Alumni combine bamboo and aluminum for a new kind of bicycle

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Nick Frey ’09, left, and Drew Haugen *12. (Photos: Courtesy Drew Haugen)

Aluminum and bamboo might seem like an odd mix of materials for a bike frame. But entrepreneurs Nick Frey ’09, Drew Haugen *12, and James Wolf believe it may be the next big thing in cycling.

Frey, Haugen, and Wolf are cofounders of Aluboo, a startup that builds on earlier work by Frey, a professional cyclist and mechanical engineer, and Wolf, a craftsman and industrial designer. The two created Boo Bicycles, handcrafting frames from tam vong (“iron bamboo”) rods and carbon fiber joints in a workshop in Vietnam. Boo bikes have competed successfully in a number of cycling and cyclocross races, and Frey contends that “you could race the Boo in the Tour de France.”

Bamboo is actually an ideal material for bikes: The plant’s strong, fibrous structure dampens road vibrations and provides for an exceptionally smooth ride, and it is more sustainable than other popular bike materials, such as steel.

The major drawback is the price tag. Each Boo bike is custom-made and priced between $5,000 and $14,000 — not a bike for the weekend warrior. That’s where Haugen comes in.

Haugen joined the project in 2012 while earning his master’s in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School. He was taking Professor Ed Zschau ’61’s course on “High-Tech Entrepreneurship” when Frey returned to give a talk on Boo Bicycles. Haugen, a self-described “cycling enthusiast,” struck up a correspondence with Frey, and the two began developing ideas for the lower-cost Aluboo bike, which would combine the premium quality of bamboo with the easy reproducibility of aluminum joints. Priced at around $1,000, the Aluboo was designed to be an affordable handmade bike for the recreational cyclist.

To fund the project, the Aluboo team sought donations on Kickstarter — and blew through its fundraising goal in just nine days. Haugen described the turnout as “extraordinary” and said that the company was responding to supporters’ feedback with technical modifications and more options, in keeping with Aluboo’s conception as a “bike for the masses.” “We want people to fall in love with their bike,” Haugen said. “We want people to love their Aluboo so much that they walk it into work just so people can ogle it, so much that they prefer it to taking the subway or car. That’s a very tangible experience.”

Haugen, who came to campus last week to join Frey in a Keller Center lecture on entrepreneurship, said that the company’s biggest challenge is perception — countering the purists who dismiss bamboo without even trying it. In his experience, one ride can make all the difference: “People have a visceral reaction to the bike, aesthetically. They say, ‘Is that really bamboo?’ They come up and knock on it. Once they actually ride them, they’re really excited about them.”

 

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Vicky Gan ’13 is a history major from Baltimore, Md.

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