to describe here, two types of bicycles designed from absolutely crazy materials. The first crazy bicycle has been designed by one Mr. Izhar Gafni, who is based in Ahituv, Israel. You might find it hard or even impossible to believe, but he has made his bicycle from normal cardboard. Mr. Gafni is an amateur cyclist and owns a number of high-end bikes. He however wondered, why the original inventors of bicycles had selected wood and decided to build a bike using wood. He then later thought of doing even better and decided to make his bike from something that was essentially made from wood pulp: namely cardboard. He has spent several years now, trying to work out, how to make a cardboard bicycle able to support the weight of a human being. He has developed many special techniques for his bicycle parts.

For making the bicycle frame, he uses commercial-grade cardboard material, made from recycled paper. The trick to increase it's strength is in the way this cardboard is folded many times. He has found out the exact pattern of folding required by using principles of origami. After the cardboard is folded, he treats it with a proprietary design resin that holds it in shape and stiffens it. He later cuts it into the forms of the components required. After the components are fabricated, a second application of resin makes the component waterproof. Finally it is coated with a layer of lacquer, which makes it look good. According to Mr. Gafni, the resulting components are much stronger than components made from carbon fiber. All the basic parts of the bicycle like wheels, handlebars and saddle are made in this way, from cardboard and then fitted together.

For making tyres, Mr. Gfni is using old car tyres. He recycles them into solid rubber tyres, for his bicycle. In the early days, bicycle tyres were usually made in this fashion. The ride on solid tyres is not as comfortable as with present day pneumatic tyres, but there is no risk of getting a puncture.

For the chain, Mr. Gafni probably was inspired by the rubber timing belt used in a car. His bicycle chain adopts the same design and is also made from car-tyre rubber. The pedals are plastic recycled from empty bottles. And the brakes are also made from some secret recycled materials, which Mr. Gafni does not disclose.

You would not believe it, but Mr. Gafni's finished bicycle weighs just 9 Kg and can carry a rider weighing 220 Kg. He feels that the manufacturing cost for his bicycle should not cost more that $9-12 per unit. He thinks that not only people in poorer countries would go for his bicycle but considering the bicycle thefts that happen in rich nations, it may be worthwhile to buy this kind of bicycle, which costs less than even the lock-chain arrangement used to lock present day high cost bicycles.

I do not know, whether Mr. Gafni would eventually find customers for his crazy bike or not. But there is another California based designer, who is already making bicycles from hemp and is selling them.


Craig Calfee is an engineer based in California. He specializes in assembly of bicycles used in bicycle racing all over the world like “Tour de France” and is considered an expert in bicycles manufactured from Aluminum and Carbon fibers. Craig has a workshop manufacturing bicycles on Pacific coast in California. However Craig is possessed for last 22 years with a craze that is something totally different than his profession. His new interest is to manufacture bicycles from Bamboo, a botanical specie that grows everywhere in the world and is classified as grasses. Craig's first bamboo frame bicycle was made about 22 years back. It worked alright except for some excess swaying. 

The main difficulty in using bamboo as a raw material is its natural tendency to crack in the middle, along its length. To overcome this problem, Craig started smoking and heating the bamboo pieces. This process of smoking and heating, usually called seasoning, is needed to be carried out slowly over a period of 3 to 4 months.

To join such bamboo pieces to each other to make a cycle frame, Craig has developed a special process using fibers extracted from a plant known as “ Hibiscus cannabinus.” Craig uses this fiber, coated with Epoxy resin, to tie bamboo pieces to each other to make the frame. Craig had to make more that 100 experimental bamboo frames for bicycles, before he could hit on the right design. According to him, his bamboo bicycle frame is stronger than a carbon fiber frame and less likely to break with frontal shocks. It stands very well to the shocks imparted to it because of the potholes and rough patches on roads. EFBe bicycle testing laboratory from Germany has recently carried out tests on this bicycle and has certified its quality. 

Craig's bamboo frame bicycle, in spite of it's lowest carbon foot print, unfortunately is very expensive to make and sells for an astronomical figure of US$ 2700, making it out of reach for anyone in developing countries. To overcome this difficulty, Craig has commenced a project called “Bamboosera”
in collaboration with Columbia University. Under this project, training is imparted to candidates from developing countries to manufacture bamboo bicycles. Once they are trained, they are in a position to start their own cottage industry to make these bicycles. In 2010, “Bamboosera” trained three groups of people from African nation of “Ghana,” to make the bicycles. This project now plans to start these training programmes in Uganda, Liberia, Philippines and New Zealand. Craig is also trying to develop a pedal powered but more sturdier vehicle from bamboo that can carry one adult person along with 4 or 5 kids.

