Interview with Richard Sachs: :thewashingmachinepost

This is the full version of an interview which originally appeared in Spring 2009 on thewashingmachinepost.net .

there are a considerable number of quality framebuilders in north america, many of them working with old fashioned steel tubes and lugs, but this arguably allows for a greater degree of individuality in the finished product. and there is a lengthy queue of customers willing to pay, and to wait, for this level of skill and artistry in the frames they will ride with pleasure for many a long year. one of the most prominent, and outspoken members of this frame building fraternity, possibly the north american equivalent of dario pegoretti, is richard sachs.

not so long ago, i reviewed des horsfield’s movie about richard, entitled imperfection is perfection where, to be perfectly blunt, richard came across as a sullen individual; i don’t think i saw him smile once in the movie, and while choosing a selection of photographs to accompany this interview, i didn’t come across any photographs of him smiling either. however, this is very much at odds with my e-mail correspondence, where he has been extremely accommodating, fastidious and humorous – so much so, that i truly hope that i might meet the man in person at some time in my future. never judge a man by his movie.

so sit back, put your feet up and read among one of the finest interviews it has been my privilege to publish in the years that i have been editing the post.

atmo.

given that, at a very basic level, you build bicycle frames every day at work, do you ever get fed up?

Thus far, I haven’t had my fill. But seeing as I am in my 37th year in business, there are elements to it all that, though they come with the territory, do wear me down from time to time. To no one’s surprise should be that framebuilding – the actual physical work – is one of the easier tasks here.

is the much vaunted five year waiting list a bonus or a millstone round your neck?

It’s around seven years, but why keep score?! In my most self-absorbed moments, when I am looking at the stack of papers that comprise the order pile, or the running list of names that make up the queue, or the various client file folders I have created to keep order in my email program, or the three (count ‘em, THREE…) separate places I keep all of the pending orders information as a sort of checks and balances thing in case there’s some data loss suffered somewhere – when I stew on all of this in its entirety, at times I let it get to me. But the reality is that I am fortunate to have the work, and grateful for the demand.

as a sidebar, the wait list that gets tossed around as some kind of pop culture fodder for message board-istas is relatively new for most of us who have them. i labored (that’s a loose use of the word atmo) in relative obscurity for many seasons. for most of my adult life, the delivery quotes ranged from 6 months to maybe 2 years. all of this changed for many framebuilders when forum life became the routine social outlet for so many racers, consumers, and aficionados of handmade and hard to get items that go here —–> ________________ .

It’s a rather odd zeitgeist that has allowed for the craftspeople in question to have such long lines. The message boards threads add to the stew. The picture links add to the stew. The endless posts from detractors who question the others who are in the queues add to the stew. Most of the framebuilders are one-man shops with low output to begin with. The frames can’t be made any faster. So folks are waiting. That’s a story in itself, as is the herd instinct phenomenon that comes from the forum folk who have opinions on both sides of the issue.

would it therefore be correct to say that you’re in team sponsorship for the love of it, rather than as a means of improving sales?

It’s definitely the former. I started as a team sponsor in 1982 because the team that I had raced for all through the late 1970s found itself unsupported. At that time I felt compelled to help and give back simply because we were always helped. It was my turn to be the next in line. There have been Richard Sachs supported racing teams ever since. In the last 14 years, my focus for the team has evolved from road to cyclocross. It’s fun, and seems to be working well!

did you have an affinity for bicycle design and engineering when you went to witcomb cycles in london?

No – none at all. I was a poseur. Bicycles seemed beautiful, and the tie-in to the sport they were used for was inseparable. There was a place in time that my ambition, or dream, was to make the bicycles that would be associated with those riding them to victory. I was still a teenager then!

why did you choose to go to england to learn? surely there must have been someone, somewhere in north america who could have taught you just as well?

I didn’t choose it, or anything. I was chosen. WTF do I mean?! Well, the short story is that I was destined for academia. I had an interest in writing and journalism and was accepted to a mighty, mighty fine college, I must say. I had this block of time to kill before school started. There was an ad in the paper in New York City where I was working, and it was for a position as a bicycle mechanic at a shop 6-7 hours north in Burlington, Vermont. Within 2 days I was on a one-way Greyhound bus ride to get that job. I walked into the shop, enthusiastic and all of 18 years old, and got this look like I was from another planet. The position had already been filled, and worse yet, I was informed I lacked the experience. Data point: I knew that, but I still thought I could ride it through at least until school would start. Anyway, I was beside myself in disbelief and was harboring feelings of rejection. The next day, or the next day after that, I decided that the only vindication was to show these idiots who turned me down that I could trump them and their stupid little mechanics job, and find a way to make bicycles rather than simply fix them. I wrote away to about 3 dozen addresses that I mined from the back of International Cycle Sport and said that I’d come to the U.K. to work for free in return for said entity teaching me to build frames. The mailings netted 3 replies; 2 were “no”, and 1 was “yes”. The Witcomb family said I could come over and work, and so I did.

