There’s something about visiting the workshop of a craftsman who began honing his skills before Greg LeMond headed to Europe. If you cut Joe Bell (and I don’t mean shiv him), his blood runs with lithium grease. His shop is less a time capsule than a place where time is suspended It’s not frozen in the past but rather a place where the past and present come together in a mashup of ages, Jimi Hendrix with a techno backup. In Joe’s shop 1978 is just as valid as today and the photos, posters and stickers are a testament to that.
There was a time back in the ’90s where I think we went more than a year at Bicycle Guide where Joe had sprayed every single bike we ran in Hot Tubes. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say he is arguably the most important bicycle frame painter the U.S. has seen. Every other painter I know has cited him as an influence. The funny thing is just how modest Joe is about his own abilities. He’s far quicker to praise the work of other guys than he is to recall any of his own work.
Talking to him in person is probably the wrong thing to do if you’re not already convinced he’s the right guy to paint your bike. He’s sooner huff thinner than give you a sales pitch. But the fact that guys like Richard Sachs and Dave Kirk use him exclusively to paint all their frames is, perhaps, all the resume the guy needs.
The reason I was in San Diego was arguably business, but I made sure to carve out a couple of hours to drop by his shop to see the frame above. That’s my Bishop. And surprisingly, I’ve struggled with what this bike will look like. The only thing of which I was certain was that it would be painted by JB.
This was my first opportunity to see the frame in person. To say I was blown away doesn’t begin to convey the way I marveled at Bishop’s work. Chris Bishop, if I may be so bold, is one of a rare set of builders. His skill is truly exceptional.
The unfortunate truth about Joe Bell is that he knows enough about building that he has the ability to clean up sloppy work by a mediocre builder. He could easily have make a career in an auto body shop fixing dings and crunches in classic cars. He’s made okay bikes look amazing, but will never betray a lesser builder. That discretion is one of his more charming features. But it also means that when something exceptional comes through his shop he has no problem given full points to the builder.
I won’t repeat what he first said to me as a measure of his praise for this frame because the terminology wasn’t what we’d call politically correct, but it made me smile. It’s what my buddies into classic cars would have said. I knew what he mean and it was praise of the highest order.
I’ve learned a lot from Joe, often just from talking to him on the phone, about the subtle cues to just how good a guy is with a torch. He’s taught me how to look for signs that a builder fed more silver or brass into a joint than was necessary and what they did to try to clean that up, or signs that a joint was heated for too long.
He also taught me a few extra tricks for finding sight lines to confirm the symmetry of a frame, particularly for fillet-brazed work. So when he kept up the effusive praise not just for the cleanliness of Bishop’s brazing but the symmetry to his fillets in the lug transitions and point thinning, it came as a nice confirmation that I’d ordered my frame from the right guy.
I could probably have done all I needed to with Joe by phone and email, but there’s nothing quite like being in the room with a person you dig. Similarly, I could probably have been in and out in a half hour, but I enjoyed the phone calls and other interruptions that gave me a chance to poke around a bit and get a look at a sticker collection I hadn’t seen in 10 years.
Someday, I’m going to have a garage workshop that looks every bit as cool and lived-in (or worked-in) as this one. Forget the backyard garden, I want a workshop where I can get lost. A place like this.
And this shot kids, the frame with the man who will make it unspeakably gorgeous, this is one I’ll take to the grave. It meant a lot to have a frame—my frame—get Joe excited about the work that lay ahead. Oh hell yes.
For Part I, go here.
PB: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?
RS: The interaction I have with a client always includes a dialogue as well as a completed order form containing the conventional anatomical measurements and the contact points assimilated on the bicycle or bicycles used. I usually give all of this (that is, the information I have at hand) about 30 quick seconds before an image is conceived for the design which will become the client’s frame. No formulas. No stationary bicycles. No don’t touch me there stuff. I’d say it’s all intuitive. Some cats see dead people. I see riders on bicycles. It’s just that simple. PS: This all occurs in person less than 10 times per year and has never been any other way. Since my first week in the trade, nearly all of my orders were filled for clients who were anything but local to me.
