One word: titanium. Jason is enamored (perhaps another way to put it is obsessed, but I think enamored places it in a nice positive glow). He’s had close encounters with hand-built titanium bikes from some prominent builders: Quiring, Seven, Moots, are names not unfamiliar to him. It’s the beauty of the material and the longevity that turns him on.
Jason is basically a mountain biker at heart, but as many of us do these days, he wraps a lot of riding styles into one. When he goes out, he mixes dirt road rides with connections through local mountain bike trails–he lives near the Poto–as well as some paved roads. It’s not like one kind of terrain dominates. They all follow the flow of his wandering for that day.
That has influenced the decisions he’s made on the kinds of bikes he likes built. The more recent bikes take these influences into account and result in bikes that make for pleasant journeys. For the most part, they’re hardtail because he doesn’t feel that most of the trails in this area require the extra cushion and weight of a rear shock. They’re mostly 29ers because these roll well in many different environments. They have a front shock rather than a rigid front fork so he doesn’t get too beat up when he hits the singletrack. Their chainstays are a bit longer than a standard mountain bike’s. This has a small negative impact on climbing, but offers better overall stability for dirt roads. They can be geared or single-speed. That’s about it.
Jason has been biking for many years now and has built an aficionado’s interest in cycling. He’s ridden in many parts of the world–Europe, Asia, and the western US, has toured for long treks, and raced mountain bikes (he founded the Bell’s Brewery race team–a dominant powerhouse for the first ten years of the new millennium in the Midwest mountain bike world atop Quiring hand-crafted bicycles), and just taken a lot of rides exploring the roads and trails of Washtenaw County. It’s a major priority in his life. But his bikes, beautiful as they are, aren’t just showpieces. He rides them. They’re rolling art that take the abuse they were built to take.
James Bleakley and Black Sheep Bikes
One of his more unique bikes was built by James Bleakley, owner of Black Sheep Bikes out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Jason owns the Highroller model. It’s a fascinating bike to look at that harkens back to an earlier era of Colson cruisers and Schwinn cruisers like the Excelsior and the Panther, and even the StingRay models that were all about fun and style. It hints at the cruiser bike like the early mtb renegades, the Klunkerz group rode (and destroyed) flying down those hills in Marin County in the 70s. There was also the influence of early motorcycle design in those cruiser bikes, old Indians and Iver Johnsons, with the arching frames and the outline of a gas tank between the knees. Style was nearly as important as function.
The lines on Jason’s Black Sheep are clean and the titanium arcs make it look both classic and cutting edge. Talk to James Bleakley about these arcs and he’ll admit that style is definitely on his mind when he comes up with the design for his bikes. He loves the old curved-framed cruiser styles. He happily rode a cruiser in college to class and back. Style is important, but he’ll back that up with a strong belief in function as well.
“The bike is a truss,” he says, and his education in construction management, which offers a grounding in both business and engineering, supports his claim. The small pieces of tubing that connect those curves are like trusses in a building. They give the bike strength with only a minor amount of weight gain. The smooth ride makes up for any compromises in weight. “I’d rather have a safe 2.7 pound frame than an unsafe 2.2 pound one,” he says.
“A curve gives,” he continued. “It allows for vibration damping.” He compared it to holding your arm out stiff and straight as opposed to letting it have a slight bend at the elbow. Which allows for more compliance? Anyone who’s tried to straight-arm a bike going out of control on the rough stuff will have a ready answer (after they pick themselves up off the ground). So, the properly configured curves in his frames offer compliance where needed.
James is also a strong believer in titanium as a frame building material. (Ti, interestingly, has a memory. In other words, if you bend it, it will rebound back, to a degree. So, if you want it to bend 10%, you need to take it out to 14%.) He can curve the tubes to the shapes he needs, whereas he can’t do so comfortably with other materials like steel and aluminum. Aluminum dents too easily and doesn’t have the longevity he likes, and in order for steel to meet the same weight requirements it needs too much milling in the center area of the tube, weakening it where the bend would be. Ti can be shaped and fine-tuned to fit his vision and the functional requirements of the bike’s use. Plus, it lasts forever. His ti bikes have a lifetime guarantee.
The ti Faith fork is another interesting piece of Black Sheep craftsmanship and another nod to the cruiser bike past. (Jason chose not to go with the Faith fork, though he has had Black Sheep build other rigid forks for him.) James has a strong belief in its utility as well as its style. It certainly catches the eye and if you go back to the curve/truss theory, it makes sense in terms of vibration damping. It’s lighter than a suspension fork, though obviously it won’t have the same depth of travel or cush-factor. It does have give, however, and on many dirt roads and even many trails long-travel forks can be overkill. I haven’t ridden a Black Sheep with one on it, so I’m taking James’s word for it, but many of his customers love it, and he’ll be using it this year on his fat-tire single-speed bike to ride the Leadville 100. (You heard that right. He’ll ride the “Two-Face” all ti 24.5 pound fat bike with “45 North tires, Large Marge Lite Rims, Sapim spokes, and Stan’s hubs.” –see the BlackSheep Facebook page for detailed photos of this interesting set of chubby wheels.)
If you need any more proof of the Black Sheep dedication to exploration, check out their award winning experimental bike (2012 NAHBS), the 36” ZAMer “to answer some unknown questions,” says James. He said he learned a lot about trail, that key aspect of handling, that will help him in the design of all kinds of bikes in the future. It was made possible by the large wheel built for unicyclers who want to ride with more speed. Though the details of this are limited for most dirt road riders, I’d still like to have one to tool around on for a while, just for the joy of it. James says “it feels like you’re riding in a parade, it has great stability, and even stairs are not an issue.” And, for him, it’s all about the joy of the journey.
I see why Jason tapped into the realm of the Black Sheep. It’s about the journey. Jason certainly takes that to heart. It’s a good infectious attitude to grab hold of.
If you want to learn more about Black Sheep bikes, talk to Mike Casey at Aberdeen Bike and Fitness in Chelsea. He distributes them in this area, and he’s a wealth of knowledge about many things bike.
Photos by Rob, unless otherwise noted.