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.
I shot more than 200 images
today yesterday and there’s no way to both upload all of them now AND sleep tonight. So I’ve selected a group of portraits I shot. They were fun and the subjects delightful. Or maybe they are delightful and the subjects were fun. Regardless, as tired as I was when the show ended today, I didn’t really want to walk out.
Leading off the set is Sacha White of Vanilla, who I caught while he was making a small adjustment to my favorite booth of the show.
Jay SyCip, who manages Chris King’s Cielo program.
Jeremy SyCip, these days the one-man show behind Santa Rosa’s SyCip Cycles.Mike DeSalvo of DeSalvo Cycles relaxing during a calm moment.The ever practical Carl Strong; Carl’s aesthetic looks for function long before it seeks beauty. As a result, his frames are austere, but warm to the business end of the peloton.
Even if we never remembered Don Walker’s famous fillet-brazed frames, as the organizer of NAHBS, his place in the frame building world would be assured. If he wasn’t doing NAHBS, he’d be doing more frames.
David Wages of Ellis (it’s a family name) hangs out and talks to fans.
Frame building’s favorite iconoclast, Richard Sachs.Nick Crumpton gets excited.
Ti S&S travel bike by Carl Strong
Bicycle frame builders are an enigmatic lot. They are as different as peanut butter and jelly, but to the average cyclist they are as fascinating as the unfolding of Paris-Roubaix. Most of us, when given the opportunity to visit a frame builder in his shop will spend the first hour just standing around mouth agape staring at tools, works in progress, more tools, tubing, whatever’s on the walls, and then maybe talk to the craftsman.
Getting some of them to actually talk about their craft can be a challenge, but it is when they reveal their insight into the process that they tend to become most interesting. I can say this with something approaching authority, having interviewed builders who knew what they were doing and why as well as guys who didn’t see what all the fuss was.
A work in progress by Mike Zanconato
Our friends over at Velocipede Salon began a series back in 2008 called “Smoked Out.” Each installment is a builder-written profile aimed at the cyclist who has never visited the builder’s site or even seen one of their bikes. Think of it as a one-page autobiography/mission statement/resume.
The seat cluster from a frame by Dave Kirk
Richard “Atmo” Sachs is to be largely credited with getting this going. It’s unlikely that any other builder can better attest to the power of speaking up, not just about the sport, but about oneself. He has mentored more builders than he’s willing to name and “Smoked Out” reads like a kick in the pants to get each of these builders out there in the public eye a bit more.
That some of these profiles have been viewed upwards of 5000 times is a testament to the interest in the handmade frame, not to mention the hard work of the builders to let people know the profile is up; not all threads are read equally.
Frame builders are like chocolate chip cookies. They vary endlessly, but I’ve yet to meet one I didn’t like.
Check it out: http://www.velocipedesalon.com/forum/f22/