PB: Let’s talk about geometry: Would you say all your bikes have a consistent ride that is your signature, or do you vary your geometry based on the customer’s preferences and needs?
RS: I make road bicycles. Since my background is from the sport, I know what has to go where so that the bicycle I make 1) fits the rider superbly well, and 2) handles the way it should, atmo. It has nothing to do with whether the cats rides on the road or pins on a number to enter a race, nor would it matter if the race is an industrial park criterium or a Battenkill or similar. I make road bicycles and they work on a road. Period.
PB: Who does your paint?
RS: JB Custom Paint (Joe Bell).
PB: How long have you been working with Joe?
RS: JB has painted all of my frames since 1986.
PB: How long is the wait for new customers?
RS: It’s less of a wait and more of an ordeal, atmo. But another two Obamas at this point and I might be near that last order currently in the queue.
PB: Do you ever anticipate taking new orders again?
RS: I do take orders. There’s some ambiguity surrounding what I do and don’t do and I will try to arrange that disorder here. In late 2008 I stopped taking orders for Richard Sachs Signature road frames from new clients. There was a window of about 4 weeks left open until all of this went into effect. All along, I have still accepted orders from 1) repeat clients, and 2) for other types (‘cross, for example) of frames. Also, while I didn’t put this in the fine print, I never turned down an order from someone stationed in the military, or from a teacher, or from a member of the clergy. In my mind, folks who fall into these categories are beyond my ever saying no to. If they wanted to get in the queue and be part of the ordeal, so be it, atmo. So, yeah – with the current demand lined up, the delivery is about 7-8 years or so. Data point: I work at a 4-6 frame a month pace, have left spaces open each year for some repair and emergency work, and anticipate continuing to run a ‘cross team whose frames will also need to be made during seasons years from today. I’ve done my best to map it all out and keep it from owning me. It’s my business, but it’s also my life. I don’t want to have or invite stress, atmo.
PB: What’s your pricing like?
RS: The 2010 frame base price is $4000. Most of my frames are sold as assembled bicycles.
PB: What keeps the work fresh for you and gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build?
RS: To quote myself paraphrasing a quote from the sculptor Louis Bourgeois about whom I read an article in an in-flight magazine some twenty years ago, “I continue to work in order to redeem myself for all my past mistakes.” Or some shit like that….
PB: You’re part of The Framebuilders’ Collective. What was the motivation to help start an association devoted to what can be a pretty solitary craft?
RS: TFC is a group born from a connection several of us made with each other early on in the framebuilding message board and listserv era. Those involved felt a kinship and synergy with the others and wanted to cement a bond. While it took several years of backroom chats and decision making, the collective was created. We made the concept public at the NAHBS show in Indianapolis. It’s a peer group. I don’t think it exists to legitimize us, or what we do, but it would be incorrect to assume we don’t have long term goals. The website’s two short pages should answer every question folks would have about the organization.
PB: You sponsor a pretty dynamite cyclocross team. How did this season go?
RS: It was a great season. They all are. My personal results were less than they were in 2009, but I can still live with them.
PB: Since you started the ‘cross team you’ve had some stunning successes. Would you recount a few high points for us?
RS: The ‘cross team began as a stepchild to the road team(s) I had been supporting and managing going all the way back to 1982. By 1998 I decided to focus all of my marketing efforts and sponsorship dollars on ‘cross. Members of the team have won 10 National Championships over the years and have represented at the Worlds on at least 6 occasions. At the core, the team has always been comprised of pals, or pals of pals. We’ve never recruited, poached a rider from another organization, or rested our hat on one particular cat or kitten. It’s always been a group effort and I have found myself using the word family with some regularity. We get along, we travel well, we live for autumn, and then we disband in January. Rinse, lather, repeat, atmo.
The single highest point I can articulate with regard to the RS ‘Cross Team is that it has become a brand onto itself and, by dint of that, is a trustworthy financial and emotional investment for all the sponsors, industry suppliers, and supporters it’s had over its history.
PB: What’s your life away from building like?
