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American Overlander: Black Sheep Bikes, Hand Crafted Bicycles

Over the last many weeks, I’ve participated in a fun debate with our own Scott Brady about the virtues of form as it relates to function. I’m of the opinion that form is largely unnecessary, a luxury of design that I can either take or leave. I make a compelling argument until I apply my logic to bicycles. You see, I am a bike dork of the highest order, and have been for years. So when I got a chance to visit the Black Sheep Bikes workshop in Fort Collins, Colorado, I jumped at the chance.






A Black Sheep bicycle is a paradoxical blend of the very form and function attributes I say can never coexist, and maybe they can’t outside of the machines built by founder James Bleakely. There are very few bikes to so handily blend art with performance in equal measure. As I drifted about their efficiently small workshop ogling all the widgets and tools, I couldn’t not notice one bike in particular. Fatbikes are all the rage at the moment, and I am admittedly one of the current crop of evangelists espousing the virtues of swollen tires, but this bike––was special. Crafted of elegantly curved titanium tubes joined with seemingly impossible precision, this was a fatbike on another stratum entirely. I would also like you to notice, it’s dirty. As in well used.





In talking to James as I did my best to derail his productivity with random questions, he was quick to point out how he not only used this particular bike to ferry fully loaded panniers complete with doggy bowls and other sundries, but he even raced it this year at the brutally challenging Leadville 100 mountain bike race. That would be 100 miles, for those not familiar. If you’ll notice, that bike has a two-ratio singlespeed. The takeaway here is, never under estimate the power of a singlespeed, and James is one bad mamma-jamma, albeit as nice as they come.


Founded in 1999 by James and his partner Todd Heath, Black Sheep Bikes has gone on to win a number of industry accolades including two awards from this year’s North American Hand Built Bicycle Show. The hallmark of a Black Sheep bike is the distinctive curvature of the tubing paired to intricately detailed finish elements like machined head tube badges and media-blasted accents. If they are fun to ride, they’re equally enjoyable to behold.







As James set to work building his latest bike, he mentioned that his waiting list is a year long, but his customers are more than willing to wait to throw their leg over such a unique and hand-crafted bike. I get it. I too have waited long months for a bike, the prospect of a one-off build alluring and hard to describe. I can see adding my own name to his list of builds, but what would I have him craft? There are so many choices from which to choose.


Clicking through the Black Sheep website it is obvious James has not just a love of all types of bikes, he is a visionary capable of bringing to life any creation he or his customers dare to dream of. From gravel grinders to super commuters and everything in between, his bikes are manifestations of the most bold visions.




It’s a comforting thing to walk into a tiny shop in the quiet streets on the edge of a busied city to see such artistry practiced and elevated with each successive project. I left feeling inspired to go for a ride, but I was also slightly bummed. Scott Brady and his affection for form may have more credence than I cared to give it.









Below are more images from the Black Sheep website:





Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.