I first started discussing a new bike with James back in November, and settled on an initial order and placed my deposit early this year.
I went through a few rounds of design drawings with Todd, and made nontrivial modifications to their initial design, resulting in both:
- Very low standover with full travel (note the shock mount to the downtube rather than the top tube - not the first time they've done this, I know at least one more was done on the previous stHighlight design, but uncommon and I believe the first time with the revised bike design with the linkage - the standover is around 27.5", no production FS 29er is even close); and
- The rack being suspended and therefore avoiding the rack and bags becoming unsprung weight. (I was concerned about both suspension performance and electronics in the bags being hammered in off road riding - I wanted to be able to bring my iPad and camera on all day or multi-day epics.)
We worked through several rounds of design drawings and also several rounds of build parts lists, with drawings and suggestions by Todd and answers to my requests for advice, and revisions to the lists on my part where desired. The last of these was at the beginning of July, a couple of weeks before I got there, showing basically the frame and rack pattern we eventually went with, but a somewhat different bend for the rack that Todd worked out when actually doing the bending.
I specified almost every part on the bike, and the frame build was complicated by not just the suspended rack, but internal routing for Rohloff, rear brake, and tail light wiring for a tail lamp to be driven by the dynamo hub & headlamp, plus my use of a German Answer Kilo 1.2 fork, which they did not have in hand at the time of building the frame. (Fortunately German Answer was kind enough to provide a design drawing we could use for A-C, etc.) Here is what the bike looked like when I arrived at the shop:
Not only was the fork not there yet (my issue - BS had nothing to do with ordering the fork), the wheels were not yet built when I got there because we had erroneously specified Super Comp spokes, which are not a fit for the Enve wheels! They had already figured this out fortunately and wheels built with Comp spokes arrived a couple of hours after I did, and we quickly got the bike together with everything but the electrics, Mittelmeyer shifter, and Kilo fork. (I might have preferred CX-Rays, but guessing their wheel builder didn't have any around and I was on a plane so they couldn't ask me, and this bike is not exactly a lightweight so the Comps are fine, though I think they're around 50 grams per wheel heavier. I'm totally nitpicking here - they were very well equipped and even kind enough to mount a Tora fork they had around for testing when my fork was late, and with the Rohloff and dyno lighting, mechanical brakes, internal routing, etc., the bike is not exactly a weight weenie build.)
After Paul etched my seat post, I then took it for a quick ride around the block and in the back lot. In the process of shakedown, I discovered that James had not been exaggerating when describing a nearby field of basically all goat heads, which I forgot about while riding around and promptly rode into, picking up what seemed like a hundred of the damned things. Fortunately, per their advice, we had used Stan's, which saved the day, though I lost enough air to have to add some after it sealed, and I am now an unabashed convert.
We agreed that I would come back the next morning and start test riding with different bar geometries before they bent and welded up a bar for me, and James was kind enough to start me with what I thought would be right on based on a prior fitting, that being the one piece bar right off his own personal racing bike (a single speed stHighlight). I put a couple of hours on that bar the next morning, came back, and then even though the first bar felt just right other than needing more room for the Rohloff shifter, tried a slightly shorter stem with a narrower mountain moustache for another couple of hours. (Note that they were wrapping, unwrapping and rewrapping bars for me during this process - they must've wrapped bars at least 4 times for me during the build - a patient crew, these guys.)
On a related note, Fort Collins is an AMAZING cycling town, with tons of trails, bike lanes everywhere, ample bike parking, and a vibe of bike friendliness I've not seen outside the Netherlands. In fact, I would consider going back just to vacation, it's that cool a place. For my next build, I'll almost certainly stay longer.
As it happened, that first bar was basically right on except that I wanted it made even longer at the ends to better accept the Rohloff shifter (and even now that I've got the Mittelmeyer on, it's nice because I can basically ride it in full cruiser mode if desired), and I resolved to try James's bar one more time before he made me one, after the Kilo fork arrived. Luckily, the fork showed up basically first thing the next morning! It weighed 1371 grams with the lockout and before we cut the steerer (which, yes, I left long because of some back issues of late and wanted to make sure I could keep it tall if necessary or desired).
We spent quite a while getting it set up mostly because the lockout was not properly interfaced when we got it, and more importantly (and time consumingly), worked differently than described in the documentation! At the same time, Todd had noticed what he deemed unacceptable flex in the rack under hand pressure, and we decided to add some trusses to support it, and we played with different tube configurations, settling eventually on two straight supports parallel to the seat tube, which would look good and simultaneously maximize available space to clip bags to.
