Interview with Richard Sachs: :The Rivendell Reader
Richard Sachs is one of the four most famous framebuilders in the country, because he’s been building frames for 30 years, is really good at it, and he’s been the subject of at least 20 newspaper and magazine articles over the years. Although he has built track, touring, road, sport-touring, and cyclocross frames, 90 percent of what he builds, and 95 percent of what he sells is road frames, and not just any road frames. Richard Sachs builds Richard Sachs road frames, which, quality aside, means he designs it for you based on some measurements and conversations . . . and in the end you get Richard’s interpretation of a classic road bike. If you want a funkadelic survivalistic commuter/tourer, or you have your idea of what a frame should be like, he’s not your builder. (Don’t think we’re trying to skim orders off him — we don’t do wacky bikes, either.)
Richard’s interpretation of classic has changed little over the years, and a Richard Sachs bought today isn’t that different, geometry wise, than a Richard Sachs from 1977 or so. Richard likes a lot—80mm—of bottom bracket drop (the distance the bottom bracket falls below the wheel centers). More drop means a lower bottom bracket, and so Richard’s bikes all have low bottom brackets, and it was entirely Richard’s influence that got me to go to 80mm also. Well, Marc Muller had some influence there, too. Serotta recently went to 80mm of drop on some of its road frames, and it’s all a good thing. But it’s a Richard Sachs signature, and when Richard leads, others will follow.
Richard is also a racer, and always has been. A few years ago he was the Connecticut State Criterium champion, and last year he got silver in the state’s cyclocross championship. Most guys of his age have a thickening middle, but Richard’s riding keeps him elf-like, and he pretty much looks like he’ll live another 50 years. He has the body type.
During the past three years or so, Richard’s website has blossomed, and via that and assorted chat groups on the net, he’s been more accessible than ever, something he considers a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing. He talks about that on the following pages. Also, during the past 10 years, he’s developed as strong a liking for cyclocross racing as he ever had for road racing, and he talks about that too. Basically, he don’t want to road race no more.
I knew of Richard in the middle 70s from reading bike magazines and just paying attention. I met him at a bicycle trade show in 1987, but he doesn’t remember; that’s probably the way it is with famous people. But then in 1990 or so, when I was at Bridgestone and writing ads, I wrote a full-page spoof ad for VeloNews’ April first issue, which always included some jokes discreetly woven into the serious stuff. It was about a fictitious framebuilder who was building some fictitious frame for us, but I didn’t let on, and near the end I said that when your frame was delivered, you’d also get a small bag of filings created during the making of it, and noted that most builders discard the filings, because “If you know what to look for, the filings reveal more about the quality of the frame than the frame itself does,” or something like that. A week after that ad came out, I received a small package of filings from Richard, and I still have it. I suppose I could sell it on eBay, but I wouldn’t want to deal with the wacko who wants to buy it.
Everybody talks about Richard as though he’s a god. He’s been call the Stradivarius of the Bicycle Frame, and was recently profiled in Cigar Aficionado, and that’s a lot to live up to. Richard does it well and humbly. Once when we were talking on the phone, I forgot what I asked him or said, but his response was, “Did you ever see the movie Being There? Well, I identify with Chauncey Gardener. Sometimes I feel exactly like him.” I got the movie that night, and don’t agree at all, but maybe that just makes Richard’s point. He is as humble as Pooh and has nothing to be humble about.
This interview was conducted live, with a tape recorder in December 2002, when Richard was out this way for the Cyclocross Nationals. It’s three times as long as I expected it to be, and if this Reader is more that 56 pages, blame it on this. Go to the bathroom, take off your shoes, settle down on the sofa, and allow an hour for it.
An Interview with Richard Sachs
Richard, I want to get some of the facts out of the way fast. You are 49 and you’ve been building bikes for 30 years. As I’ve heard it, when you became interested in making frames, you were a bike racer and worked in a bike shop, and you were just out of high school and were planning to become a writer. Is that right? And then you got distracted and somehow you wrote some letters to some European frame builders to see if you could get a job there.
Richard Sachs: What?
Precisely. What I mean is, you were working in a bike shop before college, and somehow got interested in building frames, so you sent some letters off to European builders, and one of them said sure, come on over. And you’re 49 now, right?
Well, yes, I am 49, and that is concise history of the first year or so. I was interested in bike racing, but I planned to go to Goddard College in Vermont to pursue a career in creative writing. Due to a delayed admission I had my whole summer plus at least 7 extra months to kill. I thought it would be really interesting to go to England and learn about bike making. It was not something I thought about doing for a profession. So, yes, I wrote away to about 20 builders, got only three responses and only one was in the affirmative. It was from Witcomb Lightweight Cycles in London. I offered to work for free if they’d teach me. They agreed, so off I went. It was 1971.
Did you write to just small builders or did you write to Raleigh also?
I wrote away to lots of companies. Most of them probably didn’t reply to me because they didn’t build frames. The three that did reply were Witcomb, which was affirmative, Bob Jackson, who said, “No” and Ellis Briggs who said, “No”. The others are just names that everybody would probably recognize. Geoffrey Butler, Harry Quinn, Fred Baker, and the entire gamut of names that was popular in the late 60s and early 70s.
I want to back up some. Where did you grow up? Do you have any brothers and sisters and what were they like? When did you develop an interest in bikes?
I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. My mother raised me and I think I’m a product of being raised by loving and strong women. My mom, her mom, my mother’s sister, my uncle — this was a nuclear family. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. I was a regular kid. I liked sports and played stickball in the neighborhood. During the summer I was always at summer camp and we did all sorts of things that middle class kids do at summer camp like short-sheet beds, play softball, color war and flag football — so that’s what I did.
All kids rode bikes back then. Were yours special, put together yourself, or just normal bikes?
