On a recent trip to Colorado, we checked in on Monty and Lane Willson, of Oveja Negra, and asked them a few questions about bikepacking, their business, and their inspirations.
Based in in the mountain town of Salida, Oveja Negra specializes in building bikepacking gear, making bags on site and sourcing as many materials as possible from the US. While Lane deftly whittled us up a top tube pack, here’s what Monty had to say…
When did you first start bikepacking?
My first big solo tour was during the winter of 2009-2010 when I was fortunate enough to ride Chile and Argentina for a few months. I can’t recommend this area of the world enough for touring/bikepacking. Lots of dirt, great people, good eats, and guanacos. Although the wind down south, especially Tierra Del Fuego (the most southerly point on the continent), can be brutal.”
What kind of cycling do you most enjoy? And what bikes do you ride?
Preferably dirt and overnight…. Given that we have a family, any time we have a chance to ditch the cargo trailer or Chariot and get out of town is welcomed. We currently ride Surly and Salsa. Any steel frame 29er is a great choice for bikepacking especially with the new plus size setups. I’m kind of all about a beater for bikepacking… I don’t want to feel rushed when I’m in 7 Eleven looking at Ding Dongs because I’m worried about my $$$ custom ride outside. Admitting, we have been talking with Black Sheep bikes out of Fort Collins about a custom 29 plus touring frame, for displaying at the shop and expos…”
Do you race?
Not for few years now. Living in Leadville you’re pretty much required to ride the Trail 100, which I rode with a couple of good friends in 2009. The Tour Divide, CT, AZT and other longer self supported races are much more inspirational, I think I’m going to hold off til I’m in my 40’s to really crank up the racing… I hear that’s when you’re really primed for endurance. That’s mostly a joke, but I would like to ride the Divide Route. Lane was a competitive runner through college and I think she’s burned out with that world… She’ll still enter the occasional duathlon, or fat bike race for fun.”
What encouraged you to start building bikepacking bags?
You literally could not buy them. Carousel Design Works, whose founder Jeff Boatman pioneered the modern bikepacking gear that is now so widely emulated, was falling off the face of the Earth. Other custom bag makers were springing up but turn around times of well over a month were standard. The only company making stock bikepacking gear in any capacity was Revelate Designs, out of Alaska. And by fall every year, most bags were sold out as a testament to the popularity of the burgeoning sport.”
“Oveja Negra… Black Sheep… Any story there?”
All the good English names were taken, so after a lot of thought we decided on something that is really hard for people to pronounce. In all reality, we wanted something unique and the American West is so heavily influenced by its Spanish roots that we decided Oveja Negra was a good fit. We added ‘Threadworks’ at first but that was really a mouthful, so now we’re just ‘Oveja Negra’, or black sheep.”
Tell us a little about your background…
When we decided to start Oveja Negra in 2011 Lane had been sewing fleece for Melanzana in Leadville for around 4 years, which helped expose a lot of the basics of cut/sew manufacturing. I had been working as a carpenter for the 10th Mountain Hut System and building off the grid homes in Central Colorado. I naturally fell into the role of design, prototyping, and custom work while Lane oversees cutting and production, which is the most difficult aspect of our business to orchestrate.”
What inspired you to base your business out of Salida, CO? What’s the riding/bikepacking community like here?
We’d been living in the Arkansas Valley for some time… Leadville in specific. The time had come to escape the long winters that accompany living at 10,000 ft. Our two children, one of whom had yet to have his first birthday at the time, played a role in the decision. Salida’s got a great school system, trail system, and the Arkansas River runs right through town. It’s a excellent cycling community to boot; there are three bike shops in a town of less than six thousand. And it doesn’t hurt that we’re right off the Colorado Trail and Tour Divide Route.”
Tell us a little about the space in which you work.
We had a hole in the wall shop in Leadville in 2012-2013… When we decided to move to Salida we bought an old turn of the century building downtown that had seen better days. Still not sure if that was a good idea, but we now have a home for our business and some room to expand. It took the better part of a year for us to renovate and get the space back to its former glory. An old icehouse in the back will likely turn into our cutting facilities in the next year or so. We feel very fortunate to have a shop in such a vibrant little town. There are a lot of cyclists coming through town on bikepacking adventures and it is awesome to be able to connect with folks that use our gear, or any gear for that matter… we see all kinds. We replaced a zipper last summer on a Walmart randonneur bag that had made it ⅔ of the way across the country and was probably going to reach the Pacific.”
What values are important to you in the way you run your business?
Manufacturing not only in the United States, but with as many domestically sourced materials as we can possibly get ahold of. As with most domestic textile manufacturing at this day in age, we still have to bring in a few parts from overseas. Our products are manufactured with 90-100% domestic materials… some of the rad buckles and technical plastic parts are foreign. Accessibility is another important value and a large part of the reason we decided to start Oveja Negra. Most of our bags are in stock and if not, they are already cut and can be short run within a couple of days. So, shipped within 1-3 days is standard for our stock bags. While we do run low on stock in the summer months this generally only affects wholesale customers and bike stores.”
What do you think Oveja Negra does best?
A focus on quality trumps most other aspects of Oveja Negra. We’ve geared up with some really state of the art industrial sewing machines, presses, and other tools that help to ensure a job well done. As well, every piece of gear that has our name on it comes out of our own shop and is manufactured and inspected by a small team of talented sewers. Growth for us means buying more machines and expanding our own manufacturing capabilities instead of outsourcing, even within the United States.”
What product are you most proud of?
We’re proud of any Oveja Negra product that enables cyclists to focus on their adventure instead of their gear. That being said, we like being able to offer custom bags tailored to any frame and stock bags in a variety of colors, including the Multicam fabrics that have been so popular for us the last four seasons.”
Plans for the future?
Expand the shop, expand the product line. Look for some redesigns and additional sizes/colors to launch in a number of our products this spring.”
Sounds busy! Do you still have time to get out on bikepacking trips yourselves? And if so, what’s one of your favourite trips, recent or otherwise?
As we get busier and busier in the summer months we spend more and more of our time setting up other cyclists for their adventures. But, we still find time for quick trips here and there… Luckily living in the American West is really advantageous for getting out without a whole lot of logistics or thought. Sections of the Colorado Trail combined with old 4wd mountain passes is a quick favorite of mine. We are hoping to put together a family ride somewhere out of the country in the not too distant future. Finishing up South America is on the list as well…”
Anything else you’d like to mention?
We warranty all of our gear. If you ever have a problem with anything we’ll take care of it.”
Thanks! Just one last question… Where’s good for food and drink round here?
Poco Taco.. right across the street from the shop, excellent street style tacos, margaritas, and beer. Cafe Dawn for coffee/treats, the owner Phillip is an excellent person all around and partakes in a bit of adventure cycling himself.
Oveja Negra’s bags can be ordered online. But if you’re in town, drop them a line to schedule a time to fit stock bags, or a consultation on custom work. And if you’re visiting Salida – and we recommend you do – check out our Aspen Ridge Family Ride, listing plenty more ideas for food, trails and lodging in and around the area.