Handcrafting the Perfect Bicycle Frame

by | Oct 8, 1984

When Richard Sachs was 17, he was none too pleased when his mother refused to buy him a car. While his friends were cruising around in their Mustangs and MGs, he had to settle for a bicycle.

But today, at 31, Sachs looks at that parental strictness in a far different light. For Sachs is now one of the most respected names in the elite circle of US bicycle frame-builders.

As one of the few people in the country to build frames by hand, his signature carries a certain cachet in the serious cycling crowd. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Sachs, who lives and works in Chester, is one of the top four bicycle builders in America. In a study that pitted a handful of US bike frame craftspeople against the grand old masters of Europe, Bicycling magazine referred to the Sachs as “flawlessly finished” and ranked it high in “handling” ability.

If he were practicing his craft in Italy or France, Sachs would be well known in the average household. But in the States, where bicycling is not a major sport, his name just doesn’t ring a bell. Certainly his output—about 100 per year—doesn’t make a dent in the domestic bicycle business.

But Sachs believes the recent Olympic gold medals won by US men and women cyclists will lead to a burst in the sport’s popularity. This will push up the demand for high-quality bikes—synonymous with hand-built frames—and ultimately mean more work for the dozen or so full-time frame builders in this country.

Meanwhile, Sachs says he’s quite content with the acclaim he’s earned from bike touring and racing buffs in the nine years since he’s opened his shop. In fact, his fame among frame fanatics rather astounds him.

“I don’t quite understand why it’s happened,” Sachs confesses. “I think people’s imaginations are captured by the notion that I’m some old bearded guy in a leather apron who is overseeing attentive apprentices and passing his skills down to future generations.”

When customers find out that Sachs is a young upstart and that he works alone in a small converted shed—”doing all this dirty work,”—as he puts it—they often do a double take.

Sachs is adamant about working alone. “I would feel awful putting my name on a frame that I didn’t make myself, knowing that it wouldn’t be as perfect as it should be,” he says. “I insist that the actual quality be there, and not just the perceived quality.”

Like most Americans, Sachs grew up not even knowing there was such a thing as a hand-constructed bike frame. He picked out his first factory-built bike by resorting to the Yellow Pages. But the lad from Bayonne, New Jersey, slowly became cycle-smart, both by observing other bicycles and by talking to the owner of a bicycle shop he frequented.

Before long, he’d discovered what the average US bike owner never realizes; the components of a bike, from its gear changers to its saddle, are simply appendages to the most important part, the frame. And the frame, he learned, could be tailor-made, like a suit, to the specifications of the most exacting customer.

But it wasn’t until the summer after he graduated from high school, when he was looking for work that would tide him over before entering college in the spring, that he decided to immerse himself in the world of bikes. This decision was prompted by ad for a bike mechanic in a shop in Burlington, Vermont.

Just as Sachs was refused a car, so was Sachs denied that job—for the best, as it turned out. Undeterred, he stomped off to the job as an apprentice. Of the three replies, only one, from Witcomb Cycles in south London, said “yes.”

The ensuing nine months of training at Witcomb convinced him that he had found his calling and that he didn’t need to go to college first to pursue it. Sachs learned the essentials of frame building, but he was hardly a top-drawer craftsman, nor did he understand, as he puts it, “how to operate a business.”

Sachs then came to Connecticut to help set up an importing arm of Witcomb. The new operation taught Sachs the basics of running a shop, partially preparing for the day two years later when, in a philosophical disagreement with management over the quality of the bikes, he quit and struck off on his own.

“I wanted to make the bikes as good as possible and management needed to stick to its quotas. The two approaches didn’t jibe,” Sachs says.

Since going into business for himself, Sachs has remained true to his love of the craft, though he readily concedes he has had to “learn a lot about the bottom line.” He’s had to practically force himself to charge high enough prices for his frames. Each takes three to four days to construct from fitting it to the customer to brazing the 11 chrome-molybdenum pieces of tubing and filing each curve and corner.

For $875, a customer can purchase what to the uninitiated looks simply like a colorful metal triangle. And that’s only if it’s ordered direct from Sachs. On the West Coast, where Sachs sells his work through one of seven retail shops nationwide, the markup can push the price to $940.

And that’s just the frame. Sachs also sells assembled bikes. He reluctantly decided to do this four or five years ago when he realized that reselling parts made by someone else was the only way he would substantially increase his revenues and his net income.

A complete bike goes out of his shop for no less than $1650, and in California, the assembled Sachs creation fetches anywhere from $2000 to $2500. About 40 percent of Sachs’ direct sales are for full bikes, but he’s trying to get to the point of accepting only orders for “the works.”

Just as Sachs has slowly become a more astute businessman, so has he evolved in to an even finer craftsman. He’s always finding ways to refine and perfect his work, which, he freely admits, is now worlds apart from early Sachs models. He’s reached the point where he has such confidence in his handiwork from both a functional and an aesthetic standpoint that he’s contemplating making a few boastful statements in his printed advertisements.

“The goods I deliver,” he says, “are known to be the strongest, the fastest, the best handling, and the most beautiful.”

His customers are already using superlatives in the letters they send him. Robert Montgomery Scott, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, wrote to Sachs: “Very few things I have ever owned have given me as much pleasure as your frame and that bicycle.”

Scott falls into the category of cognoscenti who, though they are not racers, want and can afford the quality of hand-built bikes. But the majority of Sachs’ clientele are racers.

Sachs reports that in the 1976 Olympics as well as in several National and State championships, racers have ridden his bikes to victory. Members of the Connecticut Yankee Bicycle Club which Sachs’ shop sponsors, all ride his vehicles.

Sachs himself took up competitive cycling for a while. In the early- to mid-’70s, he captured three State championship medals in track racing and represented Connecticut at the National Championships.

The trend towards big-purse corporate sponsorship of amateur athletes has deterred top US cyclists from seeking out Sachs frames for important races like the Olympic events. But manufacturers Raleigh and Murray, both official sponsors of the recent Olympics, supplied the competing cyclists with bikes. Such sponsorships are obviously out of Sachs’ league.

Sachs is hoping that four years from now some maverick cyclist will be wealthy enough to turn down corporate sponsors and choose a Sachs frame for an Olympic event. No matter which state the cyclist comes from, the choice would put Chester—and the rest of Connecticut—on the world cycling map: there is an outline of the state painted on each of Sachs’ creations. And in the center of the map is a star, and, next to it, the name “Chester.”

The preceding article (including pricing) was originally written by Kristy Marks for The Connecticut Business & Industry News, and appeared in October, 1984.