From the get-go everything about where I am today and from answering your questions now to previous 30 years is complete serendipity. When I was old enough to get a license, it wasn’t like I was riding bikes or thinking about bikes all through my teenage years, but after I got a license I thought with a license I’ll get a car. I don’t know why I thought that but I did. My Mom wouldn’t get me a car and I guess I put up a little bit of a stink. I said, “Well if I don’t get a car, I want a bike.” Mom said, “Fine. We’ll get you a bike.”
And you were about sixteen.
Or seventeen. Had my mother bought me a car or let me use her car, I wouldn’t be here answering these questions, but the next day I bought a ten speed bike. It was an Atala. I found riding to be exhilarating.
That wraps up your childhood and introduction to bicycles, so let’s talk about Witcomb — your experience there. Was it what you expected? Were you impressed at all or disappointed? Did Witcomb influence your current style or did somebody else influence it?
Those are all different subjects. First of all I wanted to make frames. I thought I wanted to make frames because I thought the racing bicycle was the most beautiful thing I could imagine, and trying to get a job in the trade was born of that. It wasn’t that I wanted to go and learn about Witcomb’s method. But they were gracious and took me in. I lived with the family. It was an incredible experience especially when you factor in that even though it was 1971 and 1972, I was more a part of the 60s. I had some of the counter-culture thing in me. I thought making something by hand would be cool, almost an act of defiance. But it wasn’t like I was a framebuilder when I was there. I did whatever they needed, from filing metal to packing bikes to making coffee. Eventually they said, “Watch and we’ll show how to braze this.” That’s how it starts. It was an incredible experience, because I was just 18 and having this unconventional experience oversees — it was great. I just thought, “Oh this is cool. Everybody else is on a college campus and I’m living by myself in London. I’m 18, and I’m doing something really different.”
What did your Mom think about it?
Well, my Mom was supportive. When I was over there, I was having such a good experience and a good time and learning so much that I thought I’ll postpone college. I’ll just ride this bike building thing out and when I’m done I’ll come back to America and go to school. That never happened. Coincidentally, the Witcomb family was setting up an exporting business in America, so when I was finished at Witcomb, I came back and got a job at Witcomb USA. At first we didn’t build bikes; we were just the agents for Witcomb in North America. It was a commercial venture. There was a fellow who owned it. There might have been about four or five employees, and I was one of the young helpers there.
Eventually you started building your own frames and you had to get a few tools. What was your process like? What tools did you get? Where did you get them? How did you start out?
Well, the guy who owned the Witcomb USA name decided to start building frames so Peter Weigle and I became the framebuilders of Witcomb USA. That was probably for another year and a half to two years of my stint here. But it became too much of a chore. Our boss did not really love bikes. He wanted to be part of the bike boom. He wanted us to work. We didn’t really know enough. We weren’t really framebuilders even though we had been in England and absorbed some of the processes and knew enough to stay out of trouble, but by no means were we framebuilders. We developed some resources. We had local machinists make some fixtures, and everything worked. At one point along the way I just got fed up with it and I left. I mean, I got fired, because I wasn’t fun to be around — but I had been planning to leave anyway.
I was planning to do the Richard Sachs Cycles stuff and I started the business in April 1975. I started out simply and simple.
Do you have your first frame that you made?
No, I sold it to a guy from Mexico. The oldest Richard Sachs frame that I can track is owned by Skip Lyle in Little Rock, Arkansas. He’s a bike collector and it’s the first Richard Sachs frame that I made for myself, and the 8th frame I made under my own name. He had it restored and it is in the collection now as a display piece. Well, I can get a picture of that bike. He made a print for me.
Good, but it probably won’t happen in time for this. In the 70s and before that, Eisentraut was building really nice frames earlier than anybody. When did you first hear of him or see his frames, and what was your reaction?
Well, one thing I forget to mention earlier is that just before I went to England, I worked at a Vermont bike shop called the Ski Rack, and it sold Eisentrauts. But I saw only one before I went to England. I didn’t know anything about it except it was made by a guy and not by a company. It was made by a guy. I was impressed that there was a guy doing it in America. Then in the middle 70s I was impressed with the fact that some of the Turin racers — Mike Neel and Jim Ochowicz and others — were racing on Eisentrauts. I thought it was cool that a national level team was racing on handmade bikes, not on Schwinns or Raleighs or whatever.
But you were starting out now I guess with the market the way it is now, if you were to start over, would you build with lugs?
Well, that’s all a hypothetical question.
Correct. There may be another one down the road, too. Well . . .?
Well, when I started in the early 70s when I was a teenager and I thought bikes were incredibly beautiful, but I was drawn into it because the sport was even cooler than the bicycle, but the product was cool. Now, I’m 49 and I don’t think today’s bikes are beautiful. They are not beautiful to me, anyway. They don’t draw me in the way they did then. There is nothing beautiful about them. They have their own aesthetic and they certainly work and carry people down the road and are efficient and you can make a living from it, but if all that was available then was what I see now, I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at them.
What do you think of when you see an older European maker making compact aluminum frames — for instance, the new DeRosas and Colnagos.
Well, their choices are market-driven. Those kinds of companies influenced me when I started because you have to copy something. They are pretty much corporate level and they are seen as being framebuilders, but they make thousands and thousands and thousands of bikes a year. I think to a proprietor if you asked them, “Do you think this is the apex of your working skills? Is this is the best you can do? Is there a point in your life when you were making frames that were better suited to what you wanted them to do (than the ones you make presently)?”, I’m sure none would say “This is the best I can do or have done.” They are light, fairly inexpensive, easy to make, and they are all making lots of money. They have a lot of people on staff. Everybody on staff has kids. They need to make those choices.
What are your thoughts on frame stiffness?
