According To His Opinion
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN SILCA AND RICHARD SACHS
Richard Sachs, and the bicycles that he builds don’t need much of an introduction in the sport of cycling. His brand is familiar to cyclists all over the world, and the frames he builds entirely by hand are seemingly mythical. Talk to someone who is lucky enough to own one, and they’ll tell you there’s a certain intangible magic about the ride quality, balance and overall feel of riding it.
As it turns out, that same bit of intangible magic is present in the man himself. As we’ve been developing our SICURO Titanium Bottle Cages, we’ve been lucky enough to get perspective and feedback from our network of frame builders. Prior to a recent photo shoot for the cages, our marketing manager was lucky enough to spend some time talking to Richard, so he took the opportunity to try and understand more about what drives him.
Luckily for you, he also recorded most of it, and Richard gave him permission to share it.
SILCA: Your career as a frame builder spans over four decades. What made you decide to pursue this career
and how did you go about getting started?
RS: I was a mediocre student boarding at The Peddie School. In my sophomore year, the English Department mandated that all boys had to keep a journal and make a daily entry. Once a week the journals were turned over to the Masters (teachers) for critique. From this, I developed an interest in writing. There was also an annual event on campus called The Dimes. Each student was encouraged to write a short story, poem, or tome. The Gods must have been smiling at me because, in my sophomore year, I won the contest. From these experiences, it got in my head that writing, expressing myself with words, was a calling. By the time I was a senior and applying to universities, the counselors slotted me into colleges that would allow me to develop as a writer. I was accepted to Goddard College in Vermont and waited until that September to begin the rest of my life.
Out of the blue, the school wrote and informed that it oversold its incoming class and I had to wait until the following April to begin. With that, and the summer to kill, and the extra months through the winter, I took a job in Manhattan stocking shelves at a company whose office was, in all places, the basement of the Empire State Building. Part of my weekly routine in New York included getting The Village Voice every Wednesday. In it appeared a classified ad for a bicycle mechanic position in northern Vermont.
By this time, I was also an avid cyclist, having bought a basic ten speed in 1968, subscribing to several publications, and also becoming fixated on the European racing scene. But the bicycle was part of a parallel life I lived; it didn’t drive me. I didn’t have vision that included the trade. My role was to write, and the goal was to fulfill that. But the ad got into my head and I thought going to Burlington, getting the job, and waiting until April so I could start Goddard – this would be the best way to kill all these months.
I took a one-way trip north on a Greyhound bus. Arrived in Burlington. Got an overnight room at The Wilson Hotel (a flop house). And the next morning, I hosed myself off, shampooed, shaved, and walked into The Ski Rack and announced that I was here for the job. They laughed at this. I didn’t get the position.
Within days (and I was STILL in Burlington), I decided to avenge this situation. If they wouldn’t give me the job, I’d get even. In my mind it was, “If fixing bicycles is cool, then making bicycles is N+1 cool.” I wrote away to a load of makers in England and offered myself up for free. “If you allow me to come to your shop and find out what this is all about, I’ll arrive and do whatever you ask until my money runs out.” I mailed 30 letters. Got three replies. And the one from Witcomb Lightweight Cycles in Deptford (a second-generation family business) say okay. Off to southeast London I flew.
“ONE THING IS CLEAR, I DIDN’T WANT TO BE, OR SET OUT TO BECOME, A BICYCLE MAKER.”
Despite all of this, the agenda was STILL to find a way to kill time before April arrived, because Goddard College beckoned. But somehow, the experience in England as a 19-year-old became an adventure that kept going, and I let it happen. The stay in London begot a job with the family business’ agent in America. I stayed at Witcomb USA through its formative years. And left in 1975 because all of it was becoming a routine.
By late 1975, I started my own label. The writing thing, The Goddard College thing – these became part of a past life. And I forged ahead as a one-man operation believing that it was all some fantasy that would soon end and I’d be a 25-year-old applying to colleges once more. But I ignored it all and kept going.
After about a decade, maybe a bit less, I had almost 800 frames under my belt and also accepted the fact that time kept going and my choices were made. Did I make them, or did fate make them for me? That part has never been clear. One thing is clear, I didn’t want to be, or set out to become, a bicycle maker. I became a bicycle maker after many years standing at a bench, holding tools, and banging out unit after unit.
SILCA: When you look back at your early years when you were still learning and figuring out what building bicycles was all about; what’s one thing you learned that you still place a lot of importance on in your craft today? (Aside from the actual process of building the frame of course)
RS: I need to emphasize that my early years were not about bicycle making per se; I was on one long continuous adventure that began when Goddard College postponed my admission and then had six months to fill. That shelf stocking job. Seeing the ad in The Village Voice. Thinking that it was there for me. Going to Burlington to get the job. Not getting it. And then constructing this scheme to avenge my disappointment by going to a bicycle making shop rather than fixing these things. All of it was serendipity. I took none of this for granted, but the agenda was never to be a frame builder, it was to find a cool way to ride out the months and then begin writing at Goddard.
But – as the years passed and my ability to wrest myself from the situations I was in became more difficult and a bit less something I wanted to do, I resigned myself to the place I was in and began to look at making the way I might have had I sat in a classroom to learn.
When I was at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles, my role was to do anything asked of me – that’s what I offered in return for the experience. Let me stay. Watch. Observe. Almost a year passed before I’d head home. But over the months, the workers there would show me more and more, and try to explain what they were doing. Again, I wasn’t there to train, and they had orders to fill so didn’t treat me like an apprentice or the next in line.
From it all, and also from my years as a student at The Peddie School, the single most poignant lesson I learned involved respect. Respect for history. The people before me. The processes they employed to get to where they were. Dismiss nothing. When you know nothing, you have to be completely open. Over time, what you allow to sink in becomes your way. From the masters at school and also the staff in southeast London, the lesson for me was clear, if I wanted some of what these people had, I couldn’t go around them, I had to go through them.
