Far Ride Interview

by | Aug 2, 2020

FR) Life takes many paths, and your current path began in London at Witcomb Cycles. What year was that and how did that come to be?

I arrived in southeast London at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles early on in 1972. How that came to be is its own book. I had just graduated from The Peddie School in June 1971. With a plan to enter Goddard College (in Vermont) later that fall. These were the Woodstock Gen years, the Nam years, the do your own thing years – and I was a product of the counterculture. I wanted to write. Goddard College was where I expected to hone my skills. But then they delayed admission by one long semester owing to an overbooking issue. So, I had the summer and then at least another 6-8 months to kill before my path to school would resume. I took a job stocking boxes in midtown Manhattan. I used to read the Village Voice each Wednesday – it, a newspaper that leaned as far to the left as one could before falling over. In the classifieds one week there was an ad for a bicycle mechanic’s job. It was in Burlington, Vermont, some seven hours north. I owned a 10-speed bicycle, and since my interest in riding was somewhat developed (I didn’t race. I hadn’t even seen a race in person. But I did subscribe to several bicycle magazines.), I pursued the opportunity to get this job. Fixing bicycles until the first day of college starts seemed cooler than working in a storeroom.

I traveled to Vermont on a Greyhound bus (on a one-way ticket, mind you). I didn’t call in advance. I took a knapsack, some clothes, and expected to land in Burlington, get the job, and work on bicycles until the writing would begin sometime after the snow in the Green Mountains melted.

I walked into The Ski Rack (the store that placed the classified ad), announced my arrival and desire to fill the position, and within moments walked back out the door with nothing. The people informed me that the job had been filled weeks, maybe months prior. And that the classified I saw continued in print because the insertion contract was still current. Worse yet, they let me know (nicely) that I wasn’t qualified for the position.

Disappointed, I was stuck in Burlington (I was maybe 18 years old at this point) without a plan. I got a room at The Wilson Hotel. The Wilson was kind of a flophouse. A dormitory. A place where you’d likely find people living week to week. Or maybe some punk kid from New Jersey who failed to think things through before leaving the cushy life behind. For a week or three I killed time by lining up for work at an office called Temporary Personal. The folks there placed walk-ins at day jobs around the city. I ended up at the Blodgett Oven factory south of town. They made pizza ovens. And until I’d come to my senses, I was there helping experienced men make pizza ovens too. And getting paid some ungodly small amount of chump change by the time T.P. took their commission.

Emotionally, I was at a pretty low point, despite being young and in good shape. But there was just something wrong enough with the big picture that I felt shunted. The Gods weren’t smiling down on me. I was supposed to get that job at The Ski Rack as if the ad was placed in a New York City newspaper just for me and me alone. It was meant to be. I’d hang out for the winter, fix a bunch of bicycles, and then become a writer.

I ruminated heavily regarding what to do in order to right my personal ship. I decided to write to several dozen shops in the United Kingdom that said they made bicycles on the premises. I found names and addresses in International Cycle Sport. In my narrow and as-yet underdeveloped mind, making bicycles was cooler than fixing them. And if I couldn’t fix them in Vermont, I’d find a way to hang out in a place that made them. Of all the letters mailed, there were three replies. One, from Ernie Witcomb, said okay to my request. Oh, the request in all the letters was the essentially the same –

Dear Mr. So and So – I want to come to your country to see how bicycles are made. If you allow me to visit, and stay until spring, I’ll work for free and do whatever menial tasks you need doing.

I left Vermont. I stayed in London working at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles. Extended the stay a bit until almost a year had passed. Upon my return, I was still thinking about college and writing, but in the middle of everything, the Witcomb family and some money people in New England entered into a licensing agreement whereby the Americans would represent the goods made in London by the Witcombs. Somehow, I ended up getting a job at Witcomb USA in Connecticut.

That’s the condensed version. And to reinforce this reply, I cannot overstate it enough: at no point in my young life, during any of these events I’m describing in CliffsNotes fashion, did I want to make bicycles. At no time did I ever consider bicycle making as a job I’d like or want. Finding a way into a framebuilding shop, even for a few months, was a way for me to redeem the miserable feeling I was left with when I didn’t get the mechanic’s job. All of this became part of one long adventure in the summer of 1971 when school plans got derailed. I expected that knot to unravel when, finally, I’d walk onto the Goddard College campus and start, well – start whatever it is that a writer does when the first day of class begins.

FR) When did the bikes you were building first earn the Richard Sachs moniker?

