Industry Interview: Nick Frey, Owner of Boo Bikes
by Lee Waldman
The first time I met Boo Bicycles owner Nick Frey, I was on the bike path between Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and Aspen. He was out for an easy ride with friends and I was doing the same with my wife. Just the day before I’d walked in to a local bike shop, MG Cycles. I struck up a conversation with the owner, Mike Gebhart and he told me that he had just opened the shop. Like me, Mike is passionate about ’cross so my “quick” visit to the shop quickly stretched out in to a much longer conversation. If you find yourself in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, make sure you check it out.
I didn’t think much beyond it at the time but the next day, as Caren and I were setting out on our ride, here comes Mike and a friend, who turned out to be Nick Frey. They were just rolling on to the same path we were on. Introductions followed, and we set out together on a nice, easy recovery ride. Caren ended up riding with Mike, and I rode most of the hour we were together with Nick. Conversation ranged from bikes to racing to bamboo and to life as a racer. Nick is an amazing person: bright, articulate, thoughtful, and approachable. He didn’t know me from Adam, yet was comfortable and willing to just cruise along with us and chat. I’d like you to have a chance to meet him as well.
Lee Waldman: Can you talk a bit about your history as a person and as a bike racer? And what got you interested in designing and selling bikes, specifically, how you ended up in the bamboo bike business?
Nick Frey: Sure, Lee. I started racing bikes just after I finished middle school. It started out as a hobby bashing around in the woods behind my house in Des Moines, Iowa. It quickly progressed when my good friend Neil Neumann introduced me to a junior racing team that focused on Road Nationals each season. I learned from the fantastic Des Moines cycling community and definitely was on the unpleasant end of some shouts when I didn’t ride smoothly in the echelon!
Like all bike racers, I earned my stripes through much suffering, and was lucky enough to have some great opportunities present themselves—namely racing for the elite Hot Tubes squad in 2004 and 2005 and getting accepted at Princeton to tackle a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. I raced in Europe, enough to know how difficult that is, and continued racing through my collegiate years ’05-’09. After winning two national championships (the coveted U23 Time Trial in 2007 and Collegiate Road Race in 2009 as a senior) I threw my hat in the ring as a “full-time” professional bike racer with the Jamis-Sutter Home team.
I say ‘put full-time quotation marks’ in because I was also busy building my company, Boo Bicycles, which began as a Junior year project for a Mechanical Design course at Princeton. I worked with a few good friends of mine in the MAE department to build the very first race-level bamboo road bike on the market. Well, that one wasn’t really what I would call “race level,” but I knew we could do it after such a successful first attempt. From there, it has progressed to building the top bamboo performance bikes in the world.
From Day One, we knew that bamboo and carbon fiber could compliment each other and achieve performance characteristics unlike anything else. The magical qualities of bamboo, absorbing vibration and creating a supple and confident ride, combined with the renowned stiffness and ultra lightweight of unidirectional carbon fiber, are unmatched by any single frame material on the market. As a racer and a lover of long, epic rides, I’ve never felt anything like it, and that has provided the inspiration and motivation to run with it.
LW: I know that you’ve had a long history racing bikes. Road, mountain, cyclocross, all of the above?
NF: Unfortunately, and amazingly, I have never done a cyclocross race. I know there are two main reasons: I’ve had a very difficult, full calendar of racing every season since 2001 and just couldn’t stomach throwing a leg over a bike in October or November; and I’ve been lucky enough to have some incredible Boo racers on board our ’cross bikes every fall—Tyler Wren, Skyler Trujillo, Kelly Fisher-Goodwin, and more—and I’ve seen and pitted and heckled and spectated and drank many beers instead of pedaling!
LW: Where are you at now as a bike racer? Are you still active?
NF: I’m probably more active race-wise than my training should allow! It’s all dirt for me now, and I’m doing the stacked Summit Series races here in the high Rockies as well as the Silver Rush 50 and Leadville 100, both in Leadville and both super hard.
I’m planning to have this season be my first where I just have fun with it. I’m not training seriously, and maybe only ride two or three days a week… But I ride when I want to. I’ll be getting back into some serious work this winter and next spring: I want to get back to a level where I can race some big off-road events for a top-ten or podium, instead of just middle of the pro field.
Who knows, maybe even a couple cyclocross events this fall to kick-start things?!
LW: Tell me a little about Boo Bikes. What’s the attraction to bamboo as a material?
