Intervista con Richard Sachs: :BDC-forum.it

I have always watched with great interest all the work of Richard Sachs, who is considered one of, if not the best, framebuilders. And when I say ‘all’ I mean everything he has done for his brand, and not only with respect to bicycles.

As other frame builders that I have interviewed have said, Richard Sachs (RS) is the man who created the concept, and the how, of selling “handmade” (or “custom”, “handbuilt”, and all the other English adjectives in fashion today). I believe that before him the same concept has been applied in the creations of Rene Herse and Alex Singer (during the period some have called the golden age of the bikes which were “tailored”). In particular, the first (referring to Rene Herse) remains, in my opinion, the master of elegance and moderation. The main difference between these two Frenchmen and what RS did is that Richard has applied these same principles to the racing bike and not only with with randonee or touring bicycles (as did RH and AS).

As you will read in this interview, I think it’s enlightening to know that his first ambition was to be a writer or a journalist. I believe this throws a new light on his way of “being” and “doing”: he can write a story in an original way that is not just about welding tubes together. But do not misunderstand, I’m not talking about the usual abused rhetoric about the art of cycling, welding works of art, etc.. etc.. that infest a certain way of talking about bikes.

RS has always made clear that he is an entrepreneur. He has never said that he heard strange voices or seen god that has shown him the path. Nor is he one that raves or speaks nonsense of the pure “passion” in what he does.

What he believes in is simply the way and the style that he builds and sells his bicycles. From communication choices (read marketing) not only based on upon victories in races and the sponsorship of the champions as the Europeans have always done, to the “sales process” (the down payment, step by step reports with the frame builder, etc..) which has now become the standard in the (large) niche of the “fine” framebuilders, up to and including his website / blog where there is always a great attention to a “literary” style, in fact like the well-known neologisms like ATMO.

Ok, ok, but “What about the bicycles?” you say. It is always very difficult for many (including myself) to understand and distinguish between dozens of framebuilders who are skillful and those that are less so. The difference in the results of a bike are your legs, not the templates and files. So who cares the style, waiting lists, and all the usual blah? Is it really worth spending a lot of money or wait years to have a bike identical to those steel bikes of 30 years ago instead of having a super-stiff, aerodynamic, carbon bike that is also comfortable?

I think there is no answer to this question. Because the answer depends upon each of us. It is our choice.

And here, in my opinion, is the the merit of Richard Sachs: he has created the possibility of a choice. Perhaps he makes “outdated” bicycles, perhaps not better than other framebuilders, perhaps he has created a niche (in the U.S.) that is saturated with imitators that aim for the wealthy, avid readers, of magazines like GQ, Monsieur, Capital and Wine Spectator, but Richard Sachs continues to work to keep alive the possibility of choice and discussion .

Continuing to write his (good) story. ATMO.

—How did you start? Who’s the man that teach you?

I went to England in 1972 but it was not to become a framebuilder or even to find a way into the industry. Between secondary school and university, I had some free time. To make a long story short, my original plan was to pursue a career in writing/journalism but that got sidetracked during the summer months following graduation. I had a slight interest in bicycles but by no means was it a passion, and I decided to contact some family businesses in London and offer my free labor in return for the experience of spending a year in their shop.

Several months later, I traveled to England and spent about ten months at Witcomb Light Cycles in Deptford. While it was my introduction to framebuilding, and though I did learn a few basic procedures there, when I departed I was by no means a framebuilder. It took several years alone for me to channel my experience there and add to it some basic common sense before I even completed a bicycle frame that I thought had any value. I started my own business, Richard Sachs Cycles, in 1975 after working for a few years and brazing up several hundred frames at Witcomb USA, the stateside importer of the British frames.

—How many frames did you have build before acknowledging yourself as a framebuilder?

That is an impossible number to pin down because the definition of a framebuilder is not literal. Personally, I did not feel 100 percent comfortable in my own skin until at least 20 years at the workbench had passed. I have no idea how folks now can build a frame, or even 100 frames, and then start a business, take money for their work, and announce that they have a marque worthy of following. The trade has surely changed in the last generation or so. There are now scores of folks who say they are framebuilders. The internet is a breeding ground for this. I don’t think most of the men who are making frames now will be here making frames in ten years.

—What’s the limit number of frames per year to be a craftman framebuilder?

See the above reply. I think the best environment is one in which there’s a fair amount of routine and repetition. Ideally, production work is the best teacher for the future (and even present day) framebuilder. Those whose businesses are based in filling orders so diverse in workmanship, and following designs and geometries that have no basis in the rational, are the ones I pity the most. There’s an entire legion of framebuilders now making one frame every three to four weeks, each one different from the previous one, and so many of these looking like garden furniture or jewelry. Don’t misunderstand — I appreciate craft and handwork as much as anyone, but bicycles are vehicles first and foremost. If you don’t hone your working skills so that the construction of the frame is sound and will be long-lasting, all the artistic elements in the world will only detract from the bicycle.