I don’t ever consider stiffness in my frame. I wouldn’t even know how to define it. When people talk to me about it, I’ve no clue what they are talking about.
What do you mean you have no clue?
Well, the bike has to be forgiving and resilient so it can be ridden comfortably. I don’t know what stiffness is. My notion is that when a rider feels what he thinks is a lack of it (stiffness) it’s really the result of a poorly designed or constructed bike. I think the assembly methods also contribute to how the bike feels, and it’s not simply the tube’s gauge or cross section.
Up until maybe four or five years ago, all of your down tubes were 28.6mm (1-1/8th inches) and —
- Well it was longer ago than that. But if you’re asking me why did I morph or evolve into the oversize tubes? Is that the question?
You’re a sharpie.
Well, I did it for style. There was a point about eight or nine years ago that I no longer was able to look at my frames because the tubing shapes had remained unchanged since day one. The shapes of components were changing. Clamps were becoming sleeker, stem shapes were getting more futuristic, wheels were losing spokes — everything was looking different. When I started hanging those newer parts on bikes that looked like they hadn’t changed in years, it kind of offended my sense of aesthetics. The only way for me to change that was to grow the tube diameters. It wasn’t like I did it to improve the bike or to make a statement, except maybe to myself. The bikes looked like they were from the preceding era. I could only do so much change, mainly because I was committed to using lugs, and changing the diameter helped me to feel good about bringing myself into the 90s, and also make modern racing bikes that happen to be built in the traditional way, with lugs.
If you are building a big frame 64 or 65 or larger frame for a really heavy rider, don’t you think the over size tubing is an advantage here, just to better balance, just more proportional to the size of the rider?
I guess in theory, yeah, but in practice there were people that were 6 foot plus, there were people that were 200 pounds plus back in the 70s and before that. You either increased the diameter or you could increase the gauge. Doing both would just simply make it like too heavy or heavier that it should be. I worked with what was available and I don’t really think that if oversized tubing is appropriate for many people that, for instance, super oversized tubing would be better for big people. I’m confident in my skills, so I think I can make a light responsive, super simple bike frame out of normal diameter tubing.
Tell us what makes you choose one brand over tubing.
Well, I have to feel good about the vendor. In most cases I’ll choose the vendor who wants my business. If they make me jump through hoops, if they make me pay more for something that is blister packed, when all it needs is to be put in a box and sent to me from the mill, I won’t do it. Brand doesn’t matter that much to me. I thought Reynolds made really good tubing. I still think they do, but they left America three or four years ago and it became too much of a chore for me to continue using it, so I started using Dedaccai. It has good brand recognition so I figured well, you know, one’s gone and one’s arrived. As long as I know what I’m doing, the tubing isn’t going to make or break the quality level of the bike.
When did you stop putting tube stickers on your bike?
In one of the old Bridgestone catalogues, there is a story you wrote in an article where you talk about the differences between what you called hand wrought details and investment cast ones. You seem to look askance at fanciness if it wasn’t carved or filed or brazed. Do you still feel that way?
Not as much (laughing here). Maybe it was because I thought, “Well, here I am, I’ve already put in 10 years learning how to hone my skills and some guy is going to come along and say to the newer framebuilders who didn’t have the same experiences ‚ here, save yourself time and money. You just take it out of the box and use it. You don’t have to get your hands dirty, you don’t have to cut your fingers, or have a sense of aesthetics. Just use it.” I just didn’t think that was the best way to do it.
It’s a different era now. Back then, the material they used was wrong. In 30 years I think the casting materials have become better suited to bike making. I think they are softer, more malleable. They are more like the tubing they are holding. I think that was at the core of the problem that I was having with the earliest generations of investment cast pieces. Metalurgically, things are much more compatible now.
When you started building frames, racers seem to ride more expensive bikes than they do now. These days they seem to ride more big company inexpensive bikes.
Well, I think right now the sport is industry driven. When I started, most racing bikes were handmade. They were made by production shops, framebuilding shops, or even some small artisan shops, but they were painted up to represent the sponsors who were supporting the teams. Everybody knew that was going on. I think now because there is so much money involved with the sport that if a company like Trek or Colnago or Litespeed supports a team, they want the team riding in exactly the product that the consumer is going to get at the store. There is no way to get around that. Masking frames really is something that doesn’t occur on a regular basis anymore. It happens, but it is not widespread as it was before.
Back then it seemed as though racers were the ones who road really fine frames. Since racers today ride much less expensive frames for the most part, there are exceptions, do you think that has had an effect on what the enthusiasts want?
I think the enthusiasts always want what sport’s heroes use. I’m not going to get into the pathology of that, but this is simply the way it is. It’s business.
Where do you get customers now?
I think there are people that have different sensibilities. Maybe their sensibilities are fine-tuned, or maybe they’re attaching something to my bikes that really shouldn’t be attached, but I get the person who wants something that doesn’t constitute a compromise. People want a bike from me because I have “X” amount of years of experience and stay pretty true to the company line, whatever that is, by being a one-man shop.
I feel like I live outside the bike business and watch it from the sidelines. The people who get my bikes are probably people that would not normally go to a bike store to get their really fine bike. They might get their first bike or their second or third bike, but they know ultimately that they want the experience of having me measure them; me deciding what is best and me building it in a fashion that would guarantee that it rides well and looks good.
Can you describe a Richard Sachs frame in 25 words or less, 50 words or less, what are the main characteristics of your frames that sets them apart either aesthetically or design wise or in any other way?
Well, I’ll borrow from some text I had in a brochure 10 or 12 years ago. I said, “Rational design, superb construction, and excellent workmanship,” or maybe I said, “Excellent construction and superb workmanship.” Those were the hallmarks that I decided were going to define what I did. I think first and foremost the bike has to fit. Then it has to go down a road with stability and be comfortable.
