I have mentioned quite a few different bamboo bikes on this blog, but until recently I had never really ridden one for longer than about fifteen minutes. A few weeks ago though, that changed when my friends at TTR Bikes loaned me an Alfine 11 equipped WebbWorks Hilltribe to try out for a while. It didn’t take very long for me to get over the initial novelty of riding around town on a bamboo bicycle. After a few days on the Hilltribe, I began to appreciate it as a comfortable city/commuting bike, regardless of the fact that the frame material garnered a lot of attention from everyone who saw it.
Before I get into my impressions of the bike, I’ll briefly mention the people, and the idea, behind WebbWorks. Previously, Phil Webb worked as an engineer with Michelin America’s Research and Development Corporation. In 2005, he resigned from his position at Michelin and moved to Thailand to serve as a volunteer. With WebbWorks, he continues his effort to improve the lives of people in Southeast Asia by teaching employment skills that can free them from poverty. You can see a few of the people who have “demonstrated the desire to learn and help themselves” on the ‘Support Staff’ page of the website. As Phil points out on the site, “Your purchase of a Webb Works Bamboo Bike takes unity to the next level by joining you together with these people who are in need of learning skills and finding employment to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medical care for a better life.”
With the exception of the headtube, bottom bracket, and rear dropouts, a WebbWorks frame is constructed entirely out of bamboo with carbon fiber wrapped joints serving as the “lugs”. As you can see in the detail photos to the left, the carbon joints allow for flexibility in the design of the frame. The indented shaping to accommodate wider tires with the relatively large diameter bamboo chainstays is one example. The carbon wrap construction also allows the builders to add features, like the rack/ fender mount on the seatstays of this particular bike. It is definitely a construction method that provides opportunity for easy customization, compared to other bamboo bikes that use alloy lugs for instance. The carbon wrapped joints look a bit rough compared to the sleek molded carbon fiber bikes that we are all used to seeing, but I think the organic shapes work visually with the natural bamboo in this case. Speaking of the bamboo, the finish on the bike is very nice. With my loaner bike, I am sure that it was no accident that the top tube in particular had a beautifully rich texture and finish (that was hard not to stare at while riding).
As you can see from the photos, the Hilltribe that I rode was built with an Alfine 11 internally geared hub and single front chainring. That transmission, combined with the disc brakes and 700 x 35mm tires, made for a very nice (and fast) commuter/town bike set-up. This particular bike was built with a steel Salsa fork to provide a fairly neutral front end for ride feel comparison. As expected, the bike was not a lightweight, but like other well designed urban bikes, weight was not an issue while riding. During my time with the Hilltribe, I rode it on smooth roads, rough roads, gravel, dirt, and grass. One section of rough road in particular, which rattles me to the core on my road bike with high pressure 23mm tires, felt very comfortable on the WebbWorks. I realize that is not exactly comparing apples to apples, but the Hilltribe really did have great shock absorbing qualities, while still feeling plenty stiff when I was pedaling hard out of the saddle. That characteristic is typical of bamboo due to the hollow, segmented structure and the longitudinal fibers. I have read about the vibration dampening quality of bamboo as a frame material, but this was the first time that I have been able to really experience and appreciate it firsthand. Overall, the bike felt very comfortable and had a nice ride quality. I don’t know how to really describe it beyond that, but it definitely exceeded my expectations.
The Hilltribe is the urban/comfort model from Webbworks, but they make road, track, and cyclocross bikes as well. Now that I have spent some time riding this one, I am interested in checking out a few of the other models… in particular the Monsoon cross bike. I might have to track one of those down to take a look.