Putting a Name on Quality

If you haven’t bicycled since you were small, Richard Sachs’s bike shop on North Main Street in Chester demands a mental rearrangement of what you thought you knew about bicycles. Forget the Big Wheel you got for your fifth birthday to hot rod around the driveway. Forget the blue and white Schwinn with the balloon tires you rode to elementary school.

On a long, white, raised pedestal in his workshop, Richard displays one of his trademark red and white machines, a bicycle that one commentator described as “exquisitely crafted, stunningly beautiful, but above all, uncompromisingly, functionally perfect.” Richard, a perfectionist, professes not to be impressed by the acclaim.

“All I see is what didn’t work, the shortcomings,” he says.

Every Richard Sachs bicycle is individually configured for a specific client. For years, all Richard knew of most of the clients were the measurements they sent to him.

“Lately, a lot of people want to come meet me,” he says, “it’s become part of the experience.

“Making a bicycle is really like making large jewelry,” adds Richard, who hand welds the steel tubing at low heat with a silver alloy.

“The bike is had made, torch braised, detailed—nothing on the frame is out of a box. When I make frames, I start with 10 or 11 tubes, and I kind of have to figure out how to make them into a frame. If I figure things out perfectly, you should be able to split the bike in half and each side would be exactly the same,” he says.

“That’s not easy to do. When you introduce heat, just like a plant reaching up to the light and bends out of shape, you have reactions, especially when you heat so many pieces. You have to tame the process so it works,” he continues.

The goal, according to Richard, is a bike that works optimally.

“Whether you go two miles or 200 miles. The ride should always be comfortable. You should feel the stability of the bike,” he says.

All that comfort and stability doesn’t come cheaply. A Richard Sachs frame costs between $2,500 and $3,000. A fully outfitted bike costs in the neighborhood of $5,000. Richard himself does not make anything but the frame, but he equips the bike with components made by top cycle manufacturers. He makes between 80 and 100 bikes each year, and there is a wait of nearly a year for the finished product.

When he started out 30 years ago, many of the bicycles he made were for racers, but over the years, his clientele has changed.

“Now large manufacturers sponsor the big racing teams, provide bikes, have them wear logos and decals all over everything,” he says.

Still, Richard does sponsor his own racing team, which he describes as a mixed “pro-am” group that races both in this country and in Europe.

Today, many of the people who purchase his bikes do so because they are enamored of the comfort and stability of the ride and the quality of the hand crafted product.

“When somebody buys a bike from me, I become the product as much as the bike,” Richard says.

A native of Bayonne, New Jersey, Richard graduated from The Peddie School and had a few months to kill before he was supposed to start his freshman year at Goddard College. Already deeply interested in bicycle construction, he found an apprenticeship with Witcomb, a British bicycle maker. After nearly a year in England, he returned to the United States.

“I told Goddard if they would let me teach a course in bicycle construction, I would come. If not, I wasn’t interested,” he recalls.

Goddard, however, was not interested. After a brief stint working for an American company associated with Witcomb, Richard started making frames on his own.

“I think I’m the only person from my whole era at Peddie who never went to college,” he says.

“When I started, I figured that in five years, I’d really have it down. After five years, I figured I’d be really good in 10 years, then it was 15 years and I was still all thumbs. Now its going on 30 years, and I still am figuring out how to do it,” he says.

Richard works alone, without any assistants or apprentices.

“About 15 years ago, I had an apprentice for awhile, and it was a disaster,” he says. “The problem is that whatever happens, it’s my name that goes on the bike, and I am the one responsible for the quality.”

Richard himself rides every day, sometimes with his wife, Deb Paulson. At the moment, he is just returning from an enforced layoff. A car hit him last January, and he broke a leg. He is pleased with his rehabilitation so far and plans to resume one of his lifelong passions—bike racing—in September.

To celebrate his 30th anniversary as a frame maker, Richard has made a bike that harks back to the bicycles he built in the 1970s.

“It’s correct for the period, toe clips, spokes, everything. People are going to look at it and say, ‘Oh, that looks like my dad’s bike,” he notes.

And who will buy the bike?

“Collectors, a person who likes history,” he says. “Some people who buy it may not even ride it.”

The preceding article (including pricing) was originally written for The Valley Courier by Rita Christopher, and appeared on August 18, 2002.