Interview with Richard Sachs: :The Bicycle Trader

I saw my first Richard Sachs cycle several years ago at a local century ride. It was early morning, when the air is still cool, and people were meandering around saying their hi’s and getting in last minute pit stops. It was leaning against a fence, red paint glistening in the rising sun as if still wet. It was one of those rare bikes that makes one drool, and Coolmax doesn’t soak up drool like good ol’ wool. All the surface stuff was impeccable. Welds… perfect. Paint… perfect. Lugs filed razor sharp and… perfect. Later I spotted the lucky owner float by and I asked him about the ride. Cornering, downhills, fast and slow? He simply said… perfect. Since then I’ve seen several Sachs frames at various rides and races and all the reviews have been fantastic, all the bikes exquisite. Truly dedicated to his work, it’s no wonder that Richard Sachs is considered one of the world’s finest framebuilders. He is a true master of his craft.

I’m truly grateful that Mr. Sachs took the time to do this interview.

Gabe Konrad: As a child, what were your earliest bikes?

Richard Sachs: My first bike was a Huffy “Convertible.” It came with training wheels, which were eventually removed. After that my pride and joy would be a Schwinn Jaguar Mark III. It was a beautiful bike with a flamboyant red color, and lots of chrome, and big white sidewall tires. I wish I still had one like it!

GK: How did you become an apprentice at Witcomb and what people, besides Witcomb, inspired your work?

RS: I was in London, at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles, in 1972. I didn’t have an apprenticeship, as such. I had written to Witcomb expressing a desire to learn about frame making, stating clearly that I’d do anything to be around the process. They agreed to this. I went there with the understanding that I’d do anything, packing stuff, lunch runs, make coffee, etc., and hopefully glean some information about frame making so that one day, years from then, I too would make frames. The near-year I was there was one of the high points of my life. I was young, abroad, and I was able to pursue what was the main interest of my short life. Though I began to make frames during the end of my stint there, I never made an entire frame. It would be incorrect to say that Witcomb inspired my work.

Years before I went to England, I developed my interest in well-made bicycles. I had gone through the Campagnolo-equipped Atalas and Frejuses that everyone in my area had in those days. I had friends with Paramount collections in the late 1960s who influenced my direction. I had purchased a couple of W.B. Hurlow custom made frames through the mail when I was just out of boarding school — they each cost less than $100 with a Nuovo Record headset, bottom bracket, and crankset.

My boarding school was near Princeton, and when I discovered Kopp’s Cycles and a man named Fred Kuhn and his worker Dick Swann, I began to make a “nuisance” of myself with regular trips to the shop to check out the neat stuff they sold. Fred imported Cinellis then, and one could go there at any time and see a dozen of these fine bicycles years before they would acquire the cult status which is attached to them now. Fred Kuhn was influential with respect to my taking bicycles seriously. My visits to his shop remain vivid memories and I love reliving that part of my life.

Continuing on, though, the procedure of ordering and then taking receipt of the first Hurlow frame, was all it took to convince me that I wanted to be a framebuilder one day. The process was very inspirational, and when I finally got into the routine, ironically, my two Hurlows were the only bikes I remember using as a role model to try to improve my skills. No other bikes have had that, or any, real kind of impact on me. Back then (around 1969) my two Hurlows, and all the Cinellis at Kopp’s Cycles, were all I knew about good bikes. It wasn’t until I got back to the U.S., following my time in London, that I’d even seen another of what we could call fine bikes of that era: Pogliaghi, Masi, Hetchins…

A major fork in the road for me as a career framebuilder came in the late 1970′s the first time I saw the National Geographic television special “The Living Treasures of Japan.” I knew I was looking for something more in framebuilding, and I suspected it didn’t involve “stuff;” without explaining the show in two sentences, suffice it to say that I was inspired by the Japanese reverence for quality handmade articles of any and all types, some important, some mundane, but all constructed with respect to craft, skill, and heritage, and, I suspect, with little or no regard paid to commerce or promotion. My attitude towards framebuilding embraces this attitude. No bicycle could have ever had the impact on my decisions and choices the way the topic of that program did.

GK: How do you deal with the reputation of being one of the world’s best builders?

RS: I don’t see myself, or anyone else as being one of the best at our task of framebuilding. Bicycles are very simple tools, and until an experienced user hops over one, they are all equal. I’m happy and proud of all the articles and accolades my bikes have received, but it doesn’t fuel my motivation to do this. I am the only critic here, and when I am pleased with a frame, that matters most.

GK: How did you meet Grant Petersen and how did your relationship with Bridgestone/Rivendell come about?

RS: I met Grant Petersen at a trade show about ten years ago, but hadn’t recalled that until about four years ago when he called me to write a catalog piece about fork crowns. I sent him three and a half single-spaced, typed pages on the subject which he edited down to the piece in the 1993 Bridgestone catalog. It subsequently led to his desire to have an article on filing; this became the lug article in the 1994 catalog. Through this all, he had me design a set of ornate lugs for Bridgestone’s road frame. I carved a set from some Nikko lug blanks, sent them to Japan, and Grant was to have them produced en masse. The project got shelved because the lugs were said to be just borderline enough to be too intricate to produce, and definitely too ginger for the Bridgestone workers to use. The lugs were sent back to me and stayed in my window for a while, and then they ended up as the Rivendell road frame lugs, cast in the Orient for Grant to use here.

GK: Do you build any other frames besides road frames?

RS: Nearly all my frames are road frames. I used to offer variations on road frames, so they could be used for other purposes, but haven’t taken orders for anything but road frames in years. My background is in the sport – I have been racing longer than I have built frames – and I think my interest in this is felt in what I want to offer to the public. I’m a licensed USCF Cat. 2 on road and track and still race forty to fifty times a year.