I think every manufacturer would say the same. What I’m getting at is, what are the design features of your bike that you think are a little bit different?
Well I think when I talk about design, I’m referring to the two dimensional drawing that exists on a piece of paper or in my mind. I think about all the points that connect the rider to the bike: his hands, his butt, and his feet. I also think about where the wheels are in relationship to that triangle (that exists between his hands, his butt and his feet). I think about how far apart the wheels are, where the center of gravity should be, how far away his hands will be from his saddle. I try to take a mental picture of that and create that on a three dimensional plane. My front wheel bases are longer than most, my trail measurements are less than most, my centers of gravity are lower than most, my chainstays are longer than most. Across the board, you know, my set-backs are longer than most (his seat tube angles are shallower — Ed.). Modern frame design has, unfortunately, become Americanized. By that I mean I think fine bicycle making as far as the design goes reached its zenith before the bike boom. That doesn’t mean improvements haven’t occurred, but if you look at racing bikes up through maybe the middle of the 70s — but no newer than that — most of them were comfortably designed, they allow the rider to finish races, they were more stable. And since then, things have changed.
I think my bikes haven’t changed, design wise, since that era, and I think they ride better for it.
You typically use 8cm of bottom bracket drop, which especially with skinny race wheels means a low bottom bracket. Were you doing that from the start or what influenced you to go that low in the bottom bracket?
Well, let me try and be specific. I don’t really make custom frames. I make frames made to designed in a way that I think is the best for the person who I am fitting a bike to. In the beginning of my career I had customers who were National team members and people that were just the best riders in the country. Strangely, they always asked for something that was comfortable and stable, and I kind of bookmarked that and I thought this distinction is really odd because people that I am making the bikes for that are racing on the national level, and they want bikes that, by Bicycling magazine standards, were not “racing bicycles”. They wanted the bikes to be, all summed up, longer and lower, just the opposite of the way the bike journalists of the day said racing bikes should be.
I think the line in the sand came when one of my clients, Rudy Sroka, who was also a good friend of mine, was on the first American team to be invited to the Tour de L’Avenir, which for those who don’t know, is the amateur Tour de France. He wanted the bike to be 76 degree parallel, with an 11_ inch bottom bracket, the shortest chainstays possible, and a minimum fork rake. I made the bike because I thought that, “Well, bike makers make bikes to order and this is what Rudy asked for.” He was my pal and an accomplished racer, and I figured, well I’m not going to argue. The bike looked great; you couldn’t tell from the side that it was queer. It was what he wanted. He had enormous success on it, but when he went to the Tour de L’Avenir, which was his first taste of European stage racing, he lasted three or four stages. There, the team manager, Mike Neel, said to him, “If you ever get invited back to Europe to represent America in the stage races, don’t bring that bike. Or if you ever find out I’m the coach, don’t bring that bike.”
Rudy related that story to me and at that point I said to myself, “That’s it.” None of this stuff ever made sense to me. I didn’t know how to say no. I was still getting the information for my other customer’s orders that said they liked their bikes the other way (with the inane geometry). The real racers and the National team guys, all wanted it to be this way, meaning more rationally designed. So I stopped making bikes to order and I decided to use my experience from the sport and say, “Look — there are two people in this equation, and I know more about the design than you do. I will design the bike to fit you perfectly. The result of this will be based on what I think will be correct for a bike.” Rudy’s was the last frame order I filled in which the client spec-ed the geometry and the key numbers. In other words, from the beginning I thought many of the so-called custom frame orders were coming through with requests for design elements that were contradictory with good handling and balance, and the incident with pal Rudy and his Tour de L’Avenir experience galvanized my decision to, once and for all, make my frames my way.
Visually what do you like or look for in other things? And what other builders do you admire?
Well I don’t really look around anymore. I’m not driven from within the industry. I used to be. I used to need role models and I used to need something to influence me to copy. From the beginning the first frame that I wanted to make frames like was made by W.B. Hurlow. He is not well known in America.
He’s still alive.
Yeah, I think he’s 81. I believe Maynard once went for a ride with him. He has family in Southern California and often visits. Not to get off the point but one of the biggest influences in my life was when I ordered my first frame. I think this part of the story really belongs at the beginning of this interview, but I’ll tell it to you now. I kind of got drawn into getting a custom frame made before I even knew what a custom frame was. I didn’t need a custom frame but I kind of heard about this guy who made them. You tell him what you want and he makes it. I wrote away to him and he wrote me back. I sent him a deposit, told him what I wanted, and then waited. He offered me some options and then maybe eight months later after a dozen or so letters, all hand written all on beautiful stationery, the bike arrived. The whole process of communicating with this guy who I had not met, sending him a deposit, thinking, “Wow some fellow in a far away land is going to make me a bicycle, and I’m going to like go to the airport and Emery air freight is going to deliver it, and its going to come out of their office, I’m going to sign a piece of paper, take it home and unwrap it.” I thought, “What could be better than that?” and I think that from the get-go I kind of wanted to use that as my role model. I wanted to be Bill Hurlow at some point in my life. I don’t think any frame has ever had the impact on my life or has made me look twice at it the way my first Hurlow did. Even though I make bikes and I’m expected to look around and be influenced by what is going on the industry, I rarely do. I don’t really look at bikes and pass judgment unless it is just to be cynical or catty, but this is kind of small of me to begin with! I think bikes essentially don’t do it for me. I like my bikes. I like to try and make my bikes better but I don’t look at (other) bikes to figure out what to do to make my bikes better.
You’re right, that should have come earlier. Anyway, Mario Confente died young, at 34 years old or something. He made 200 frames under his own name and now he is a legend. Have you seen any of his frames?