RS: It’s one in transition, atmo. Since I left for Vermont that fateful day in the early 1970s and my life took one turn after another, followed by more of them, I rarely looked back to assess the direction or to help shape it. That’s why I use the word serendipity to the point of overuse or even abuse. But as I approach my 40th year at the bench and answer questions like yours, I do reflect on all of it as a body of work. Because of that, and owing to my age (57 as of this writing), I can’t ignore that I have lived more than half of my life. I’d like to find a way to take what’s left and make it as enriching as possible. To date, my focus has consumed me and I am beyond being one-dimensional. As a matter of fact, I could be the poster boy for the one-dimensional life. The transition is, or will be, about what else out there might call for me. For years I have described myself as a racer who makes bicycles (not the other way around), and that the job I have stayed with was just a way to spend the days sandwiched between race starts. As my own racing interests wane, I now think about what else is out there. Okay – I have to get back to earth now, atmo….
PB: Do you have outside interests beyond bicycles?
RS: My family and my home life are my life, much less my life away from bicycles.
PB: When people talk about the A-list of frame builders, your name is at or near the top of everyone’s list. To what do you attribute that?
RS: There’s this saying, sooner or later we all become our parents, or words to that effect. I think the A-list stuff is just fodder. Or gossip. There will always be a pecking order, or a list of folks who are new, or new with a bullet, or firmly established and part of the mainstream. Having been part of the niche from the 1970s, and living through an era or three when there was no niche left to speak of, and to still be attached to it all in the internet years when framebuilding is cool again, I’ve become a point of reference. My frames are not better, and I don’t know that much more than others, but I am still here working daily and part of the crowd. Writers see this and it becomes a story. Other writers see it and also see the story, and more stories are written. The public ends up reading what’s served up, attaching its own emotion to it, and that energy contributes to the talk you speak of. It’s just that simple.
PB: Who do you consider your peers from a standpoint of work quality?
RS: I know many the players but not their processes. There are lots of craftsmen who are capable of making a frame of high quality, one which fits well, and also exhibits the personal touch and beautiful flourishes that the niche is known for.
PB: You’ve got an awfully high profile for a one-man shop. What are some of the things you offer for sale aside from frames and T-shirts?
RS: There are the aforementioned framebuilding parts and supplies, of course. I also have RS ‘Cross Team apparel, the Imperfection Is Perfection DVD, several posters, and a variety of atmo and CFRA (‘Cross Fucking Rules Atmo) stuff. The site has the mother lode listed on one of the pages.
PB: How important is self-promotion for a builder?
RS: It’s a business, atmo. You have to be both accessible and approachable. It helps to also know what goes where.
PB: You’ve just done a big overhaul of your look. How did the collaboration with House Industries come about?
RS: About 22 months ago I asked Rich Roat and House Industries to take a look at my identity program, deconstruct it, and create something for me with what was left. Before that, maybe a half year earlier, I woke up, looked at what I had (the 30+ years of essentially red and white) and concluded I was done with it.
PB: How much freedom and/or direction did you give them?
RS: My desire was change, either wholesale, or minimal the choice, the direction, the entire range of concepts (and there may have been just the one—I never asked) was in their hands. I made the decision to change, asked Rich and House Industries if they would take on the project, and waited until it was complete before I saw anything. This is all their work. And I couldn’t be happier. And I wouldn’t change a single thing they did.
PB: So what happens if someone wants the old red and white, the old decals?
RS: This is what I do now—dot period. And it’s not a new policy at all. I have had quite a few art file revisions through years. Decal scales change. Ink colors get bolder or more opaque.The frame reliefs get trimmed with different shades of paint. Font borderline weights have evolved. Even the reds and whites we have used all along since 1981 have had more variations than I can remember. When any single line in the sand was crossed, we never went back to what came earlier. It’s no different this time.The graphic details that House Industries created for me are now the default art that comes on my bicycles. The red and white scheme that so many are familiar with is now part of my past.
PB: Anything else on the horizon we should know about?
RS: You know the line, and I know you know the movie. So I’ll just add the quote: ”Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.” That has been my policy for at least as long as the film has been in rotation on cable television.
PB: Don’t forget the contact info:
RS: TBC …
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.
