While other kids were having a good time during the summer holidays, Vijay Sharma helped his father, a carpenter, in his workshop to help supplement the family income. But little did he know that the skills his father taught him would one day help make him famous as one of the few people in India who handcraft Bambikes — bicycles with bamboo parts.

Cycling is an eco-friendly way of getting around — no fuel is consumed and there are no harmful emissions. Sharma has scaled up the bicycle's eco-friendly quotient by using bamboo to make the cycle frame, which is usually made of steel, aluminium or titanium. But he is quick to add that other parts such as chains and brakes are made of metal, and the tyres from rubber. “The idea is to replace as many materials with bamboo as possible — for parts such as the handles, basket and so on,” he explains.

So, why bamboo? “Bamboo is comparable to steel in terms of strength; in fact, in North-East India, people use bamboo to build houses that last decades. Bamboo is inherently shock-absorbent and flexible too, all qualities essential for a bike,” he says.

Mauro Vanoli, an Italian cycling professional, says he learnt about Sharma's Bambike on the Internet. Vanoli travelled to Bangalore and got a Bambike custom-made for himself. He now displays the Bambike at major travel trade fairs and bike shops in Europe, and says people are excited about the product.

“I've done television and magazine interviews on the Bambike, and invitations are coming in from other media organisations. The bike is booked for exhibitions and shows till May,” he says.

Carpentry to bike designing

Sharma became interested in bicycle-making after he enrolled for the ‘MAD bicycle workshop' at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad, where he was studying interior designing. Here, bicycles were dismantled and the parts reused to make everything from toys to tandems (bicycles for multiple riders). Sharma used this opportunity to design a recumbent (reclining) bike.

“Although I am a qualified interior designer, I like to get my hands dirty,” he laughs. But getting that qualification was no easy ride for this innovator, who had his early education in Gujarati medium. “I took eight years to complete a five-year degree in interior designing because my English wasn't too good and I had trouble writing my thesis. But with the help of some friends, I did it,” he says.

After setting up a furniture workshop in Bangalore, he began making all kinds of cycles — including tricycles and recumbent trikes — as a hobby. He started working on the Bambike after a friend suggested it. The challenge lay in putting together the bamboo frame — with steel or aluminium, you just weld the frame together — and Sharma found his solution in fibreglass, which is used to provide the joint between two lengths of bamboo.

Fame on Nilgiris

Arun Katiyar, who was involved with organising a cycling ‘Tour of the Nilgiris', heard of Sharma's bike-making abilities in 2009 when he was moving into his new house in Bangalore. “The man who fabricated my dining table worked in Vijay's workshop.” Katiyar was at the time trying to organise a meeting between people who built bikes and bikers. So he paid Sharma a visit and saw him working on the Bambike at his workshop.

“It was a very hip bicycle; you could ride it alright, although it swayed at the back. Its corners were bumpy, the bamboo wasn't rigid enough and, finally, borers had made holes in the bamboo since it was not treated then,” Katiyar recalls.

But this was just Sharma's first try, and convinced of the Bambike's potential, Katiyar asked him to work on a racing Bambike for that year's Tour of the Nilgiris. As things turned out, the Bambike led the tour, with Sharma riding it.

That tour fetched him wide publicity, and he says his most memorable moment was when his parents called to say they saw his interview on TV.

It was also at the tour that he met the President of TI cycles, the Chennai-based manufacturer of BSA cycles, who offered to get his bike scientifically tested.

The Bambike passed the Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) test, making it roadworthy on a flat, tarred surface. Sharma is now working to make the Bambike suitable for Indian conditions.

A major challenge facing Sharma in the manufacturing process is the absence of a standardised raw material; the naturally occurring bamboo can never have a uniform wall thickness and diameter, so the weight of the bike will also differ across products. But Sharma guarantees that the Bambike will last just as long as a regular bike, “unless you meet with a bad accident, of course.”

Salam Hidish, a furniture designer, says he likes to ride the Bambike because “it has a nice cushioning on a bumpy road and I find it much lighter than a regular bike.”

For enthusiasts and the rest

The price of the Bambike, however, may prove a major deterrent for potential buyers in India. Sharma's Bambikes start from Rs 25,000 for a hybrid bike, while a mountain terrain one costs Rs 30,000. These are, after all, handcrafted products that require considerable time and skill. “Bike companies make 4,000 bikes a day. I take 20 days to make one bike,” he says.

While the bike currently has few takers back home, as “people in India view bamboo as a poor man's timber, even though it's as strong as steel”, enquiries are pouring in from Copenhagen and Italy.

As Katiyar says, “People in the West want to own a Bambike — it's a matter of social status to own a handcrafted, eco-friendly bike.” Abroad, bamboo bicycle designers sell the frames alone for $1,000-3,000.

The Bambike definitely cannot replace the latest models of hi-power bikes, but as Vanoli says, “it could create a niche for those who wish to have an exclusive and special ride.”

Stressing on the need to bring this eco-friendly transport within the reach of ordinary Indians, Katiyar says, “It is not a bike built for India and it is not a model meant for the masses. What we need is a bamboo bicycle that everyone can afford. It's a question of evolution. The paperwala has to come on a bamboo bicycle.”

(This article was published on March 17, 2011)
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