Fort Collins Bicycle Zoo: Black Sheep and Panda

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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.

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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.

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Note the bolts underneath the seatstay junction, and near the rim on the chainstays.

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Sliding chainstay parts:

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Seatstay junction, sleeved with two pinch bolts.  These assemblies require precise machining, which is a hallmark of Black Sheep bikes.

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A tidy workspace, seductive titanium tubes and tidy welds are all found at Black Sheep.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

T-minus: fun in the big wide world

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The neverending list of things to do before leaving the metro area is now a short list of loose ends.  Need to puts Stan’s sealant in our tubes.  Need to install a new SRAM PC-870 chain on the Pugsley.  Need to install the Surly 1×1 bar with shifters and brake levers.  Install another water bottle cage on Lael’s Raleigh.  Swap stems and seatposts on the Raleigh; a little lower up front with weight forward over the bars might ride better– this is a bike fit.  Ride some more.  Is that better?  How about the saddle angle?  Reach?  The pedals feel forward of the saddle.  Slide it forward.  Now, descend standing on the pedals.  Climb.  Pedal casually.  It’s close to perfect but it still feels new.  It’s a big bike compared to the Hooligan.

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The task of finding an appropriate used bike and dressing it for singletrack touring isn’t entirely complicated.  Doing it on a budget between several cities with inconvenient transit systems is.  There isn’t a bus directly from Fort Collins to Denver, even though an interstate highway spans the 65 miles between the two cities.  It even requires two buses to reach Boulder, which is nearer.  I was lucky to find a Craigslist seller that would meet me in the middle.  I walked to the bus in Fort Collins, walked four miles in Longmont, and upon returning to Fort Collins in the evening I was forced to “velocipede” the bike several miles back home in the dark.  I lowered the saddle and propelled the bike in a seated running motion.  I now have a deep appreciation for the development of the chain-drive system.

To meet Lael last week at the Denver airport required similar transportational creativity.  First, to attend a meeting of the Denver Surly Owners Society (S.O.S.) I jumped on the bike in Fort Collins with a light load for the 65 mile paved ride to town.  The Pugsley doesn’t fit on the bike racks found on many buses, so this was my only option.  Leaving a few hours later than planned, I diligently sat on the bike to reach my downtown destination by six.  Fifteen, sixteen miles an hour had me on track to arrive in time, when a headwind halved my progress.  Pushing through the wind and the suburban armor of Denver, I finally crossed the Platte River into the heart of the city.  A visit to a city’s center is essential, but the surrounding sub-urban layers have as much to say about the city as the core.

The S.O.S. is a small crew of Denver’s cycling elite, with a healthy association of bicycle advocacy and bike-sharing.  Denver’s B-Cycle bike-sharing program is the first of it’s kind in the country, and I was hosted for the evening by Philip who manages the fleet of 500 bicycles involved in the program.  Philip recently tackled several days of the Colorado Trail on a 1×9 Surly Karate Monkey with a Salsa Enabler fork and a fat tire up front– half-fat.  The S.O.S. group rode to Salvagetti, a hip local shop specializing in transportation cycling and featuring a host of Surly bikes, custom built to finer specifications than the standard builds offered.  Salvagetti hosted a grand re-opening party at their new location; on display was the singlespeed Kona that local rider Justin Simoni rode in this year’s Tour Divide, finishing first in the SS category.

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Denver’s new airport is about thirty miles from the city center, seemingly in Kansas.  I was able to put my bike on an $11 bus to arrive in time to meet Lael.  Rejoined and rejoiced with my traveling companion, we left the airport on bikes.  Very few airports are easy to access by bike, and Denver’s isn’t one of them, although technically it’s tolerable.  The two-three lane highway exiting the airport has a generous shoulder and some bike signage, except when road construction channels traffic into a narrow corridor, excluding the shoulder.  The responsibility to maintain the bicycle facility has been ignored through the phase of construction, presumably because very few people ride to the airport.  Bikes just aren’t that important sometimes. The Albuquerque airport is located only three miles from the main east-west boulevard in town; I was able to shoulder a large bike box for the three mile ride through neighborhoods, to package my bike for flight in the airport lobby.  I have ridden to or from airports in Paris, Boston, Seattle, Anchorage, El Paso and Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh will soon have a short connector trail from the airport to the Montour Trail, a main spur from the Great Allegheny Passage, which then connects to the C&O Trail and Washington D.C about 350 miles away.

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Riding through Denver in the morning is pleasant and a free bike map helps guide the way.  We rummaged through used outdooor gear at the WIlderness Exchange, and found a new helmet for Lael at REI.  With her new Giro cap, she looks like a short-track speed skater on a bike.  Cooking on the sidewalk outside of REI, we dined on breakfast burritos made with fromage et saucisons from France.  Lael also brought salted caramels, a kilo of grey sea salt, miniaturized homemade cornichons (pickles) and a bottle of calvados.  We have been eating well.

A bus to Boulder whisks us out of the city for a few dollars.  The immaculately organized Boulder Community Cycles provides inexpensive used chainrings, v-brake levers, and stems; a cousin in Boulder provided a mailing address, where I received several packages.  A friend picked us up to return to Fort Collins to begin building and rebuilding bikes.

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Back home, fixing bikes: derailleur hangers to transform the singlespeed to a geared bike and a new Velo Orange Grand Cru sealed cartridge bearing headset replaces a worn-loose ball system; used Race Face stem, Surly steel chainrings, and Shimano Acera brake levers from Boulder Community Cycles; a hard to find 30.0mm Salsa seat post clamp; Velo Orange thumb shifter mounts will accept the levers from my Shimano bar-end shifters and the $20 gold anodized On-One Mary handlebar.  Lael loves her “Marys”.

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All work and no play is no good at all:

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The last few days have been a lazy parade of swapping parts, tuning the ride and dialing the fit.  However, there has been time for swimming and baking pies, visiting local breweries and bike builders.  Fort Collins has a veritable bike zoo between Panda and Black Sheep Bicycles.  More on that later.

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The bikes are riding, Lael is acclimating, and transportation to Interbike is in the works.  It’s been a busy week, but it’s all coming together.

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