I think, when I thought about him back in the 70s, I still had the rose-colored glasses on, meaning that I was in my early 20s and still very green. He wasn’t much older than I was, but he from a culture where framebuilding was part of the sport. He knew things about bike design that I probably may never know. I also think the guy had a certain style that other Italian builders didn’t. He had the nerve to come to America as part of the Masi venture, and then he had the nerve to move on to make his own bikes. He was able to write his own ticket because nobody questioned that he knew what he was doing. He was basically the only game in town. I loved looking at his bikes. I think they were beautiful. But when I look at them now they seem lukewarm, because now I know things about bikes I didn’t know then. The best bikes from that era, let’s say the 70s, are not well executed by modern standards, they were just the best quality level in their era. That goes for my bikes too. My skills as a maker and as a designer have evolved many times over and I look at some of the bikes that influenced me back then and I think emotionally, “Yeah. These things are cool”, but intellectually there is really nothing there for me. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but that’s how I feel.
How did you come to like red and do you insist on it, or do your customers just see it as a signature color, the only proper color for a Richard Sachs frame?
Well, it’s another instance of serendipity. I didn’t choose the red of the red bikes. The racing team that I sponsor — that I have been sponsoring since about 1982 — wore red jerseys, and I wanted the bikes to match. The colors caught on because the team did well, we got press and notoriety, and the association with red just took on its own life.
Have you made any touring frames?
Yes, and I still do.
Well it depends on what you call a touring frame.
With the eyelets and clearance, for instance, and okay with fenders. The normal definition.
Well, for me to make a frame with touring eyelets or eyelets and what the English call Christmas tree ornaments — maybe two or three a year. It’s not my market, perhaps because of my racing background. Even though people who call me up for a frame don’t necessarily race, my knowledge and experience comes from racing, not from having toured around the world and knowing how to pack a Coleman stove so it doesn’t rattle!
The Peak One doesn’t rattle, but it’s still too heavy to take on a tour, I think. Soft stuff around them is the answer, but about frames: Are they harder or easier or different than any way to make it a road frame — besides the cantilever bosses? Do you put as much work into a bike for sloppy riding as you do for a road bike, and has your team’s success with cross helped sell cross frames?
Well that’s a mouthful. The cross frames take quite a bit less time than a road frame. At least the team’s frames do. They take a day to make (each frame). I put less time and workmanship into them, because they are just tools, even though they have beautiful JB paint jobs. Surprisingly, even though the frames are kind of cutting-edge light for steel — around 3.5 lbs for a 54cm frame — we haven’t had any breaks, dents, cracks or failures.
You must be using super light tubes, with 0.7 mm butts, and 0.4mm bellies —
Yes. I use the Dedaccai “Zero” tubing, I guess there was a point where in the late 90s when I was starting to use super light tubing for the cross frames and I thought I was really flirting with disaster. But we have to make them as light as possible because you know when you’re tired you don’t want to be carrying around any more weight than you actually have to.
Have you started using it on the road?
Oh I have, yes. I have no problem with it.
Do your customers ask you about tube specs or —
Never. Those years are long gone. At some point maybe after I’d been in the business for 20 years or so the whole interaction with the client and me changed. I got to a point where people were just happy that I had the confidence and the experience to make the frame. It wasn’t about the tube gauge, or angles, or cross section or tubing profile, it was simply about me. They wanted me to make the bike.
How do customers contact you?
These days it usually starts with email.
Do you spend a lot of time on email correspondence or talking on a phone?
Yeah, I spend a lot of time that should be spent at the work bend, but I end up getting diverted into client contact whether it’s electronic or telephoning.
How has it effected your production? How many frames did you used to make a year and how many are you making now?
Well, I still think of myself as a guy who can make 80 to 100 frames a year because when I began that is what I did. I was able to do that easily because I was younger and I had more zeal and spent six or seven days a week working and I didn’t have direct contact with my clients. I sold through bike shops. I was just opening up letters and putting them in my clipboard, and when a letter came up, I made a frame. That has all changed. Through the years the amount of time it takes for me to talk to clients and answer questions and send thank you notes and send out order forms; all that kind of stuff cuts into my frame building. I think now I can make 50 or 60 frames a year, not counting the team frames. I am embarrassed about that, because I still think of myself as being more productive. Because of all the time spent with the client, I make fewer frames. I don’t want it to get to the point where I’m making so few frames that I start to feel like Ye olde frame crafter. I want to spend most of my time in my bench, but without email contact with clients, I wouldn’t have anybody to make frames for.
How many hours go into a road frame?
Well if I just stand at my bench and make a frame, I can make a frame in about two days, say about 16 hours. But I don’t ever get even 8 solid uninterrupted hours to build, so a frame I start on Monday morning won’t be finished Tuesday at 5.
How long is the wait for a frame?
It’s currently about a year and a half. I have nearly 70 committed orders and you know if everything went smoothly, and the 71st order came tomorrow, I figure it would take me 18 months to get to that person. I have never had this much work in my life and I’m very happy and feel fortunate that people want to line up and wait, but you know, if all of a sudden six people call me up and ask me a bunch of questions, that can take a day of my time, and all of a sudden I’m a week behind.
When you say you have 70 people in line, these are people who have put down deposits?
Yes. I have 70 orders.
So how much deposit do you require, and what’s your return policy. Say someone puts down a couple hundred dollars and seven months later they say, “I cannot wait any more, give me my money back.”
Well, that doesn’t sound like the kind of question I like to answer, but I’ll try. My price list says I require 50 percent down. It’s been that way since 1980 or so. But I have so much work backed up that I’m telling people to just send me a 500 dollars as a place holder. There is no need to send me 50 percent. If they send me 50 percent, it is not going to change anything, but I don’t want to be responsible for more than I have to.