Craig may not be the only person with a green bicycle bee in his bonnet. Three other guys; Brano Meres from Slovak republic, another California designer Nick Frey and Nicolas Meyer from Germany are actively involved in the manufacture of a green bicycle. “Biomega,” is a company from Denmark, who make a very good looking bamboo bike. There is also an ongoing project at the Technical University of Berlin developing similar bicycles called Berlin Bamboo Bikes. Nick Frey's company “Boo Bicycles” now in Colorado, also specializing in bamboo bikes.

Perhaps Nicolas Meyer from Germany has the most advanced green design for a bicycle. His bicycle is made mainly out of hemp and bamboo. His bicycle consists of 60% hemp, 15% bamboo and the rest is carbon and aluminum. He gets his hemp in bulk from a hemp store and his bamboo comes from a florist. To make the bicycle frame Meyer dips the hemp fibers into a thermal epoxy resin and then wraps them around a Styrofoam frame. The frame looks bit chunky because of this method of construction. The hemp ropes can take a lot of weight. But when there's pressure, they bend. To ensure that the saddle mounting, which is made up of two tubes, doesn't get bent out of shape, there is a three-centimeter wide band around the tubes. This method of construction makes the bike more rigid, but not any heavier. It still weighs around 1.4 kilograms, which is approximately the same as a good aluminum bike frame. Bicycle is considered as a personal transportation that creates least amount of pollution. Yet present day steel bicycles consume much power, when manufactured. If a bicycle is manufactured with least amount power and uses recycled or recyclable raw materials, it would become the most ideal vehicle for tomorrow.

Who knows? These crazy bamboo bicycles might become the standard some day. At least these designers seem to think so. 


In the first two parts of this series, we discovered crazy bicycles made from cardboard and also from Bamboo and HempI have found yet another bicycle maker now, who surprisingly uses only normal materials used by all bicycle manufacturers; namely steel tubes, to make his bicycles. Still, we can classify his bikes in the crazy class, because of their price, which hover around 10K Dollars.

You don't believe it? Well! I also did not believe it first, but after reading about the bicycle, Mr. Po (Name changed) has purchased from this bicycle assembler, I had to believe the story. Mr. Po, 47, is an average Singaporean, works as a country manager for an electronics company, is married with two children and cycles for leisure. He belongs to a class or creed of people, whom, we can simply describe as bicycle buffs. Every Sunday morning, he rides his bicycle for about 42 km, along the East Coast Park.

About 2 years ago, Mr. Po decided to retire his trusty steed, a 26 year old bicycle.
There is nothing crazy about this. Almost all bike riders periodically change their rides. It is pretty simple, just walk to a bicycle shop and buy one off-the-shelf replacements and you are done. But our Mr. Po, did not like the idea. He wanted his new bicycle to be a handmade specimen, customised to his specifications. There are number of shops in Singapore on Serangoon Road, who offer customised bicycles for their clients. But they merely assemble the bicycle from standard parts, fabricated abroad, like the frame for example that is fabricated in the United States.

Mr. Po went instead, to another bicycle manufacturer; Mr Suleiman, who owns a bicycle factory in Gaylang East industrial estate in Singapore, called as “Rebound center.” This place is one of the few local companies, that will build a bicycle from scratch for the customers, fabricating the steel frame right here in Singapore. Mr. Suleiman agreed to fabricate a bicycle just the way Mr. Po wanted, but his quotation was whooping SG$ 14000 and it would take him at least 18 months to make the bike. Mr. Po, after giving some thought to it, decided to bite the bullet and ordered the bicycle.

Mr. Suleiman, who owns this shop, is a frame builder who was trained for about one and half months at the United bicycle Institute in Oregon in the US in 1994. However, upon his return to Singapore, found that there was little demand for custom-fabricated frames here. His shop, which he opened in 1995, does mainly bicycle servicing and about two custom-fabricated bicycle frames in a year. But this dropped to none, in the late 1990s. Fortunately for him, demand for custom-fabricated bicycles started to pick up again around six years ago. Mr Suleiman now custom-makes about two bicycles every year, each costing between SG Dollars 6000 and 20,000. The customers for his custom made bicycles are usually male and female working professionals in their 30s and 40s.

