BLACK SHEEP 36ER TEST
The TIG torch of James Bleakley, the man who started Black Sheep back in 1999, welds every Black Sheep bike. He’s welded hundreds of frames over the years, each with a specific rider in mind, and none of them “stock.” His custom bikes are built with custom geometry, sizing and features to fit the needs of the person who’s going to be turning the pedals and to match the trails that rider wants to turn them on.
This custom-build philosophy allows James to take on the wildest projects involving the newest trends and technologies. Whether it’s an XC race bike or a long-haul bikepacking bike, a tandem or a townie; if you can dream it, James can probably build it. It’s that mentality that led to James’ first 36er, a bike he built for himself. The 36er we’re testing is his son’s personal bike, built to handle the rigorous trails on the Front Range of Colorado. We brought this bike in to see if those huge hoops could actually be used to make a bike that’s worth riding and not merely a sideshow freak.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
Any Black Sheep bike is made specifically for the rider who orders it. There are no stock frames, no “standard” wheel sizes and very few rules when it comes to requesting a bike. When you’re buying a bike from Black Sheep, you’re buying a bike that’s custom-built for you and meant to last a lifetime.
We were fortunate that a few of our test riders were of the same stature as James’ son and were able to wrestle his personal bike away from him for a few weeks to test it. A 36er is certainly not for everyone, but our 6-foot-plus test riders found the bike fit like a glove. Riders shorter than the 6-foot mark should stick with a smaller wheel size, since it’s nearly impossible to bring the geometry and standover in check for riders shorter than that.
WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?
Truss rods explained: The custom truss-rod fork is designed to look like the retro forks that came on bikes in the 40s and 50s. While it doesn’t offer any measurable travel, the slender titanium tubes offer a little flex that smooths out the ride.
In the early 2000s, a metal sculptor convinced James to use his factory to build a custom bike. What he came up with was a bike reminiscent of the “cruiser racer” bikes of the 1940s and ’50s, complete with a double top tube and truss-rod fork. Many of Bleakley’s bikes sport this unique combination. They’re delightfully retro yet built with modern materials and manufacturing techniques, and they may never have existed without this influence. Thanks to Jon Hubbard for the idea for a work of art that can be ridden on the trail.
The signature: The custom head tube badge fits the bike perfectly, and the serial number can be whatever you want. This bike’s number is “STR8 LIFTED.” This is truly a custom machine.
It’s been said that the only thing left inside a custom frame is the builder’s sweat and tears. This, being a full-custom machine, certainly fits the bill, as each Black Sheep frame is built with plenty of sweat equity, in addition to the metal that holds the wheels in place.
Double everything: The double top tube is a signature feature on most of Black Sheep’s bikes.
This 36er is built with ample amounts of titanium tubing, including clearance for a custom, 210-millimeter-spaced rear axle and 190-millimeter-spaced front hub. The bottom bracket is also uniquely wide at 100 millimeters, which keeps the chainline work-able for a single-speed or geared setup.
Master craftsmanship: Black Sheep’s welds are neat as a pin. Their bikes sport elegant lines throughout.
WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?
Don’t skimp on the details: The custom-built titanium dirt drop “moustache” bars are so perfect for this bike that anything else wouldn’t look right. Don’t skimp on this detail if you’re planning to buy a Sheep.
The custom-made truss-rod fork is an upcharge but looks right at home on a bike like this. The slender titanium tubes don’t provide a measurable amount of suspension travel, but they do provide a buttery-smooth ride that matches the frame’s supple feel.
Big and long: There’s no way around a long wheelbase and long chainstays when building a 36er. The Sheep’s stays are a whopping 21 inches, and the bike itself is nearly 7 feet long. Surprisingly, Bleakley and his crew have figured out a geometry that keeps it rideable.
Single-speed compatible: The unique chainstay system relies on these extendable sections of the chainstay to tension the chain. The bolts below hold the stays in place and can be extended about 1/2 inch to tighten the chain without a derailleur.
Our bike came equipped as a single-speed, but any of Black Sheep’s bikes can be equipped with gears. The dropouts have a replaceable chip that can be fitted with a derailleur hanger, which is the setup most 36er riders will want.
HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
This is a big bike, no doubt about it. In fact, if you’re less than 6 feet tall, James’ 29er or 27.5-inch creations will probably suit your needs better than this monster. Thankfully, the 36-inch wheels fit us nicely and fit the frame, which is similar to a size large from any stock brand’s lineup. The standover is reasonable. The wheelbase is long but not unmanageable, and the geometry is not that far out of whack compared to most XC hardtails.
We expected that accelerating this bike would feel like we were trying to pedal-start an Abrams tank, especially given that our bike came with a single-speed drivetrain. We were pleasantly surprised, however, to find the bike gets up to speed pretty quickly. With our gear choice set fairly low at less than a 2:1 ratio, we felt like this bike could pedal up most hills with relative ease.
Cruiser racer: The single-speed drivetrain is set up with a very low gearing that allows the rider to charge climbs. Even technical terrain can be tackled with this bike, because the wheels keep spinning over nearly any terrain without losing momentum.
On long and challenging climbs, you’re going to feel the wheel weight of the 36er; there’s no way around it. Still, those big hoops find their way up and over almost anything, making technical climbs a blast on this bike. As long as you have the legs, the large-diameter wheels can annihilate some of the most technical climbs. We impressed ourselves on some of the short and steep sections we typically struggle with on more conventional trailbikes.
Thirty-six-inch wheels have so much rotational momentum that it changes the way you
ride the bike. Lean this bike over at any kind of speed and those big wheels almost fight you to come back to upright. This bike is the ultimate in stability, so rather than tiptoeing through turns, it likes to rail them. Black Sheep has done its homework developing a steering geometry that harnesses the 36er wheels and completely throws nimbleness out the window. While the bike doesn’t necessarily love tight switchbacks, it’s not afraid to make its way through tight and technical turns with the right technique.
Big but not so heavy: Okay, this bike is no lightweight. We expected that. What we didn’t expect was how truly capable this thing was on the trails.
Once the wheels are up to speed, this bike feels like a freight train. While there’s no suspension travel to speak of, the titanium tubes and truss-rod fork give this bike a supple feel, even when the wheels are mobbing over rocks and roots. The big-diameter rims simply don’t hang up on obstacles, making this one of the fastest fully rigid descenders we’ve ever been on.
TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
Since every Black Sheep bike is essentially a custom build, our best advice is to be patient during the process so you end up with the bike you want. James can build a bike that’s supple or ultra-stiff, small or large, or anything in between, but it will likely take some time, so don’t expect your bike to show up on your doorstep in a week. You can’t rush rideable art like this. It’s not like you’re ordering a bike from Amazon.
When you do decide to pull the trigger on a Black Sheep, be sure to save your pennies for the cool custom upgrades James can add to make it a complete package. The truss-rod fork, custom titanium cruiser bar and micro-adjust titanium seatpost were the highlights on this particular bike. The bike simply wouldn’t look right with anything else.
Whether the 36er has your interest piqued or not, the real story here is the artisan craftsmanship James and his Black Sheep crew bring to the mountain bike world. We loved our time on this big-wheeled machine, motoring over everything in sight. While we didn’t get to experience the full-custom-build process Black Sheep is known for, we were fortunate to have a few test riders with the same stature as James’ son who fit his personal 36er perfectly.
Bottom line: James can and will build nearly anything you can dream up. And when he does, you can be sure it’s going to be another masterpiece, just like this monster we tested.
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