When entrepreneur Russell Hopkins isn’t tearing up local skate parks on his BMX bike or converting old Volkswagens to run on oil, you can find him at his new bike shop in Lakewood, the Container Collective, crafting bamboo bicycle frames from scratch. A Wisconsin native whose last job was teaching photography in Beijing, Hopkins shares a one-story building across from the Lakewood Grill with his wife, Brittany, who runs a yoga studio next door.
While teaching in China, the couple hatched a plan to open a "bikes, brews, and yoga" shop in Denver, where they had lived for six months in 2002; they thought it would be the best place to start the next chapter of their lives. "I have traveled most of the U.S.," says Hopkins. "We found that it is the best of everything. And they have lots of good skate parks."
Brittany moved from Beijing to Denver in 2014, and started Container Collective Yoga; Hopkins followed her last July. But before he moved back, Hopkins stumbled on something that would transform plans for the bike shop: bamboo bike-building. In China he had picked up bike polo, a popular sport that draws international players and interesting bikes. At one game, one of his teammates showed up on a bamboo bicycle and Hopkins, an avid biker and expert bike mechanic, was immediately drawn to it.
His new interest led Hopkins to a small bike shop called Bamboo Bicycles Beijing, where founder David Wang and his team ran workshops that taught people how to build bamboo bicycles. “Russ showed up one day and he kept coming back. He started putting all our bikes together for us. He became a regular in the workshop,” Wang says.
Before long, Hopkins was teaching his own classes out of the shop, showing people from around the world how to build their own bamboo bicycles. “The cool thing about over there is that it’s a very international thing. You have this real mix of different cultures, different backgrounds all coming together to do basically the same exact process,” he says.
Hopkins adapted the business model for his shop to include bamboo bike building, and he spent months in China researching material costs and logistics. He built his first bike in Denver last September. To date, Hopkins has helped build 31 bamboo bicycle frames.
I had the chance to participate in Hopkins’s two-day workshop and my fine motor skills were put to the test. What I thought would be a simple process turned into hours of sometimes tedious (but always rewarding) labor involving potent chemicals, power tools, and endless strands of carbon fiber soaked in epoxy.
Hopkins is a natural teacher who switches between simple instructions and scientific explanations of the materials with which you're working. By the time you're done with the frame, you'll know more about bamboo, carbon and epoxy than you ever thought you would. Music is always playing in the background, making for a relaxed atmosphere where you can really zone in on your work.
The project starts simply enough with the customer choosing their preferred stalks of bamboo and cutting them down to size with power saws and hacksaws. Then come hours of sanding with a Dremel tool, making tiny adjustments to each piece until they fit nicely together. Despite the natural tendency to try, you don’t have to be perfect: Hopkins has mastered the process to the point where it’s almost impossible to fail, even if you’re not mechanically inclined.
Day two is spent wrapping threads of carbon fiber drenched in epoxy around each joint of the frame. The carbon fiber is such a strong and unique material that Hopkins has to sign a waiver every time he buys a bundle. The fear that bamboo is too weak for a bike is quickly put to bed when you realize you’re reinforcing each joint with the same carbon fiber NASA uses on its spaceships. Hopkins also offers a lifetime warranty with each bike, in part to instill confidence in people who are unfamiliar with bamboo.
"Bamboo has a lot of advantages to the rider. In short, bamboo has the strength and lightweight properties of carbon fiber while having the ride quality of hand-built steel," Hopkins says.
Threading the carbon on each joint goes slow at first but becomes meditative after about the third hour. Hopkins is constantly supplying you with cups of epoxy, basically a super-super-glue that could hold a bridge together if necessary. Keeping everything wet with epoxy is important, because you don’t want it to set until you’ve wrapped millions of strands of carbon around each point. At the end of the day, electrical tape is wrapped around each joint to hold the carbon fiber in place — and at that point, your work is done. Hopkins takes a week to sand the hard edges and coat the bike in a water-resistant laminate before you take it home.
The finished project is worthy of a double take from even the most seasoned of South Broadway fixie-riding hipsters. The dark patterns of the carbon fiber contrasts nicely with the natural wood of the bamboo. It looks so elegant that some people just hang it up as artwork instead of riding it. Hopkins offers three different packages if you wish to build the frame out into a complete bike: the cruiser for $850, the single-speed urban bike for $1,150, and the five-speed commuter bike for $1,500. If you just want the frame, it's $450. Hopkins is running a February special: $100 worth of yoga classes at Brittany's yoga studio for each frame built.
Bicycle addict David Keifer built one of the Collective's first frames and uses it as his primary bicycle. Not only does it look great, he says, but the bike performs admirably and is the smoothest ride he’s ever had. He relishes passing younger bikers on the road with their heavier, metal-framed bikes. “I come up on them all Mary Poppins-like and leave them behind me. They’re all out of breath," he says. "That happens a lot, which is really kind of cool if you’re 67 years old. It’s quick, it’s fast, it’s light enough, it responds to what I want it to do."
The community aspect of bamboo bike building is an essential part of the culture. and the Container Collective, which is named after the culture of repurposing shipping containers into homes and businesses, is definitely succeeding on the community-building front. On any given day, you’ll find yoga and bike enthusiasts sipping tea, sharing stories and coloring in books together. It feels like recess for adults.
"We really wanted to create a space where people can come in and talk with line-minded people and get away from the sports bar feel of going to have a drink. Along with bikes and yoga we are BMX riders, rock climbers, bike polo players, mountain bikers, commuters, builders. We drive a car that runs on veggie oil and built our own straw bale house. That's a lot of good conversation outside of who won what game recently," Hopkins says.
Joyride Brewing Company, whose logo is an elephant riding a bike, recently participated in the Collective’s first Build with Your Brewer workshop. Joyride’s owners, Grant Babb and Dave Bergen, built a bike a piece and will raffle them off later this year at Joyride events. They provided two of their latest flavors on tap at the end of the day: oaked vanilla robust porter and Defiance Belgian Dubbel. Both were big hits with the bikers and yogis.
"Since we're a bike-themed brewery it seems like a natural fit to work together," Bergen says. "It's been fun. You get real good with the Dremel."
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For adventurous couples who enjoy DIY projects, the Collective is hosting a Build with Your (Bam)Boo event just in time for Valentine’s Day, starting February 13. If you build a frame with your date, the price is reduced to $350 each. By March, Hopkins will be open for regular bike repairs as well as the workshops, and by fall, he hopes to serve canned beer regularly, completing the trifecta on the business’s sign of yoga, bikes and beer.
In December, David Wang, the owner of Bamboo Bicycles Beijing who is now studying in Massachusetts, had a chance to fly to Denver and check out Hopkins’s shop. “I thought it was awesome. It’s like ten times better than what we have in Beijing in terms of the amount of space he has, the tools he has, it’s just an awesome place to be," Wang says. "After seeing it, I was like wow, this is what I envisioned for us in Beijing.”
Workshops at the Collective generally happen every other week and you can see the full schedule at cc360denver.com. Better yet, drop by during the weekly open shop hours from 5 to 9 p.m. every Monday. Bring some beer and an open attitude, and you'll soon be on a roll.