“If you sit in the back of the bus, let people demean you, and ride on the sidewalk, you’ll always feel like a doormat. Show some spine. Ride like you belong on the street, because you do.”
It’s Norfolk Bike Month, so we decided it would be a good time to talk with Wes Cheney from Bike Norfolk VeloBamboo.com about Norfolk bike culture, bamboo bikes, and other things “horizontally stiff, yet vertically compliant.”
AltDaily: Your bikes look like they came from a fever dream. Why bamboo?
Wes Cheney: Why bamboo…there’s a tension between the perfection of a Platonic form and the imperfection of reality. Like a fractal, the closer you get to a piece of bamboo the less subtle the variations from the ideal form become. A straight line reveals itself to be a subtle, hyperbolic curve.
I was lucky enough to visit Antoni Gaudi’s Sagraea Familia cathedral twice on Navy port calls. The naturalist form of that edifice continues to entrance me.
Bamboo is both malleable and stubborn. Eons of evolution have resulted in a remarkably sturdy, repetitive structural form. Only in the last decade has humanity been able to artificially replicate in composite materials what nature has created for millions of years.
I’ve always been goal-oriented. I love a challenge. I sketch my dreams on paper, and feel lucky to realize even a tenth of them.
Explain bike dynamics for us non-gear heads. What makes a bike go fast? How does the weight of the bike factor into things?
The weight of a bike isn’t nearly as important as the weight that is on the bike and the power of the human engine. An inefficient design, such as an uncomfortable seating position, handlebars that make the hands go numb, or gearing that is too high or low will result in a bike that is uncomfortable to ride. A maximally aerodynamic riding position is rarely a position in which a rider can attain their maximum VO2 output.
With traditional metal framebuilding techniques, stiffness was a product of material mass- the heavier the frame, the stiffer it was. The lighter the frame, the more supple. There are hundreds of CAD engineers trying to calculate the golden ratio that results in a “horizontally stiff, yet vertically compliant” bike frame. Bamboo has been working on the same problem for millennia, and we should have the humility to learn from our elders.
The one place where the casual cyclist will notice a difference in the weight of a bike is in rotational mass: heavy wheels translate into a higher rotational inertia, which means that it takes more effort to attain a cruising speed. BMX bikes are designed around 20 inch wheels because they require less mass to support the same load as a larger wheel. Therefore the output of a human engine is maximized in faster acceleration. But the downside to smaller wheels is that they have greater rolling resistance than bigger wheels–they get stuck in holes that bigger wheels can roll over.
A hundred years ago, the answer to pot holes and dirt roads was to ride bicycles with wheels 5, 6, or 7 feet tall. But those big wheels were heavy, and the higher riding position put cyclists at a higher risk of traumatic head injury. Since then, cyclists have settled on 27 inch (a.k.a. “700c”) wheels as the best compromise between rolling resistance and rotational mass.
An extremely rigid bike frame may be extremely efficient on the test stand, but in real life only masochistic athletes ride super-stiff bikes, and then only in relatively short time trials. For the average rider, a stiff frame will transmit the tiniest of road imperfections– and the roads around Norfolk are far from perfect. Because of the cellular nature of bamboo, it naturally dampens vibration.
There’s also a balance to be struck between durability and weight: I’m not interested in building frames that are so minimalist that they fail the first time they’re pushed towards the extremes of rider weight or demands. The Bamboo Bike Studio aims to over-engineer their frames by 300%, and I think that’s a good idea. Build a bike that will last, but not so heavy that the fun is gone.
How’s the business going so far? Are you finding that there’s a market in Hampton Roads for alternative-style bikes?
Business is going well. I have three bikes under commission right now, and I intend to close deals for another three bikes by the end of the month.
People are really excited to buy a frame built by a local craftsman from local materials. Bamboo is a self-renewing material that absorbs more carbon dioxide than trees, pound for pound. And when you consider that the bike isn’t being built in Asia before being shipped across the Pacific to North America, the carbon footprint compared to a Chinese aluminum Walmart mountain bike is miniscule. Let’s look for local solutions to local problems.
How long have you lived in Norfolk? How have you seen the cycling seen grow or change since then?
When I first started riding a bike to the Navy base fifteen years ago, bikes were few and far between. When gasoline first spiked above $4 per gallon a few years ago, I saw a real surge in cycling. Since then, cycling has only increased. For a period after 9/11, Norfolk had only one bike shop: East Coast Bikes in Ghent. Then East Coast opened a second location in Ocean View, Conte’s returned to Norfolk, Andy Hund opened his Recyclery on Colley Avenue, and the Bike Doctor on Brambleton Avenue does a decent job of catering to the low-end, used beach cruiser market. It’s reasonable to say that bicycles are one of the fastest growing sectors of the retail market in Norfolk; while auto dealerships have been closing and consolidating, new bike shops have been opening.
There’s hope in change. It’s completely irrational to think that a 200 pound human being needs a 2 ton SUV to go three miles to buy groceries. The bicycle is the most efficient machine ever devised, something like a hundred times more efficient than a single-occupant car. As Bill Nye the Science Guy says, it’s ludicrous to think that Americans drive to the gym to ride a stationary bicycle.
There are a lot of people around here that talk about wanting to get a bike, but they haven’t yet. I speculate that part of this comes from being afraid to bike around all these big bad cars. Should people be confident out there?
