Interview with Richard Sachs: :Belgian Knee Warmers

by | Oct 20, 2007

Richard Sachs’ name is synonymous with the handbuilt frame. It is unlikely that anyone else better represents the enigmatic image of the one-man frame shop whose body of work is more than just a bunch of beatiful bicycles, it stands for something. Recently BKW rang Richard up at his shop in Chester, Connecticut, to talk about that line in the sand.

BKW: You’ve been at building for 35 years; what keeps you going?

RS: All of a sudden 35 years passes. I kind of feel every time I start a frame it decides what it’s going to be, it’s like the first time, even though it’s not. It’s more like something I want to do instead of something I have to do. I love making things with my hands. We all need something to do and I’m blessed that I have something to do that I love.

BKW: How many frames will you build this year?

RS: I’m on a schedule to produce about 5-6 month; I can’t think about the whole year. I look at the month ahead.

BKW: What is your wait up to?

RS: I have enough committed orders that put the delivery at 6 years.

BKW: Many cyclists see your frames as the epitome of the hand built bicycle. What do you think is at the root of the lust for a Sachs?

RS: I don’t promote myself, but I do make myself available. I’m on the framebuilder’s list, several message boards, and I answer my phone. I do exactly what I want to do and I don’t look around at what other people do. I look straight ahead. I’m not a marketing person. I think people like me and have a respect for what I do. Maybe one before the other, maybe one more than the other. They are buying me, not the bike. I’ve tried to perfect the details, the alignment, and the fit … I think people want to buy that for themselves. They want to have a little bit of me. The title of the book I’ll never write is, “It’s Not About the Bike, It’s About the Bike Maker.”

BKW: Including the Rivendells, how many different lug sets have you created over the years?

RS: I did a set for Takahashi, in ‘81 or ’82; I lightheartedly refer them as the Sachsahashis. I did a set for Rivendell plus four for myself: Richie-issimo, Newvex, Nuovo Richie, Rene Singer. I’ve also done two fork crowns, (one for Richie-issimo and one for Newvex), one bottom bracket shell, the front derailleur braze on, and I’ve had dropouts for ages.

BKW: What tubing are you using with your lugs?

RS: It’s a version of Columbus’ Spirit called Spirit For Lugs. We call it PegoRichie. The oversized tubes I’d been using were less than friendly for brazing. I’d been using Dedacciai Zero tubing. Then I had a JRA [Just Riding Along] on a two-year-old frame. The seat tube broke nowhere near the heat affected zone; it cracked in half at the transition of a butt. Then I found out that Dario Pegoretti wasn’t using it for similar quality control reasons. We decided to team up with Columbus to make tubing for lugs. I feel much more secure than using any of that short butt stuff. The tubing is Niobium alloy. The goal was to make tubing that was 21st Century strong, oversized, light, resilient, and would enable a brazer to build a frame that was 3-3.5 lbs. I would probably have never switched brands, but I had a JRA and it happened to ME. The light went on when it happened to me, and Dario and I decided we needed to get away from the “tubing for industry” stuff.

BKW: Did you see a noticeable drop in frame weights when you moved to this tubing?

RS: I saw a drop in weight and an increase in strength. Before, I knew I was using tubes with short butts but I thought the steel was well made so that nothing would happen to a frame I made. Among other things, the PegoRichie set gives me a comfort level about the heat-affected zone. I know that my JRA will never freakin’ happen again. And I didn’t to have to make a heavy bike to do that.

BKW: Investment cast lugs are much harder to cut and file than stamped steel ones. How much reshaping of lugs do you do these days?

RS: The original versions (circa late ‘70s) that were available were very hard. Over the years metallurgy has changed and they aren’t as hard any more. The material that Long Shen uses yields a lug that is quite malleable. The old investment cast stuff didn’t appeal to me because the stuff was ugly and the material sucked. Now it’s a question of getting shapes that I design and have cast to my specifications. That’s ideal.

BKW: Do you ever build with antique lugs anymore, or just your stuff?

RS: I’ll make something “like that” two or three times a year. I’ll do a Nuovo Record-equipped bike that is period correct. I have more than I need of those old lugs. I like taking a lug from dirt floor quality and reshaping the points, the shoreline, etc. But it’s really only a reminder of how I used to work. Casting has allowed me to produce a part that requires much less labor than stamped steel lugs, and it provides a much better starting point for close tolerances and higher quality joints.

BKW: You’ve always been careful to call your frames “made to measure” rather than custom. Can you talk a little about your perspective? It seems many cyclists aren’t clear on the distinction.

