In the small, riverside town of Chester, Connecticut, a man named Richard Sachs works alone, as he has since 1975, making bicycle frames the way they used to be made — by hand — joining the steel tubes with little metal sleeves called lugs, then brazing the joints. If you looked at one of his frames and said, “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” you wouldn’t be talking in clichés; you’d be telling the truth.
I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t gone bike riding with my friend Joel last summer. Joel’s a tall, skinny guy, a little gawky and a lot goofy, and a whole bunch of fun to ride with. Anyway, Joel was wearing a pair of Richard Sachs riding shorts. They were pretty basic; black and red with Richard’s logo on each leg. But what caught my eye was five words printed across the back, straddling the thin line between Joel’s meager rump and his lower back: It’s Simple, But Not Easy.
I’m not a particularly observant fellow, and my memory pretty much sucks, but every once in a while, I’ll hear or see something that sticks with me. Those five words stuck with me: It’s simple, but not easy. The phrase seemed at once obvious and mysterious, like an airplane taking off, or a lightbulb flicking on.
I thought about Richard’s slogan all winter. I thought about it every time I loaded firewood into the sled, pulled it from the woodpile to the front door and carried it into the house, armload by armload. Wood heat is simple: Crumple some newspaper, stack some kindling and strike a match. Bingo. Fire. Heat. Yeah, it’s simple. But it sure as hell ain’t easy.
A few days back, rather on a whim, I gave Richard a call. I had no real agenda, but I wanted to ask him about the genesis of the phrase. “Richard,” I said, after introducing myself. “What do these words mean to you?” Richard gave a little snort of impatience, as if the question wasn’t worth the energy to answer. “There’s not much to it,” he said. “It either means something to you or it doesn’t.” I explained that to me, it did, and he softened a little.
“I’m not normally a provocative guy,” he explained. “But I wanted to make people think ‘what the hell is that?’ Sure, it’s a commercial advertisement of sorts, but rather than be purely commercial, why not provoke a bit?”
We talked a bit longer, about bikes, life and mutual acquaintances in the cycling world, and it became clear that Richard considers himself something of an outsider. “There’s almost no overlap between what the industry does and what I do. The bike industry makes money; I make bikes.”
I suppose there are some folks in the business of bicycles who would argue that statement, but his point is clear: Richard Sachs does things differently. His bicycles are not the product of the latest materials and construction techniques, most of which are implemented by machine. You could call them simple, in the same way you might think of wood heat or a homemade loaf of sourdough bread or a carrot straight from the garden as simple. But to do so doesn’t address the time Richard spends cutting and filing and brazing, skills he’s honed over the past 30-odd years. It doesn’t address the trees that must be felled, cut, split, and stacked and then haled, sled-load by sled-load, to the stove. It doesn’t address the sourdough starter, which must be tended daily for a full week, before you mix the flours and salt and fire the oven. It doesn’t address the tilling and seeding and weeding that went into growing the carrot.
To some ‚ heck, to most ‚ creating these simple things is just too damn much work. It’s not, in a word, easy. But to Richard, the “work” isn’t really work; “easy” isn’t really all that much fun.
I like the way Richard does things, and I wish I could afford one of his bikes. Alas, I cannot. But I think I’m going to give him another call to see if he’s got any of those shorts left.
The following article was originally written for Hooked on the Outdoors magazine, and appeared in June 2004, with the headline “Simple Living: It’s not as easy as it looks.”