The Rebel King of Custom Bikes

Richard Sachs, the master bike builder, doesn’t do high-performance materials (just steel). But for a hand-built bike from him, you must wait years and pay top dollar. Here’s why.

Len Janssen wanted a bike built just for him. So a few years ago he made the trip to rural Connecticut to meet Richard Sachs. There, Sachs went straight to work, poking and prodding him with a tape measure, appraising his sternum and arm and femur with obsessive precision. Sachs rode with Janssen, constantly circling him, observing the intimate, nuanced relationship between rider and bike. Are his shoulders and chest open while climbing? Does he stretch uncomfortably to reach the handlebar drops? Do his hips rock side to side as he pedals? After about four hours, Janssen left Sachs with nothing but a promise that, someday, maybe years from then, his frame would be ready. Sachs had a deposit check, but no delivery date, final price, or pledges of performance were given.

“A bike is just a tool, and a frame is part of that tool,” Sachs insists. “My bikes aren’t going to make you a faster or better rider.”

Janssen, a CFO in Indiana who pedals 5,000 miles a year, was not dissuaded by Sachs’s warning — and he is not alone in his desire to ride a bicycle that was designed solely for him. The custom-frame industry has exploded in recent years as riders are won over by the personalized fit and handcrafted allure of having bicycles fabricated one by one, under the discerning eye of master builders like Sacha White (see “America’s Top Bike Builders,” on page 3). “In an era when most everything is made in Asia to generic specifications, riders are saying, ‘You know what? I want something that’s more me,’ ” says Don Walker, proprietor of Don Walker Cycles and founder of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show(NAHBS). “Richard is a big reason it’s happening. He’s a little eccentric and definitely opinionated.” (According to urbandictionary.com, Sachs coined the acronym ATMO — “according to my opinion.”) “But he’s also entirely selfless and willing to share his knowledge.”

It’s not a role Sachs ever imagined for himself. But with nearly 40 years of experience, 4,000 frames, and a well-established reputation as the Zen sage of frame building, the self-described recluse unexpectedly finds himself at the fore of the biggest hand-built bicycle boom in, well, ever.

Sachs began building after being rejected from a bike-repair position at a shop in Burlington, Vermont. He sent a letter of interest to 30 European frame shops — “It was basically a way to get back at the people who denied me the job” — and ended up at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles in London, at the time a leading builder of race-quality frames. In 1975, after returning to the States, he launched Richard Sachs Cycles. He was then one of the only custom bicycle makers in America. (This year’s NAHBS drew 176 exhibitors, up from only 23 at the first show in 2005.)

Major bike manufacturers are not threatened. “Modern mass-produced bikes are so damn good,” says Sachs from his perch on a stool in the center of his shop, which is cluttered with the tools of his trade: bare metal tubes, torches, vices, and files. A nearly complete frame sits on a workbench: Free of paint, Sachs’s intricate metalwork is on full display. “For $1,500, anyone can buy a bike that’s capable of racing at the pro level,” he says. Indeed, when Lance Armstrong launched his post-cancer Tour de France comeback in 1999, he famously did so atop a carbon-fiber Trek.

But the era of Armstrong-approved factory bikes produced an unintended consequence. “It got to the point where you’d show up to a group ride, and literally everyone would be riding a mass-produced carbon bike,” says Janssen. “A big part of the appeal of a custom bike is the uniqueness of it. I love having a bike that not everyone else has, that was built just for me by someone I have actually met and ridden with.”

Sachs’s shop is now deep in the woods of Massachusetts, on the shore of a small pond. Or at least you think it’s the shop; there is no sign. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that you’ve arrived at the spot where North America’s finest road bicycles are assembled.

Richard Sachs emerges. He’s a short, slight fellow with deep-set eyes the color of raw steel, multiple silver hoops in his left ear, and a lean, almost hunched build, the result of decades spent alternating between his workbench and the cockpit of a racing bicycle. Sachs, 58, still races regularly and can put the hurt on riders half his age.

Sachs’s business remains entirely a one-man operation. If you call Richard Sachs Cycles, Richard Sachs answers the phone. If you e-mail, the reply will be from Richard. It is Richard who makes all decisions about how your frame will be built.

All this would be trivial if Sachs didn’t possess a degree of skill that’s the envy of anyone who’s ever picked up a torch and file. “He set the bar for everyone else,” says Mike Zanconato, the man behind Zanconato Custom Cycles, who has been building steel frames since 1998. “All the sculpting and file work he does is really on another level.”

After measurements are taken and materials gathered, building the frame — almost exclusively for road bikes — takes Sachs three to four days. His signatures include a preference for blood-red color; joints that are hand-filed with artistic precision; and, most famously, an arrow emblazoned on the fork crown, a piece of metal where the forks and steering column join.

What’s intriguing about Sachs, aside from his immense skill, is that his success seems to also depend on his assertion that his bikes are nothing extraordinary. Sachs’s eclectic, almost curmudgeonly approach to building draws nearly as much attention — and followers — as the quality of his frames. In a business driven by technology and the hype that surrounds emerging advances, Sachs’s frames are still made of steel — eschewing the benefits of lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber. He doesn’t consider the industry-wide measurement of stiffness acceptable — “I don’t know what stiffness is” — and his frames are always, he claims, imperfect.

“The human element in my bikes means that no matter how hard I try to make the perfect frame, it’s not going to happen. For a long time, I tried to overcome my own humanness, but I finally realized that the quirks and mistakes and emotions I put into my work are all part of the equation.”

Sachs’s frame sets sell today for about $4,000, but by the time an order is delivered, that figure could jump 50 percent or more because of the cost of material and his ever-rising charges for labor. The wait list is now approaching seven years (Janssen got his white frame in three), and it is only getting longer. In January alone, Sachs took 30 orders, nearly six months’ worth of production.

With $1,500 factory bikes ready and in stores now, it’s fair to ask, is a Sachs frame worth it? Janssen sighs, as one does when recalling intense pleasure. “I don’t want to exaggerate,” he says. “But it’s the best bike I’ve ever ridden. Was it worth it? Let’s put it this way: I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

The preceding article was written by Ben Hewitt for Men’s Journal, and was originally posted on May 26, 2011.