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Q&A: Framebuilding pioneer Craig Calfee

From bamboo e-bikes to full suspension racers, framebuilding pioneer Craig Calfee talks carbon fibre, Greg LeMond and the future of bikes

James Spender
7 Dec 2017

Cyclist: While many companies claim to have invented the carbon fibre bicycle, there is general consensus that you made the first fully carbon fibre frame to be raced at the Tour de France. How did that come about?

Craig Calfee: The potted history is I got my start with carbon fibre working for a company making composite shells for racing rowing boats.

I built my first all-carbon fibre bike in 1987 as a result of crashing my steel Schwinn, and two years later I’d hired a machinist and we’d started trading under the name Carbonframes [Calfee now sells under his own name].

We were watching the 1989 Tour de France and Greg LeMond was riding his rebranded TVT and we were really ragging on it, saying how we could make a better bike because this is just glued carbon tubes in aluminium lugs, but we figured he had a sponsorship deal.

But then this guy who brought in Time pedals to the US, sponsoring Greg at the time, saw our bikes and said we should send one to Greg’s dad because they were looking for custom carbon bikes for the whole team.

So we did, he loved the look of it and we went from there. The team ended up riding my bikes in the 1991 Tour.

Cyc: At the time, very few other riders would even go near carbon. What was different about LeMond?

CC: Greg was an open-minded guy, but the thing that convinced him was descending on my bike.

He’d just finished an uphill TT at Paris-Nice, the first time he’d ridden it. I saw him at the top and he said, ‘Well it climbs great, but the real test is how it descends so I’m going to take it down the backside of the mountain and meet you at the hotel.’

I ended up hanging out at the bottom with his mechanic, Julien DeVries – he’s Eddy Merckx’s old mechanic, kind of conservative – and he’s like, ‘Are you sure this is safe? We can’t afford to lose Greg.’

He was pretty stern and quiet while we waited. The image of Greg flying down a mountain on a bike made by some long-haired guy from San Francisco didn’t appeal to him, but then Greg rolls in, this big smile on his face.

Julien turns to me and says, ‘You’ve got it made now, Craig.’

Cyc: The name Carbonframes or Calfee has never appeared on any WorldTour down tubes. Why is that?

CC:  Well, Greg bought the 18 frames for the team out of his own pocket. He had his own bike company and was the team’s bike sponsor, so my frames had his name.

We did agree to have a little sticker of ours on the left chainstay, though.

Years later Patrick Lefevere asked us about sponsoring Team Domo. We were closing in on a deal for three years – 100 bikes.

Or that’s what I thought. Lefevere says, ‘So that’s 100 bikes per year,’ and I’m like no, my frames will easily last three years. You can just repaint them.

He says, ‘No, we need 100 per year. We need something to sell to pay the salaries over winter.’

I got it, but for us it wasn’t financially viable, so it never happened. Now you’ve got to add in $2million on top of a deal like that.

I’d rather put money into my bike designs.

Cyc: What designs have you been working on recently?

CC: I got pretty excited about a small-wheeled bamboo e-bike we made, which we’ve geared for about 40mph.

Imagine having quick, long-range transport that isn’t oily and dirty and can fit in the hallway of your public building or next to your desk.

Also bamboo is a great material. I’ve been in Eritrea with Team Rwanda, teaching them how to repair carbon frames, but you think how useful bamboo could be for building bikes in such places, where getting other materials is a logistical nightmare.

We’ve also been looking more and more at suspension in road bikes.

We have rear damping in our Manta RS bike already, and we’re working on something for the front. I think full suspension is where the future’s at.

Cyc: Really? What makes you say that?

CC: It’s pretty simple. When you’re on the bleeding edge or your bike handling skills and the road surface are questionable, suspension will make you crash less often and you’ll win the Tour de France more often.

Look at riders in winning positions who’ve crashed out of big races and it’s pretty much always down to lack of traction.

Suspension gives you more traction, which makes you faster and safer. It’s why motorbikes and cars have it.

It also decreases rolling resistance so is more comfortable, meaning less rider fatigue and more energy saved. It makes total sense.

Cyc: Suspension has been orbiting cycling for a long time but as yet hasn’t found its own traction. Why is that?

CC: A good analogy is motorbike racing. Telescopic forks on racing motorbikes is a pretty bad design for suspension and there have been tonnes of better solutions.

But they never catch on because that rider has been riding that type of fork since he was 12.

He might agree an alternative is faster, but when they’re hanging it all out there they know that crappy old fork’s limits and that makes them faster.

They don’t have time to relearn that muscle memory. It’s tough to make that mental shift, and that’s one of the big hurdles in cycling.

But people told me my carbon fibre bikes would never catch on, so believe me when I say traction enhancement will be on every bike in the Tour de France one day. 

Cyc: Do you see anything on the horizon with new material technology?

CC: The big one is graphene, which people are trying to use in the matrix material to make carbon fibre more damage-tolerant.

That’s the one place carbon fibre could use some improvement. As far as I know, no one in bikes has managed to utilise graphene very well yet – it’s not quite ready for prime time.

So I don’t see any big breakthroughs coming any time soon, but certainly there will be improvements in carbon laminates.

Cyc: We’ve heard graphene can filter seawater for drinking…

CC: Now there’s a story – a bike that makes water! But in all seriousness I think the bicycle has consumed more human hours of concentration and engineering than any other technology on the planet.

Millions of inventors, tinkerers, home mechanics all staring at bikes for over 100 years, trying to think of better ways of doing something.

But a lot of things have trickled down from bikes into other areas, so it’s all good.

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