Torchbearers: Richard Sachs, Part I
Cycling is a pursuit with almost limitless expression. It is efficiency itself, a way to remake cities in the 21st century. It is a magnification of sport, a chance to see competition as the ultimate mastery over chaos (how many other sports may see 20 teams on the field?), as well as a chance to magnify athleticism through the microscope of the time trial. There’s the devotion to routine and ritual that comes in daily training, giving us a chance to consider the more spiritual side of the sport. What of the shop wrenches who keep us on the road? They are the doctors of the sport, the GPs who make sure that our society continues to function. Finally, there are the high priests and artists—the frame builders—all consideration of cycling as a craft emanate from them. It is in the exploration of craft, breaking it down, finding those inner drives and how they manifest in someone’s work that we learn about artistry and how it’s possible to make an individual statement even when working with a set of components that anyone else in the world can purchase.
All the most interesting conversations I’ve had in cycling have shared a detail in common. Somewhere at the root of that conversation the driver was the creative urge. That urge to create, to find out what is possible has been behind conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs like Mike Sinyard, some of the top engineers in cycling, a few of the more insightful pros I’ve encountered, and of course, most every frame builder I’ve ever met.
Something RKP hasn’t done to my satisfaction is shine a spotlight on great builders. Interviewing frame builders is something I’ve done since even before my time at Bicycle Guide, where I was one of the editors responsible for the Hot Tubes column. Reader polls told us that Hot Tubes was the single most popular feature in the magazine, so later, when I launched Asphalt, I doubled-down on that, taking a one-page department and turning it into a four-page feature called Torchbearers. Though we didn’t take any polls, I can tell you that what I learned from readers was it was wildly popular. For a while, I was responsible for an online column at Peloton called Artisans which traveled much the same territory, though it used a straight Q&A format. Eventually it came to an end, mostly because of my inability to herd cats; delivering a weekly interview with a frame builder can involve a degree of chasing befitting a bounty hunter. Unless you’re standing in front of the builder, it can be hard to get some of them to talk. The irony here is that no one ever says no; they just prove to be Higgs-Boson elusive.
The pieces I did for Artisans are still live and can be found here. I’m pleased that they are still up; so many things get deleted off the web with a simple click. However, because RKP fundamentally serves as my calling card, I’m going to reprint the interviews here and begin adding to them with new ones, though without the strain of a weekly deadline. I’ll also be pulling in one of our contributors, Irene Bond, to help with the cat herding.
Our first installment is a guy that some have accused of being overexposed, almost too well known. I submit that even though Richard Sachs didn’t invent the craft, he’s the guy that drew the blueprint from which most other builders have planned their career. In a sense, Sachs is the prototype, the ur-builder. He’s also significant in that he has risen beyond just being a frame builder. He is truly a brand. And while his notoriety has rankled some, I submit that he is the model for how to create a real business. There’s more to being a frame builder than building frames. It’s invoicing, getting someone to design your logo, decals and T-shirts. It’s invoicing and paying. It’s responding to clients. I’ve had a number of conversations with builders in which they revealed that they didn’t want to do all that stuff. They just wanted to build. Sometimes I’d ask if they’d considered calling Richard Schwinn or Ben Serotta. After all, that’s the difference between a craftsman and a frame builder. A frame builder is a whole business.
There is, however, a more compelling reason to start such a series with Sachs. It is because of the many builders I’ve spoken to over the years, he is the one that understands best what craft is about, that an apprenticeship must take place before once gains mastery. He and I share a love for the dailiness of exercising a craft, him with the torch, me with sentences. He once sent me an interview with Thomas Keller, the chef behind what is arguably the greatest restaurant in the U.S., the French Laundry. In it, Keller talked about craft and how a certain understanding comes once you’ve scrambled a few thousand eggs. No one in frame building has been as thoughtful about craft as Sachs, no one has been as articulate. This is the best place to start.
PB: Tell us where you’re based.
RS: I live in a western Massachusetts hill town of 710 people on a dead end dirt road.
PB: What caused you to move there?