Mr.Suleiman fabricates his bicycles with great passion. His bicycle frames are fabricated to a degree of accuracy that involves measurements of up to one-tenth of a Millimeters and and degrees. It takes a minimum of 80 man-hours over at least six months, to build the frame and assemble it with wheels, gears, breaks and other parts. It is obvious that fabricating bicycle frames is not Mr Sulaiman's bread and butter, it is a crazy job which he finds immensely enjoyable. While explaining his passion for bicycle making, Mr Suleiman says: "It is creative work. There is the satisfaction of making something that can be used to ride out of nothing."

Mr. Po got his new bicycle after waiting for almost one and half year, and took a photograph of his own along with his new bike to remember the occasion. He says: "when I collected it, I felt a sense of accomplishment. For me it was realising a childhood dream that I am able to afford at bicycle like this. This might be the last bicycle I get, so I wanted to splurge on something that nobody has." He adds further that the big ticket item was thoroughly worth it. He adds: "it is unique to me. I am more comfortable riding it because it is customised to my dimensional's."

Nothing to beat these crazy bicycle manufacturers and riders, who will not mind to fork out sums, in which one can buy a medium sized family sedan in India.

Crazy Bicycles- Part IV

In the earlier parts of this series, we saw some real crazy bicycles like those made from cardboard, bamboo and hemp. In another part, we saw custom made bicycles from Singapore. The crazy bicycle that I am going to describe to you here is made like any other conventional bicycle with the only difference that it need not be peddled around. It actually runs on solar power.
Jesper Frausig is a Danish solar-energy engineer, who works for Gaia Solar, a solar-energy integration company based outside Copenhagen, where he lives. Like most of the Danes, Jesper is an avid biker. As per Government data, 90% percent of Danes have their own bikes and almost 36% of them use them to pedal to work every day. Frausig was always interested in electrically powered bicycles as they are completely pollution free. But normal electric bikes did not excite him at all because they are very heavy and not built for young people.
With his job as a solar engineer, Frausig had much specialised knowledge of how solar power systems work. He decided to put this in use and tried to come out with a bicycle that could be solar powered. He says that his knowledge of solar power facilitated him to design a bike with lightweight custom made components instead of what was available readily in the market, but decided not to change the basic two wheel design of a bicycle.
Frausig started by mounting a 500-watt electric motor on the pedal assembly. This would be powered by a lithium-ion battery pack, housed in a tubular container, which was mounted on the main frame of the bicycle. He decided that relying only on solar power to charge the batteries would be impractical as sunlight sometimes is not available for days in Denmark. He therefore provided a socket so that the batteries could be charged from a household electrical outlet.
Main solar panels to charge the batteries were fitted in form of disc-shaped arrays mounted inside the wheel spokes. Each wheel is capable of collecting 25 peak watts of solar energy on a sunny day. Although in the present version, it is possible to do it only when the bicycle is at rest. A lacuna, which Frausig wants to change in future versions. Another problem faced by present version is because of the solar panels having been integrated only on one side. This puts a restriction on panels that they can receive direct sunlight only on one side. In the present version, it can take five days to fully charge the battery, depending on sun conditions.
Because Frausig's bicycle has wheel mounted solar arrays, the wheels look similar to the disc wheels used by indoor track cyclists. The main problem with such disc wheel bicycles is that they are extremely sensitive to crosswinds. Frausig wants to overcome this by increasing the density of the solar cells on the rear wheel and eliminate them completely from the front wheel.
Frausig's bicycle is a single gear ratio bicycle that can run at 30 mph under optimal conditions and the bicycle can run about 40 miles on a fully charged battery. The desired speed can be set on a handlebar-mounted control. Sensors fitted in the pedals adjust the speed of the motor so that the motor is always supplementing the pedal power.
Frausig's bicycle would not be available at present for customers, who might wish to buy one. He feels that the bicycle needs lots more improvement and wants to further improve it, before it can be made commercially and sold to people. One thing is for sure. His bicycle has generated much interest for two things; first being it's sporty design with only about 19 Kg weight instead of typical e-bikes weighing around 35 Kgs. Perhaps the most important reason for interest of people is that it is solar powered and that is why people stop Frausig any time, when he is riding his bicycle, and ask him, what is he riding?

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