“YOU WANT EMOTION? FEELINGS? ANXIETY? TRY FULFILLING DREAMS AND EXPECTATIONS.”
SILCA: Let’s talk about your way for a minute. What is your design process and inspiration for your frames?
RS: I’ve never drawn a frame. Or plotted points and intersections on paper to see where things go, or might end up. No CAD here. No formulas. My work, all of it going back to before I started my brand in 1975, has been done by feel. That’s not to say I haven’t a clue. Only to suggest that the answers are in me. As long as the right questions are asked, I can do this. I know what goes where from doing the work. And doing more of it. Mostly though, it’s from being around the sport. Or as I’m fond of saying, being of the sport. It’s where myths, and bullshit, come to die. If bicycle making is music, my corner is jazz. It’s improvisation. It’s about producing a sound that isn’t scored, it just comes.
SILCA: As the creator, I bet you notice each and every little detail on a frame by the time you’re done with it. Is this true? How many hours would you say you spend with each frame?
RS: I notice everything. EVERYTHING. The ideal is the concept. The order. The design. Your (my) intentions. The material sitting nicely on a surface in front of you. It’s the one chance you get to do it right. To redeem yourself for that last one, and all those before it, that went sideways. You want emotion? Feelings? Anxiety? Try fulfilling dreams. And expectations.
On one hand, these are just bicycles and within reason, it takes a mother lode of fucking up to produce something that won’t work. On the other hand, frame builders answer to a higher calling. Our shit has to be dialed. People pay us the big bucks and also wait unreasonably long times for delivery just because, unlike the Orbeas, and the Stevens, and the Canyons of the world, we’re supposed to have these impossibly high standards that we also meet because we ARE frame builders.
And then you walk to the bench, grab these materials, and try to imbue your DNA in them, that aforementioned design, and all the skills you can possibly muster, and try to tame the beast. Not. Gonna. Happen. A good maker. A true maker. A maker who gets it, and listens – this is the cat who realizes that the best one can hope for is a collaboration between the concept and what the material wants to be. It tells you. You don’t tell it. Make peace with what you get. Because that’s the only way to do this and NOT develop a substance abuse habit.
Oh. On a good day, I have a hair less than 3 working days in each commission.
“BALANCE, LIKE PORNOGRAPHY, IS LESS SOMETHING THAT’S DEFINABLE THAN IT IS SOMETHING YOU REALIZE WHEN SEEING IT.”
SILCA: Fascinating! Balance and the concept of being balanced on a bicycle is a term that is thrown around often and sometimes quite loosely. What does balance mean to you?
RS: Well you asked, and I’ll answer. Balance, like pornography, is less something that’s definable than it is something you realize when seeing it. We live in a world in which the overarching numbers of consumers are atop some derivative of the 1970s Bike Boom era 10 speed road bicycle. Many years have passed since then, but with rare exception, people who buy better bicycles and want to use them for fitness, are using tools that might be more than they need. Or even want. I can’t change that. So, when I see a human being riding a machine he’s not in sync with, or can’t sit comfortably on, or can’t push forward while looking right, I cringe. Conversely, when all the contact points are in the correct place, and the wheels are the perfect distance apart and around the rider’s center of gravity, it’s beautiful. I try to live in this latter realm. I make a certain type of bicycle a certain way, and for people who can easily engage with it. Period. That’s balance.
By extension, I don’t live in a vacuum so all the components I select have to help me reach that end I envision. The new SICURO bottle cage is a case in point. An accessory. But one that every bicycle will have fastened to it. The part is elegantly crafted; it has the look and hand-feel of something a peer frame builder would make at the next bench. And the slotted interface area makes it simpler for the client to place the bottles exactly where he wants them based on his reach, flexibility, and morphology. These are the details I use to make each frame. SILCA has found a way to reimagine the water bottle cage so that balance is easier to achieve, and the bicycle is more beautiful for this.
SILCA: Is there anything on a full bike build that just drives you crazy if it’s not done a certain way?
RS: Unless I assemble the bicycle, every one that I see (sent out as a frame and fork) and built by a shop or a client has more than a few things that offend my sense of style. The wrong balance. Inelegant cable casing paths. Wheels with offensive graphics. Too many headset spacers. Tire valves that are 17 times longer than they have to be. God forbid, a non-setback seat post The handlebar tape wrapped poorly, or backwards. I’m an effete elitist aesthetic slut. That’s all you need to know.
SILCA: To wrap things up, let’s talk about the role of form and function as they pertain to bicycles. Is there one that’s more important than the other?
RS: A bicycle is a tool. A vehicle. Not a craft object, or one of the decorative arts. It’s not even a machine driven by the visual. I mentioned my ties to the sport. Well, I think I did; it seems like I’ve been typing and replying to questions and blogging and writing for my site for two weeks straight, and it’s hard to recall what I’ve already said, or to whom. So here: the bicycle has to work. It has to go down the road straight and with a minimum of rider input. It has to carve turns. Inspire confidence on long descents. It has to fit the user. He has to be able to ride for an hour, or for eight hours – with no aches. I make that bicycle. So yeah – function.
But- and here comes the abstract – it can be beautiful. One can look at it, the making of a bicycle, and incorporate an aesthetic that is separate from the mass of materials its comprised of. And to be fair, some make their bicycles and are solely driven by how sculpted and eye catching they can be. The ideal (for me) is a finished piece that has it all, but isn’t made for show. Since I work alone and spend so much time with each unit, I care – I really care – that every one turns heads. Mine most importantly. So yeah – form.
SILCA: If you had to describe your work in one word, what would it be?