Author: Rebecca Reilly
There is an epidemic around the world and right here in the US. People are renting Chinese bikes and leaving them all over the place. There is a huge glut of rental bikes littering Chinese and now American cities and now there are gargantuan piles of them.
It’s not normal. Bikes actually leave a carbon footprint, even though it is small. By some estimates a bike costs about $1.000 in carbon cost, to manufacture. Now multiply that by millions of Bike Share bikes. Now leave these bikes all over like so much litter. The bike carbon footprint still doesn’t approach your average SUV which for comparison, manufacturing carbon cost is $9.275.000. But it is still gross.
Here we are in the anthropocene, just making more and more crap. Our throwaway culture is choking the oceans, poisoning our earth. McMansions, falling apart after only a few years. Things used to be built well, built to last, well thought out.
Innovative craftsmanship still exists, you can find it in Buffalo.
When Chris and Jess Kudla of Normal Bicycles were kids, bicycles were synonymous with freedom. To Jess, growing up in the country, parents unwilling to drive her around, the bicycle was an escape. For her husband Chris, a long distance competitive runner, it was transportation.
Chris graduated college as an engineer and went to work in auto manufacturing. He designed load bearing joints for the chassis of cars. “I learned a lot,” – but the work was drudgery and he couldn’t wait to leave everyday. There had to be more to life, a way to combine his education, and experience with the things he loved: being outside, riding bikes, and of course his wife Jess.
Jess, a business consultant added the final piece to the puzzle, a business mind to translate an idea into a business plan.
They landed on wooden bikes. A quick google search revealed that there were actually many people making wooden bikes. Initially crestfallen, Chris doubled down on his idea and started looking for the niche. “When I started really looking at the designs I realized that if you hollow these out by hand and you have a certain kind of wood, the kind that is strong enough, these bikes are pretty heavy.” And they were really expensive, starting out at $7,000 apiece.
With that kind of weight, forget performance.
The bike starts its life in a CAD drawing on the computer. Awhile ago Chris spent tedious hours loading in the kind of crazy math that gives a D student like me an instant headache and simultaneous panic attack. Hours and hours grinding out equations on a keyboard. I think I’d prefer to have Chuck Norris punch me in the face repeatedly.
In their small space in The Foundry, a maker’s incubator, on the East Side of Buffalo, I pick up the single speed that Jess rode on the Annual Can-Am ride. It is slightly heavier than my track bike. But it has brakes. How is it possible that a wooden bike isn’t as heavy as a steel mountain bike, like Huffy heavy?
Lines so clean, you can hear the wind rustling the leaves…
It’s the steps along the way, where the opportunity and niche making come in. This is after all, a brand-new field. For instance, the three-dimensional model and the CNC machine allow for super tight tolerances. Because drilling out the wood is so exact, planing the wood ensures that the sheets that make the tubes are absolutely flat. You can insert a skin of Kevlar into the tubes of the bike. It is completely sick how exact you can get working on wood. Chris takes his experience and knowledge of working with metal on the chassis of cars, and applies that to the manufacturing process.
It occurs to me that often, new frame builders come from the ranks of the bike obsessed. Generally, not trained engineers. Chris explains, “In that world, that doesn’t matter,” when it comes to figuring out the strength vs. weight properties of frame tubes. That work has already been done. “You’re buying the tubing that has been highly engineered.” So a cake from a box, as opposed to buying flour, eggs, vanilla etc. Right now Normal Bicycles is creating small, medium and large bicycles. The new medium necessitates tinkering with the geometry, testing in the frame crush test machine, getting it absolutely perfect.
The engineering properties of metal and wood are completely different. The molecules are different, behave differently with pressure and geometry. Metal tubes have already been optimized. Chris and Jess are doing that work now with wood. They are on the ground floor ready to lift off for a quantum leap.
The exciting thing about this quantum leap is that Chris isn’t just working out a manufacturing process to make wooden bicycles, he’s also working out a way of thinking about making bikes with other materials. Whether or not that is the direction he wants to go in, potentially he could make bikes out of things that people throw away. “People are selling recycled cardboard,” Chris says.
Chris is always thinking about strength and weight, and how to do that better. “It’s not difficult to make something strong, and it is not difficult to make something light.” It is however difficult to do both, especially with wood. Chris pulled a book about wood properties and showed it to me. It’s his guidebook. The wood had to be strong enough, light enough and also easily locally sourced.