Founder of Black Sheep Bikes to share bike-building knowledge with the UI community


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The warmth of the morning Sun caresses the cyclist's skin when embarking on a journey through the Rocky Mountains.

As the Sun sets, the temperature drops 20 degrees, and the cyclist adds layers of clothing and turns on a lighting system.

This mixture of weather and lighting in a single day provides the ideal bike ride for James Bleakley, the founder of Black Sheep Bikes.

"A night ride is like being in a small bubble, and I think that's what I like about it," he said. "The epic feel of the change of the experience becomes such a contrast from the time you start until the time you finish."

Bleakley will speak to students, faculty, and staff at the University of Iowa in his lecture "Saddle to Torch" at 7:30 p.m. today in 240 Art Building West. Admission is free and open to the public.

The concept behind "Saddle to Torch" is the interplay of riding and building a bicycle.

"There's a subtlety to it that can only come out in sampling your ware," Bleakley said. "It's about the craft, quality, construction, and the numbers of it. What you are really trying to do is integrate both puzzles into one."

Black Sheep Bikes produces just under 100 bikes per year; its mission is to craft bikes that fit the personal needs of each individual cyclist.

The shop, located in Fort Collins, Colo., pays close attention to detail when manufacturing the titanium bicycles.

Using titanium provides longevity for this mode of transportation and allows Bleakley to not only build a customer's next bike, but to build her or his last bicycle.

Welding titanium is a concept the cyclist taught students in a workshop with the bicycle frame-building course at the UI earlier this week.

Steve McGuire, a University of Iowa professor of art and 3-D design, said learning how to weld titanium is currently a sought-after ability in the bicycle industry and is important for his students to learn.

The first bike McGuire bought from Bleakley was used to race on the Continental Divide Trail.

New opportunities and experiences led to an additional two bikes and a newfound friendship between the two, and McGuire learned how to weld titanium.

The professor also became intrigued by some of the other technical aspects Bleakley included in the bikes, specifically the HAC system.

The HAC system was born out of trial and error and is used to tension the chain in an elegant way that allows the bike to run at a single speed.

This process provides the widest range of adjustment and wasn't something Bleakley and partner Todd Heath saw on the market.

Since 2008, Black Sheep Bikes has been crafting with this system that Bleakley said is best suited for titanium.

Given all the knowledge and skills the two have in the bike industry, Heath and Bleakley are able to work with each student in the workshop on an individual level.

"The thing I appreciate the most are these professionals at the very top of the field who are coming to the university to meet with students giving them the opportunity to think of different ways of art making," McGuire said.

Most of the students are in the process of building a bike and are using a continuation of the Black Sheep process when refining their specific model.

Heath said he feels humbled to be working with these students and having the opportunity to share his skill and expertise with them.

"As a whole, the Iowa program is super impressive, and it puts a real-world aspect on what they are doing," Heath said.

Because many of the students are using similar models to those Heath works with on a daily basis, he said most of the questions asked are specific to details.

For student Bobby Tso, continuing to pay attention to detail while working on his craft is something he wants to strive for in this workshop.

"It's really great to sit there and ask questions when [Bleakley and Heath] are doing something I'm not necessarily familiar with," he said. "The workshop is going to give me a lot more opportunities to understand how Black Sheep builds its bikes."

The third-year graduate student in Dimensional Practice said he has long been interested in the idea of crafting a custom bicycle and learning the mechanics behind modeling.

"I learned a lot about the welding technique from [Bleakley] and all the types of details that explain the setup," Tso said. "We are talking about specific measurements, such as arm length, torso length, and the distance between the handle bar and the saddle."

Tso had the opportunity to visit the shop in Fort Collins, where he watched the craftsmanship and had the chance to ride the bikes.

He is enrolled in his second semester with McGuire and has built two fully functional mountain bikes. He is now working on a third.

"They are not as good as Black Sheep," Tso joked. "But I learned how to make a custom-feel bicycle for my body."

While this is a beneficial experience for the students, Bleakley said, he is grateful to have the opportunity to come to the UI.

"Sometimes, you get so inwardly focused on what you're doing that you don't always realize there are other people who are interested in your work," he said. "It's a chance to share what we do and the sense of gratitude that there is an outlet for me to express my passion."

"Saddle to Torch," James Bleakley
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: 240 Art Building West
Admission: Free and open to the public

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