NF: As I mentioned, bamboo is somewhat magical. In fact, it has been refined over the millennia unlike any other natural wood or grass… It’s the only material that can hold a candle to CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) in terms of Young’s Modulus. This means it has incredible bending stiffness for its weight, which is great… But that is only a prerequisite for a good bike frame material.
The key is that it is a natural composite of two materials: fiber and lignin. The fiber provides the resistance to bending, and the lining provides the incredible vibration dampening properties. When you mix this composite into a bike frame, it maintains that light, stiff, snappy feel that refined carbon bikes are famous for, but the ride quality and ability to get through rough, jarring conditions are elevated significantly.
Because the feeling is so difficult to imagine (try to think of a color that does not exist) we are putting together a line of top-shelf demo that will be traveling to all the big cyclocross events this fall, from Cross Vegas to Nationals and everything in-between. You can see it and ride it, and then you will believe.
LW: What are its pros?
NF: Super tough and durable, able to absorb vibration and yield slightly so the rider can throw their Boo into corners and it just hooks up. Very light, survives crashes, and just rides unlike anything else on the market.
LW: Any cons?
NF: It’s a pain in the butt to work with! We spend upwards of three times the hours to build a Boo frame compared to even top custom Ti bikes. They require no special care or treatment, but they do cost a lot because of the incredible amount of hand-labor and custom nature of the bikes.
LW: I know that there are other companies out there producing bamboo bikes right now. What sets Boo apart from them?
NF: There are many, many things, but in the end, we race our bikes at the professional level to prove a point, just like the other top brands. While we may not be in the Tour [yet], you will see Boo racers throw down on their steeds alongside the by of every other big company in the world. This is because we have always used bamboo because of its performance advantages and have engineered it to compete head-to-head with the best bikes available, whatever the material.
LW: Where do you want the company to be in five years?
NF: I want us to focus on building a dealer network. This is something that takes time and energy, but the demo program with the Boo Bus traveling the country will facilitate its creation. The goal is to have good representation throughout the country so it won’t happen where someone goes in for a new bike and a Boo might have been right for them but they’ll never know because their shop didn’t carry them. I have always recognized the value of shops for their excellent service and representation of brands, and now that Boo is a serious brand known around the country and much of the world, we can look to build a foundation of great dealers to help us get Boo into more hands.
LW: Since this is a magazine devoted to cyclocross, let’s talk about that for a minute: What got you into ’cross? What keeps you there as a business owner.
NF: That’s easy: cyclocross beats the hell out of bikes! We had so many questions early on. Well, more accurately, they were statements that our bikes couldn’t hold up and would break. The irony is that carbon bikes break all the time! But I knew cyclocross would dispel these fears, as well as provide a fantastic proving ground for our frames so we could improve our designs. It’s a fun environment, family-friendly and growing fast, and at the perfect time of year to be seen. So really we love it and will continue to grow in that discipline.
LW: What do you think the future of ’cross is in this country?
NF: I’m not really a great authority to ask about this, but I think it will evolve into it’s own brand of fun, amateur racing that provides excitement through participation rather than spectating. Europe has their own model, and it’s based on revenue generation and spectating. But Americans want to be in the thick of it as well! There may be some models that allow for revenue generation (VIP areas with beer and food, pit passes, rider interaction, etc.) and those are great. I personally would like to see more races televised like Worlds was this year. I think the shorter format of cyclocross and the obviously extreme nature can be much more exciting than most road and mountain bike events.
If there was a $30 subscription to watch online televised races throughout the season, I would absolutely spend the money and have some excitement watching my old racing buddies in some of the biggest events around the country.
I know I’ll get some comments about this, but I think Adam Myerson should be the on-air commentator along with Dave Towle and George Thomas. Dream team!
LW: I saw Skyler racing at the World Championships representing the US in the Under-23 category. Do you have any big plans for racing this fall with a Boo team?”
NF: This fall we plan to launch an elite cyclocross team made up of two Pro men and one Pro woman, racing many of the biggest UCI races around the country and being followed by the BooBus Maximus carrying numerous demo bikes and complimentary pressure washings.
We will have an official team release with sponsors and riders named, but they will all be flying at warp speed on grass bikes from Boo and we expect every single spectator to shout, “BOOOOOOOOO!!!!” at the top of their lungs!
Thanks so much for the interview, Lee. We are super excited for the leaves to start falling!
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