Cycling Towards Perfection

by | Jul 18, 1988

A damaged orange bicycle frame sits in the corner of Richard Sachs’ shop in Chester. Stripped of its wheels, handlebars, pedals and saddle what was once a proud new bike is now a confusing mass of orange tubes, twisted together like a giant Krazy Straw.

The frame comes from a man in Iowa. He sent it half way across the country hoping a master might restore its former life. But he might as well have sent a Yugo to a Lamborghini mechainic. The orange frame was born on a factory assembly line. Detail was an afterthought. In contrast, the shiney new frames on Sachs’ shop wall have been made one at a time by Sachs’ own hand. They peered down at the guest with an unmistakable bravado. 

“I agreed to fix this frame, so I have to follow through,” Sachs said, almost seeming to wonder how the orange monster got into his shop. “I don’t really know if it was robot made or if it was made in a big vat. I don’t know anything about it. It’s junk.”

Richard Sachs should know about what he’s talking about. For a man who almost went to college to be a journalist, he has a name that in the world of bicycles is all but legend. Considered one of America’s finest racing frame designers, he assembles high quality custom bikes under his own label. 

Richard Sachs cycles have been ridden by competitors at every level of racing, from Team U.S.A. riders like Leonard (“Harvey”) Nitz and Nelson Vails to weekend racers who make a real investment in their hobby. Sachs has been building bicycles since 1972. At a rate of two to three frames per week, he said he has created some 2000 bikes.

“It was really like a comedy of errors,” Sachs said, recalling how he, after graduating from high school in New Jersey, was faced with 10 months of freedom before starting college. He got himself a job in a bike store in Vermont, where he was to go to college, and then the idea of writing to a frame building company in England to ask if he could come over and learn.

“If I had been able to get into college for September, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work in the bike shop. I would have just prepared for college,” he said. “And if I went to college, I never would have done this.”

His small shop on Chester’s Main Street is virtually a hole in the wall and, without directions, the out-of-towner might never find it. Nestled behind a grocery store and across the street from a bank, Sachs works by himself for a clientele he rarely sees. About 15 people per year will come in an order their bikes, but most orders come through the mail.

The orange frame is an exception. Sachs can only afford to take time out for it now since his business has slowed. His life is more hectic during the winter, he said, when he prepares new bikes for the summer racing season. His specialty is building frames and when he does do repair jobs—unlike the orange cycle—they are almost always his own creations. The desire to avoid repair work helps in driving him to create better frames. A perfectly constructed frame is one Sachs will never have to see again.

When Sachs looks at a bike frame, he said he looks at it as a work of art in which even the tiniest detail is crucial. His brochure states: “From the design, to the materials, to the construction, to the finish—no compromise exists in any single part of a Richard Sachs frame or bicycle.”

All this work and dedication is expensive. While the average factory-made racing bike may cost several hundred dollars, Sachs’ prices range four, five, and six times that much. Nevertheless, many people, mostly dedicated racers, are willing to part with their money in exchange for a bike created specifically for the rider..

“If you want something that is a perfect fit, a reasonable design, has a high degree of craftsmanship evident in it, and, to a certain extent, if you want something that not everybody else you can have, then you see somebody like me,” Sachs said, who has no animosity towards mass production. “If you’re not as serious about your cycling or cycling equipment and, to you, the bicycle is just a means toward enjoying your cycling, then you can buy anything.”

Sachs’ interest in designing better frames stems partially from his own racing experience. Throughout his career he has also ridden competitively (on his own bikes, of course). In the 1970s, he made four trips to the National Championships and was Connecticut State Track Champion in 1975.

“I don’t really take racing that seriously now,” he said. “As long as the guys I sponsor on (a) racing team can race at that level, then to me it’s like I’m still involved—(Cycling) is a sport which used to be a little bit more underground. Now that it’s been discovered and it’s on TV all the time and they use images of cycling in advertising. It’s a whole different crowd.”

The construction process takes about three days per frame, but between having a bike sent to San Diego to be painted and assembling all the parts, it may take several months for Sachs to produce a complete bicycle.

If people are surprised that Sachs can thrive off such an expensive product when cheaper options are available, he isn’t. “It’s kind of like the Stradivarius violins,” he said and laughed. “They couldn’t understand what was going into them and there really weren’t that many. Why such a fuss?äBikes are made a certain way and it’s something that can’t be duplicated. You can duplicate some aspects of my bike and have a lower quality version, but you can’t make this particular bike.”

Regardless of what type of cycle Sachs is working on, he works alone (he once experimented with a helper, but found it disruptive to his concentration). At age 35, he has most of his career ahead of him, but said he realizes that unless he passes his on his secrets the Richard Sachs label will someday pass into history. The knowledge doesn’t scare him.

“By the time my time is up, there’s a good chance bicycles will be very different from what I’m doing now. I’m successful because I have 15 to 16 years of experience. I never think of myself standing alone in the shop when I’m 60,” he said, “but my own business is already 13 years old.”

The following article (including pricing) was originally written by Dan David for The Pictorial Gazette, and appeared on July 17, 1988.