What started as a whacky publicity stunt in 1997 has led to one of the most exceptional bikes to come down the pike in a very long time. Craig Calfee’s name may not be as well-known as some other boutique builders, but his roots in the sport go back to the early ’80s.
Ironically, Calfee ended up sourcing his bamboo tubes from the same place where so much of the ferrous world finds a home—Taiwan. This is where they are hand selected in the prescribed tube diameters. Once cut down, the tubes are slowly smoke cured for ten days (which acts as a curing process to extract moisture and help prevent splitting). All the tubes are the same bamboo type, though for custom bikes Calfee chooses different bamboo diameters for the top tube and down tube according to the rider’s weight and size. Still, they are able to get consistent 35mm diameter seat tubes. Amazing.
|The fit and finish of the hemp lugs are as smooth and impressive as any carbon bike.|
While earlier models used a bamboo tube/carbon lug combo, currently all the bikes are built with hemp lugs (heavier riders can choose carbon chainstays for added stiffness). Calfee constructs the hemp lugs using a fiber-wound construction method. Starting with long strands of natural hemp fiber (procured locally from Ecolution in Santa Cruz, California) the hemp fiber is saturated with an epoxy, and then tightly hand wrapped under tension around the epoxy tacked and mitered bamboo tubes, very similar to lashing together tubing. Calfee says they are able to compress out any extra resin or bubbles, leaving very little void content. The hemp fiber gets built up, and eventually sanded down into a nicely shaped lug form that also acts as a type of external butting. Once assembled, the tubes are coated with Tung oil to seal them up.
In a day and age when the big guys offer fewer frame sizes to choose from, with limited warranties, they leave it to little guy Calfee to come out swinging—the bamboo frames are available in 11 different sizes and each frame comes with a ten-year warranty. Additionally, like his carbon frames, the bamboo frames can be repaired.
|Who would’ve guessed that bamboo and hemp would combine to make a stiff bottom bracket|
Our 56-centimeter test bike weighed in at 19.5 pounds with Calfee claiming a frame weight of approximately four pounds. The wheelbase was 99 centimeters, the chainstays were 41.5 centimeters, the top tube measured in at 56 centimeters and the bottom bracket height was 27 centimeters. The angles were surprisingly steep at a 73 degree seat and 73.5 head angle.
All Calfee bikes are sold as framesets (the forks are extra) and our test bike was spec’d with an Alpha Q carbon fork. The red Fulcrum Racing 7 wheels offset the brown frame nicely and rolled along as smoothly as every Fulcrum wheelset we’ve ridden. As usual too, no complaints about the Shimano Ultegra SL components or Fizik saddle. However, the Calfee handlebar was pretty much loathed by everyone due to its over-the-top ergonomic shaping. Between the pre-molded finger recesses and palm bulges, no one’s anatomical preferences fit the prescribed shapes.
|Despite being a bit on the bulbous side, the hemp lugs meld gracefully with the bamboo tubes.|
The first thing we noticed about the Calfee was a loud creak that emanated from the seatpost. While the sound diminished, it never went away entirely (Craig said his fix was to simply cut the length of seatpost). After our first test ride, we noticed some looseness coming from the rear end. A loose wheel bearing, we figured. No. Actually it was the small fixing bolt that joined the titanium dropout to the seatstay. Not good. Worse was that the supposed 5mm Allen bolt that had loosened was actually a 4.5 (or standard size) which made roadside tightening with a multi-tool impossible. Not good. After tightening the bolt as well as we could with our fingers and an ill-fitting Allen wrench, we soft pedaled the bike home and made the call. It seems that our bike missed the Loctite station on the assembly line. The Calfee-ites swore it shoulda been a 5mm bolt.
Once properly tightened it was back out on the road with nary a problem. The hard part with evaluating the Calfee’s ride quality is that you can never stop being amazed that you’re riding a bamboo bike. We wouldn’t have guessed that bamboo could have the same level of damping as some of the best carbon bikes we’ve ridden, but it does. The Calfee has a great ride quality. The angles are steep enough to say race bike while the ride quality bespeaks the comfort of a touring bike. The Bamboo shone in fast, arcing turns. At just under 20 pounds, you can feel the weight. For some, the worst of it came on out of the saddle climbing sprints where they felt the bottom bracket was dragging on the ground. In the end, the Calfee is a bike that can say as much about whom the rider is as it does about itself. It never found fans with those who couldn’t see the bike over the large scale that blocked their view. Appreciating the Calfee came down to the rider’s state of mind. For some, they couldn’t appreciate the fact that perhaps the bike was light for a bamboo bike (instead of just heavy compared to their carbon bikes). For others, the Calfee was simply a breath of fresh air.
|Matching the theme of the bike, the Calfee uses muted graphics to let the world know you’re riding a truly unique bike.|
There’s no doubt that we’ve ridden plenty of bikes that have a much better sense of performance to them than the Calfee. Despite Calfee’s sponsorship of a Division One road team and a customer history that includes finishing the Kona Ironman aboard bamboo bikes, Craig Calfee’s design criteria was not based on scoring podium finishes with this bike. To us, the bamboo bike represents something far more important than satiating the desires of so many gram geeks and wannabe criterium kings. The bike is a statement. It’s a bold ecological step that is unfortunately all but forgotten in a sport that could and should do more to boast of its low “carbon footprint” potential.
Like many of you reading this test, RBA staffers obsess as much about performance as anyone else. But we’re also storytellers, and honestly, there are few bikes we’ve ever tested that had as compelling a story as the Calfee. While not all of us are smitten with bamboo, some would be happy to own such a bike and forgo the weight and fashion penalty to instead ride a bike with such a distinct personality and great story to tell. After all, what’s there really to say about another carbon bike from China that beats the UCI weight limit?
Price: $2,695 (frame only)
Weight: 19.5 pounds