Some years back I was in an editorial meeting for a bike magazine when two of my colleagues suggested the publication for which we toiled needed to embrace bicycle commuters and the double-century crowd. It could have been a disastrous move for the struggling media property. Imagine Bobcat Goldthwait abandoning stand-up comedy to devote his time and energy to finger puppetry and you get the idea.
Somehow (I’m still now sure quite how I managed), I was able to dodge the editorial suicide by arguing: Commuters weren’t clamoring for bike magazines filled with tips on how to get to work faster/in better style/with greater training benefit/at less expense. The double-century set, no matter how dedicated they were as cyclists, were a population fractional to the size of the century riding set. The primary expression of the roadie lifestyle were the thousands of people doing group rides week-in and week-out and those were the people our advertisers were trying to reach, whether they knew it or not.
For the entirety of my life I’ve been at the shallow end of some bell curve. Hell, just being a cyclist confirms that. The irony here is that as a roadie who lives for his local group rides, I am, for once, the middle of the bell curve. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a marketing plan or advertising campaign meant to reach roadies and I can tell you instantly if it will resonate or not. I can’t do that with anything else. I’m not in the middle of the curve for anything else.
A strange offshoot of that savant-like talent is that I can also look at geometry charts and tell you how a bike will handle. My recent post on the Roubaix-edition Felt F1 brought up some interesting questions both in comments and email. The most obvious and direct question is why Felt won’t be marketing that bike to the cycling public. Well, there are two reasons why not. The first is a simple one, at least, seemingly. The Roubaix F1 has a bottom bracket lower than 27cm and that violates a fundamental CPSC rule. In broad (very broad) strokes, that regulation says that a bike must be able to lean a certain amount with its inside pedal down without striking the pedal on the ground. The math ordinarily works out to a cheap rat trap pedal plus 170mm cranks equals 7cm of BB drop. A few sizes (56cm and smaller) of the Specialized Roubaix feature a BB drop of 7.2cm. I believe they manage this because of the 25mm tires spec’d with the Roubaix. Now Felt could get around the rule either by spec’ing a 25mm tire (like Specialized) or by marketing it just as a frameset; BB height rules don’t apply to framesets, which is why Serotta and Richard Sachs can build frames with a 8cm of BB drop.
I need to interject an interesting aside here: Trek’s new Domane has a surprisingly low bottom bracket. In most sizes the BB drop is 8cm. On larger frames, bikes with presumably longer cranks, the BB height decreases to 7.8cm. How they are getting this past the CPSC I don’t know, but I intend to ask. They also spec the bike with 25mm tires. Will it accept 28s? Likewise, I intend to find out.
But back to the larger point, the bell curve. When you’re a custom builder you don’t have to worry about the middle of the bell curve. If you’re going to NAHBS, you’re going to build a randonnee bike to show because it gives you a great chance to build tons of bike bling into the frameset. From trick routing of generator hub wires and Di2 cables to well-integrated racks, lights and fenders, they are a great way to show off a builder’s chops. But if you actually show up at a randonnee event here or overseas (especially overseas) the riders who want to make it into that top 20 percent of finishing times are on lightweight carbon machines.
Now, back to the real(er) world. Imagine that a product manager, say one from Cannondale, did some dirt-road ride like D2R2. And let’s say he decided to get behind a dirt-road spec for a new edition of the Synapse. And let’s, for the sake of fantasy or argument (your choice), say he managed to lay his hands on enough long-reach calipers to outfit all those bikes with brakes that didn’t conflict with the 28mm tires he spec’d for it. What happens if the market for dirt-road road bikes favors Specialized for reasons of spec, price or market affinity? Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another big company; it could be that the market simply favors custom steel builders. Let’s suppose that Cannondale runs 1000 of those bikes, just to be conservative. What happens if they don’t sell? Well, they get discounted later in the season. Depending on just how many are sitting in the warehouse, they might have to discount them a bunch, in which case they could be looking at taking a loss on the bikes. You can guess where this leads: Take too much of a loss on a bike that was a gamble to begin with and you risk more than your employer’s capital; you risk your job. And if you want to find out just how fickle the market it, just ask a rep from one of the bigger bike companies about color choice and inventory. It’s not uncommon to find that one color (such as blue) sells like Ecstasy at a rave, while the other color choice (lime green, for instance) is sitting in the warehouse, gathering dust.