I finally left Witcomb USA in middle 1975 and started Richard Sachs Cycles later that summer.

FR) Who has most influenced your journey?

My mother (Bobbe) and my wife TLD (The Lovely Deb).

FR) You’ve spoken a lot about your life story, both in interviews and through your own media. Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person?

No. I respect the past. I respect some of it in spades. Where bicycles are concerned, I’m aware of what came before all this. But I’m not trying to bring it along or recreate it. There’s a pertinent quote I want to paste in here. It’s from Kaneshige Michiaki (1934-1995).

Tradition is sometimes confused with transmission. Copying Momoyama pieces is transmission. Producing contemporary pieces incorporating Momoyama period techniques is tradition. Tradition consists of retaining transmitted forms and techniques in one’s mind when producing a contemporary piece. Tradition is always changing. A mere copy of an old piece has not changed; it is nearly the same as its prototype of four hundred years ago. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.”

The point of this is to delineate between living in the past, and being that cat who’s always moaning or thinking about how great things once were, and finding a way to examine what made things shine a certain way, and finding a more a mindful way to take some of it with you into the present. If I want to improve my lot in life as a bicycle maker, it’s imperative I know about the high-water marks as well as the gaffes and miscues that came before me, and then learn the lessons from these.

FR) You’ve described yourself as the “accidental builder” with a series of fateful mistakes leading you to where life has. What have been some of the most significant “mistakes”?

Lemme try to bullet point this.

A) If Goddard (College) hadn’t overbooked and I began matriculating in September of 1971, I wouldn’t be answering this.

B) If I missed reading The Village Voice that fateful Wednesday, I’d have remained in New York City and I wouldn’t be answering this.

C) If The Ski Rack actually hired me rather than not, I wouldn’t be answering this.

D) Okay – the Witcomb family agreed to have me over, but I actually arranged that since The Ski Rack didn’t hire me.

E) If the Witcomb family didn’t liaison with some folks in Connecticut in order to grow their export sales into North America, my stay in London would have ended, and I’d have returned waiting to begin a writer’s life (alas – that sounds so delightful in and of itself).

F) If (and this is a BIG if) the working relationship between the Brits and the Americans had not gone sideways after a year, I wouldn’t be answering this. Data point: though I was in Connecticut and working at Witcomb USA, the company’s role was as an importer and distributor. Because the original business plans failed so, Ed (Allen) – the owner of Sports East, the larger company under whose umbrella Witcomb USA was nested – Ed wouldn’t have decided to start making bicycles in New England in order to salvage something, anything, from his original investments.

G) And the only reason Richard Sachs Cycles exists is that – eventually – I grew tired of the new chapter in my life that was scripted once the two sides of the Witcomb bicycle business went south. It was all fun until it wasn’t. With my pals in London (the Witcomb family and those in their employ) no longer a part of the picture that was left when Witcomb USA existed without an arm from the United Kingdom, everything changed. It was time to leave.

FR) In another world and another life, would fate always be weighted towards making things by hand, or is building simply a consequence of a passion for bikes?

We’ll never know.

FR) When did the race team come about?

In 1981 I began sponsoring the very club I’d race with the prior 7-8 seasons. CYBC (Connecticut Yankee Bicycle Club) started in earnest in the middle 1960s. I joined in 1974. I’ve raced with the club (team) and also managed the sponsorship program for nearly forty years.

FR) Has/How has the race team influenced your bike design? How about cyclocross in general?

The sport is the great equalizer. There’s no hiding or faking on the playing field. It was Soichiro Honda who said, “Racing improves the breed.” I cannot imagine being a bicycle maker and having no ties to bicycle racing. It’s your classroom. The laboratory. Sometimes I pity those with no such ties. Much less now than in the past. But the pity is still there.

FR) Much has been written about your quest to reach one “perfect” frame. How much of that is an actual goal and how much has this been inflated?

Making things is equal parts creativity and torture. If you want something to be perfect, first define perfection. Then decide if you understand the concept of compromise. You make things. You don’t manufacture them. The dance – and that’s what it is, a dance – includes you partnering with your materials, and your tools, and your skillset, and your mood. You partner with your expectations, and those of the client (if you even care what he thinks), and those of the public who, in turn, judge your work mostly from afar (and again, if you even care what the public thinks). And your job is to play nicely with all these partners. Maybe others too. But each gets a seat at the table. And all are equal parts of the dance. You (the maker) may have a vision for what should exist upon completion. But the metal does too. The torch, even though you hold it, has a say. On any given day, how the tools work becomes part of the equation. At some point you realize that you’re collaborating. And for some with high standards, this can be Hell. And then you realize after facing Hell’s front door so many times that it’s up to you as to whether that higher temperature is annoying or if it’s soothing. Practice, and more practice, allows you to make that choice.

