Rarely do we question that bicycles are green. We stomp on pedals, our bikes miraculously move forward and if we’re commuting or running errands, we’ve just saved gas money and fumes in the process. Mission success.
But what goes into making a bicycle—is that a green process? Unlikely at best.
At this point, we don’t hide behind any misbeliefs that our carbon shred sleds are made here in the U.S. We know they’re made overseas. And, we probably harbor the suspicion that cooking carbon isn’t the most eco-friendly process, particularly in a land of laxer environmental restrictions.
So what’s an environmentally conflicted brand to do—production-style carbon manufacturing doesn’t exist stateside (aside a few wholehearted, small-but-mighty, low-numbers attempts) yet we all believe in the green power of the pedal stroke?
Santa Cruz Bicycles hasn’t solved this conundrum, but the brand has taken a few decisive steps forward to ensure its California-based assembly factory is noticeably greener than the competition. And tucked behind the assembly line is the company’s own carbon laboratory—ahhem, secret carbon lair. Well, not so secret, as the embargo’s up and we now know where Danny MacAskill’s new carbon-fiber 24-inch-trials bike was hand built.
In House, By Choice
We’re gathered at the edge of the showroom for the Blur and Highball release. Joe Graney, Santa Cruz’s CEO, stands between us and the factory. Behind him, a checkered pattern floor is bathed in fluorescent light and hiding behind the door frame we can see the edge of a cardboard box with bright-yellow rear swingarms poking above its rim.
“Remember those solar panels above the parking lot across the street?” Graney directly asks. Santa Cruz’s once-dirt parking lot had indeed seen a makeover since my last visit.
“Those power our production.”
Santa Cruz generates between 533 and 633 kW of solar power from panels found in the parking lot and atop the former-Wrigley-gum factory’s roof. Behind Graney are 1,560 configurations ready to be picked, assembled and boxed by 80 factory workers surrounded by real equipment. All of it, including the rest of the company’s operations, is powered by solar they produce.
Graney leads us to where boxed carbon frames overlook work stands as linkages come to life.
“Almost 100-percent of packing materials from incoming frames is recycled,” he explains. “You can’t be located in Santa Cruz and get away with anything else.”
Along with recycling, Santa Cruz also deliberately chooses to assemble its bikes in house. According to Graney, it allows:
– Greater control and quality in assembly. Each step of the process is tracked, one person assembles an entire frame. He or she can do 40 frames per day, signing off on each one.
– Customization. With all parts on location, shops can order frame-only, frame and fork, with alloy wheels, carbon wheels, however they see fit.
– Efficiency. Many more frames can fit within a container than complete bikes and Santa Cruz is able to ship frames without waiting on individual parts’ arrival at overseas assembly factories, an issue that can plague bike availability when operating otherwise.
Remaining parts ship directly to Santa Cruz from where they’re manufactured. This makes forecasting anything but easy, but allows customers to get exactly what they want and when they want it, something Santa Cruz deems direly important, operating under a “no missed rides” mentality. Bolt kits in bins surrounding us go back to Bullits and Super 8s supporting this assertion.
Graney walks us down aisles, explaining how parts are picked and it’s readily apparent that efficiency is paramount. We pass a star-nut press that evolved to magnetically align things, eliminating repetitive threading, and a steerer-tube cutting machine that went from eardrum-splitting to silently competent. We end at cardboard bike boxes ready to ship to shops, made locally and with additional plies to create padding without needing Styrofoam—recyclable and effective. Almost symbolic.
We ham-fist our way through Reserve 27 rear-wheel builds with a healthy dose of patient guidance and watch the wheels slide their way into the BMD truing machine, analyzed, corrected and ready for final tension. Somehow, the qualified builders and machines make sense of our messes. Off to the carbon lab.
Greeting us in dramatically dim, low-beam lighting is Danny MacAskill’s bright orange, 24-inch-wheeled trials bike. The tubes are enormous, seemingly dwarfing the size of the high-volume trials tires. Bigger still is the fork, unquestionably the Monster T of rigid forks. It looks as though you could slam headlong into a brick wall at full speed and the only things to break would be your bones. Perhaps exactly Santa Cruz’s design parameters considering it was tailor-made for MacAskill.
“We’d sell maybe four,” explains Santa Cruz’s global marketing director, Will Ockleton when we invariably ask. “So no.”
It wouldn’t be cheap. The complete bike is a full 4 pounds lighter than its aluminum predecessor shod in carbon wheels. Bringing MacAskill’s bike to life in house meant a new technique and an arrangement of carbon fibers we haven’t seen before with frame design.
On the right, we have unidirectional carbon fiber, incredibly strong in one direction. In the center, a 3k-weave prepreg, strong in two directions as fibers intersect in a perpendicular manner. On the left? A name so ominous it’ll end this paragraph: a braided-triaxial-prepreg-carbon fabric called QISO, short for quasi-isotropic.
Rather than coming into contact at 90 degrees as the central 3k weave (in previous photo) does and as we’re accustomed to seeing, QISO fibers approach at 60-degree intersections—the three-way braid combines 60, -60 and 0-degree fibers within a single ply. Rather than use multiple layers to achieve strength in multiple directions, a single layer already accomplishes far more. Add many layers of QISO? You’re into MacAskill territory.
It’s strong enough that we were told the material is regulated by the Department of Defense and if Santa Cruz chose to export it, the brand could only do so if granted the appropriate permit. It’s special stuff.
I’ll have some nachos with my QISO
To bring QISO to life, Santa Cruz 3D-printed mandrels that the brand then used to create cured latex bags in the shape of each essential frame part. Each latex bag has a hole and fitting. The latex bag is then filled with glass beads and air is vacuumed out, creating a rigid shape that carbon sheets are tightly wrapped against. Each latex bag wrapped in carbon is arranged in the mold and the glass beads are released.
The latex bags are pressurized with air and the carbon cures, then the latex bladder is removed. Each latex bladder can be used an average of 50 times, versus one time only with traditional nylon-over-EPS-bladder molding found in China. Again, a step closer to green for bicycle manufacturing. Santa Cruz is now considering bringing ‘latex molding’ to Skybox, the carbon factory in southern China that it partially owns.
It puts the carbon on the frame
For MacAskill’s bike, the engineering team did make a few revisions throughout the process. Nic McCrae, Santa Cruz’s engineering lab manager paid MacAskill a visit during prototype testing in Glasgow, Scotland, bringing two frames with him. After MacAskill broke the first frame, McCrae knew what was needed yet was without Santa Cruz’s carbon lab, so made do in his AirBnB as shown below. It worked.
MacAskill’s finalized frame is 1,600 grams, not bad considering just the front triangle of his alloy bike weighed 2,300 grams. Why’d they do it? As Nick Anderson, Santa Cruz’s head of engineering put it, “We’re a happiness factory.” Rumor has it this bike allows MacAskill to do a lot more than before, so we’ll see if a new video is soon to surface.