What does a frame cost?
Well, these days it’s $2,500.00. So typically somebody would see my price list, want to commit to an order, send me $1,200 to $1,250 whatever. I never say no if somebody sends me $1,100. Regarding returned deposits, there have been only two instances. One of them was this past year after I broke my leg and frames were delayed. Before that there was one deposit returned I think in the early 90s.
How many frames have you built?
I have to guess 5,000 or so. I have probably made several hundred I can’t even account for. Some frames were made off the books. Some frames were made and labeled otherwise. Some frames were for my team and I didn’t record them in the log. You know, I’m not saying I’m not a good bookkeeper, but after a while, after like 25 or 30 years some things just fall through the cracks.
What is the most rewarding part of making frames?
I think it’s hitting my marks. I have a mental picture of what I want the frame to look like, and then I have to cut everything to fit. I have to use the joining process, which causes everything to react and expand and contract. It (the frame) has to come out perfectly because sometimes bicycles push the speed of small aircraft on takeoff or landing so you want the thing to be right. It shouldn’t have to be wrestled into shape. You want to be able to build it so that it is perfect. Through the years, I have developed repeatable sequence of assembling that allows me to make the frames perfectly. I don’t even think about it anymore. I make my fixture setups, cut my tubes, shape my lugs, shape the tube ends, plug things in, mark them, heat and braze them and all of a sudden you have a frame that is beautifully brazed, which I know from experience is going to take the guy down the road with complete confidence. When all that happens simultaneously, there is no way to describe how happy I am. Some people make babies and I make bikes. This is what I do. This comes from my gene pool, and I think there are a lot of people that hear me say that and think this guy is really nuts. Everybody does something, and I make bikes.
When you think you have reached your peak as a builder or have you reached it yet?
I don’t think I have reached my peak because I’ve kind of conceded to the fact that these things are handmade. I’m thinking, “God, there are still holes in my act and I cannot figure out how to fill them.” So I learn and I learn and I learn. I try different things and all of a sudden I figure out what is bothering me, then something else starts bothering me. Little by little I raised the bar on my own standards, but I’m sill not completely happy and I’m not sure I ever will be.
You got married a few years ago; how did you meet Deb?
I met Deb in the middle 70s and had not seen her again until the early 90′s. Remember the story I told you about Rudy Sroka? Well, a few years before that Rudy was going out with Deb in high school. So I met Deb as Rudy’s girlfriend and I had a girl friend at the time and four or six of us would go to the races and just have a good time. Things changed and everybody moved on. Rudy and Deb broke up after high school and by coincidence Deb moved into my area of Connecticut about 10 years ago. I never forgot about Deb because she is really attractive and nice. We met again in 1992, and it didn’t take long for us to acknowledge the chemistry between us. We dated, and then got married 5 or so years ago. It’s really great. She is my best friend. Deb and I often say that we share one heart. Some people consider themselves best friends or sole mates or joined at the hip. Deb and I really think that we share one heart and think that is really nice. We don’t always want to be with each other. We don’t do everything together. Sometimes we do nothing together, but we always feel like we were made to be with each other.
She is a massage therapist now and before that she was making really good baskets.
Yes, Deb decided to have a career change three years ago. Before that she made period correct baskets, and was a handweaver. She has been invited to the White House to show her stuff.
Bush or Clinton?
Clinton. Yeah, it was Clinton.
Did the Clintons have a basket?
Well, I don’t know who gets to keep it. I think it actually belongs to the American public. It belongs to the people of America because a basket is given to the White House but it doesn’t belong to the Clintons. It was kind of neat and I think at least five successive years during that period she was also voted to be among the 200 best craftspeople in the country. She hasn’t forgotten how to do all of that, she just doesn’t do it for money anymore.
Do you have a lot of baskets around your house?
You recently designed your own lugs and got them cast by Long Shen. Talk about them, and say why you waited so long.
Well, I waited so long because I didn’t take the initiative to just belly up to the bar and have these things done, but I’ve been thinking about it since the early 90s because that was about the era when the available lugs were becoming less available. I had always used lugs that were kind of hard to get or unique to my frames. Anybody could have used them, but I had resources in the Orient that got me some lugs and some shapes that were not commonly available. All the shapes that I like are kind of an evolved version of the Dubois lugs that I used on my bikes in the 70s.
In the middle 90s I wasn’t happy with the material available for the lugs and spent a long time reworking and reshaping existing lugs. An evolved version of these reworked lugs served as the 3D model for my new cast lugs. Long Shen nailed the designs perfectly. As casting houses go, they are without peer in our industry!
Now that you’ve got 70 frames in your queue and delivery is 18 months already, does it occur to you that once you come out with your lugs, you could get another 40 or 50 orders almost immediately? From past customers who want your latest?
Yeah, I know, but it never occurred to me because the cogs in my head don’t work that way. I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it, but I don’t know if having these lugs on my frame is going to make them better.
Do you plan to keep these lugs for your frames or are you going to sell them?
Sell!! The number of fine lugs for frame building that are available I think is minimal, and I have never really been happy with what is on the market. So what I wanted to do was to design a lug that could be considered the Richard Sachs lug. It is put it into the marketplace for consumption by other builders who come from the 70s, 80s, or 90s, people who are hobbyists, or even small production shops in Italy or in North America. If those people wanted to use my lugs on their frames, that would be part of what this is all about. I am more proud of the lugs than I am of a lot of the frames I have built over the years because this is something that I made.
Who would you like to see use these?
Well, I’d like to see anybody use them or not use them, even. In other words, if they ended up on the bookshelf or the mantle piece that would be fine too. What I’m doing here is trying to bring classic or traditional framebuilding processes into the 21st century. These new lug designs are kind of traditional. These are the lugs that mimic the frames that I made in the 70s when I had DuBois make me lugs on a regular basis. If a European company wants to use them, then I will consider it a complete success. If nobody wants them at all, that’s okay, because I did this for myself. I also look at these things as my contribution to this style of frame building. It is a way for me to make a legacy.