Okay, let’s give Debbie Downer a chance to take a bow. The reality is a good bit brighter than that. The bike market is a good bit larger than it used to be. This is the legacy of the Lance Effect. Bunches of people who bought bikes because of Lance had the good fortune to join clubs, get a decent introduction to the sport and stayed with it. That bigger market has had a curious effect on what’s offered. (Okay, Debbie, we’re not quite finished; could you come back out a sec?) Factories making high-end product struggle to produce all of the frames, forks and components necessary to deliver bikes to bike shops each spring. You may think that consumer choice is the primary driver behind Cannondale offering the SuperSix EVO in Di2, 7900 and Red is to give consumers choices at different price points. That would be only partly true. Even Cannondale can’t get enough 7900 to equip all of those bikes with Shimano’s top mechanical group. Of course, these choices create another layer of risk for both the bike companies and retailers. What if consumers just don’t want to spend $8k on a carbon bike with Dura-Ace, but they’re fine with spending $9k on one with Red?
Let’s hope that shop has a crystal ball.
So that’s the minefield. But consider that we have bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, the Volagi Liscio, the Synapse (Cannondale) and now the Trek Domane (which is a replacement for the failed Pilot, oops). Our choices are increasing and the quality of what we ride has leapt. That’s a lot to celebrate. And it’s easier than ever before to find a custom builder thanks to the Interwebs. Here’s the thing about the bell curve: If the population grows, it grows. As events like D2R2 gain in popularity, more products that make those events more enjoyable will hit the market.
With the North American Handmade Bicycle Show starting in just another day, it seems an apropos moment to take a look at a new book about the man who is arguably the most outspoken and iconic practitioner of the frame building craft: Richard Sachs. Nick Czerula spent a year as he says, “as a fly on the wall of Richard Sachs studio.” Based on the more than 120 images within the book, Czerula isn’t lying.
The book does nothing so much as document how solitary the work of a frame builder is. As romantic as it may seem to fit someone or to experiment with new geometries, frame building is mostly working with metal. Brazing it. Drilling it. Sawing it. Filing it. Getting metal shavings in your fingers. Czerula documents all this in crisp black and white images.
What’s most surprising about the book is just how stolen so many of the images are. Sachs is as self-conscious a frame builder as there is. And that Czerula could so blend into the background to get shots of Sachs going through the dailiness of his work, of his routines should not be under-appreciated. Czerula manages to capture more than just the serious, frame-builder-at-work Sachs. Bits of his quirky personality and humor come through as well as fierce drive as a competitor in cyclocross.
Think of the book as a portrait of one of the more outspoken craftsmen around. At first, I confess, the book felt incomplete because it features no text. Pardon me; I’m a writer and I tend to see a book without text as a bit like a burger with no fries. However, the more time I spent with the book, the more I came to see it as being an interestingly objective look at someone who is constantly defining his efforts in the written word. Had the whole frame building thing fallen through, Sachs’ original plan to study English would have served him well. His introspective nature has made him the most articulate frame builder out there. If you’re still curious why bike magazine editors have made him the most written-about frame builder on the planet, there’s a good reason. When we talk to him, we find a kindred spirit.
If you haven’t been following his blog. You might want to. It’s Sachs, unfiltered. Just him. No pesky bike magazine editors to get in the way. Check it out here.
To the degree that Richard Sachs exemplifies the craft of frame building, this book could be viewed as a cryptic how-to manual. This concept is reinforced by the book’s organization. It begins with Sachs prepping lugs and follows the process of building a frame through to its conclusion, right down to shipping it off for painting, prepping the finished frame for assembly and finally installing the parts to complete the bicycle. Along the way, Czerula does a nice job of reminding the reader that Sachs will be working on a number of frames at any given time.
