Two Wheels

The world’s best bicycles are American, and made of steel

I didn’t know it at the time, but my first bicycle came in the waning years of a sort of revolution. Over the decade The Beatles played together – from 1960 to 1970 –the American bike market grew slowly from 3.7 million bicycles sold annually to 6.9 million. But three years after the group’s breakup, the world was a different place. Credit the oil crisis or a cultural shift, in 1973 Americans bought 15.2 million bicycles, and sales were only growing. England produced some of the best examples and so, for reasons of business-minded optimism, wanderlust, or perhaps ennui, a handful of young Americans crossed the Atlantic to learn the trade of frame building. Many never progressed past the stage of fixing a flat, but a few of them emerged not only as bicycle makers, but as legends – really, legends – of the trade. Two of these, J. Peter Weigle and Richard Sachs, probably don’t want to read that they “clipped-in to ride their share of an artisan relay, carrying the flame of two-wheeled tradition across the Atlantic, blah, blah, blah,” but gilded statements to that effect aren’t exactly wrong, even if the men themselves are more matter-of-fact. Both went to England in the 1970s to learn how to build bicycles, both worked at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles in London, and today both build exceptional bikes. Their frames are made of steel, but neither man lives in the past

“I got a call one day from a friend of mine,” remembers Weigle, who currently specializes in crafting randonneuring bicycles, a specific type of long-distance bike. “’You’ve got to come down to Connecticut to interview for this job!’ It was 1973, which was the oil embargo – what the bicycle industry refers to as the bike boom. They were bringing in all of these bikes, thinking bikes were going to replace a lot of the around-town transport. It never really worked like that.

“I was 23 years old and really hadn’t left town a whole lot. I’d been to Colorado, but I really hadn’t stepped out. So I thought about it, talked to my parents about it, and two weeks later I was on a plane flying into Heathrow.”

For Richard Sachs, who’s known for his racing frames, the path to England was slightly different. “I didn’t plan this,” he says. “I got a 10-speed bike back in the 1960s, which to me back then meant a bike with turned-down handlebars and skinny wheels. It was a departure from BMX – those were the kinds of bikes I knew: I jumped curbs, got off the bike, and threw it down. All of a sudden I saw 10-speed bikes and thought, ‘hey, that’s really cool.’“

Sachs had some time to kill before college, and saw an ad in New York’s Village Voice for a bike mechanic position in Burlington, VT, threw his things in a bag and boarded a bus. But when he arrived in Burlington he found the position had already been filled.

“I was beside myself,” Sachs in the film Imperfection Is Perfection, a documentary about his work. “I sat down and wrote some 30-odd letters to companies in England. I said I would like to come to work for free in return for learning how to make bicycles. I got three responses, one was in the affirmative. A company in London called Witcomb Lightweight Cycles said ‘We’d love to have you.’ I went to England and I lived with the Witcomb family, and that’s how I started in the bike-making trade.”

WITCOMB LIGHTWEIGHT CYCLES

The patriotically named Englishman, Stan Britain, rode a Witcomb bicycle to 66th place in the 1958 Tour de France, and 12 years later the company was contracted to build bikes for the British Olympic Team. These successes, and founder Ernie Witcomb’s history as a bicycle racing official, led to Witcomb being chosen, for a time, to represent British cycling internationally.

“Britain Builds Best,” Ernie recollects. Now 92 and living outside of London, the elder Witcomb (his son Barry was the primary frame-builder and mentor at the Witcomb shop), travelled in the U.S. in the 1970s at the behest of the British government, promoting English cycling – and having a rather nice time.

“They called me up and said, ‘Would you like to go to America, you and your wife, all expenses paid, and stay in Hilton hotel,’” he remembers now, chuckling, “Well, who’d say no?”

British bicycles were selling, and in a bid to grow the new U.S. market Ernie and a few others formed Witcomb USA. It was on the back of this that Weigle and Sachs headed across the pond, just two of a handful of Americans who went through the small shop on Tanner’s Hill in the Southeast London neighborhood of Deptford.

Witcomb shut its doors late last year, but in eight decades of business it made a profound impact on cycling. Ernie’s son Barry (who once declined the opportunity to work for the racing icon Eddy Merckx) was trained to build cycles by the legendary Jim Collier, who also trained Ron Cooper, another top frame-maker. It was Barry who worked with most of the young Americans that visited Witcomb. In addition to Weigle and Sachs, the shops “graduates” include Ben Serotta and Chris Chance, both of whom are regarded as luminary frame-builders in their own right.

“Going over there I had no idea what to expect,” Weigle says. “It was… Dickensian, really. So dark and gloomy. You’d go in the morning and there were huge flames shooting across the room from the gas line near the brazing hearth, that’s how they’d warm the room when it was cold.

“They had no jigs, and had no lathe. They’d just got a drill press when I was leaving over there. It came in and was a huge deal. It was the cheapest, pot metal with exposed springs, a wing nut on the top that would screw into the top of a 3/8” drill… In this hundreds-of-years-old building they mounted it to one of the beams, and for the next couple of days the guys would come in and almost genuflect, it was like this deity hanging on the wall. It was the most basic thing the whole world and they were just in awe of this thing.”

