Building a Better Bicycle

by | March 24, 1991

In the late 1970s, Richard Sachs was making about 140 lightweight bicycle frames a year. This year he will make 80-90.

To most businesspeople, such figures would be the sign of hard times. But to Sachs, they are a sign of progress on his journey to perfection.

Sachs, of Chester, doesn’t try to make more frames; he just tries to make the best frames, so he considers quality to be far more important than production figures.

He is reluctant to discuss his finances, except to say that he enjoys his work so much that he would work for free if he had to. “I don’t really make a lot of money,” Sachs says.

Sachs is constantly gaining knowledge about his craft, but he uses it to increase the quality of the finished product, rather than to increase the speed with which he can produce it.

Sachs measures deviation from absolute perfection in terms of a few thousandths of an inch. A factory-built frame would be tested for perfection in fractions of an inch, “if they tested it at all,” he says.

In fact, he insists that the only resemblance between the bicycles he crafts and those found in a neighborhood bicycle store is that both are propelled by humans.

Custom-built bicycle frames count for a very small percentage of the bicycle frames made in this country. Custom frame builders, most of whom work on the East or West Coasts, are well respected and fill an important need for ardent bicyclists, according to Jim Fremont of the Bicycle Institute of America. But they account for “an extremely small amount” of total sales, he said.

Bicycle Business Journal publisher Bill Quinn said custom frame builders account for about $25 million to $30 million of the estimated $2.2 billion U.S. bicycle market, a market that doesn’t include clothes or accessories.

But market share and making millions are not big concerns for Sachs.

At work in his basement shop at the center of Chester, a quaint village on the Lower Connecticut River, Sachs looks more like a jeweler than what most people might think of as a bicycle-maker. The frames are assembled, not with the kind of welding tool found in a muffler shop, but with a process which uses a silver compound to fuse metal parts together at a lower, less-stressful temperature. Mass-produced frames are welded, a process that results in weaker joints, Sachs said.

Sachs himself compares his work to jewelry-making, saying that aligning and joining the tubes that make up a bicycle’s main frame take every bit as much care as making fine jewelry. “It’s just bigger,” he says.

Sachs custom-builds bicycle frames—the main triangles, the forks that attach to the front wheels and the “dropouts” to which the rear wheels will be attached. No handlebars, no brakes, no pedals, no seats, no wheels, no gear mechanisms, no chains or sprockets, just the frames, for a cost of about $1400 a unit, depending on how elaborately it is finished.

He sometimes completely outfits the bicycle, using other manufacturers’ components—but only the best components—and sells the finished product for a base price of about $3200.

Who buys $1400 bicycle frames and $3200 bicycles? Sachs can rattle off a list: lawyers, artists, teachers, doctors, cycling coaches, competitive racers, including National and Olympic Team members, triathletes and marathon cyclists—”from top level competitors, to those who may never race but insist on the best,” he says.

Gene Borne, an insurance executive in Encino, California, says his two Richard Sachs bicycles are among his most treasured possessions.

Sachs’ bicycles are “virtually perfect” in the way they are built and in their appearance, Borne says. “He makes the finest bicycle I have ever seen anywhere in the world.”

Because of the cost of his bicycles, Sachs’ customers often are “middle-aged executives” such as himself, Borne said—people who appreciate high quality and for whom cost is a secondary factor.

But for Borne and Doug Day, a nationally known bicycle racer from the Collinsville section of Canton, Sachs’ frames are worth the price. Because of the precision with which they are assembled, the bicycles glide smoothly, even at speeds as high as 50 miles per hour, and require less effort from the rider.

Sachs works alone, not trusting his quest for perfection to anyone else’s hands. He has no apprentice or subcontractors who might possibly fail to adhere to his high standards. He even takes his own telephone calls, which are often from potential customers from throughout the country, because he feels nobody can discuss Richard Sachs bicycles with the degree of expertise that he can.

Sachs, a slightly built man with short hair and piercing blue eyes, says he arrived in his profession through “the luck of the draw.”

He was involved in bicycle racing at The Peddie School, a boarding school in New Jersey, and acquired an firsthand appreciation of the importance of a fine, precision bicycle. After learning that he would have to wait several months to enter college he wrote “pretty much on a lark” to English bicycle frame manufactures to see whether he could work with them for a while to gain some expertise in the craft.

Sachs spent his college tuition money while working without pay in England and scrapped the idea of going to college in favor of using his new-found knowledge and experience to open his own business in 1974.

He has been working—always alone—in Chester ever since and currently has a shop below a Main Street real estate office. It’s hard to find, but that’s all right with Sachs, since no more than 10 customers a year show up in person and he likes the privacy and quiet his out-of-the-way location provides.

Sachs advertises in bicycling magazines and is known and respected in competitive racing circles. He talks with his customers by telephone to determine their needs and ship frames to them when the frames are finished.

His involvement with bicycling extends beyond his business. He sponsors and races with a six-man team on weekends and trains by riding about 25 miles every day. Local elementary-school children know him as “the guy who’s always riding his bike.” Riding it, or trying to find a way to make it even better.

The preceding article was originally written for the Hartford Courant by Nancy Thompson, and appeared on March 24, 1991, with the headline “Trying to build a better bicycle frame.”