RS: Chester, Connecticut became my home when I arrived back from my frame building training in London. I turned 19 years old there. One day several years ago, we (my wife and I) decided this village of 3,000 was too crowded and made a plan to leave.
PB: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?
RS: The riding here is extraordinary, atmo (according to my opinion). An amazing ride that takes in some of the region’s dirt roads, called D2R2, starts about 30 miles from my door. This area’s landscape and solitude were major reasons why we chose Franklin County as a landing spot.
PB: How long were you in Connecticut?
RS: 37 years or so.
PB: Where did you grow up?
RS: I am from New Jersey but that hardly speaks to your question.
PB: Why not?
RS: Spending a lifetime riding a bicycle, and racing almost every available weekend, as well as working alone at what is more a creative endeavor than a routine job, and having no children of my own – all of this is a recipe for arrested development. I live within these very margins.
PB: How long have you been building?
RS: My brand began in 1975.
PB: How did you get your start?
RS: It all began serendipitously. I planned to attend Goddard College to pursue my interest in creative writing. This took a turn when admission was granted several months after the usual September semester start. Since I had the summer vacation and some extra months to kill, I took a menial job in Manhattan. One day, I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a bicycle mechanic’s position in Vermont. Within a week I was on a Greyhound bus with a one way ticket to Burlington. Sadly, when I walked in to get my job I learned that it had been filled weeks earlier despite that the newspaper was still circulating the classified. Worse yet, in the layers of conversation I had with the staff, they made it clear I was not qualified. I took this personally and was very disappointed. By that point in my young life I was riding quality bicycles, doing all my own repairs, and had already a mild interest in the handmade stuff, being (then) a client in waiting for my first of what would ultimately be three W.B.Hurlow frames. So, rejection in hand, I deliberated on what was next. I had no backup plan to tide me over until my April admission to Goddard. I decided the only way to avenge what happened was to prove how wrong they were for not hiring me. In my mind, the only thing cooler than fixing bicycles would be making them, though I cannot for the life of me recall where that sentiment came from. I grabbed an issue of International Cycle Sport, a spiral bound notepad, some pens, and spent an afternoon at the library at UVM. All in all, I collected some thirty names and addresses of firms that appeared to make bicycle frames on the premises. These became my targets. I wrote letters to each of them explaining my desire to come to England and work for free in return for their teaching me to build frames. Thirty letters were mailed. Three replies were received. Two said no. These were from Bob Jackson Cycles and Ellis Briggs Cycles. The one yes came from Ernie Witcomb, whose eponymous family business was in southeast London. To England I flew.
PB: Who else worked with you at Witcomb?
RS: Well the Witcombs: Ernie, his wife, Lil, and son, Barry, were there. A man named Jim Collier was making frames and so was David Cotton. There was also Charles Barrett and a boy named Rob whose last name escapes me. I was there for about a month when Peter Weigle arrived. In the course of my 10 months in Deptford, another two or three Americans came and went, all chasing dreams similar to mine, or one would assume.
When my stint in Deptford ended, I came back to the states and hung out in New Jersey for a month or so deciding what to do next. I had postponed the Goddard April admission. The Witcomb family had liaisons with a New England firm called Sports East, Limited. They were in the outdoor sports and recreation business but on the agency and sales side. This company, based in East Haddam, Connecticut, proposed to the Witcomb family to represent them and all they could supply to the North American market. This was at the height of the 1970s fitness craze-slash-bike boom-slash-oil embargo and it was a good time to be in the ten speed bicycle business at any level, atmo. I decided that the pull towards staying in bicycles vis-à-vis a job offer at Witcomb USA (the division created at Sports East to market the English bicycles) was stronger than my then fading urge to write or attend college. I took the train to Old Saybrook and began work in East Haddam.
The job description was actually pretty lame and I knew that going in. My position at Witcomb USA was more as a gopher than anything else because, in reality, the division existed primarily as an importer and distributor. My place there was secured mostly because my 10 months in London gave them some much needed insight and credibility when it came to the bicycles they were an agency for.
