Missive

After my interview with Sachs in his workshop in Connecticut, he casually asked me if I’d like to take his bike for a quick ride. Despite the fact that I had on sneakers and that the bike was a little short for me, I jumped at the chance to try it out. I’m going to skip the frilly language about how supple the frame was and how it handled. Instead, I’ll just say this. As I rolled back into Sachs’ driveway I shouted, “Man, you just sold me a BIKE!”

Richard Sachs’ only real job in his entire life has been building frames. He started riding at 16 on an Atala and began racing shortly after that on a Schwinn Paramount. Even from that age, it was clear to him that “… hand made frames were better …”

He had planned to attend college and study writing but his acceptance was deferred until the spring semester. With a few months to kill, Sachs decided to move to New York City and get a job. Standard reading material for young, broke people in New York is The Village Voice (because it’s free).

“I saw an ad in the Voice for a bike mechanic job in Burlington [Vermont]. When I got there, they didn’t hire me. Because I only had enough money to buy a one way ticket, I stayed there and did temporary blue collar work.”

He also decided that he was going to prove that he would learn how to build frames. Sachs plowed through every cycling magazine and company listing he could find. He was able to make a list of 30 companies that seemed like prospects.

“I got three responses — two were negative and one was Witcomb.”

Sachs cobbled together enough money to move to London, the bike manufacturer’s headquarters, and make his first big step on the way to becoming a master frame builder. But Witcomb wasn’t the magical kind of place where you work for a Yoda-like master who nurtures you.

“You watch people make frames, open mail and get coffee. If you seem eager enough, they’ll walk you through it — but there were no journeymen. You don’t leave there knowing how to build frames — just the procedures.”

Witcomb decided to enter the US market and Sachs went back to the US and began building frames for them. But before long, he got the itch to go his own way. Sachs was modest about the beginnings of his company …

“When I started my business in the 70s I made bikes well enough to stay out of trouble. They were not expected to endure, but they did!”

Before Sachs’ bikes would become well-known, he went on a 15 year journey into the art of building frames.

“When you build something by hand, you are always trying to tame it. Everything evolves — even the mistakes. But the evolution never ends. You always keep yourself under the microscope. By the early 90s, I could finally say with conviction [that I was good].”

I don’t run into people with that much experience very often, so I decided to ask Sachs about one of the biggest changes in frame building in the last 20 years — TIG welding. Before the about 20 years ago, almost all frames had their tubes stuck together with lugs — rounded pieces of metal that reinforce the stiffness and durability. TIG welding, which displaced lugs, is machine welding.

“TIG welding was just for production efficiency — not to make the bikes better or lighter or stronger. But, is one better than the other? No. I’d rather have a well built TIG bike than a poorly built lugged bike. Most of the people who come here don’t know that these are lugged bikes, they buy me. They’re buying the fact that I have spent the time learning about bikes and bike racing to build a pleasant bike for them to use. It’s not lugs versus TIG — it’s about learning how to make a bike efficiently and knowing how it will work in a race.”

Then I hit him with the whopper. You can buy a frameset from Sachs, or a fully built bike. But if you want the bike, don’t bother asking for specific components — all you get is Campagnolo. So, why not Shimano?

“I come from the era when there were a lot of choices — and options lead to insanity. I found that Campagnolo were the best. Shimano makes good parts too — but I’m not using anything but the best Campagnolo equipment.”

But the performance of a bike is also dependent on how well it fits the rider. When you buy a bike from Sachs, you must complete a two page listing of your measurements and skills.

“All that’s important is your measurements, how your ride and what kind of riding you’re going to do. Most of the time, I make the best bike for the rider. If, initially, they have limitations, they can grow into it.”

Sachs also scorns typical methods of bike fitting. “Many measurements are made from people who are riding on a stationary bike — that’s not reality. It’s got to match with their physical measurements.”

Sachs knows this well because he’s a USCF Cat. 2 road and track licence holder who has sponsored a team since the 70s. 2002 was the first year that he didn’t sponsor a road team.

“This year, I’ve made cyclocross my priority — because it’s more fun.” Part of the reason that Sachs may have thought it was fun was because his team had a bevy of national champions in 2001 including Espoir champ Alicia Genest and 30+ champ Katrina Davis. They also topped the weekend off with Supercross 4 winner Jonathan Page.

Sachs himself will also be racing ‘cross this year. So, if you’re out on the trail this winter and see a man riding a really boss bike with the full Sachs uniform, make sure you ride up and say hello. You could be meeting one of the few people in the bike business that just sell good bikes — not good marketing.

The preceding article (including pricing) was originally written for CycleDisciple.com by Rob Rowan, and appeared on August 18, 2002.