Randall Levere stood in the middle of a playland set, a small section of the Meat-Packing District made up with cobbles, sod and a small cottage to resemble a quaint Hamptons retreat. Tommy Hilfiger, the fashion designer, strode onto the scene and exclaimed, “The bikes are here!”
The “bikes” were Levere’s own, hand-made bamboo city bikes. They sat on the lawn in front of Hilfiger’s Manhattan pop-up store, and the moment was one of surreal pleasure for the one-man show called Erba Cycles.
Levere is a bit of a perfect storm of bike building. Growing up on the Maine coast, he worked at boat yards and was exposed to builders using composite materials, fiberglass and the like. As a teenager he became obsessed with bike racing, following the Tour de France even before Greg LeMond had stood on the top podium step in Paris. Levere can’t explain this obsession, but it led him to build himself a steel bike, using a drill and rasps, in his Maine basement.
Engineering school beckoned and a career designing giant steel structures situated “in some of the worst places in the world.” While his understanding of materials grew, his joy in everyday work ebbed. In the ’90s he left the engineering business, and got into internet marketing just in time for the boom, an entrepreneurial period that gave him another set of skills to add to engineering.
An early passion for bicycles (he has always raced), exposure to building using composite materials, an engineering degree, a career in internet marketing, the elements were all coming together for Levere. Then one day he decided to build himself a bamboo bike as a hobby project.
Erba #1 never saw the street. It hangs in his South End Boston workshop as a reminder of where it all started. Erba #2, on the other hand, changed Levere’s life.
From the moment he pushed off on that bicycle, Levere was convinced that bamboo was the future. “It’s just the closest thing to carbon, but it’s also buttery smooth,” he says, sitting behind his cluttered desk. “The cellulose provides this amazing natural dampening that makes the ride so quie. I could hardly believe it at first.”
Not only do the microscopic spaces in between the bamboo fibers dampen the frame noise coming from the street, but they also absorb the component rattle that comes from places where parts attach to the frame. What started as a hobby, a novelty, quickly turned into a legitimate bike, equal or superior to the other bikes in Levere’s collection.
Since then Erba has mutated from a guy with a pretty neat bamboo bike to a company that has built custom bamboo bikes (road, cross, cruiser and city), for an array of customers. Reaching a production stage may just be the next step.
Levere is focusing on city bikes, what he views as the “sweet spot” for bamboo. He wants to offer four models in three sizes, and his target price point is $1000. He’s betting the combination of aesthetics, ride quality and eco-friendliness will appeal to an urban ridership. In fact, he’s worked 14 hour days for the last six months to make that dream a reality. Trying to fit in training rides for his other life as “pack fodder” has become a real challenge.
The Hilfiger installation is not a giant order that will set his jigs a-whirling and his bank account a-reeling, but it feels like a turning point to Levere, an external validation from a powerful source, that what he’s doing makes sense. Until then, he seems content to grow his business, excuse the expression, “organically.”
Erba Cycles can be found online here.
Photos courtesy of Jared Leeds.