Framed Art

THE BUILDER

To Connecticut’s Richard Sachs a bicycle has a split personality. As a builder, he identifies an art form in the construction of a frame. But as a racer, he knows that a finely made bicycle means very little in the midst of competition. “I could make a bike that could work in a quarter of the time that I do,” Sachs explained. “So you could ask, “Why make the bike so perfectly well and straight?” The only answer I can give is because I can.”

As a junior racer, Sachs was overflowing with enthusiasm for the sport. “I was drawn in by the fact that bicycles were used for racing and were beautiful at the same time,” Sachs said. The summer after graduating from high school, while waiting to enter Goddard College, he wrote to several European framebuilders. Sachs was looking to learn their craft, and Britain’s Witcomb Lightweight Cycles gave the young Yankee an opportunity.

“I went over with the understanding that, yes, I know nothing, but I’m enthusiastic about learning. I don’t expect to be paid, but may I come and observe and learn?” Sachs recalled. College beckoned, but he spent the next 10 months at the Witcomb shop. “I didn’t touch a torch for months and months. They might let me try mitering a tube, or say, ‘Go mill this’, but when I finally brazed a joint someone was holding on to my hand.”

Armed with the guidance of Witcomb and his experience as a racer, Sachs began building under his own name in 1974.

“My enthusiasm superceded what I wanted back from it commercially, and it still does,” he said, adding that this concept is foreign to most Americans. “But if I was 18 years old now, I don’t think I’d look at a bicycle as an object of beauty like I did then. By and large, I don’t think most bikes now are beautiful, with bonding or welding. There’s nothing that looks like it’s artisan-made or was made by a person who really cares about what they’re doing. Take off the paint and they all look the same.”

The heart of Sachs’ approach to frame building centers on sound construction. “The construction process is the most overlooked part of our business,” he said. “Anyone can build a bike to a certain design and it will be sufficient. But quality is something that’s hard to put a price on, and it’s also very subjective. I also believe that at the custom end of the business, the art form is not the ornate lugs or the perfect paint job. It’s the care with which the tubes are assembled into a complete bike. A beautiful bike on top of that is just icing on the cake.”

Like some other builders, such as Columbine and Erickson, Sachs doesn’t stick decals from the tubing manufacturers on his frames. “Tubing itself doesn’t have any connotation of quality,” he explained. “At this end of the business, it’s more about construction and perhaps design than materials. I actually think that material is the least consequential choice. When someone is buying a bike from me, they’re buying my design choices and my construction skills. Omitting a tubing decal isn’t an act of defiance, I’m only saying that my bikes are no better or no worse just because I used a particular brand of tubing.”

In frame building, Sachs found his calling. He never did go back to college, but his frame business has carried him for 20 years. “Since I put aside all other interests to build frames, it never occurred to me to even think about something else to do if this failed. To this day, that’s how I do it.”

THE BIKE

Sachs’ philosophy of frame building is clearly evident in his finished product. Visually, the bike holds to clean lines—there’s nothing extraneous in the form of aesthetic trinkets. Sachs builds bikes that are meant to be raced.

Regarding frame design and fit, he talks strictly in lengths, never angles. “The reason I use a tape measure instead of a protractor is because I see the bike and the rider on the bike as points connected by lines-the points being the feet, butt, and hands,” he explained. “I don’t want to be a contrarian by not talking angles. Bikes come in a whole range of sizes, and there are optimum angles for each size. You can’t say across the board that you need a 72 degree seat tube angle because Greg LeMond uses it.”

Sachs relies on Joe Bell in San Diego for paint—it checks in at the same level of excellence as the structure underneath. The bike came set up exactly the way I’d want it set up for a race, especially at the wheels: 28 hole Campagnolo Delta Strada rims with a Vittoria CX tubular up front and its CG sibling in the rear. A Campagnolo Record Ergo group was the obvious component complement to the frame. “Campy makes parts like an artisan—[the company does] things by hand. Campy uses robotics and automation, but there is human touch,” Sachs commented.

I have had the opportunity to put in some good miles on a Richard Sachs bike. An unusual feature is the low bottom bracket height, which lowers your center of gravity and results in a marvelously stable ride. I took the bike up to 59 mph on a steep Rocky Mountain descent. Instead of vibrating or acting otherwise overwhelmed, the Sachs seemed to ask for more. While crit lovers might complain, most riders will only notice the reassuring, time-proven feel.

The above article (including prices) originally appeared in the July 1995 issue of Bicycle Guide, reprinted courtesy of Alan Coté.