FR) How do you characterize perfection?

By accepting each day, and every commission, as a chance to get it right. To redeem yourself for all that preceded that last frame. And by accepting that the days keep coming and the line is never close enough to cross. You see it. Sometimes it’s right there. But you’re always going to be on the same side of it as you are today. The line is always there. And you’re never ever going to cross it.

FR) After more than four decades of intentional repetition and muscle memory, where does your mind go during the process?

I’m a dot connector. Once you develop a routine (as in, what goes where), you become part of the score. You know from repetition and routine that the metal you’re holding or the tool your bench – these have a place in the sound you want to make. After a while, it’s jazz. It’s calculated. There is a method at work. But there’s also some freedom. Wiggle room. I try to exist in that space that has no floor. Off the ground, so to speak. I juggle. And the ideal is when all the balls stay above me, and none hit the ground. But if they do fall, you channel your inner PeeWee Herman and proclaim, “I meant to do that.”

FR) When was the last time you made a major change to that process?

It’s not a major change, but sometime during the recent autumn months, I decided to add the dropouts to my front forks as the absolute last task. Prior, and going back to maybe 1973, the two blades would mate to a pair of dropouts. After some filing, decorating, and trimming, the blades would be brazed to a waiting fork crown and steerer assembly. Now, I build the forks with no dropouts at all – raked, curved, and everything – and then add in the dropouts at the very end. I deserve a medal for this, and now wonder why the innovation took so long.

FR) I imagine this repetition must spill over into other aspects of life. What other routines do you keep?

I like a weekly (or several times per if the water tables in the ground can handle it) bubble bath. Seriously. The more bubbles and the hotter the water, the better. I’ll soak for an hour on average. Just lie there with a copy of W Magazine or some similar delivery system of popular culture, fashion, or periodical from the style side of the equation, and simply gel the fuck out.

FR) What does a typical day in the life of Richard Sachs look like?

They all look the same.

FR) How often do you get out and ride? What was the last ride you went on?

I ride daily. Well, maybe daily means 5-6 days a week. An FYI – I decided after last autumn’s cx season that I’d finally walk away from racing. The team will continue. My interest in sport lives on. But I’ll no longer pin on numbers.

In a very good way, not having a finish line to cross is a beautiful thing. A choice I made. One that might have been made long ago, or in any given season going back a decade. But during DCCX last October I realized the tank was drained.

Oh – and I rode 100 minutes yesterday.

FR) You’ve learned many lessons over the years, sharing many of them through writing, interviews, message boards, etc. Why is sharing this knowledge important to you?

The internet (first via listserves and later forums, and recently with social media) has created a bank where any of us can store our experiences, anecdotes, and images. It’s kinda’ sorta’ cool because it’s all so new, even though most of us have been online for well over twenty years. The platforms change pretty fast now, but the essence of it remains the same. We can connect. The sharing part thrills me on several levels. Of course, it’s nice to give it all away for free and then, eventually if we’re lucky, see what others do with the information. And there’s also a cathartic itch that gets scratched because the actual writing of each word and every text – these become part of a wider creative process that’s both tied to the bicycle making routine and, at the same time, completely separate from it. That’s gold, Jerry. Gold!

FR) What’s an important lesson you’ve personally learned in the last year?

Everything and everybody has a sell-by date.

FR) What’s the best advice you received when starting out? What advice do you wish you’d received?

I don’t remember getting any advice when I started. Maybe it’s because my path was as circuitous as it was. I didn’t want to be a bicycle maker, I became a bicycle maker. To your question, I have no regrets regarding any advice I may have not received.

FR) What do you think about the most recent “framebuilder boom”?

On the surface, the current zeitgeist (Note: I wasn’t going do an interview without tossing the word zeitgeist in at least once) is interesting. The newer makers have different influences, and many look at bicycles while having little to no experience using them as the tools for sport and/or transportation they are. And some even consider bicycle making an art form. The material used is a canvas on which creative visions become real. To be clear, we’re all (still) making bicycles. But some folks now use art speak to describe what it is they’re doing. But who am I to have an opinion anyway, huh?

FR) Which, if any, of the new-generation builders give you hope for the future of hand-built bikes?

The ones who practice give me hope. These six know who they are.