RS: Here’s the deal: I don’t understand the word “custom.” I just wanted to make bikes for people who wanted to use them on the road. When I started I just thought, “I want to do what I want to do.” I got to do that from the beginning. But because I came up in the era of Bicycling road tests, I had to deal with people who were reading the reviews. I was always conflicted that the people who were good racers would give me very few measurements. On the other hand, consumer types would come in and ask can you make this like a DeRosa if a DeRosa was recently reviewed. Transposing specs from one bicycle to another is fraught with peril, especially if some specs are misunderstood. In that ‘70s era, I found that many folks took the monthly road tests too literally. Of these, some would ask the framebuilders to copy this, or make it like that. If you’re new and have no backbone, you find yourself executing these orders. One such frame was for my pal Rudy, and when he went to the Tour de l’Avenir he had a terrible experience because the bike was poorly thought out, and not suited for European stage racing; Mike Neel really dressed him down for bringing that bike. That was in ’78. Since then, I make my bike not your bike. How can they be custom if I decide what goes where? I’m a guy who makes what I think is my bike. Though the order precedes the bike, it’s not “custom.” The term “made to measure” comes from tailoring and is used to differentiate between that style and “custom” and “bespoke.” If a tailor has a style, you don’t go to him and ask him to do more than to make it fit. You don’t say, “Make it look like Karl Lagerfeld or Calvin Klein.” Most people understand now you don’t tell a builder how to build a bike. You don’t show up with a blueprint. My view is there might be a million choices, but there’s only one right one.

BKW: When fitting a cyclist, what is the first dimension you zero in on, is it saddle setback?

RS: Saddle height and saddle setback. Everybody knows their saddle height. That gives me a mental image of how big the frame is that I’ll make for the customer.

BKW: Aside from cantilever bosses, how do your cyclocross frames differ from your road frames? Specifically, do you use different diameter or wall thickness tubes and, given the same rider, do the frame dimensions vary between road and ‘cross?

RS: All the bikes I make, I make as light as I humanly can. I use the same PegoRichie tubing. The differences between road and ‘cross are mostly how a rider sits on the bike. Most of my cues are taken from Adam Myerson of Cycle-Smart. [Sachs sponsored the former Collegiate Cyclocross National Champion for several seasons.] He showed me that the‘cross position has to be configured quite differently. You can’t just take a road bike and put canti’s on it. The saddle is lower, it is more forward, and the relation of the bar to the saddle is closer and higher. If you’re gonna race ‘cross, rather than just ride it on dirt roads or around a park, your positon is going to be different.

BKW: Will we see a Sachs team at the ‘cross races in New Belgium this year?

RS: Our team consists of four or five elite level people and some hangers on like me. I’m going to do it again this next year. I had lost interest in road racing by 2000. And then I got hit by a car and broke my leg. I got completely hooked on ‘cross after recovering from my broken leg. I had always supported a ‘cross team, yet I never raced until my broken leg gave me time to reassess my plans. Once I joined my team at the venues, I was hooked.

BKW: Of all the wins that have been achieved on your bikes, what are some of the more memorable ones?

RS: Jonathan Page definitely was an out-front win for us. But we have had a long string of success with the sport. Since ’97, The Richard Sachs Cyclocross Team has won nine separate National Championships. It would be really hard for me to figure out the pecking order of what those mean to me. It’s one big stew of great things for me and the other sponsors. I’m not sure the Page one is the biggest, but it’s the one people are most aware of, which is fine.

BKW: You have talked of drawing inspiration for your work from exceptionally made items that aren’t bicycles, i.e. watches, fountain pens, guitars, etc. What have you been looking at lately that gives you a charge?

RS: In the last five years I became kind of overwhelmed with all those things. I’m like a freakin’ daydreamer. Basically I collect information to inspire me. I was always thinking ‘If I could only be the fill-in-blank bike maker I would have nailed it.’ “The Living Treasures of Japan” special on National Geographic Presents really impressed me. The artisans they depicted make things with such respect for what came before them. I wanted to be like them but with bikes as my medium. But, you know how when you eat too much and have to walk away from the table? That’s how I was with this stuff. I’m continually inspired (by it all), yet far less obsessed by it. I simply have to make bikes. I saved all those articles on Jimmy D’Acquisto, and Paul Laubin, and George Nakashima, and Eva Zeisel, and I bought all the books and DVDs I could find on this and similar stuff, but I find myself listening to my own voice much more now than I ever did in the past. I needed to take a break from all the daydreaming of all the stuff I was looking at in the past. They are all still there, and I summon them up when I have to, but they don’t come to me as often as they used to. I hope that’s a good thing. I kinda think it’s an issue of confidence.

In 1997 I had a watershed moment. I was asked to speak at a Berskhire Cycling Association meeting. I went up there with a 25th anniversary frame. I’m driving through the Berkshires rehearsing this stuff and it occurred to me that this is BS; I have all these cue cards I’m going over and I realize that if I dropped them, I wouldn’t be able to make sense enough of them to get them back in order. This voice said, ‘Just get up there and talk; what you have to say has value.’

I realized, if I’ve been making bikes for 25 years, I must have a clue, and even if I don’t, I’m allowed to have an opinion. I used to keep my mouth shut, at least, until that day. I finally purged myself of keeping it inside me. I joke about it; I kinda haven’t shut up since.