Printed in a relatively large landscape format (11.75″ x 8.75″), the book presents the images large enough to digest them, right down to the tiniest detail. The 110-page volume isn’t cheap, at $59.95, but efforts of this sort are rare and this shows a level care and devotion more books could benefit from. If you’re a fan of Sachs, or just a fan of frame building, this is well worth your time and money.
You can pick it up here.
In what counts for spare time I’ve got two book proposals I’ve been working on. One of them concerns frame builders. My online column for peloton, called Artisans, is meant to be background research for many of the builders I believe will be the subjects of the book. If you’ve never checked it out, you should drop by and read a few here.
Recently, I was on the phone with one of the legends of frame building. We got to talking about the dream that leads one to want to become a frame builder. I’ve always enjoyed talking to frame builders. They have that feel of brother-of-a-different-mother to me. The work is solitary, creative, essentially commercial in nature and requires simple acts to be repeated thousands of times to hone one’s craft. After a while, they find they begin exploring arcane ideas about heat, silver, steel. At a certain level, writing is no different. I find myself thinking about verbs and the relative evil of sentimentality.
The builder I was speaking to told me how he had dreamt that being a frame builder was like being a shop keeper, such as a tailor. You show up in the morning, open up, work a full day, then close up and head home. But the idea was that working alone was meant to foster craft and remove the need to crank out production-style work. He believed that working alone was the key to being able to perform artisanal work. But that’s not all: When he was starting out, he had a belief that most of the builders who weren’t employed by the big companies like Colnago worked in exactly that manner.
By the time he found out that wasn’t the case, he’d already been building on his own for a few years. What I’ve learned of most of the European shops is that their priorities were shifted toward maximizing efficiency to increase output. Most of the builders I’ve spoken to working in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s favored limited output so they could focus on quality. Indeed contract builders were common in Italy. There were some who kept a stock of their clients’ decals around for when they came calling.
What American builders—and consumers—seem to struggle to appreciate is that to most of the builders working in Europe up through the ’80s and ’90s is that the bicycle frame was a commodity rarely separated by more than paint and decals. Branding and identity were the province of paint, decals and sponsorship. That is, you could put Colnago paint and decals on any bike and—ergo—it was a Colnago. There wasn’t a belief that anything beneath the paint could be terribly special.
When you consider those early builders here in the U.S., that is the group that really helped put frame building on the map here in the 1970s, guys like Albert Eisentraut, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Ben Serotta and Brian Baylis, they each epitomized that ideal of the solitary craftsman, at least early on. Nevermind the fact that Eisentraut and Serotta never really made a career of working alone, that romanticized notion of the shopkeeper craftsman that inspired many of them—and most of today’s builders as well—is largely a fiction.
This idealized vision held by a handful of American builders of just what the life and purpose of a one-man frame shop is is largely responsible for the state of frame building in the U.S. and even around the world. The example set by Sachs, Weigle and other one-man shops is directly responsible for the influx of guys like Sacha White of Vanilla and David Wages of Ellis. The irony is that Sachs and Weigle weren’t really responding to a tradition; they were inventing one.
Relationship counselors are in the business of reminding us that when we enter a relationship we rarely see the object of affection as they are. We see them as we want them to be. Think about that a second. Is there a better demonstration of a love of craft than setting out to be an artisan as part of a grand tradition that exists only in your mind?
Of all the logos in cycling, one of my favorites is Richard Sachs’ “RS” design. It was created by the talented Chuck Schmidt. Schmidt does all of the design work for Sachs’ many logos, which is why all his non-bike stuff is of a piece. I could go on and on about why I love his design work so much, or why Schmidt is such an interesting guy—he used to put on the Velo Rendezvous event in Pasadena and has a collection of bikes like Lindsay Lohan has days in court—but that’s not really the point of this post.
Short of purchasing a Richard Sachs frame, if you were a fan of the builder, there haven’t been many ways to show your affinity while out for a ride. Well, Richard has just offered his first cycling cap. You heard that right, his first cycling cap.
Richard says he was inspired, in part, by my paean to the cycling cap. You’ll pardon me if I feel honored.
