NAHBS 2016 Builder Stories: Black Sheep Bikes

by James Huang


It would be all too easy to define the North American Handmade Bicycle Show as merely a gathering of beautiful custom-built bikes. And while that is absolutely true, NAHBS at its core is more about being a gathering of builders: their personal philosophies when it comes to building bikes, their histories, and their approaches for satisfying the remarkably diverse needs and wants of their clientele. U.S. tech editor James Huang takes a closer look at the stories behind the badges and logos of some of the most recognisable builders in the industry along with some of their latest projects.


Straying from the flock

Custom builders often name their companies after themselves, or occasionally some clever transformation of their name. For James Bleakley, the story behind Black Sheep Bikes traces back to a single moment more than twenty years ago.

“I was working for another company called Boulder Bikes in the early 1990s, and I was at Big Bear [California — then one of the major stops for the NORBA national race series in the United States] working out of a beat-up van,” Bleakley told CyclingTips. “One of our racers rolled up in the pit area, and we’re next to Ringlé and Yeti in these big nicely painted panel vans, and she said, ‘Oh, wow, we really are the black sheep here.’

“That was kind of like the light bulb moment. It was ’99 before I first branded a bike with that name, but that’s where it came from. And what it’s come to mean is something that stands out in the crowd. It’s the one that’s not like every other sheep in the herd; we’re aiming for something that’s just a little bit different.”

As part of that, Bleakley often pairs his one-of-a-kind swoopy titanium creations with custom head badges, ornately made by Philadelphia-based artist Jennifer Green of Revolution Cycle Jewelry.

Black Sheep Bikes builder James Bleakley created this custom titanium commuter using his signature swoopy style.
Black Sheep Bikes builder James Bleakley created this custom titanium commuter using his signature swoopy style.

“I think so much of what I do is try to build your bike for you, and not my bike for you,” Bleakley said. “The custom head badges are a great way to personalise a bike for a customer or client. I would say most of our bikes are lifetime bikes for people, so probably seven out of ten are going to get a badge.”

One of the bikes Bleakley displayed at this year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show wore a badge featuring a strip of blue anodised titanium that once held an avid rock climber’s clavicle together after a fall.

The matching titanium rear rack is utterly stunning.
The matching titanium rear rack is stunning.

“The customer wanted to incorporate this piece of titanium into the piece of titanium I was getting for him,” Bleakley said. “He had asked in the beginning, when he filled out the build sheet, if there was any way to configure this piece of hardware into a badge so that he could display it in a way in which it was right there. I think we did a good job of coming up with a concept he signed off on that he really liked, and kept with the ‘sheep’ theme, and had a real personal feel for him.”

Another Black Sheep bike at NAHBS belongs to Rivet Cycle Works owner Debra Banks, who makes a range of leather saddles, grips, and other accessories. A long-time randonneur rider, Banks’ interaction with Green started first with some custom jewelry centered around her company logo. But when it came to putting the finishing touches on her own bespoke bike from Bleakley, there was little question how she was going to cap it off.

Black Sheep bikes feature custom head tube badges more often than not, typically made by jewelry artist Jen Green. This one was crafted for Debra Banks, whose Rivet Cycle Works logo is cleverly depicted as a moon casting light down on a flock of sheep against a backdrop of evergreen trees and mountains.
Black Sheep bikes feature custom head tube badges more often than not, typically made by jewelry artist Jen Green. This one was crafted for Debra Banks, whose Rivet Cycle Works logo is cleverly depicted as a moon casting light down on a flock of sheep against a backdrop of evergreen trees and mountains.

“When I was at James’s shop in Fort Collins [Colorado], and you start planning your bike, he’s got this book, and in that book there are all these head badges. And of course, I fell in love with them,” she said. “So I contacted Jen right away and said, ‘would you be willing to make me a Rivet ‘R’’, and she said, ‘send me your logo’. That was in sterling silver, but I thought, I’m definitely having one of her head badges made. I shot Jen an email and said I’d love a head badge with the black sheep in it and, of course, the Rivet ‘R’. It’s a bit of co-branding but it also makes my bike mine.”

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