Bike Fort Collins first launched You Know Me. I Ride a Bike. back in 2009, where we featured local residents, for whom riding bikes is big part of their life in a broader awareness campaign. Beginning in 2021, we are excited to reintroduce this bio-series, where we feature one new Fort Collins resident each month here on our news-blog/website, as well as through The Pedal Post eNewsletter and our social channels, highlighting their love for bikes and for riding them. Please join us and read on, as we hear their stories and learn more about these remarkable folks who live and ride right here in our community.
June 2021: James Bleakley
….by Jennifer Hoover, BFC Board Member
Could bikes save the world? “They could, they absolutely could,” says James Bleakley the 30 year bike building veteran and affable creator of Black Sheep Bikes.
His shop occupies #5 at 204 Link Lane, the somewhat unsightly industrial park tucked between breweries and the business end of Mulberry Street. It takes a moment to adjust from the bright light outside to the dim warehouse where I am meeting James. He greets me with a smile and a handshake. Alt-J is playing in the background and he is taking oat milk out of the fridge to put in his coffee. We banter for a moment about the superiority of oat milk over other non-dairy milks while I gaze around his shop. My eye is drawn to the drill press in the back of the workshop.
I can tell he isn’t sure if he can take me seriously when I point to the drill press and tell him that as a kid I was entranced by the action of the drill coming down on a piece of wood or metal in my Dad’s shop. The action of spinning the three spoke arm was mesmerizing, as was watching the curlicues erupt from the neatly drilled hole.
It’s Father’s Day so it feels right to trade a few stories about our Fathers and ask him about being one himself. James has a 23 year old son who works alongside him in his shop building everything from the serious to the whimsical––inspired works drawn from imagination. James’ smile tells me that he is proud of his sons work and hints that Black Sheep Bikes will stay in the family for another generation. “He spends a lot of his free time down here tinkering.” James grins and laughs about the satisfaction of helping his son create “fun” bikes that are more art than function.
James takes me on a quick tour of the three drill presses in the shop, including the “super drill press” and explains how this humble tool took him from the blacksmith age to the machine age. He tells me emphatically that there is “nothing you can’t do with a drill press.” If you’ve ever gazed upon one at a garage or estate sale and thought you should own one, please let this sentiment give you the permission to come home with this burly machine.
Twenty-three years ago, exceeding the ability of his then table-top drill press James brought Black Sheep to market, building custom steel and titanium bikes that were meant to fit specifically the bicycle dreams and exact proportions of his customers. He points to a bike with 36” wheels, built by his son, and I raise my eyebrows, “seems excessive and unwieldy.” “No, no he assures me––you would love this bike!” I am tall, but it seems like a lot of bike, something you might ride at the circus but not down the street. James insists that I ride it, “for fun.” How can I say no to an opportunity to ride one of the biking oddities that can be had at Black Sheep Bikes? I can’t, so I hop on this GIANT bike and cruise around the parking lot. It is, as he promised, super fun. There are bikes you need and bikes you just want, and now I officially have one in the later category.
James is originally from Kentucky and describes his parents as socialite defectors who needed to escape the crush of the Louisville social scene––raised on cotillions and debutante balls they traded their country club evening clothes for Boulder in the 80’s which he describes as, “life changing.” James was given carte blanche to ride his BMX all day, and like a lot of us growing up, wasn’t asked any questions as long as he came home by dark. He couldn’t be happier that his parents chose Colorado, and though he has traveled plenty, he has never been more at home than he is here. And even within Colorado, James has never found a city more welcoming than Ft. Collins for owning a business and living his biking dreams.
One of James’ fun side projects is teaching bike building at the University of Iowa. As a self- described introvert, teaching has stretched him beyond his comfort level. He’s been instructing this class for ten years now, one of only a handful of similar programs in the country. He’s had a role in developing the program which he feels has helped him really understand and define his own process for building bikes. The week-long seminar has undergraduate engineering students with lots of computer savvy but little “hands on shop experience,” and graduate level art students who have to learn CAD in order to take the class. “It’s been cool to see disparate groups of people come together to learn how to build bikes. Each group brings a strong tool set and is open to learning from the others.”
James knows that he has a dream job, which he describes as the “working man’s lottery.” He hasn’t burned out because he has learned to say no, to step back, to scale down and not outgrow his capability or joy. He no longer has to do contract work, welding for other people and working 60 hours a week. People are what keeps it fresh and getting to know what inspires his clients to build a certain kind of bike is a part of the job that places heart and soul at the center of cycling. It’s a decision to get up every day and make what he loves, and as he’s gotten older, he’s simplified and refined what is meaningful to him in life. I ask him what his guiding principle is, and he replies, “kindness,” without hesitation. He has a certain gentleness about him, and it is easy to imagine him listening to his clients and bringing a concept into fruition. “I get to try to innovate new things… every bike I send out there has a story.”
James’ own very favorite bike is his fat bike which he swears is “only” 26lbs. While culturally he thinks they were a “flash in the pan,” he would choose it over any other bike in his extensive personal collection. He likes to take the “choppy line,” likening it to a 3 year old in a sandbox playing with a Tonka truck. It is the bike that brings him the most joy and he doesn’t mind being the “caboose to have the biggest smile.”
Doing what he loves gives James a sense of optimism about the world. He believes the tide is turning when it comes to global warming, especially in Fort Collins where “Bike to Work Day is getting bigger every year and there are more bikes per capita in Fort Collins than almost anywhere else in the country.” He shares that the tension he feels when he drives to work is noticeable, but when he bikes, he feels way more peaceful. A cleaner, more peaceful planet is a vision I think we can all agree deserves considering. “There’s a sense to the bike movement and this thing that all these people have in common in this community––that feels really positive. It comes out in bikes, but it also is an expression of individuality and uniqueness––I think there is a sense of hope around it for me.”
Did you enjoy reading about James Bleakley? Read about other inspiration individuals just like him who ride bikes here.