To keep it in style with his kits it’s a black hat with his traditional RICHARDSACHS band on the front, and the Schmidt-designed Cross Rules(both sides) and atmo (on the brim) logos. Rich but not overdone. The brim is tiny; it’s narrower than any other I’ve run across in recent years and its length is shortened in proportion to its width, just 2 inches.
While this cap isn’t cotton, it isn’t like other non-cotton cycling caps I’ve seen. This one is produced from a microfiber polyester that has a shiny, if innocuous appearance. I like this way better than the other waffle weave materials I’ve seen used. I expect the colors will last a good deal longer than the typical cotton unit, so it’s got that going for it, too. One other little note: It’s a tiny bit smaller in fit than a Castelli cap, though just as deep.
Richard says wearing one will “get you more tail than Sinatra.” Of course, if that’s not your style, he’s got his knitted “Fidel” cap in stock as well.
Check out the cycling cap here.
I recently completed a feature that will run in Issue 6 of peloton magazine about New England. While I could have devoted a good 2000 words to all the great racers who cut their teeth there or on all the cycling writers who came from the region—there was a time when most bike magazine editors either hailed from or lived in Vermont or Massachusetts—I focused on the bike companies based there.
It had been a while since I’d visited the subject, more than 10 years if the truth is told, and as I dug down I realized there was more going on than I realized. It became so complicated that I decided to create a little family tree to remind me the begat, begat, begat sequence of the companies.
Some, like Pedro’s and Parlee didn’t have their genesis in other companies. Others, such as Serotta and 333Fab aren’t New England companies, but their relationship to the patriarch of the industry couldn’t be denied. This family tree isn’t particularly scientific, and certainly not to scale, but it speaks to what I most like about the region.
My time there left a mark. To the degree that I’ve got any entrepreneurial spirit, I think it was incubated while working for a number of small companies. From Richard Fries’ Ride Magazine to an upstart Apple retailer, I saw people go out on their own time and again. For me, it rubbed off from just being around them. There are those figures who cultivate that individuality; Rob Vandermark seems to be doing a lot of that at Seven Cycles, whether intentionally or not.
Part of the story this doesn’t tell, though, is the way that Richard Sachs has mentored dozens of new builders. Some of it has been indirect, as through his prolific writing about his brand and the craft of building. Some has been direct, in the form of offering concrete advice to up-and-comers.
The tragedy in this story is the demise of Fat City Cycles; it was Chris Chance who really began the scene from which all this grew.
There have been plenty of rounds of musical chairs. Parlee and Pedro’s have even picked up people who have done stints at other area bike companies. In that regard, the bike biz in New England is different from we see in California, where bigger players dominate and after a few years in the biz you stop being surprised to see an old friend in a jersey. And maybe that’s the difference, those smaller companies give employees a real window into what entrepreneurship is.
A trick steel frame demands certain details. A high-end group. A matching set of top-shelf bar, stem and seatpost. Tubulars or super-trick clinchers—none of this training-grade stuff. Tape is a tougher call. There’s no way I’m going back to celo-tape, no matter how old-school PRO it is, but honestly, foam tape looks a bit, well, wrong.
Richard Sachs has figured this out for us. Embossed leather tape. How he crossed paths with Australian Mick Peel of Busyman Cycles who crafted the tape is a story for another post, but let’s just say this was a marriage made in heaven. Peel is an extraordinarily gifted leather worker. You absolutely must check out his site to see examples of his other work. The saddles he has done are beyond trick.
Peel made an embossing tool featuring the Sachs logo and pressed it into exquisite leather. While it is available in a natural brown leather, the red and white versions are what caught my eye. And though the embossing looks soup bowl deep, Richard says that by the time you pull it tight, the RS logo smooths out some; a good wrap yields a more subtle appearance.
Peel didn’t make loads of this and Richard isn’t certain how long it will be before Peel relents to do another run of such repetitive work. Put another way, if you like it, act now. It’s not cheap, but it’s so cool it will look killer even on bikes that don’t bear the Sachs logo.
Years ago, a custom leather shop in Northampton, Massachusetts, recovered a Flite saddle I’d worn out. The leather and the glue they used were so superior to the original that the saddle stayed in use for another four years, until I finally crashed badly enough to bend both ti rails. I suspect this leather tape will enjoy and even longer life.
