Fort Collins is a circus any day of the year, ripe with college students, swollen bike racks otherwise only seen in Amsterdam, and nearly a dozen breweries. Numerous bike shops cater to townies and college students, while some specialized shops offer something else. Crankenstein repairs bikes and serves coffee by day, pouring craft beers after hours; the wall near the end of the bar features a vintage French 650B touring frame in original condition. Panda is fabricating elegant bamboo and steel bikes, with Mexican bamboo and Denver-area steel. Black Sheep is crafting some of the most functionally radical big wheeled designs in titanium, noted for their truss-frames fatbikes, 29ers and an occasional 36er. Yes, 36″ wheels and tires are available, borrowed from the unicycling world which relies on bigger wheels for bigger gears due to direct drive transmission, as with a Penny-farthing. Black Sheep is engineering and craft, beautifully executed in titanium. Some unusual innovative ideas make Black Sheep a bit of an outsider, that is, until white-fleeced manufacturers catch on. Between Panda and Black Sheep, Fort Collins hosts a bike zoo within the broader bicycle circus.
Only the ride quality exceeds the beauty and ingenuity of this titanium Black Sheep frame. The full fat-tire titanium frame, with a titanium truss fork and one-piece handlebar stem rides like a cloud. The frame is light, compliant, and responsive; the fork does not chatter under braking forces, yet seems to soak the trail; wide handlebars provide leverage, yet the consistent 22.2 diameter all through the construction allows more flex than any handlebar I’ve ever ridden, even other titanium models clamped to a standard aluminum stem. The one-piece bar/stem offers maximum control in the design process, and maximum comfort and control on the trail. Custom bends provide several hand positions which only make sense when ridden, as they look unfamiliar. This frame has a symmetrical rear end and uses 135mm hubs front and rear, laced in a non-offset pattern to Marge Lite rims. For singlespeed/fixed riding, internal gear hubs, or a modified geared drivetrain with a maximum of about 5 cogs (9-sp cogs with spacers), this bike is as versatile as the Surly Pugsley design, with some exceptional refinements. The entire rear triangle is sleeved and can be adjusted or removed which allows chain tensioning, compatibility with a belt drive, and disassembly for travel. The chain stays are each sleeved, as is the oversized tube that comprises the seatstay junction. The system is claimed to be “creak-free”, unlike some eccentric bottom brackets (EBB) and sliding or swinging dropouts. I did not perceive any noise or undue flex. Surly Marge Lite rims are set up tubeless, offering the lightest fatbike wheel combination available without using narrower rims. Several 40-50 mm rims are now available for fatbikes, targeting the non-flotation XC market. I still think a 65mm rim is the best all-around option, and the Marge Lite is competitively light in weight to narrower models. A curved titanium seatpost and Gilles Berthoud saddle are inspiring in their comfort. The leather top of the Berthoud saddle is bolted, rather than riveted, and is replaceable.
The symmetrical 135mm design approaches an ideal for a highly compatible fatbike capable of operating with derailleurs (modified drivetrain), symmetrical Rohloff wheels and other IGHs and singlespeed, belt drives, and a “normal” symmetrical 29″ wheelset. While 170mm hubs are not entirely uncommon these days, 135mm hubs are widely available and inexpensive. These wheels are built with DT Swiss cassette hubs front and rear. The front and rear wheels are interchangeable, as with the Pugsley design. A 100mm bottom bracket is still required for the cranks to clear the chainstays.
Note the bolts underneath the seatstay junction, and near the rim on the chainstays.
Sliding chainstay parts:
Seatstay junction, sleeved with two pinch bolts. These assemblies require precise machining, which is a hallmark of Black Sheep bikes.
A tidy workspace, seductive titanium tubes and tidy welds are all found at Black Sheep.
The 36″ wheeled machine is out of town for the week, but is pictured below as an award winning NAHBS bike. A truss framed Black Sheep 29er is pictured on the left.
Panda Bikes blend art and craft, producing a beautiful fusion of organic and metallic tones, and a ride to match. The combination of steel lugs and bamboo or steel tubes can be tuned to the riders needs. Highly flexible frames are designed for urban riders desiring maximum comfort, while stiff, sporty frames can produce a go-fast road bike to keep up with the club. Calm your doubts about the quality of a frame made with hollow woody tubes, the owners at Panda claim to have never seen a broken frame. The bamboo is sourced from a sustainable farm in the Yucatan region of Mexico, and quality control is tight. At this point about 15 percent of the bamboo that arrives is deemed unsuitable for Panda frames, although working closely with the bamboo grower is improving the margins, and reducing waste. Custom steel lugs are sleeved to externally house the bamboo, as with a steel lugged frame, while an inner fitting slides preciely inside the hollow bamboo tubes. The inside and outside diameters of the bamboo are machined to precise tolerances, and an industrial strength epoxy joins the parts.
Below, a raw seatstay junction is fitted with bamboo, stained, painted, and finished with a durable clear coat. The process is time consuming, but yields a beautiful, durable product. An attention to detail is paramount.
Most frames leave the workshop with Velo Orange parts and accessories. These guys really love VO stuff– it allows them to meet a price point while keeping to the elegant aesthetic of their hand-crafted bamboo frames. Lots of Velo Orange parts can be seen at the handbuilt bike shows, although no builder consistently specs as much VO as Panda. Bamboo and shiny parts looks nice.
Pat Hegedus has been working on bikes professionally for 11 years, but has taken the plunge into frame building only recently. His creative ideas and expertise are driving Panda in new directions, and he wields a torch with the finesse of a veteran. The Ace hardware store is next door to the workshop, and we had planned to purchase some hose clamps to secure another bottle cage. Instead, Pat efficiently drilled some holes in the underside of the down tube, cleaned away the paint, and brazed some threaded bosses in with silver. The charge: $30, which included a plastic bottle cage that carried water on his own cross-country trek. Like everywhere else in Fort Collins, the service came with a cold can of beer. As the clock strikes 4:30, two water bottle bosses are installed and two cans of PBR, empty.
While Black Sheep is a climate controlled laboratory, Panda’s workshop is open to the back alley where broken steel frames await reconfiguration to tandems and tall bikes– this time of year demands such monsters as New Belgium Brewery’s Tour de Fat rolls into town. The local brewery is growing a sector of bicycle culture that neither Lance Armstrong or the ACA can touch. Art bikes and costumes pass through US cities by the thousands every summer in a non-political critical mass of fun. At some point, New Belgium beer in involved, including their Fat Tire Amber ale and the new Shift Lager. Bikes rule this town, but beer runs the show. Even the refrigerator at Panda features a bamboo beer tap.
Pat’s workspace is perfectly tuned with two tall stacks of thrift store speakers, four apiece, a record player, and a collection of vinyl and compact discs. The Temptations serenade the brazing process, while I spy a copy of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
Keep your eye on Pat Hegedus in the coming years. His experience as a mechanic, a grungy Philadelphian, a cycletourist, a BMX rider and now a steel and bamboo craftsman will produce some interesting results. Lael says “thanks for the extra water!”.
Lael’s working title for this post was “The Jetsons and the Flintstones: Black Sheep and Panda”.