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May 25th, 2011 JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG | Featured Stories
 

Bike to the Future

The next big innovation in bicycle design is…wood?

lede_7kenwheeler_3729WOOD WORKER: Ken Wheeler Builds a Renovo frame. - IMAGE: James Rexroad
     
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The funny thing about Ken Wheeler, owner of Portland bicycle manufacturer Renovo, is that he doesn’t seem terribly interested in the qualities that must attract many customers to the wooden bikes his company makes.

Yeah, the wood-grain, clear-lacquered frames are practically works of art. Sure, wood is a comparatively sustainable material. But when Wheeler talks about these attributes of Renovo’s bikes, he does so perfunctorily, as if only to humor the aesthetes and tree-huggers who would be distracted by such novelties. To a consummate engineer like him, the point of a Renovo bike is not its striking look (“We should just paint them black,” he half-jokes) or its eco-friendly composition, but brass-tacks stuff like “ride quality” and “fatigue life.” 

GRAIN, CHAIN: The crank of a Renovo Pandurance.

“The thing about a bike,” he says, “[is that] it wouldn’t matter if it was the most sustainable material in the world if it was a lousy bike. So, the first thing is: Is it a good bike or not?”

A Renovo, Wheeler says, “is a very good bike”—and others seem to agree. Since starting up in 2007, the company has steadily racked up accolades and orders, and it recently inked a deal to produce a line of bikes for Audi of America. 

“Typically, the carmakers go to somebody like Trek or Specialized, some of these huge bike companies,” Wheeler says. “[Audi] didn’t want to just re-brand some production bicycle.”

Production bikes Renovos are not: Each is customized to its future owner’s weight and riding style, and takes between 10 and 40 hours to make at the company’s industrial-Southeast workshop. Although a high-tech, computer-controlled wood cutter is used in the manufacturing process, much of the work is done by hand. 

Once it’s assembled, each frame is strength-tested using a system of weights. It turns out wood is tough stuff: With both ends upheld, a Renovo frame can support 3,000 pounds hung from its underside. 

“[Wood] resists damage better than any of the other materials,” Wheeler says, “which makes most people raise their eyebrows and say, ‘Give me a break,’ but it’s true.”

Dents in wood, unlike those in metal, don’t become cracks, he explains. When wood cracks outright, the split is structurally equivalent to a seam: It can simply be bonded back together with epoxy, good as new. And thanks to its cellular structure and mass, wood absorbs shock splendidly. 

“It’s a superb material,” Wheeler says. “The problem is, it’s a pain in the neck to work with.”

The advent of the automated wood cutter has made manipulating wood easier, and it was after buying one of the machines for another project that Wheeler—a longtime bike builder, former airplane maker and inveterate tinkerer—had the idea to use the material in a bike.

“I thought, ‘Wow, wood would be great for a bicycle: It’s light, it’s stiff, it’s all the right properties from an engineering point of view,’” he says. “How do you make a wooden bike? Those first bikes were wood, but they were solid. The key is making a hollow wooden bike. And it wasn’t until a year and a half after I got this machine that I realized, ‘Ooh, I bet I could do that on this.’”

The price tag for a Renovo is currently about $3,000 for a frame and $5,000 to $12,000 for a complete bike. Wheeler says he would like to bring down the price, and hopes to be able to do so by refining the company’s production techniques. But for now, the bikes’ pricing reflects the fact that making bicycles out of wood “is still a laborious process,” he says. “It’s not just a piece of cake to do this.” 

 
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