Take the lane. Ride like you belong on the street. If you sit in the back of the bus, let people demean you, and ride on the sidewalk, you’ll always feel like a doormat. Show some spine. Ride like you belong on the street, because you do. Our roads and streets were paved with tarmac a hundred years ago because of the lobbying efforts of the League of American Wheelmen. The LAW is now the League of American Cyclists, and bicycles still have all the rights and responsibilities of any other vehicle on the road, in all fifty states (and the District of Columbia). That means you have a right to take the lane, not just the gutter, and the responsibility to ride in a safe, predictable manner. If you’re going to ride at night, you need lights on your bike– you wouldn’t drive at night without headlights, would you? And if you’re going to be riding faster than a mom pushing a baby stroller, you need to get off the sidewalk–you wouldn’t drive on the sidewalk, would you?
That being said, choose your route wisely. There’s no need to take the lane on Hampton Boulevard or Tidewater Drive when quieter, parallel neighborhood routes are readily available. Ask a friend who rides for tips on choosing routes, and visit your local bike shop, they’ll be happy to tell you about local group rides that can help you get familiar with the eccentricities of our Tidewater geography.
What are your tips for safe, healthy cycling?
Wear a helmet and get off the sidewalk. Cycling itself is an amazingly healthy activity. You’ll burn more calories, lower your blood pressure, increase cardiovascular fitness, lower stress,and live longer on a bike than in a car. You will, however, run a slightly higher risk of breaking a collarbone.
Wearing a helmet is like wearing a seatbelt– it significantly reduces the likelihood of traumatic injury, and you hope you’ll never need it. Concussions are a pain in the ass. A $20 helmet is cheaper than a $2,000 emergency room visit.
Get off the sidewalk. Cyclists on sidewalks are 400% more likely to be in a collision with an automobile. When you’re riding on the sidewalk, you’re obscured from the view of drivers pulling into and out of driveways. Every driveway becomes an intersection on a bike.
Listen to your body– if something hurts, change position, change what you’re doing. If you don’t know why it hurts, get to your local bike shop (LBS), and ask for help. Sometimes something as simple as a sliding your saddle forward or raising the handlebar stem can alleviate knee and wrist pain. If it hurts when you ride it won’t be fun or efficient.
Let’s say someone wants to help cycling culture in Norfolk grow. How can they get involved?
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat cyclists with the same respect that you would want to receive and vice versa: treat drivers with the same respect that you would want to receive. When you’re driving give cyclists a little extra space while passing them, and don’t try to save a few seconds by racing in front of a cyclist to make a turn. When you’re on your bike, make eye contact with drivers at intersections, and obey traffic lights and signs if you’re sharing the road with other vehicles. Don’t make a driver pass you more than once by scooting past them in the gutter at red lights. And if you’re waiting at a red light move over to the left so that drivers can make a right turn beside you– you’ll generate good karma for the next cyclist they encounter.
Bike racks are a great incentive for local shopping, just ask the Ghent Business League. Statistics show an increase in sales (and tax) revenues when bike parking is installed. Nobody likes being stuck in traffic on Military Highway, especially when they could’ve ridden their bike to a local shop. Bike racks need to be no further from the front door than the closest automobile parking spot. And just as we discourage cars from parking in the middle of the sidewalk, bike racks need to be installed where they won’t block traffic. When you consider that more than a dozen bikes can be parked in a typical American automobile parking space, it’s easy to figure out what will drive more folks to spend their money locally.
We’re both active members of Bike Norfolk, which you started with Michael Shipp from East Coast Bikes. What motivated you to start the group? What is its ultimate mission?
I became one of the founding members of Bike Norfolk because I wanted to do more than just bitch about the unrealized potential of biking in Norfolk. I’ve ridden in half a dozen countries in North America and Europe. I’ve seen the promised land of Belgium and Brooklyn, where cycling infrastructure has become the norm. I believe that Norfolk will be a better community for nurturing cycling.
Thomas Jefferson would have loved the bicycle had he lived to see it. If the automobile is Hamiltonian and oligarchical, then the bicycle is Jeffersonian and democratic. Riding a bike requires less government and lower taxes than driving a car. On my bike, I don’t need oil companies, I don’t need to pay massive taxes for the upkeep of superhighways, I don’t need to waste my life and energy feeding gasoline into a pollution-spewing automobile. I can build my own bike and (in theory) read Homer at night in the original Greek. I’d love to see America fund infrastructure based upon usage. The gas tax and the general fund don’t adequately cover the impact of semi-trucks and single-occupant vehicles on our highways. If you use it, you should pay for it: all highways should be toll roads. Yes, there would be a corresponding increase in the cost of goods as retailers recoup their operating costs, but the price of gasoline and the individual tax burden would be decreased.
Where do you see cycling culture and infrastructure in Norfolk being in five years?
I see bike routes from Ocean View to Main Street along the Granby Street Corridor, and from Ghent to Newtown Road along Virginia Beach Boulevard. I’d love to see bike lanes, but I’ll settle for sharrows. I see neighborhoods signing “safe routes to schools.” I see cyclists as a norm, not an exception, in daily traffic. For three of the past four hundred years the streets of Norfolk were laid out for a 3mph world. Only in the past fifty years have we tried to shoehorn automobiles into streets that were never designed for them. We’re not Virginia Beach. We’re not Chesapeake. Much of Norfolk and Portsmouth were never designed around the car and the cul de sac. Paving over low-lying wetlands with impermeable asphalt is not a good idea, especially when we can see the sea level rising. We need to embrace local solutions to global problems.
Please use this last space to pitch people on bamboo bikes.
Bamboo bikes are whimsical and efficient. They age like a good pair of shoes or a fountain pen. They are a renewable, repairable response to our disposable culture: why buy a $200 bike at Walmart that will fall apart within a year or two if you actually ride it regularly when you could buy a bike that will last for a generation or more?
Click here to see a photo series of Wes’ process.