From WSU to biking bamboo

O’Brien’s bicycle, complete with 60 pounds of gear before the 2,500-mile trip.

When a Weber State University alumnus finishes his journey to San Francisco this weekend, he will have traveled more than 2,500 miles on a bike with a frame he crafted from a plant.

“It’s been incredible,” said Jason Dilworth, a 2006 WSU graduate. “It doesn’t ride like a plant. It’s exactly like riding any other bicycle, except having the satisfaction of knowing that I built it, which, I think, makes it a little better.”

Before commencing the ride in Greensboro, Ala., Dilworth and three other bicyclists harvested shoots of bamboo and cured them over an open flame.

“Like roasting a marshmallow,” said fellow rider Marc O’Brien.

The fire melts the sugar coating on the surface of the bamboo shoot, hardening the bamboo and providing it a protective layer. O’Brien said bamboo is nature’s carbon fiber, with long, interwoven fibers running through each shoot.

After curing the bamboo, the Bamboo Bike Studio in New York helped the team assemble their bikes. They worked from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. to build the bikes over two consecutive days, Dilworth said.

“We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the frame before the ride even started,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said he woke up one morning a year ago and decided he wanted to bike across the country before turning 30. During a bike ride with work colleagues, a friend quipped that he should make the trip on a bamboo bike. The idea stuck, and O’Brien connected with a former first lady of Alabama, Marsh Folsom, who — as a daughter of a cotton farmer — thinks bamboo could be the key to revitalizing Alabama’s weakened farming industry, O’Brien said.

“Not only will the bamboo farming create jobs and stuff like that, but it will also create a lot of different products,” O’Brien said. “Bikes are just one of a plethora of things you can do with bamboo.”

Bamboo’s interesting set of properties — especially its strong fibers — makes it good for fabric and textiles, O’Brien said. Some people are concerned that cultivating the evasive plant could be dangerous to indigenous plants, but most people don’t raise those concerns when they’re told where the bamboo was grown, O’Brien said.

Alabama is the perfect environment to grow the plant because of its rich soil, warm temperatures and appropriate levels of humidity — “all of the elements that can make bamboo a really great crop,” O’Brien said.

Each of the four bikers strapped 60 pounds of gear onto their bikes for the journey, but it isn’t the weight or traveling up to 100 miles and burning 8,000 calories daily that’s presented the biggest challenge for Dilworth.

“I would say the monotony of each day waking up and doing the same thing,” Dilworth said. “You ride 75-80, sometimes 100 miles, and you wake up in the exact same place.”

There were other days, though, when the landscape changed dramatically.

“We start in one terrain in the morning at camp, and at the end of the day, maybe 90 miles out, we’re totally in a different landscape,” O’Brien said.

The different landscapes were paralleled by regional differences in culture, which were evident to O’Brien.

“(Sometimes) it’s all about the bamboo,” O’Brien said. “’Oh, bamboo can grow here? Oh, crazy.’ In the South, a lot of people, they’re not used to cyclists, and so they’re like, ‘Why the hell are you guys riding your bike across the country, it’s crazy, you guys are nuts.’ They’re not even thinking about bamboo until we got into, like, Oklahoma or Kansas,” where bicyclists are common.

Diversity was evident to Dilworth too, but so was the unity  of the people.

“I think the biggest thing is just … the realization of how unified the people are,” Dilworth said. “It’s something you don’t see when you’re traveling 75 down the interstate with no interrupted turns or variation. It gives you a chance to get a better understanding of culture, place, people, the history.”

When the journey ends in San Francisco, O’Brien said he’ll have a lot to reflect on.

“It’s going to take all of us about a good month or two to kind of detox from this trip,” O’Brien said. “A lot of these experiences, a lot of these things, are going to live with us in different ways.”