When other cyclists ask Stephen Vorndran if his frame is actually made of wood, his answer is always the same.
"Yes, it's wood. I get people asking me all the time about the bike. They're always amazed," he said.
Vorndran serves South Lake Tahoe as an independent distributor for the Oregon-based Renovo Hardwood Bicycles, the only bike company in the world that makes frames from almost 100 percent hardwood.
The frames, which are all custom-built to rider weight and type, cost from $1,950 to $3,800 and can take more than a month to complete. It's time and money that goes into making what the company boasts as the smoothest ride on the planet. The furniture- or instrument-grade wood dampens the feel of the road, making for a comfortable, smooth ride, Vorndran said.
"Wood absorbs vibrations and sound. All other bike materials - carbon, titanium, aluminum, or steel - transmit sound. It can be just as stiff as carbon, and it has the same finish as a high-end sports car," he said.
According to Vorndran, the only disadvantage between a Renovo frame and a high-tech carbon fiber one is the weight difference. The wood frames weigh about the same as their steel equivalents, approximately 1 1/2 pounds more than a carbon bike.
That weight difference might not seem like much, but in the world of bike racing where every gram counts, the pounds matter. So while Renovos might never make an appearance in the Tour de France, these bi-wheeled "Cadillacs" make great touring bikes, at least according to new Renovo bike owner Curtis Fong.
About two weeks ago, Fong became the first Tahoe resident to own one of Vorndran's wood frames. The event director for Bike the West events like America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride and Tour de Tahoe bought the $4,000 frame because he was looking for that smooth ride the Renovos promised.
"I had my hip replaced last year and I've found that the quality of a wood frame makes for a much smoother ride. I got it for long-distance riding and climbing, which is good for this area. You want a versatile bike," Fong said.
The company offers more than just road bikes, though. Renovo has nine different types of bikes for sale on its website, and most of the models come in both tropical and Appalachian wood series that include wenge, bamboo, walnut, ash, hickory and maple.
When owner Ken Wheeler and his son first started the company in 2007, Wheeler had zero experience with wood work. He'd designed airplanes, but bike geometry was new to him.
"I designed composite aircraft before, and I've always been a cyclist. Bikes and aircraft share a lot of the same elements. But I'd never worked with wood. To me, it's simply a different engineering material, but it's a much more complicated material to make things with than metals and plastics," Wheeler said.
Since the bikes are custom designed and each stick of wood is hand-picked for its stiffness and low moisture content, building the bikes is a long, costly process, Wheeler said. The company could design bikes to be as light as a carbon frame, he said, but it would make the frame much more fragile. And Wheeler's up-start company just can't afford that. A smooth ride and durable frame are still the top priorities.
"It's not a myth. Someone can ride around the block on this bike and say, 'Wow, this is buttery smooth.' And they have said that," Wheeler said.