It’s a strange sequence of events to be damn sure. Had I gone straight to college, I wouldn’t have had the time to kill. Had I not seen the advert in the Village Voice, I would have waited my time out in New York City. Had the folks in Vermont given me the job, it would have lasted until the week before school. And where I got the stones to muster up a revenge attitude for what happened is beyond me. It’s as if the going abroad thing was an act of defiance. I was young, kinda’ sorta’ groomed for a path to college, and got sidetracked. Getting even with the folks who had a hand in this, or with the planets which seemingly lined up in the wrong place for me at that moment in time – well, I guess I unrang that bell real good. PS what was the question?

given that witcomb gave you your start in the framebuilding world, would you be willing to do the same if someone were to write to you with the same request?

Negative. Well, maybe. The tables are turned, and the important component in this equation is that the eras are decidedly different, both commercially and sporting-wise. Plus, I am a loner to the nth degree. Having another person, or voice, around does not make e-RICHIE a happy fucking camper. All of my adult life’s routine has been “make bikes, ride bikes”. The thought of having to spend face time with others is one that never resonated with me. I’m not so much into the one person-one frame thing as I am into my own independence and love of a no-strings-attached lifestyle.

do you ever miss someone else to chat do or discuss stuff with during your working day?

Never. And then I got online! Whatever inkling of need I had to have fellow workers in adjoining cubicles or moments every 10 minutes at the water cooler – these needs have been satisfied by my participation in various forums and email lists. I spend far less time popping off online than the average Joe does with his co-workers. It’s just that my antics are done in plain view of those logged on!

do you keep in touch with witcomb these days?

No, I don’t.

do you see a day when the majority tire of carbon and start to re-appreciate the all steel frame?

Yes. The internet has jump-started the niche’s return to a real place in the market. For most of the 1990s, framebuilding (and steel as a material of choice) was pushed aside by industry. Other materials, joining techniques, and forces of the market and consumer demand (all) worked against what the rank and file framebuilder stood for. Atmo some of us waded through that mess of an era, but it did leave casualties in its wake.

how many of today’s well advertised machines do you think are victims of marketing?

“Marketing”, the word, gets a bad rap. I discuss this routinely online. The moment one hits the send, or post button, the message goes out to the world and is usually cached somewhere forever. It’s no different for the words we use, the body english we employ, or the way we comport ourselves with others. It’s all marketing. Some of it overt, some covert. Some deliberate, and some in spite of itself. There’s a reason it’s called the bicycle business. Without a demand, perceived or otherwise, no commerce will transpire. I can live with any of the many billions of opinions I put out there, and am more than comfortable in my skin. The others, those with the big (or even not-so-big) claims, can speak for themselves.

any views on the integrated/semi-integrated headset?

I think they look really cool. The drawback is the real estate they encompass causes a chain of events that takes its toll on the drop from the saddle to the stem. To counteract this, taller head tubes, weird positioned stems (and brake levers), and a billion headset spacers are all now part of the aesthetic vocabulary.

where did the slogan/motto ‘atmo’ come from?

Me.

do you sell any/many frames in the uk or europe?

Yes, I do. These are all internet driven orders and sales.

was the film ‘imperfection is perfection’ your idea?

The project was collaboration. I knew Des from the late 1980s when he filmed here for a local NBC affiliate story about me, the racing team, and my framebuilding business. We’d see each other every few seasons after that. About 3 years ago we talked about his coming in to shoot footage and we’d see where it leads. Des is a career filmmaker and very successful in his own right. There was a hint of doing it as an art project too. No commercial agenda – nothing. From the day he first showed up to the last few hours of recording, I conceded myself to his direction and would live with it. I never saw a daily, or a rough cut, or anything until, months later, he sent a laptop made DVD of what became the film.

was filming a pleasure or an intrusion?

Pleasure might not be a word I’d choose, but Des’ presence was never an intrusion. It was fun to live the experience and to see what goes into a piece like this. Des shot a lot – and i mean A LOT – of footage, and distilled it all down into one concise, informative, and entertaining piece.

san pellegrino – plain or flavoured?

With bubbles, and plain. 3 liters daily, and at least 30 Altoids. Flavored? Give me a fugcikn break!

how did you get involved with the rapha continental?

