Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle

by | Oct 27, 2010

Throughout more than three decades as a builder, Richard Sachs has made primarily one kind of bicycle (for racing) in one kind of material (steel) painted in one color (red). And yet he sees nothing repetitive in this approach. An idealist who sets out to create the perfect bicycle with every attempt (and has come close fewer than ten times out of thousands, he estimates) Sachs insists that the tasks of designing, cutting, brazing, and coaxing the materials are so organic, and often so confounding, that he is unable to make the same frame twice. Not only is each Sachs frame as variable as the person it’s fitted for, it also reflects its maker’s mood as he tends to the dozens of different processes required to produce and assemble it. Even the metal offers up varied characteristics, he says, depending on the batch. In reaching for impossible standards, however, Sachs continuously refines his tools and processes. The results are machines of uniform excellence that are prized throughout the world.

Sachs claims that serendipity brought him to his business, but his history suggests a compulsion to build bicycles from the start. “To be sure”, he later wrote, “the bicycle was the tool, but the arena of competition and its history would become a passion. Others may have had a technical interest to dabble in human powered vehicles or alternative forms of transportation. Some may have had inclinations to pursue a craftsman’s life and found their way as frame builders. I just wanted to make bicycles like the revered European builders who were supplying the roadmen of the world, and whose names were on the downtubes next to me in my earliest days in the peloton.”

Raised in suburban New Jersey, Sachs first developed his relentless interest in performance when he competed in bicycle races in his teens. When his admission to Goddard College was delayed for a semester, he boarded a bus from New York to Burlington, Vermont, to present himself for a bike mechanic’s job that he had seen advertised in The Village Voice. On finding the job filled, he embarked on an extensive letter-writing campaign to offer his services for free to any shop that would train him in frame-building.

It was this that Sachs made his way to Witcomb Lightweight Cycles, a family business in South London, England, that also provided early tutelage to Peter Weigle. Sachs stayed almost a year, until his money ran out. Upon returning, he and Weigle worked briefly at an American branch of Witcomb that was launched to meet the growing demand for high-performance bicycles, encouraged by the 1970s fitness movement. In 1975, Sachs opened his own shop in Chester, Connecticut. Recently, he moved to Warwick, Massachusetts.

Through 35 years of seeking to build the elusive perfect frame, Sachs has also tested the performance of his bicycles as both a racer who has qualified to ride the USA Cycking National Championships six times on the road and twice on the track, and as the sponsor since 1992 of one of America’s most successful cyclocross teams.

“All the new materials, tube shapes, or joining processes available to the industry cannot mask the compromises that are endemic to mass-produced or even low-volume frame-building,” he has stated. “Little, if anything at all, can cover up the shortcuts taken by other manufacturers whose main goal is to produce the most units at the lowest cost. The bike industry makes money. I make bikes.”

The preceding text is from Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle by Julie Lasky, which presents the designs of six internationally renowned bicycle builders whose embrace of the tradition of working in metal brings striking innovation to their craft. Candid portraits including builder’s inspirations, working methods and bicycles, lavishly photographed in great detail, highlight this exhibition at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design.