Interview with Richard Sachs: :Peloton Magazine

by | Apr 14, 2011

In the history of American frame builders perhaps few names are as well known as that of Richard Sachs. He and his work has come to be synonymous withe the craft itself. To many, he is an object lesson in how to be a successful one-man band. With more than 30 years in the business, he’s seen it all, and in that time he has stood his ground.

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 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?
RS: 1975.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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 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.

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. You have to be both accessible and approachable. It helps to also know what goes where.

The preceding interview was conducted and written by Patrick Brady, and originally appeared in Peloton Magazine issue #3 in April/May 2011