Well, OK, so you would like to see other builders using your lugs. If somebody was building his first frame, you wouldn’t mind if he used these lugs?
No, and I think these lugs suited to somebody who is starting out because they have short points, and are malleable, or bendable. I have used one set of angles for all my lugs since about 1982 and all my frames have come in all the angles. It is up to the framebuilder to know how to do the reworking. That is part of what a framebuilder’s task is meant to encompass.
These look really finished and I think you mentioned to me that there is no room for any builder to add or subtract anything from these so are you going to use these as they are cast?
Yeah. Obviously, they are going to need maybe a minute or two of dressing up owing to the casting process. There are some limitations in how sharp or pointed an edge might be from the foundry. On one hand they are perfect as is, but because I make frames one-at-a-time, if I want to sharpen up a point or define a window a little bit further, I might do that. For the builders who buy these things and want to personalize them there is really not much more room on these things to make changes.
How would you feel about somebody building with your lugs and thinking, “Well, I really like the Richard Sachs thing and I’m going to do him pay him the ultimate compliment and also get my bike painted exactly as he has his painted, and I’m going to get decals that look similar to his, and heck I’m going to go to JB for the paint job too. Now how do you feel?
It doesn’t faze me in the least. I have at least 30 year head start so even if you just take the exact same materials, and the exact same paint scheme, create a decal set, use the same lugs, whatever, it’s still not my bike. I mean it’s flattering that somebody would want to go to that kind of degree to either pay respects or even do it just as a spoof, but it’s not going to affect what I do, and it’s not going to affect what people who have Richard Sachs bikes think of their bike.
On the head lug you have a 15mm or so extension. It’s not traditional, and it’s not what I’d expect you to do. Why’d you do it?
I upped it some, so now it’s about 19mm. Maybe 18mm. Most people think that extended head lug thing is kind of a 90s thing or even, if you will, a Rivendell-ish thing. You need to have the head tubes higher in the front. Through the years, this is something wrong that has not really been addressed. Headsets have gotten smaller; even the threaded ones are now quite miniature compared to what preceded them. You’ve lost at least 16 mm of space just in the 90s when headsets became compacted. Worse yet, quill stems have become shorter. Now if you want your bars in the same place as they used to be, you need to somehow build up the head tube so that you don’t have you stem all the way up. So that’s probably the reason I did it. I actually like the look, too, because I think with the oversize tubing and the short lugs on the extension when done well, looks to me like it’s well thought out and completely functional.
I’m with you and I go even further: To me, bikes without them look funny, but that’s just because I’ve seen them for so long on our bikes. Anyway, you got a new fork crown too, so talk about that, please.
Yeah, I took the basic flat crown that I had been using since roughly 1982 and refined it to the point that this was exactly what I wanted, made it a little taller and about 6 or 7 mm wider.
Did you make it wider because you are building more cross bikes, or because you want to use it for your team bikes?
Well, I did it for those reasons as well, but I actually think it looks better and I don’t have the engineering background to say well wider is better or narrow is better. It is just an aesthetic decision, and it was made based on that alone.
Are there any other frame building pieces that you are running short of or that you are concerned about? Do you want to get a bottom bracket shell sometime, and what about dropouts?
Well, I do fear for the future, but my production is safe for a least five years. It would be prudent to have my own bottom bracket shells so that I could do detail work. Dropouts — that’s something that’s something that may happen down the road. Small fittings — I’m not too worried about because any machine shop could make those pieces if the pieces from the frame building supply industry kind of ran dry.
How long do you see yourself building?
I’ve never thought about it. I think this says something about my personality. I kind of feel like I’m just getting into it even though I got into it in 1971 or 1972 and now it’s 2002. Maybe it’s because I work alone. Maybe it’s because I’m self-taught. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child.
I’ve made thousands of frames and a lot of time has gone by, but I still question what I’m doing and maybe that helps me want to learn more. I wish I could have complete confidence in the fact that what I’m doing is exactly the way it should be done. I think for people who make things by hand, this is a typical character trait. But you’re asking me about what I’m going to do in the future; actually I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing now. Having said that I don’t want to have anybody lose confidence in me because they think, “Well, he doesn’t sound like he knows what he is doing.” My bikes are superb, but I still think that there is an enormous amount to learn about bike making.
Would you do anything differently if you didn’t have to work for a living? If you had several million dollars, would your life change?
No, it wouldn’t. I suppose I wouldn’t need to have paying customers the way I need to have paying customers now, but I think you know, look — I’m 49 now and I’ve been working in the bicycle business for at least 30 years. I suppose I would continue to make frames on the same schedule I have now. Having a million dollars as a cushion would enable me to not to worry about the customer contact and marketing.
If you didn’t need to have paying customers, would you price then any differently? I know in our case we don’t price them higher because we are afraid of losing customers and we want to keep the builders buys. We figure we’ll make our money in some other ways. In your case, if you didn’t have to have paying customers, would you price them higher? When you see a Colnago C40 or a DeRosa king frame selling for close to $4,000 without a fork or maybe even with a fork and you look at your frame for fork for $2,500. . .?
Well the price is $2,500 now and I also have other frames that cost more, but they are kind of “Anniversary” frames that I have made through the years. They are $2,500 because I have not made the time to tend to my price list and to make the adjustments. I told everybody who has an order with me that you know I don’t really know what the frame is going to cost when I sell it to you in 18 months; your deposit holds your place in line, but you’re going to have to give me some latitude because if my costs go up. If JB raises his paint prices, or if the material costs go up, or the cost of living in Chester escalates too much, it is not going to be $2,500. That is simply what it says on the price list today and I feel lucky because everybody who have queued up aggress with me that if their frames cost more when they get it than when they signed up for it, that’s life.
