Ash Bicycle Frames

 


 

Over the years, I’ve tried all the major frame materials. I’ve had steel mountain bikes, aluminium mountain bikes, a steel touring bike, a titanium road bike, an aluminium mountain bike with carbon stays, several full-carbon road bikes and a beautiful, bespoke steel road bike. Last year, I built myself a singlespeed frame from bamboo.

By Rob Penn

Tuesday 2nd January 2018

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So which material, or combination of, provides the best overall ride? I have my opinions on all the bikes I’ve had but I know they are tainted by my personal experiences riding them: how long I had that bike, where I rode it, even who I rode with. Objectively, I’d struggle to say which material provides the best overall ride. I know that frame materials do have different ‘ride characteristics’ but such things are very subtle, and better measured with engineering instruments more sensitive than my backside.

The reality is that a good bike builder can make a good frame out of any of the materials mentioned, with any desired ride qualities: if the diameter of the tubes, the thickness of the tube walls and the geometry of the frame are right, the bike will be right.

I’m also a great believer that the bicycle is an evolving means of transportation. Right now, it happens to be evolving fast. Because of the re-emergence of interest in the ‘beautiful machine’, there is a great deal of research and development going into bicycles for the next generation.

I’m currently writing a book about the ash tree, or at least about man’s relationship with the ash tree over the last five thousand years. So when I learnt that two brothers are making bicycle frames out of ash in rural Ireland, I knew I had to pay them a visit.

The first prototype bicycle invented in 1817, the ‘Draisine’ or ‘laufmaschine’ (‘running-machine’) comprised two wooden carriage wheels in-line, and a wooden bench, which the rider straddled. Very likely, the wheels rims and frames of these early bicycles would have been made from ash, the strongest and most flexible of all European timbers. Certainly ash was being used to construct the rims of chariot wheels during the Iron Age. So why not make a 21st century bicycle out of an ancient material?

‘Ash timber is used in the manufacture of hurling sticks in Ireland. So we knew about it’s strength, and it’s easy enough to machine. It seemed an obvious choice, so we had a go,’ Liam Murray of Woodelo told me.

‘We made a frame from ash and it worked. That first frame was dog heavy and it’s taken us three years to develop it. Our road bike frame now weighs about 2kg, though weight is not the priority. Making the frames functional and aesthetically pleasing is the hard part,’ Liam said.

‘It’s lovely material to work with. It’s very tactile and we can machine it and strengthen it where we want. But really, we use it because it dampens the road like nothing else. It’s better than a carbon frame in my opinion. Fancy a ride?’

We pedalled for a couple of hours round quiet lanes, through the rolling landscape between Slievenamon and the Slieveardagh hills in County Tipperary. It was a lovely ride. The bicycle was comfortable, but I’m certain my appreciation of the technical properties of the ash was affected by my sheer delight at riding through the countryside on a sustainable resource, something nature created.

Needless to say, I wanted one: I wanted an ash frame bicycle made from an ash tree that grows where I live, in the Black Mountains in South Wales. They don’t come cheap, though. The days and days of work that go into hand finishing every frame are reflected in the cost.

Woodelo are not the only pioneers in the realm of wooden bicycle frames. Several manufacturers around the world are adapting wood to two wheels. They are all niche, however: it’s hard to see the material going mass market and the price coming down soon. But I can wait.

Whatever material your bike is made off, check out our destinations page, for where you are going to ride next. 

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