A wood cycle

Renovo Hardwood Bicycles of Portland, Ore., offers a unique product that is slowly gaining popularity among consumers. Established in 2008, it is one of the few companies in the world that designs and manufactures custom bicycles made with lightweight wooden frames.

Company owner and founder Ken Wheeler says wood has special engineering properties that make it an ideal material for bicycles.

"Wood absorbs shock and vibration better than typical materials of bikes, so a wooden bike has a very smooth ride," he says.

Wheeler acknowledges that carbon fiber is currently the leading material for bike frames and ultimately the stiffest material available for the job. His bikes are made with hollow frames so they can still be just as light as carbon. He adds that his bikes offer better durability than their carbon counterparts. The frames can carry a load of up to 2,000 lbs. without breaking and they can also better withstand impact.

In the mid-1980s, Wheeler gained worldwide attention for designing and manufacturing the original Wheeler Express - a four-seat composite home-built cruciform (high-tail) airplane. That project taught him about the engineering properties of wood. He realized that bicycles have the same requirements as airplanes - they need to be stiff and light.

"Years later, when I got a computer-controlled router, which is what's required to do this, and after I learned to use it on another project, I knew I could make a bicycle."

Clients run from recreational enthusiasts of all ages to professional athletes competing in triathlons. Wheeler has six employees helping out in production. His company produced 130 bicycles in 2010 and he anticipates he will make about 150 in 2011. Frame prices range from $1,500 to $3,000, which is in the same range as the carbon models.

The company uses 25 wood species such as padauk, wenge, sapele and walnut; primarily hardwoods because the density provides for a stiffer frame. Port Orford cedar and Douglas-fir are also used.

Naturally, first-time buyers are very skeptical about the durability of the bikes. The company helps explain the rigorous testing done regarding durability, strength and stiffness.

"Most people need to ride one before they take the step, but clients are all over the world and many have purchased without a test drive," adds Wheeler.

Contact: Renovo Hardwood Bicycles. 2005 S.E. 8th Ave, Portland, OR 97214. Tel: 503-231-4888. www.renovobikes.com

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.