After receiving start-up funding from a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and a chance e-mail from a bamboo craftsman in Vietnam, Frey began selling five models of Boo Bicycles, novelty bikes that range in cost from $2,625 for a Fixe to $2,985 for the Touring version.
Learning to Ride
Frey began mountain biking at age 14 in the woods behind his childhood home in Des Moines, Iowa, with his best friend. At 16, Frey placed second in the Junior National Championships; not long after that, he signed with Hot Tube, one of the best junior racing teams in the world.
After racing with the team for two seasons, Frey enrolled at the University and became a mechanical and aerospace engineering major.
“I had always been really into cars, bikes, how things work, the physics of things — the very hands-on, not-theoretical stuff,” Frey explained.
For MAE 321: Engineering Design, Frey teamed up with three fellow majors in his department to create a bamboo bike for their junior year project. This project became the inspiration for Boo Bicycles.
One group member suggested that they make a bamboo bike like those of bicycle engineer Craig Calfee. Calfee was an early proponent of carbon fiber bike frames and had recently begun to showcase bikes made of bamboo.
The group’s project was so successful that Frey rode their creation in a collegiate race at Rutgers. After they presented the project to the class, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Wole Soboyejo offered to help fund a start-up company to manufacture bamboo bikes
“That was when I had just received my first professional contract for the 2008 season,” Frey said. “I would fly out of Newark to do all these pro races on Saturday and Sunday and then fly back to school for class on Monday. Starting a company on top of it ... I [thought,] ‘How is this going to work?’ ”
The friends originally struggled to build the bikes with enough quality to make them functional. Their first two frames broke after they were sold.
“We tried to do things too quickly and weren’t ready for it,” Frey said. “The product was a nice school project, but to go from that to what we were trying to do was way more energy and effort and time than we anticipated.” Though his friends dropped out of the venture, Frey continued on his own.
Building with Bamboo
During the summer of 2008, Vietnam-based bamboo builder James Wolf contacted Frey after seeing several articles about bamboo bikes in the news. Wolf, an American expatriate, said he was looking for a potential partner with whom he could collaborate on bamboo bikes.
“I know that I have the capacity to make the finest anything in bamboo,” Wolf said in an e-mail.
Wolf, who lives in a bamboo house inside his lumber factory, now builds Boo Bicycle frames.
Wolf said bamboo’s strength and comfort provide an edge over more traditional metal alloys like titanium and steel. Yet bamboo still presents its difficulties.
“Bamboo is terribly challenging to make things from, especially nice things,” Wolf said. “It is round, tapered, curved [and] has a hole in the middle.”
Wolf called the bikes examples of “what can be done with bamboo when handled by a master craftsman with overwhelming attention to detail,” though he noted that they also pose more production difficulties than mass-produced metal frames.
Business is doing well so far, Frey said. In the past 12 months, the company has posted $200,000 in revenue. Frey said that he prefers customers who want to buy what he dubs the “Rolex of bicycles” to contact him directly and that he tries to limit sales through retailers.
The personal contact Frey maintains with his customers convinced one California client, Troy Evans, to join the company as a sales manager.
Whereas Frey once built and tested the bikes himself, Evans has assumed those responsibilities.
The extra help takes weight off the shoulders of Frey, who continues to race professionally.
“I think we’ll have a very interesting challenge convincing people that it’s a race-worthy bike,” he said.
Paul Levine of Signature Cycles, a Boo Bicycles distributor, attested to the quality of the material. “Boo fabrication quality matches the best we have to offer,” Levine said in an e-mail. “We chose to offer it because of its quality and exclusivity.”
But Frey admitted that the bikes are still considered “a novelty.”
Ward Bates, of Winter Park Cycles in Orlando, Fla., said in an e-mail that, “Unfortunately, they don’t sell. People are interested in them as a novelty, but will not purchase. I’m sure the quality is good, but it’s hard to tell.”
Clive de Sousa of Glory Cycles in Columbia, S.C., had a similar experience. “People love the look of the bikes, and the initial marketing e-mail we sent out introducing Boo was one of our most clicked e-mails ever sent. Sales, however, are a different story,” he said in an e-mail. “I expect most people who purchase the bikes do it directly through Nick and not through a retailer like us.”
But satisfied customers, Wolf said, make the labor worth his while.
“Seeing the final product and the pride of ownership that our customers have is always the icing on the cake for me,” Wolf said. “It’s a great feeling to see a customer with a fully built-up bike, looking so good, and think that I made that.”