GK: How do you go about properly designing a frameset for a customer?

RS: Most of my frames are sold outside of the Northeast, so I meet few of my clients in person. I have an order form, spend time on the phone, and can intuitively understand how to create a position for a rider without meeting them. Racing full time, and having built thousands of frames, is the best antidote for a “this year’s frame formula.”

GK: What kind of balance do you find between function and art in your frames?

RS: Regarding function as art, on one hand I’m a bicycle racer who happens to make frames. My years within the sport are my meal ticket, ensuring clients that my designs and experience are legitimate. From competitor, to race mechanic, to supplier of bikes to National team riders, my resume for hands-on knowledge is extensive.

But since a rider is more important than a bicycle, it’s clear that anything will work. Consequently, the interest in the later years of my career has been more focused on the quality of the framebuilding process, relying regularly on my inspiration of knowing of such things as Japan’s living treasures. I have become a rabid collector of articles about such arcane (to most bike people, at least) subjects as the Cremonese lutiers, bespoke shotguns, fly rod constructors, oboe makers, fountain pens, etc. And I spend too much time wondering about the Haute Couture houses in the fashion industry. Most are owned by multinational conglomerates, and make enough on licensing to make up for the losses inherent in the handwork of “couture.” But someone still has to do all that beautiful sewing. Knowing this means more to me than knowing about …”this year’s new wonderful tubeset!”

GK: What type of tubing do you use for your frames and how do you think steel stands up to all the other frame materials out there?

RS: All my frames are built with Reynolds tubing. I think, across the board, Reynolds makes the best quality steel tubing. But having stated this, I believe the quality of the tubing (or material) is of secondary importance and concern to the skill level and design experience of the assembler. Steel is the most unforgiving material to use when a large output by substandard workers is the goal; consequently, the other materials will surpass steel’s dominance as the material of choice. It is simply easier to train people to use non-ferrous products, to bond, or to weld something ferrous, than to train them to make steel frames in the “traditional” way. It’s an older, more mature process. I think it’s a better one too, but leaves little or no room for profit compared to all the other ways.

GK: Do you think there’s room in the cycling industry for all the new builders popping up?

RS: Looking at all the classifieds, I sense a growing number of people actively trying to build frames professionally; some from other backgrounds, some taking money for frames built with little or no experience. I suspect the cream of this crop will survive, and I wish them well. I wouldn’t want to start out now, in the nineties. By and large, the average store-bought bike with Ultegra or better parts has the potential for being all the bike most people may ever want. The need to bypass a store to get a bicycle worthy of competitive use was ever present when we all began …i.e. one couldn’t think to race on a factory made bike 25-30 years ago. It had to be artisan made. Because this is no longer the case, fewer and fewer people will seek the services of a framebuilder to get a reliable bike. Of those that will, the pie will probably be sliced between the experienced builders whose work has stood up over the past few decades, and are known for, dare I use the word, integrity, and those whose work more resembles some of the science projects that have recently been spotted trying to pass as bicycles in today’s unsettled market.

GK: What are your component preferences on your own personal bikes?

RS: All my frames are offered as complete bicycles with Campagnolo components. It has never been any different. Obviously, it is what I use on my own bike. For the record though, I was the head mechanic for the Shimano Corporation’s pro teams during the three years in the eighties that it sent teams to the Coor’s Classic international race in Colorado. I also made a custom touring bike for the late Keizo Shimano. The purpose of the order in 1979 was for me to build him a bicycle with what I considered the best touring components then available, so that he could use it to come out with similar parts under his own name. The bike had Huret Duopar gears, Phil bottom bracket, T.A. triple, Eclipse racks, etc. A year or two after that, Shimano introduced Deore components as a direct result of that bike.

GK: Aside from framebuilding, what other interests do you have and do you sponsor any local teams?

RS: Though I make frames for a living, and creating a perfect one each time is my stated goal, my first interest remains the sport of bicycle racing. No matter what happens in the product category, how the industry vacillates between different types of bikes, or how little or how much work I have at a given time, I have never been able to shake that racing “thing.” I started racing in 1971 on my third tenspeed bike, which was my first custom made W.B. Hurlow frame. After having a couple of adult tenspeeds before it, and being consumed by all the lore and history of the sport, it only seemed natural to gravitate towards a try at “pedaling in anger.”

My career as a senior was very inconsistent. I am proud to have a cat 2 license, and to have qualified to ride at the nationals four times on the road and twice on the track. I compete in the 35+ racing now, and my last win was the Lake Sunapee road race in New Hampshire. I placed second in the Cup Suroit stage race in Quebec, and the last few years I’ve managed to place about once a month on average, in the races I enter. It’s very hard in the 35+ races!

Though I have always raced, during my earlier years I could count among my clients over two dozen National team riders, men and women, from the USA and Canada. Each and every one a willing and paying customer. I took a lot of pride in this during the seventies, but it is a phenomenon that can’t be repeated… particularly because the USCF has mandated the national team riders must use the “official bike” of the Federation, whatever it happens to be in a given year. This used to grate me, but my attitude has tempered with time. Since 1980 I have always sponsored a regional team consisting of budding cat 1 and 2 Seniors. Through the years there have been a few groups of Juniors, and lately a few groups of Seniors, too, that I have “mandated” must use the official bike of the Richard Sachs Racing Team!!

The above article originally appeard in The Bicycle Trader in 1996. Gabe Konrad was the publisher of On The Wheel and editor of Bikelore and Bikelore 2.