Todd then set out to create these, which turned out to be a considerable effort with some significant experimentation involved, but that worked out very well in the end IMHO - pushing hard enough on the rack will now move the suspension or even flex the front triangle, and the added trusses were small and didn't add much weight. I did manage to get some side to side waggle out of it when loading it inappropriately for testing (we put long bags on it and put 12 packs in them with a full tail trunk bag on top, so we had a lot of weight hanging way down below the rack all the way to the point where it was almost at the axle and barely missing the brake), but in real life, I've taken it out with more reasonable loading and it works great. (Side recommendation - the Topeak expandable trunk bag with pop out panniers is great for this application, they're big enough for a bag of groceries, don't hang too low, and disappear when not needed.) Here is the rack we ended up with:
I ended Thursday with riding the bike a bit more (with the electrics also now mounted and tested) and figuring out how I thought the fork's lockout *actually* worked, which I confirmed in a panicky email back and forth with German Answer at 3am. The bike was coming together, but Friday's list of things to do was still pretty considerable - James had to bend and weld up the bar (and then Paul had to finish it, along with everything else at each step!), add downtube bosses, weld up the rack supports Todd had cut and fit, and Todd and James had to work together to drill and weld the fork mounted cages, then I had to test it one last time and we had to take it apart for shipping!
I met James at the shop at 8am (he's a morning person) and amazingly, it all happened, except that by around 6:30, we had figured out that with my extra large fork, biggest bars ever, and large rack, this thing was not going to fit in the standard sized S&S case we'd gotten. So it had to be left, and they agreed we would figure out another case to use this week (they had someone else that needed a case shortly thereafter and I didn't have to pay for the case), and they would ship it to me that way.
I flew home sans bike and spent the following weekend web surfing and settled on a Tri All 3 Sports Velo Safe case, which is huge and therefore expensive to ship but protective, and while we were waiting for it to arrive in Fort Collins, the Mittelmeyer shifter also showed up! They took a few days to get it installed and tested and then the bike broken down and packed again, then shipped the bike to me the following Monday and it arrived four days later. Unfortunately FedEx did just about everything they could to destroy the bike and case - it had been flipped upside down, and also apparently dragged on its side - not only had they scratched it up amazingly, they had even bent a steel bracket for a lock (for use with air travel) which is thick enough that it would not bend with just the weight of the bike on it, and getting the case open was pretty difficult. I managed it though - for future reference, if shipping a bike in a travel case with FedEx, put the case in a separate box or they will be most unkind to your case, and do not assume it will be kept right side up, whatever the case says!
Putting the bike together would be pretty easy for anyone with more wrenching experience than me, and even for my inexperienced and clumsy hands went pretty well - all I had to do was install the bar and wheels, put on the chain, put in the seatpost, and attach the Rohloff gearbox, plus put on the rack if desired.
It turned out I actually needed to shorten the stays a wee bit to get the chain on as the chain was on the short side (we had actually gotten a Wipperman SS chain but it didn't fit at the shop, probably due to the large sprockets I used for the Rohloff, and we threw a Shimano unit they had lying around on there), and getting them to be perfectly even turned out to be kind of laborious, esp. as I undertorqued them and they slipped a bit at first (started at 6Nm, and ended up at 12Nm after discussing with Todd - the safe max was 19Nm). I also had some trouble getting the rear brake perfectly aligned and have continued to fiddle with it, but this is unsurprising given my bike-mechanic ineptitude.
I should note that while I had a couple of tiny nits, as you would with anything, they were on this down to the last little thing - for example, even at the end, James was cutting and labeling pads for every tube for shipping, etc., until it was basically perfect. The attention to detail by James, Todd, and Paul is impressive to say the least, and being present while they do their thing is, in my opinion, entirely different than just ordering something and it showing up.
First of all, you get to specify every little thing in a way which is just not possible remotely - I got to place the bosses on the down tube, with my own eye and hand, and the yin/yang wire router on the seat tube, exactly, for example. And being able to try different bars? Priceless (thanks for the recommendation Climber999!) - the bar was made just for me in a way I could not actually have anticipated before riding it and which they had not done before, and it's surprising how much vibration this thing damps out as well as being totally comfortable in a bunch of different hand positions.
Finally, seeing what actually went into making all of these parts, how complex and intricate it is, and yet how intimate and artistic, watching Todd and James cutting and bending, Todd tacking, James welding, and Paul finishing up everything made me feel a part of the bike and the process in a unique way - the understanding of bike building I have gained is significant, and my feeling of connection both to the bike and to the guys who made it with me has increased immeasurably.
I cannot highly enough recommend both Black Sheep and in particular, going there in person to meet them and to get your bike made. Sooooo worth it.
Here are a couple more photos of the finished product with and without rack, and there are more on BS's Facebook page (including internal routing shots, the head badge, etc.).
Profile with Rack:
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