TITANIUM TUESDAY: CUSTOM BLACK SHEEP KLUNKER 36ER BUILT FOR THE CITY OF ANGELS
By Mike Wirth
About 20 years ago I purchased a steel cruiser bike from an artist and frame builder. The bike was built to look like an Iver Johnson from the 1920s. With custom geometry and some modern components, the bike could actually be used to ride trails and felt amazing gliding on the ridiculously oversized (for a cruiser bike in the early 2000s anyway) 29er wheels. These days the Hubbard 1 remains one of my favorite bikes in the fleet and sees plenty of miles riding trails and gravel roads all over Los Angeles. I rarely use it for trail riding due to the lack of a front brake and its road bike rims, which were the only option available when I built the bike. This bike sparked my love for riding klunkers but falls short of being able to truly ride any trail in this city. For that, I needed something bigger.
In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic obliterated product supply chains, and bike components became scarce for the first time in my life. I remember carefully rationing a supply of tires, chains and brake pads that I never expected to exhaust, ever. I took care not to abuse things if I could help it, knowing that once something wore out or broke, that would be that. In the corner of my garage, my beloved cross-country bike sat for several months with a broken suspension linkage bolt, waiting for a response from the manufacturer's warranty department. My enduro bike similarly sat for a stint with a blown free hub and worn tires. My trail bike's chain was so stretched, it could have disintegrated on any given pedal stroke. I resigned myself to riding worn-out gear but wanted a bike that could stand up to many miles of abuse. I wanted something simple and reliable yet able to make any ride interesting and fun.
The idea to build this 36er came from wondering how the best attributes of that original cruiser would ride when paired with some absurdly large wheels and technology from this day and age. To tackle the project, I contacted the artist who built my original cruiser bike, Jon Hubbard. He suggested I contact James Bleakley of Black Sheep Bikes for such a project. Bleakley has become the de facto expert on 36er bikes of this sort and had a hand in the design and production of the original Hubbard 1. I had the good fortune to test one of James’ 36er bikes in 2015 for an issue of Mountain Bike Action and then again in 2022 with the 32″ wheel version for MBA's titanium hardtail shootout. Making the final decision to buy this bike was as simple as going back and reading that article and taking my own advice.
The Klunker frame is built from titanium and features a double top-tube design that's reminiscent of the old-school klunkers that were ridden in mountain biking's early days. The geometry has numbers similar to those of a modern trail bike, although there are some big differences to accommodate the large wheels and make the bike ride properly. The frame fits like an XL but has a surprisingly conventional riding position. The cable routing is external and as simplified as possible. You won't find any extra guides or cable stops to add gears on this rig.
The fork features a three-leaf spring design that flexes to damp vibrations. It does not have any measurable travel to speak of, but the bike has a ride that feels very far from what I would call "rigid." The front end flexes noticeably on washboards and rough terrain, enough to save your hands from getting fatigued on long rides. The suspension takes the edge off but doesn't flex so much that you notice it in the handling.
When it comes to reliability, you simply can't beat a single-speed. Dead batteries and bent derailleur hangers need not apply here. The crankarms are Cane Creek eeWings, and they are spinning on a Chris King bottom bracket. The chainring and cog setup are typically a 28/20t from AbsoluteBlack. I have an 18t AbsoluteBlack cog that gives me a taller, faster gear for riding around town. I also have a 26/22t ring and cog setup from Wolf Tooth, which gives me a super-low gear. This setup allows me to do long and steep fire-road climbs. It takes about 15 minutes to change the gearing setup, and I don't really mess with swapping anything mid-ride. It's a challenge to choose only one gear that can work for the duration of any long ride. It's especially challenging when there are big hills like there are all around L.A. I enjoy planning a ride and then choosing the right gear to handle it.
The Nextie Unicorn carbon rims have a 42mm width and a deep profile. The hubs are Onyx Race with instant-engagement, low-friction ceramic bearings. The wheels are laced in a crow's foot pattern, which is said to increase torsional stiffness while keeping the ride supple. I did it that way because I thought it would look trick. The wheels creak a little bit at the twisty parts if I’ve been doing a lot of dusty rides, but that's easy to fix. The wheels are shockingly lightweight, stiff and responsive. The spokes are a whopping 362mm and 367mm long!
The Nimbus Nightrider tires are made to work on a unicycle and have a somewhat square profile that works well enough in most conditions. The tires are actually surprisingly lightweight and, when set up tubeless, provide plenty of grip. That said, quality tire selection is the most limiting factor when riding 36er bikes. The tires have a decent sidewall and are easily set up tubeless. I use an extra couple of ounces of Stan's sealant to handle the extra air volume. Reserve Fillmore valves make it easy to add sealant without taking the tire beads off.
With those huge wheels, ample stopping power is a must. I’m using Shimano XT four-piston brakes with Jagwire semi-metallic pads. I prefer these aftermarket ones without the cooling fins, which tend to rattle. I considered extra-large 220mm rotors but decided I don't ride this bike on steep-enough descents to need them. Still, the 200mm rotors still see their fair share of friction and heat.
James built a matching 800mm titanium Klunker bar with about an inch of rise. That's held in place with a 65mm Renthal Apex stem and a 31.8 to 25.4mm clamp adapter.
There isn't one yet. It would be nice to have the saddle out of the way sometimes, though. I could even use it to put my foot down in traffic once in a while. James told me he would fabricate for me an old-school-style dropper with a lever under the seat. I haven't seen it yet. For now, I’m using a Syntace rigid post and QR seatpost clamp. Riding most everything with a seatpost at full mast is another challenge of sorts, although not as satisfying as the single-speed thing.
I go back and forth between flats and clips on this bike. If I’m riding a trail with lots of climbing, I need the extra torque of clipless pedals. I have a pair of Shimano Saint pedals and Ride Concepts shoes that give me plenty of on- and off-the-bike comfort for adventure days. When I’m going out for a quick ride, it's a pair of plastic flats and whatever shoes I’m wearing at that moment. Some of my favorite places to ride this bike are bike paths and routes like the L.A. River and the Pacific Coast Highway. For those days, it's hard to resist the temptation to do a long ride in flip-flops.
The EVOC top tube bag carries my phone and anything else that will fit. I always carry some spare coins to use at the water vending machines available at most grocery stores and convenience stores here in SoCal. The water-bottle cage is a stainless King cage. The bell is by SpurCycle and tucks neatly under the left-hand brake lever. Instead of a King top cap to match the headset, I use a Bontrager hidden multi-tool.
Weight: 29.6 pounds (with plastic pedals and bottle)
Price: $10,500 as builtWRITER’S RIDES: CUSTOM BLACK SHEEP KLUNKER 36ER