Nestled in the small hamlet of Chester, Connecticut, among artists’ studios, restaurants, and Colonial era homes, is a bicycle factory. This factory is operated by Richard Sachs, a craftsman bicycle frame builder. Sachs has been building bicycle frames since 1972 and he is the only employee at this factory. He proudly proclaims that he does it all when it comes to making your custom frame.
Of course, Sachs, production capacity is not conducive to short lead times. In a conversation with Sachs about the US bicycle industry and his unique approach, he proclaims, “40 months is just a guess.” That backlog is due to both his popularity as a custom builder and his craftsman approach to the process of making bicycle frames one at a time. Sachs sells client direct, rather than through bicycle shops. He meets with the client, “fits” the client, measures their current bicycle, and interviews them about their riding style. This approach is much different from custom builders like Seven Cycles, who delegate the ordering and fitting process to their dealers while focusing on the “mass-customization” process of producing high quality bicycles with a small team of builders.
Sachs does it all, so he can only turn out a limited number of bicycles each year. He feels that he has more in common with craftspeople making other products, like custom watches, baskets, and shirts, than he does with larger bicycle makers. Sachs has strong opinions about the industry. He is heralded as one of the top custom frame builders in the world. He only builds with steel and he only uses lugs to join the tubes. His welding and other processes are meticulous and for the most part, he builds frames the way he always has, however after more than 35 years of experience, he feels that the frames he builds today are far superior to those built in his early days. Sachs’ focus is on the function of the bicycle, but his frames look great too, though the responsibility for finishing and painting each Sachs frame falls to Joe Bell and his team in San Diego, California.
Sachs’ product seems a bit out of place in today’s industrial world, where the US bike builders survive by selling ultra light bicycles made from space age materials, sometimes, without a bit of metal in them. Sachs builds bikes for a lifetime of use and he refers to some of today’s high end one piece carbon fiber bicycles as “disposable”. He is a throwback to the way things used to be and is proud of his way of doing things. He notes that the big US builders like Trek, are successful and that all of the technological advancements have made a difference. “They have made a better bicycle. The customer can get it for less and the company makes more money.”
He readily acknowledges that trickle down technology from the mountain bike boom of 10 years ago is what drives the innovation in today’s high end US built road bicycles and that more efficient manufacturing processes have given the consumer more value. Sachs has stayed out of the race to make bicycles ever lighter. He has had personal experience with lightweight components failing and he feels that the consumers are naïve to the risks that they face when choosing lightweight over durable. He is fond of saying. “One pound of steel equals one pound of carbon fiber.” Since his bicycle frames cost more than $3000 (a complete bicycle with good components would be more than $5500), they may not be for the masses, but judging from the long list of customers waiting to be next in line, Richard Sachs can choose to make bicycles his way for a long time.
The preceding article was originally written by Scott Livingston for Today’s Machining World (TMW), and appeared in the November/December 2005 issue, as a sidebar.