We are winding it up here, but something else occurred to me that I wanted to ask you. Your thoughts on forks in general and making a fork and the amount of work that goes into making a fork and what you look for in a fork and your thoughts on after market forks. Has anyone ever put an after market fork on your frame?
It has happened, but not by somebody who has actually bought a bike from me. There are people who have my bikes that got them second hand or people that have bikes that are 10 to 15 years old and they get caught up in this huge “this month’s flavor” thing with whatever it is. If you’re talking about forks then they might think, “Well yeah, I’ve read all about this carbon fiber stuff and I want to try it.” So these are not people that I have direct contact with, but I’ve heard about people with Sachs frames that have replaced the forks only because they want to try something different. I cannot fault them for that. I have obviously strong issues with the fork thing.
Most people don’t think of it the way a framebuilder would, but a fork is a pretty important part of a frame, and it’s not supposed to be considered an accessory (like a handlebar set or a saddle) that you buy once your frame is complete. The reason people now buy forks from fork factories is because it is cheaper and more efficient to make them in a mold than it is to have the framebuilder continue the tradition or making them to mate with the frame. I think that is a sad thing. That is the way the market has gone and I don’t try to fight it. I continue to make my forks and each fork is made for the frame that it is stuck into.
Do you get request for forks separately? Do you ever build forks to sell them?
Well not so much that I could make a market out of it. I have sold forks to people that just wanted them, but maybe five or six. It’s not a product for me.
Do you get requests for chrome lugs? Do people ever come to you and say, “Well, I want to just go nuts here, so can I get a chrome crown, chrome lugs?
Yeah, not the way I did up until maybe the 90s. Chroming is not in vogue anymore. It was a look that was more part and parcel with traditional European frames. The look vaporized by the time the middle 90s came around. Another dimension is the cost of getting quality chrome in America. Because the volume we give the plater makes it cost-prohibitive to routinely plate various parts of the bikes. Some people just have a blank check and if they want the crown or the lugs chromed, then we can do it, but aesthetically it doesn’t really complement the bikes I am making now. It happens twice a year, at most.
I don’t know if this will be in the interview either, but I’ve got to wind it up somehow. How do you want to be thought of historically and what do you think your contribution to bicycles has been and will be when you’re gone?
I never really thought about it, but if I mean I kind of feel like I’m still on the way up. So, you’re asking me about what my legacy might be? I’m going to be dead, so it won’t really matter, but if you want to just play with this: I don’t fit the mold. I live outside the box. Even though I make frames I don’t consider myself part of the bicycle industry. I’m a racer who happened to fall in love with bike frames and wanted to make beautiful things during the week and race on the weekends. I’ve been involved with the sport, and I’ve been really lucky. I haven’t had to make compromises that are market-driven.
I’m really proud of the lugs. Now that I have a set, I can say to somebody else, “This is my design, I gave birth to this and it is something that somebody else can use to make their bikes better or their life easier or simply something to fondle because it is a beautiful thing.” I’ve always felt that classic framebuilding was better than the kind of production building that goes on. I think it is more organic. I think you can make a better bike when somebody who knows what they are doing takes it, configures it, puts something of themselves into it as they are making it, and delivers it to the client that orders it. I’m not sure it can get better than that. So, having the lug project is, in a way, a way for me to say I am helping to prolong the building of classic frames because these are beautiful lugs.
OK. Well that might be the ending or we’ll figure out something later, but thanks a lot. Over and out.
POSTSCRIPT: A RAINY RIDE WITH RICHARD
We have great riding around here, and are always eager to show it off.
So I was excited as Richard and I headed up the mountain. But the weekend’s storm, which flooded the Cyclocross Nationals, caused rock slides on the mountain, so the ranger turned us back at the entrance. Grrrr. We went around the backside and up a trail instead, where there wouldn’t be a ranger. Not good form, but this was our day to ride. I rode my road bike, Richard rode his cross bike.
The climb is about 4 miles, and a half a mile up it Richard flatted and didn’t have a spare. He had tubulars, so my spare tube didn’t do any good. We hiked the rest of the way, and talked a lot more than we would have if we’d been riding, so that part was good.
The weather got progressively wetter, and it was cold and rainy at 3,000 feet. At that point, the trail meets the road at a wide, flattish horseshoe bend. Richard’s hands were frozen and his brown cotton gloves were bleeding brown as he wrong them out. I had a spare pair of woolies, and that helped. His hands were so cold that he couldn’t even put them on, but together we managed, and as I was repacking my saddlebag, he headed off down the paved road to get a head start, being that he was riding a flat tie and would go slow.
But it was foggy and Richard doesn’t know the mountain, and instead of heading right and down, he headed left and up. Remember, it was flat at that point. I didn’t see him go, so when I took off after him, I expected to catch him in a minute, but two minutes passed and three, and four, and I thought, “Wow, he descends fast for a guy with a flat tire. It must be the cyclocross-ing. . .”
But after another minute (it was raining good by now), I noticed I had a flat. Crudola! I was worried about Richard. He was freezing and shivering the last I’d seen him, just 12 minutes before. I replaced my tube, and just as I finished, he came down the road and found me. We rode down together, got stopped and scolded by the ranger who’d turned us back 4 hours earlier, and made it back to Rivendell.
I wish I’d brought a camera — it was one of the few times I’ve ridden lately without one. But the next day, Richard and Mark and I went out for a sunny, 30-mile road ride, and that’s here the riding photos that accompany this interview came from. Richard is fit and fast and a lot of fun to ride with. — Grant