Renovo John Day: Wood is for Real
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Let’s get this out of the way up front. The Renovo John Day may be made of wood, but it’s a real bike. This is no piece of wall art, although it would look beautiful on a wall. While it’s not going to replace carbon, or even alloy or steel, for a performance-oriented rider, the characteristics that Portland-based Renovo coaxes out of wood make it a legitimate material choice for any rider who’s not a slave to the scale and wants a comfortable, confident ride. We’re as surprised as you are. Wood is for real.
The guys behind Renovo, Ken Wheeler and his son Stuart, are proud non-carpenters. They weren’t in the middle of building custom cabinets when the idea to make bikes struck them. Ken’s an engineer and more used to working with composites. He was researching material properties for an airplane project when he was struck by how well wood’s properties seemed to mesh with what was needed to make bicycle’s sing. Renovo bikes are not made of wood as a novelty, they are made out of wood because the Wheelers believe it is the right material for the bikes they want to make. It has a longer fatigue life than metal and is far superior at damping vibration.
A wooden bike is nothing new—the first bikes and wheels ever made were wooden—but Renovo uses the material in entirely different ways, using wood that’s manufactured with high-tech equipment. Renovo bikes are produced from laminated hardwoods, milled with CNC routers until there are two hollow, mirrored halves that are then bonded together. The frames have beautifully finished tube interiors that average just 0.14 inches.
Renovo uses seven different hardwoods and each frame comes from between 16 and 40 different planks, all hand selected. It even partners with the Glenmorangie Scotch Whisky distillery to build a beautiful limited-edition bike from its used casks. The Wheelers have become masters of the laminate, using four different kinds of resin and many different laminates to get stiffness out of the bottom bracket or compliance from the seat stays.
Being a natural material, wood needs to be dried and sealed, including the interior of the hollow frame, which is sealed prior to bonding. A Renovo bike will only expand or contract a negligible amount in the most extreme weather a rider could face. As much as Renovo believes in wood, there are just some areas where it’s not going to work so Renovo uses alloy dropouts and alloy sleeves at the head tube, bottom bracket and seat tube. Even carbon fiber is used in the head tube to increase strength while reducing weight.
Renovo makes multiple bikes, from MTBs to pure road bikes. We tested the John Day, Renovo’s endurance gravel bike, built with SRAM Force 1. We don’t really have a frame of reference for what a wooden bike should cost, but its $5,745 price tag seemed low, certainly when people knocked our Pinarello out of the way to get to the Renovo. The frame and fork alone cost $3,495. Where Renovo must admit the material has some shortcomings is on the scale. The 58mm we tested tipped the scales at 10.03 kilograms (22.1 pounds), while a medium frame typically weighs 2.08 kilograms (4.6 pounds). That’s a lot, even for a gravel bike.
Wood can damp vibration like no other material. Anyone who played baseball or softball as a kid knows that banging an alloy baseball bat into a fence post will send a brutal sting into the hands, while that same swing with a wooden bat will result in a satisfying "thunk." That’s wood damping vibration and that, in a nutshell, is why the John Day is so smooth. It’s truly one of the quietest rides we’ve ever experienced; road miles just glide away under the bike. In some ways an adventure bike with 36mm tires soaking up so much chatter is the wrong bike to really show off what Renovo can do. We’d love to check out the Pursuit road bike over a long, rough century ride on 25mm tires. That would really let the material shine.
But bikes need to lay down power efficiently, especially if they are going to weigh 22 pounds, and again the John Day, and wood, impresses. It’s no carbon wonder bike, but it’s more than crisp enough for any rider who prizes compliance over power-transfer. In fact, we’d argue the bike’s weight and extremely relaxed fit do more to detune it than the material. The 58cm we tested has a stack of 669mm, 30mm more than a 58cm Specialized Diverge, yet its reach is marginally shorter. You ride tall and proud on the John Day, which in our minds takes it out of any type of performance gravel riding, where we’d prefer a little more-even weight distribution.
But again, a rider looking for the ultimate vibration-damping tool, unconcerned with a few extra pounds, will likely better enjoy the upright ride and long wheelbase’s stability. But we can’t help but think, what could we do on a Renovo gravel bike that was low and aggressive? How fresh would we feel over a Dirty Kanza-length event? How about a gravel race bike, Renovo?
PRICE: $5,745 (as tested)
WEIGHT: 10.03kg (22.1 lbs); 58cm (w/o pedals or cages)
BUILD: SRAM Force 1 Hydro Disc, FSA Energy Alloy cockpit, WTB Volt Pro saddle and Velocity Aileron Comp through-axle wheels with Clement MSO 36mm tires.