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Patch Road Tests Renovo Hardwood Bicycles

We get an exclusive chance to test ride the wooden bikes that are shaking up the roads in Marin, the Renovo Hardwood Bicycle. This ain't your great-granddad's penny-farthing, and it ain't your grandma's coffee table.

The Marin cycling world is abuzz over the latest arrival on the local bike shop scene: Renovo Hardwood Bicycles.

So what's all the fuss about? The wooden bikes on the roof rack atop a wood-paneled station wagon in front of the shop on Bridgeway in Sausalito provide the answer.

Shop founder Ken Wheeler, along with his showroom partner, a party-colored Standard Poodle named Elwood, splits his time between Marin and his first shop in Portland, where his team of 10 build these artistically rendered creations by hand. With sloping top tubes and the same aggressive geometry you might expect on the latest top-of-the line carbon frames, Renovo bikes look like they could be museum pieces, or in a symphony orchestra.

My first question was the same one asked by the 10 people who came into the shop while I was there on a recent afternoon: how sturdy are these things?

They simply look too beautiful to ride.

But I quickly noticed a wooden 29er mountain bike in the corner, with mud completely covering the tires and splattered on the down tube.

“It’s just that most people don’t know,” said Wheeler, a former airplane designer and engineer. “They’ve never seen anything like it.”

True enough. Bamboo bikes have certainly made the bike expo rounds, but all wood? The Audi marketing team figured out Wheeler’s onto something, as they approached him to build a wooden bike with the Audi brand name. That bike, a commuter with a belt-driven drive train, was parked outside the shop.

The ultimate test, really, he said, would be for me to take one out for a test. I gulped. I’ve taken fancy bikes for test rides before, but none that looked like a classical instrument.

Wheeler assured me that nothing bad would happen.

“If you were ever going to crash on a bike, this would be the one to crash on,” he said.  

He showed me four cut outs of bike tubes that he keeps around for demonstration purposes: one of wood, and the rest standard bike frame materials, such as aluminum, titanium, and steel. All four had been whacked pretty hard. The three metal frames had substantial dents. The wood tube certainly showed where it had been smacked, but the denting was insignificant.

It brought back to mind what we learned in driver’s ed in high school, when Mr. Saunders told us, so eloquently, that it "don’t matter how fast you’re goin’ in your (metal) car. The tree’s gonna win."

Wheeler swapped the pedals off my regular ride, a carbon fiber Cervèlo SLC-SL, arguably one of the lightest and most rigid bikes to come out in 2008, onto the showroom’s centerpiece, the Renovo R4. This is an elegantly swoopy road bike equipped with SRAM components, and similar to what Katie Spotz and her team used in this year’s Race Across America, with a broken pelvis, no less.

In other words, this would be a tough test, because my Cervèlo, which I’ve named Fangio (in honor of the late F1 master Juan Manuel Fangio), is super light and super fast, and tough to beat.

Once out on Bridgeway, where I conducted most of this test, the R4 was noticeably smooth and quiet. Compared to the R4, Fangio is loud and mean. Worse than that, Fangio bites. I’ve completely misjudged his character.

It comes down to this: no matter what your road bike’s made out of, whether it be carbon fiber, titanium, aluminum or steel, when you break it down, your bike was made out of rocks. Manufactures may have invented clever shock absorbing qualities in their bike frames, but they’re still made out of rocks.

What is wood, but a combination of cells? The cells are nature’s shock absorber.

At 18 pounds, the R4 might seem heavy on paper, but the weight seemed trivial to me, if not an advantage. I felt not just connected to the ground, but that I was smoothly gliding along it, with confidence, without all the jarring I’ve come to expect on my own bike.

Renovo frames are actually two mirror hallowed halves, bonded together with an aerospace grade epoxy that’s even stronger than the frame, laminated inside and out. Instead of welds or lugs, the frames are joined together in the corners by beautifully crafted finger joints. You can repair it, even restore it. You can steam out the dents. There’s no way you can break it. It’s wood.

It wasn’t just the shock absorption, the silent serenity, or the feeling that I could ride this bike for thousands of miles. This thing felt alive, a blend of curly maple and sapele trees with histories from the Appalachians and Africa. Who knows what they’d seen in their lifetimes before meeting me. This Renovo has a soul. It felt like a friend. I wish we’d met a year before. I’m sorry, Fangio.

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For more on Renovo Hardwood Bicycles, check out their website.

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