Admit it, this is the first bar tape you’ve ever coveted. It is for me.
Some years back during an excruciating romantic entanglement the object of my endurance railed against coworkers who she sniped performed only the work they found easy. When I mentioned the nature of competency is to veer toward those acts we do well I suffered for it.
But that’s the nature of a career, in a nutshell. We find work that we do with competence, maybe later, mastery. Becoming good at something causes the brain to release reward chemicals so that our proficiency becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We do it over and over because it feels good to be good at something. And frankly, employers may sometimes want more, but they never want less.
The dream of the average frame builder is to be the torch set’s version of a one-man band. The fantasy most hold is one of days spent with the trade’s tools in hand. If not a torch, then a file. The reality is that what’s in hand is as often a phone, a pen or a mouse.
The pressure of being a sole proprietorship forces questions of profit and loss, fixed costs and production rate—details as unromantic as toilet paper, yet no less necessary. But even a mastery of the tasks necessary to run a successful business won’t it make.
Brand. For all the passion, technical wizardry and expert work I saw at NAHBS, the detail that united most of the builders there was a lack of branding.
Some years back a builder I was interviewing complained that his bikes didn’t get the same air time as those of Richard Sachs. My reply was less than sympathetic. I said, “Yeah.”
“Well how come.”
“I called you.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Richard calls me. Any time he calls me, he has something to show me.”
While I thought the message was clear, the builder’s profile rose not one stitch. I’ve never seen a T-shirt with his logo. His low output is at times the butt of jokes by other builders.
Sacha White has paid attention. He anted Sachs and then raised. Branding isn’t a cool logo. It’s not just your logo on T-shirts and tchotchkes. It’s more than a good graphic designer.
There’s no way to deconstruct how a pink grenade conveys speed, style and lust, but it does all of those things, and more. Further, my sense of what his brand stands for is just that: my sense. Because it’s my emotional connection to what he does, it doesn’t even matter if my perception is different from yours if both are favorable. Done well, most folks will get the same impression, even if not everyone ends up liking it. After all, no one gets loved by everyone.
I kept wandering by the Vanilla booth at NAHBS, partly because I just liked the booth, partly because it was near other stuff I liked (though the same could be said of every booth at NAHBS) and partly because it had a lively atmosphere with an ever-revolving cast of characters. In short, it was a good place to be. And though I’m not a coffee drinker, I know they were serving good stuff. I know this because of the coffee snobs who stopped by for a fix.
That Sachs and White both have waits that are measured not in months, but in years, has generated both gasps of respect and amazement as well as eye-rolling dismissal. As if all those customers were schmucks for their willingness to wait, when they could buy … well what would they be buying?
And that’s the thing. There were a great many beautiful bikes there. Strip the paint off all of them and the number of truly stellar bikes might surprise you. One of my very favorite builders there, a guy whose impact on road bikes can be felt in lug design and geometry—to this day—showed bikes of such ordinary appearance I don’t think I could buy one.
A bike should be stylish in my eyes. It should be something that unavoidably short-circuits my brain to associate its lines, its graphics with my sense of fun on the road. A glimpse of the fork should make me dream of descending some mountain. If, instead, I find myself thinking, “I should have sent it to someone else for paint,” then the joke is on me.
Say what you will, but a wait list is a bold-face confirmation of connection with admirers, admirers who became clients.
At the very least, most builders would benefit from the creation of an internal style guide. Any time I see a powder blue so light it looks like a faded duck egg, I know it’s a Speedvagen. And that hot pink? Well, since I stopped seeing Serottas in that color, Sacha has cornered the market. Even without a full-blown style guide, builders would do well to develop a signature color palette. The point isn’t to be hard-nosed about the appearance of their bikes; rather most would benefit from having a few colors that could announce the presence of their bike even when it’s moving too fast to read the decal.
Builders: Give us more to look at than just your bikes. Give us a window into your passions, your quirks, your whimsy. Give us a way to connect with you beyond just the frame. Be personal. Take a stand. Embrace risk.
Be yourself and we’ll love you even more.