Jeremy Dunn from embrocation zine is a pal and fellow ‘cross circuit vampire. We met about 3 years ago and I took to him immediately. He’s part of a lovely group of cats who race well and like to have fun. A big shout out also to Craig, big Eric, Nick, Peter B, Bavolar, and all the Cambridge (not the university) bicycle racers. Anyway, Jeremy had a ride with the Rapha organization, and one of the details involved was that each member worked with a framebuilder to make a unit that’d be painted in the black and pink graphics, but also could be identified as being unique from all of the others used by his team mates. We talked, and it took all of 18 seconds for me to decide I wanted to be part of this. Folks can follow the group’s travails (I love using that word) online through the Rapha site .

would you regard red as your corporate colour?

Yes. In 1982, the very first year I sponsored a team, Le Coq Sportif supplied outfits. The kit was red and white. I painted the bicycles to match. Period. Le Coq moved on in 1983, and we never looked back. The team bicycles and 99% of my client’s orders have been for the red and white scheme ever since. The red paint has evolved through the years. For a period the decal art ink changed from yellow to white and back to yellow several times. The white paint, which was once a reflective white hue was changed to off-white about 4-5 seasons ago.

i’m mystified as to the ‘trend’ of cutting the logo out of the bottom bracket shell. surely this lets all the crud collect inside and make the bearings suffer (on an internal bb)? plus, no-one can see it when you’re riding the bike.

It’s a detail. I used to cut them by hand. When I decided to add an RS bb shell to the laundry list of framebuilding parts I was producing and selling to others, it was fairly easy to have the logo art file turned into a cast-in window in each piece. All of the frames are rust proofed, so I have no issues with the elements or weather.

do you build your own wheels too?

No. I use either handbuilts from Joe Young in Texas, or pre-builts as the case may be.

if it came to the crunch, and you needed a new bike for yourself, aside from a richard sachs, what you you buy?

I will soon take delivery of a new Gaulzetti bicycle frame. Craig is a pal, a former racer, an industry icon (no, I am NOT saying this shit to prop him atmo), and well respected in the sport and online. He is having frames made to his design(s) and we collaborated on one for me late last autumn and it should arrive any week now. I have 2 RS ‘cross frames that I ride daily, and an RS road frame from 2008. My plan is to make the Gaulzetti my training bicycle and add feedback to Craig as needed.

if you hadn’t been fortunate enough to become a framebuilder, what career path would you have seen for richard sachs?

I have no clue at all. Despite that I was destined to study writing in college, with hindsight I realize I would have stumbled through 4 years of classes and looked out the window far more than I would have taken pen to paper. I can’t see that I am equipped for anything except the very life I fell into by accident.

campag, sram or shimano – any preference?

Sram atmo.

is connecticut a strong cycling region? are there any other framebuilders in the area?

It’s a nice place to live. I ended up here in 1973 as a result of the Witcomb-Witcomb USA project. Pal Peter (Weigle), who I met and befriended in London, also stayed in the area and builds frames about 6 miles east of Chester.

any cycling heroes?

Through the years and over the eras, the following have been my muses, some for a fleeting moment, and others for a longer time: Bill Hurlow, Yoshiaki Nagasawa, Faliero and Alberto Masi, Dario Pegoretti, Jim D’aquisto, Jil Sander, Phillipe Dufour, George Nakashima, my wife a.k.a. “The Lovely Deb”, Paul Laubin, – aw shit, shut me up already.

any long-term plans, or will you continue to make richard sachs steel frames until you retire?

Folks will laugh, but the truth is I have very little ambition. I got into this framebuilding gig by complete serendipity. I was unprepared for the task. When Peter and I were asked to make Witcomb USA frames in Connecticut because the family in London was unable to supply our boss with product, I felt unprepared for the task. When I got fed up with my boss and set up my business in late 1975, I was unprepared for the task. Before too long, I was taking orders and making bicycles and never, ever felt as if I had the complete and proper training. So much of what I do is seat of the pants and intuitive. I’ve never seen anyone else make frames from end to end since I left England in 1973. And by the time I got up a head of steam as a commercial framebuilder, nothing – not a single task – resembled what I saw or did abroad. I am routinely confounded by the process. The lack of confidence or the deeply rooted feeling that, since I am self-taught, something is missing – this is an emotion that envelopes every working day I have and every frame I build. Because of this simple fact that I am never completely content with what passes as a finished bicycle, I continue to come in every Monday to see if I can redeem myself for all my past gaffes, miscues, and blunders. It sounds so drama queen-esque typing out these words, but this is how I feel. If it ever changes, maybe the word “retire” can be used in a sentence. For now, I have 7 years worth of work in which to see if I can possibly get it nailed.

are you having a good time – is life satisfying?

Yes, yes, and a resounding yes, ma’am.