James Bleakley founded Black Sheep back in 1999 with the vision of building custom masterpieces for his customers. He has welded hundreds of frames over the years, each with a specific rider in mind. His bikes feature customized geometries and sizes tailored to the rider, and James provides a downloadable sheet on his website (www.blacksheepbikes.com) where riders can choose from a variety of parts.
Some of our readers might remember the Black Sheep model we tested back in 2016 that featured massive 36-inch wheels. Since then, Bleakley discovered a new wheel size he wanted to build and, better yet, let us ride. Could these new big wheels be in our future? Only one way to find out.
Black Sheep designs a collection of bikes, but your choices aren’t limited to what is in its catalog. If you can dream up a bike, James can most likely build it. The bike we tested with 32-inch wheels looks like a townie cruiser; however, looks can be deceiving. It is a truly capable trail bike. While the last Black Sheep we tested came ready to rip as a single speed, we chose a 12-speed drivetrain for our 32-inch wheeled machine. Thanks to a removable and adjustable rear end, riders can set up this Black Sheep with either a single speed chain or with a belt drive system. The craftsmanship of the frame is second to none, with each weld demonstrating attention to detail, but the White Industries’ components steal the show with shiny gold parts.
Speaking of shiny parts, this Black Sheep is covered in them, because we had the opportunity to ride Bleakley’s personal bike. Should you order a Black Sheep, you can pick whichever components fit your needs. With that said, neither Fox, RockShox nor any other suspension company we know of offers a fork for 32-inch or 36-inch wheels. In fact, Bleakley sources his oversized rims from a unicycle company and laces them up with traditional-style hubs. Another thing to keep in mind is the lack of tire options, since at the moment 32-inch tire sizes are not on the big companies’ radar for research and development.
With the exception of a few parts that are less common than others, the majority of the Black Sheep’s components are interchangeable with those of most modern bikes. Should you want a dropper post or a geared drivetrain, James can build those features on your custom bike. Our test riders found the curved bars that came with the bike quite comfortable, even when tackling off-road trails; however, a rider looking to gain downhill confidence will likely prefer a riser bar with a shorter stem.
There are no moving suspension parts on the Black Sheep, but it’s far from a bumpy ride. The combination of big wheels, a titanium frame and a leaf-spring-style fork makes for a truly capable trail bike. Many of our test riders had flashbacks to their first experiences with 29-inch wheels. Riding massive 32-inch wheels allowed us to roll over obstacles with ease. Meanwhile, the springy nature of titanium combined with the unique fork design provided a smoother rider than we have ever felt from a bike without suspension.
DOWN AND DIRTY
Black Sheep’s 32-inch machine wasn’t made to stir up the industry and force riders to buy another wheel size. Instead, it’s designed to make riding more fun by providing a unique experience. Just like a fat bike serves a specific purpose and is praised for its performance in sand and snow, the 32-inch wheel will appeal to riders over 6 feet tall or ones looking to easily roll over anything in sight. In our opinion, 32-inch wheels deserve a slice of attention from major manufacturers.
Big wheels keep on turning, or so they say. To our surprise, this big-wheel machine managed to punch up our local climbs quite well and seemed to increase momentum, helping us conquer rolling terrain. Sure, this bike isn’t cross-country fast on the climbs, but with a 12-speed drivetrain keeping our big wheels spinning, climbing was more pleasant than expected. The one drawback is the rim weight of the oversized unicycle wheels. If a rider was able to find a 32-inch rim made from a lighter material, we could see serious potential for a 32-inch XC race bike. While they might not pull a holeshot off the start gate, these bike wheels could help riders achieve seriously fast speeds over flowing singletrack.
We really fell in love with the Black Sheep’s design when descending. It was hard to decide whether it was the big wheels or Bleakley’s many years of experience perfecting bike geometry, but we couldn’t help but have a blast flying down the trails on this momentum-generating machine.
On wide-open sections of trail, you can really let the 32-inch wheels do their thing, but when faced with tighter switchbacks, they posed a slight challenge that tested our skill. Luckily, track standing is made easier thanks to the large tire contact surface, but the sheer size of the wheels can make them hard to maneuver when faced with a sharp turn. What the bike seemed to love most was rolling down staircase-like trails, where its big wheels could handle the job of soaking up shelf-like rocks and roots.
Riders looking to really push the Black Sheep to its limits might find a different cockpit setup provides a more confidence-inspiring ride. During slow-speed turns, the shape of the bars we tested points the ends towards the rider, causing the bars to bump the rider’s legs or hips. The included dropper post, which offers a lever underneath the nose of the saddle, can be a little challenging to use while riding. An electric dropper post would be icing on the cake, allowing for a cable-free look while offering a handlebar remote. Last, we want to point out that Bleakley sent us this bike set up tubeless, which was a pleasant surprise that helped contribute to greater traction on the trails.
James Bleakley builds each and every one of his bikes with a specific customer in mind. Because of this, riders get the bike exactly the way they want and need it. The bottom line here is that 32-inch wheels are definitely not for everyone; however, they are wonderful for a select few. If you have a wild idea in mind or you want your own custom big-wheel machine, give James a call and see if Black Sheep can make your dream ride come true.