—Have you ever welded titanium and aluminium frames?

No. I have no interest in non-ferrous materials for my commercial framebuilding. I have spent too many years trying to get my processes dialed in and I’m very pleased with my bicycles right now. I prefer to stay with what I am familiar with rather than diversify.

—Who’s your main inspiration in framebuilding?

To improve. To fully understand the flow of energy that exists between the maker (me) and the material. To have confidence that each frame, and each step needed to produce each frame, is beyond scrutiny. To make every single frame as though my career pivots on its quality. To feel good that all bicycles that carry my name will turn someone’s eye owing to its beauty and craftsmanship. These are some of my inspirations and motivations. There is no answer to “Who’s my main inspiration?“. I live a detached life such that I prefer to focus on my own work rather than look around to see what others do. The inspiration comes from within.

—The three most influential framebuilders of the past?

In very general terms, I would say that since the last part of the 20th Century, the important names as they appeared on my radar include W.B. Hurlow, Faliero and Alberto Masi, and Yoshiaki Nagasawa.

—In the present?

With the exception of some icons like Dario Pegoretti, Peter Weigle, and Darrell McCulloch, I cannot name any truly influential framebuilders working in the present. Too many are one dimensional, or two dimensional, but not complete. There are many who are decent craftsmen, and some who know engineering or material inside and out, and some even have a tie to the sport and understand what a racing bicycle is and how to include a rider’s anatomy in the design of the position and geometry. But rarely (and sadly…) do we see these days anyone who is close to having the full package. In the ensuing years, I suspect that Mike Zanconato from Zanconato Custom Cycles will become a household name among the cognoscenti. Mike has about ten years at the bench, comes from the racing culture, is from a family of machinists, and also has a keen eye for the aesthetic. I think he is the next in line atmo.

Additionally, Craig Gaulzetti from Gaulzetti Cicli is a man whose brand is worth following. Craig has raced in Europe, been in the industry for a long time, and in the past three years created a bicycle frame business based on his experience and design ability. His frames are made under contract for him, but each one is spec-ed for the client who has placed the order. Cicli Gaulzetti represents a good business model for the present and future and I think it will endure as other brands and trends come and go. Having said all this, I do spend a fair amount of time watching the niche and  have recently added a few framebuilders to the Next Wave page I keep on my website.

—Can you give us a profile of your customer?

No. I don’t talk about my clients, but thank you for asking.

—Do you have a collection of bicycles? if so, can you tell us the highlights of the collection? If not, why?

I have two well-used Richard Sachs cyclocross bicycles and that is because I race 30-35 events each autumn. I have a Gaulzetti Sram Force equipped road bicycle that I use for training. And I have a lovely bicycle made for me by Mr. Nagasawa that is assembled with 80s era Campagnolo Super Record components.

—I asked why some framebuilders use the pins before brazing the tubes (like you) and others not, like Dazza or Dario. I’ve asked the same question to a good framebuilder in Milan, Daniele Marnati, that uses the pins, and he told me that the result with them will be better. Others, like Dazza, told me that today with little torch is a useless step. Dario Pegoretti don’t use it for “traditional reasons” because in his region in Italy framebuilders historically have not used pins in order to do quickly repairs (so he explains to me). Is it a an important step in order to do quality frames or not? 

You shouldn’t compare or confuse the use of pins in my assembly processes with the classic use of them from back in the old days, whenever those old days happened to be. I have some very sophisticated fixturing and alignment tools here, most from Italian suppliers Bike Machinery and Marchetti + Lange. Despite all the quality tooling available and all the checks and balances one can employ, because framebuilding is a hand-making task, things can and do go awry. In my work environment, to safeguard from having material lean to the wrong side of the center-line, or to ensure that the interference fits are beyond reproach, or even to find organic ways to braze the frame sub-assemblies outside of the fixtures they are set up in, I have concluded that pinning the joints is a good thing.

They do not replace the tools, and they do not, by their presence alone, guarantee that things will be perfect each and every time. But I do find that combining classic assembly sequences, and constructing main triangles as a unit rather than in parts, and also using the pins throughout the framebuilding, (this) always allows me a safety net so that I can control as much of the procedure as possible.

Not all realize this, or even would agree, but the making of a frame from a pile of parts will always be a compromise. The maker will always fight the material and the heat and the overlapping fits while trying to produce a straight design that suits the client who will ride the bicycle. The material always has a say in what the final outcome will be. The maker and the material ultimately concede to each other so that a balance is struck between quality, ease of manufacture, commercial profit, and satisfaction with the finished product. For me, here working alone making one frame at a time, the addition of several dozen pins per frame keeps all of this in the positive side of the ledger.

Thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions for your message board in Italy.

This interview originally appeared on BDC-forum.it in Italian, published on 31 Luglio 2011.