2010 NAHBS Interview: John Fabel of Sylvan Cycles

John Fabel of Sylvan Cycles talked with Heather Higgins at the 2010 North American Handmade Bicycle Show. John spoke passionately about “using bicycles to go places” and Sylvan’s systems approach to greening the environment one wood composite bike and enthusiastic cyclist at a time.

Wood Composite Bicycle by Sylvan Cycles. Photo by Ed Ip.

The core thing is to make bikes that people want to ride regardless of what they’re made out of it. That’s one of the reasons that we’re using wood. Wood has all of the properties that you’re looking for in a good bike material; it’s light, stiff, and resilient. It has some benefits, particularly in ride quality. And it’s gorgeous. This is a bike you not only want to ride, but you want to be seen riding it. That’s one part of our mission. Flat out good bikes. And bikes that inspire you to ride.

The second thing is to showcase how we can use green materials in ways that are not only viable but compelling. We actually prefer to use the green materials. Doing so is not a sacrifice of performance and in fact there are some benefits you can gain. For example, our wood composite tubes are actually 25-30% lighter than their steel equivalents. The steel components of our bikes actually weigh more than the wood components do. The lugs weigh more than the tubing.

We take a systems approach to green design. For example, our woods are locally sourced so there isn’t a lot of transportation energy embodied in them; there isn’t a lot of processing energy embodied in them. Of course, trees are carbon synched so we’re really taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

On another level, the more we can get people out, inspired, and wanting to ride their bikes, that’s where the real impact of bicycles comes from. Using green materials makes a difference, but in a bike you’re not using a whole lot of them. The goal is to get people to use bicycles more and to use their cars less.

We talk about this notion of “bike life” which is “how do we use our bikes in different ways?” It’s a heck of a lot easier parking a bike than parking a car. How do we enjoy doing it? Then we look at the benefits we get out of that. We get more exercise, we lower stress… Plus bikes are fun. They’re cool.

In the end, if it’s not fun and you don’t enjoy doing it, what are we doing it for. We try to embody that spirit.

You have a gorgeous wood composite bike on display. How does it fit into your model line which includes 6 bikes so far and at least one more on the way?

We spent two years developing the system [for making wood composite frames]; it allows us to make a wide range of vehicles. We have our Adventure model here. It’s an all around bike. You can set it up as a rough road bike and it also makes a great cyclocross ride. You can use cross tires or fast section tires on it or put light road tires on it.

Adventure - A rando for the rough stuff. Photo by Ed Ip.

You also have a grocery-getter, gal-about-town bike I noticed.

The TownRounder is designed as an around town bike. It has an internal-hub, a bottom bracket drop, the chain stays are long enough that you can carry a good rack on it and not have your heels hit. It’s very stable, but it’s also light and it looks beautiful. It looks appropriate with your everyday clothes.

We use a highly engineered composite material; we use laminates. The way we in which use the materials is actually much closer to the laying of carbon fiber sheets than it is to using lumber. It isn’t lumber anymore. We basically make wood into a high tech material.

One of the things about wood is it is the original paint job. We both tint as well as color the wood. Part of my training is as a violin maker and musical instrument maker. And of course wood finishing and bringing out the beauty of the wood is a big part of that.

We can utilize woods of different types and create a wide palette of finishes. We combine wood, in this case, with stainless steel. There’s something about the aesthetic of metal and wood that people really gravitate towards, which is part of creating a compelling design aesthetic. “I don’t care what that’s made of; I just want to ride that.”

I’m curious about the influence your training as a climate scientist has had on your interest in bicycles.

I was always torn between being a climate scientist and a designer. The work I was doing on climate change made it clear that “Houston, we have a problem.” I could continue to study it, which I enjoyed. As a designer I could also actually work on it. We talk about it and we know we want to do it. But it’s difficult to do. How do we actually make the changes we need to make? The design work I’ve been doing the past 20 some odd years has been about developing products, processes and conceptions about how do we actually go do it.

Have you seen anything here at the show that has inspired you?

NAHBS is a celebration of cycling as much as it is about crafting bikes. What I’ve enjoyed the most is the exchange between fellow frame builders. We’re all getting into each other’s stuff. In the end it’s about the love of bicycles and bicycling. I’m inspired by their logos and how they’re using their logos on their bikes, by the range of the materials and the way in which they are combining materials, and how they’re problem solving.

I’m inspired by that pick up truck over there; it’s a bike that’s basically a pick up truck. It’s a big cargo bike with huge Pugsley tires on it. It’s a gnarly thing; you could haul a heavy load with that bike. It uses an XtraCycle that plugs in.

Banjo Cycles' Big Dumb Pug - a cross between the XtraCycle Big Dummy and the Surly Pugsly. Photo by Ed Ip.

I actually helped design the original XtraCycle. Ross Evans was one of my students when I taught design at Hampshire College. It began as a student project on bike trailers. The original conception came out of conversations we had back and forth about how could you make a bike trailer for places like Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, if you didn’t have a pick up truck, and you rode your bike, it was considered that you were too poor to have a pick up. But you still had to get your stuff to market. What if you could make a way of carrying stuff on a bike that was so just cool that it was a cool thing to do. Out of that conversation came the notion of not so much a bike trailer but the Xtracycle that turns your bike into this really cool trailer. He ran with it from there. I worked with him to design the original bag system which was made in the shop that is producing the Sylvan now.

There’s this linkage. It’s great for me to see something I worked on in 1998, 12 years ago, showing up on one of the coolest bikes in the show. Not because what I did was cool, but it’s cool for me to see connections back into things I did 12 years ago popping up in other places. That’s for me what’s really inspiring about the show.

Any final thoughts for the Cyclelicious readers?

Ride more. Be inspired. Talk to us. We see bicycles and businesses as change agents. Businesses are our largest social institutions. How do we look at entrepreneurship as culture-changing activity? Come be a part of what we do.

Thank you for the inspiration, John.

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