Everything in Connecticut was going swimmingly well for a year or so until it was clear that the Witcombs (in London) were incapable of supplying frames to meet the demand the sales force in East Haddam had created. The long and short of this is: Ed (the owner) told us (me and Peter Weigle, who had also been there all this time) that we were now going to make the frames that London couldn’t. Peter and I hadn’t held a torch since we left Deptford almost a year earlier. And when we left, we were not framebuilders, just two cats who worked at a framebuilding shop long enough to see it done. This didn’t matter to Ed at all. He had an investment to protect and the salesmen had orders to fill. Peter and I were going to make the frames no matter how much money it would take in tooling and trial and error for us to get up to speed.
Before long, Peter and I got a process dialed in and it was enough to make frames on the premises so that Ed and the crew could ship them to all points nationwide. By some fluke and many thousands of dollars invested, Ed created the Witcomb USA bicycle brand and we were off to the races.
My stay at the company lasted only a year more. In the interim we had hired Gary Sinkus to do set up work and we also trained Chris Chance to do prep as well as paint work. Before my departure, I recall we were making many frames and were very efficient too. There was no standing back and admiring lug edges or celebrating that we were taking part in some creative process. Ed and the salesmen gave us stacks of frame orders, and Peter and I took care of filling them.
Ultimately I left because I felt whatever enthusiasm I was holding to as a young framebuilder in an exciting era was too often neutralized by Ed’s all-business approach to what we had become a part of. In hindsight, the reality was that I was too young to have all the responsibility that came with being that important a part of his commercial plan. I wanted to make the frames, but without the routine and impersonal connections that became the norm. Well, that’s the short answer.
PB: Have you held other positions in the industry?
RS: No. Actually, I have never done anything else (for pay) since I left The Peddie School in 1971.
PB: When did you strike out on your own?
PB: Do you ever work in a material other than steel??
RS: In the last 10 years or so I have also worked heavily in opinions, atmo. I kept a tight lid on my thoughts through about 1997. One day, I was asked to speak about the framebuilding industry, such as it was, and I found myself having a watershed moment. It was like, after 25 years at the bench it was finally okay for me to have a point of view. I haven’t relented since.
PB: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
RS: I am a dedicated Columbus client. About 6-7 years ago they began to supply a tube set that resulted from collaboration between Dario Pegoretti and me. The two of us felt the need for components which would 1) be made specifically for framebuilders who were using lugs, 2) have all the characteristics of the material so that the makers (us) and the users (clients) had a steady supply, and 3) could be 21st-century sized and shaped, and with a weight that would appeal to the present market rather than the retro one. Spirit for lugs (SFL) was born, though I prefer to call it PegoRichie. Columbus manufactures it and it’s already several iterations updated since it all began. I also import and distribute PegoRichie tubing to other framebuilders.
Regarding lugs and parts: I have designed 4 different styles. Richie-Issimo, Newvex, Nuovo Richie, and Rene Singer are the model names. Each set began as a white sheet of paper with the goal of bringing high style, precision cast components to the market so that I would have my own supply and not be dependent upon the ever shrinking inventories that then existed. Along with the tubing I also sell these lugs. There are also 2 fork crowns, a bottom bracket shell, and a front changer braze-on that are part of the menu. By mid winter I will also have an over-oversized version of the Richie-Issimo lugs and shell ready for the market.
PB: Tell us about the jig you use.
RS: I use a Bike Machinery Hydra. It’s made in Italy and I have used it since the early 1980s. The first seven hundred or so frames I made predate its arrival and I’d wager that it took 2-3 years before I was comfortable and facile using it. In London, we did things, eh – they did things the old way; there was a forge, town gas, a torch that put out a flame some 20” long, no tools, no power equipment, and no fixtures. The frames I made through 1982 were all assembled using procedures mined or refined from my time abroad.
PB: What sort of cutting and shaping of lugs do you like to perform? Does it vary from bike to bike or are there stylistic elements people can find running through all your bikes?
RS: Oh I don’t know. This is one of those button issues for me. To separate out the lug, or any single component or dimension from the whole is to miss the point. I make frames, not stylistic elements, atmo.
For Part II, click here.