The barebones shop was a rude awakening for Sachs as well, as he explained in the documentary: “I thought bikes were beautiful,” he said. “They were antiseptic, part of a beautiful sport and that somehow or other in a clean atmosphere with people wearing lab coats, and nice beakers… that somehow or other bikes would be made. But when I got [to Witcomb] and saw it was a job of work is when my eyes were really opened… I realized that the life I was throwing myself into had no similarity to what I had left behind [primarily academics]. It was mostly a fantasy.”

NOT THE ART OF STEEL

After London, Weigle and Sachs returned to the States and started building their respective careers, trying to earn money while fighting the notion that young Americans couldn’t make great bikes.

“In the early ‘70s when Richard and I were building, we’d get these guys to come in and order a bike,” Weigle says. “We were young upstarts, we weren’t European, we weren’t old school, there wasn’t the aura or myth of a bike coming from England so they would come in and they would be quite dictatorial. They weren’t trusting us, but prices were pretty low back then so they were willing to take a chance – but they had to tell you how well a Frejus rode, how well a Cinelli rode, Masis, all these [top bike brands], you were just kind of a subservient builder at that point… You’d hope that you could do something that they would actually like and tell their friends about.”

TODAY, it’s different of course. Both men are tremendously respected, and both continue to influence a new school of builders. In fact, there’s a kind of bike-building resurgence happening in America right now, with names like Jeff Jones, Sacha White, and Dario Pegoretti coming to the fore, just to name a few. Oregon might be considered to be at the heart of the scene, due to the United Bicycle Institute and its frame-building school in Ashland, but the Northeast, where Sachs (Massachusetts) and Weigle (Connecticut) live is still popular as well. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City recently put on a “Bespoke” exhibition featuring their work, along with that of some newer builders. Understandably, many today take advantage of computer-assisted design and modern frame materials, like titanium and carbon fiber. But Weigle and Sachs still use steel. That does not mean they build old bikes.

“You can spend your time beating your chest and saying, ‘These are not what you think they are!’ It’s not worth the energy: some people just don’t get it,” says Sachs. “It’s a huge mistake to think that just because I use steel that I am making the same bikes we made in the ‘70s. Steel has improved a lot over the years. I’m not into the ‘Ye olde frame-builder’ thing, not into the past. I’m more from the racing community, and largely I’m making frames that are winning races in 2010.”

Likewise, though Weigle’s randonneuring frames are inspired by classic builders like Rene Herse and Alex Singer and may include vintage components, they’re hardly throwbacks.

“I did a big ride up in Massachusetts,” Weigle says. “I rode one of [my bikes] and they’re looking at it like I’m an old man on a dinosaur bike, like this is a ritualistic reenactment of something that was done back in France back in the old days, and that this is this old gent on his merry jaunt through the hills of Massachusetts. I take exception to that.”

The “granddaddy” of randonneuring events, Weigle says, is Paris-Brest-Paris: 750 miles with a 90-hour time limit. “One of my friends did it in 49 ½ hours a couple of years ago, and he was riding a bike like this, he wasn’t on carbon fiber, he wasn’t on anything new wave or high tech.”

Along with discarding notions that they’re for hyper-nostalgic flame-tenders, don’t call either man an artiste.

“If you go into a lot of other shops they call their shops ‘studios.’ This is my shop,” emphasizes Weigle. “I don’t enjoy Rococo lugs and things that look like if you watered them they’d grow. I want each line to mean something, each thing is supposed to take you somewhere.”

And Sachs: “An artist? No, at the beginning when I was young, I had this notion that we’re creating rolling works of art… It was the ‘70s, I was different. When you realize these are vehicles, not sculpture… You take a lot of responsibility. People go out in traffic. You are not making woven baskets or vessels you drink coffee out of.”

WHAT IT IS

“We live in a world where nobody really needs the stuff we’re doing,” Sachs says. “It’s a desire thing. There’s no explaining why anybody gets anything except food, shelter, a couple of friends… It’s the same thing with a lot of tangible goods, like watches…

“The fact that someone has to pay me for [my bikes] so that I can make a living and continue, it’s really just a detail. I make bike for racers. Discerning tastes, needs, desires, all of those visceral things. But first and foremost I’m trying to make these things for myself. I’ve been saying this for a long time now: If I ever really figure out how to get it licked I’d not want to do the next one, and there you have it.”

In similar tone, Weigle says the time he takes on each bike is crucial to his experience of building it as it is to the finished product. “It’s not just about getting it out the door,” he says. “I’m looking at the overall proportion and balance: You’ve got the floor, the ceiling, and the space in-between. But then there’s the sky and the heaven also, and I want all those things to come together in the same bike. I could make something much quicker and just knock them out, but I’d quit tomorrow.

“As the years have gone by, I won’t even ‘sell’ my bikes. I had a guy show up one day, and he got to my shop and said, ‘I’m here. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, what’s your pitch?’ I looked at him and I said, “I don’t have one. These are the bikes that I build. I’d be glad to do one for you but I’m not going to sell one to you. That is what it is.”

The preceding article was written by Reade Tilley and originally printed in Kingdom Magazine #18 published in Winter 2011.