Mavericks of Steel

by | Mar 2, 2007

Far removed from the buzz of technology and well below the belly of today’s much-hyped carbon fiber and titanium lies the soul of bicycle frames. Out of dusty shops filled with scraps of metal and well-used tools emerge some of the most beautiful, eclectic, yet exquisitely performing bicycles, available today.

For decades, the art of the handmade steel bicycle has been all but lost on generations clamoring for bikes made from more lightweight, aerodynamic materials. While it’s true aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium have a weight advantage over steel, bikes made from these materials are less durable – which is why many steel builders have dubbed these bikes “once and done” or “disposable.” Anyone who has ridden a steel frame understands its unmatched durability, responsiveness, attractiveness and most importantly, performance.

In recent years, the bike industry’s growth has been largely driven by the wave of cyclists seeking the type of lightweight, name brand frames like those ridden by Lance, Jan or Floyd. Between 2002 and 2004 alone, the sport witnessed a 50 percent jump in road bikes sales, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

The current status of cycling sits atop a foundation laid by the bike boom in the 1970s. During that decade, the residual effects of the irreverent 1960s played an influential role in the lives of young cyclists, among the likes of Richard Sachs, Peter Mooney, J.P. Weigle, Ben Serotta and Tom Kellogg. Coming of age during this period, they were easily enamored by cycling, first through racing and later through their desire to craft a perfectly designed steel frame.

Connecticut’s Richard Sachs was a teenager attending a New Jersey boarding school when he says he became “smitten with bikes and bike racing.” By 1971, he was fully engulfed in the sport. After graduating from high school, Sachs scoured trade magazines for the names of bike makers in England. His letters outlined a wager: free shop labor in exchange for learning how to build steel frames. Plans to pursue writing at Goddard College quickly vanished, and Sachs spent 10 months in England absorbing every detail he could at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles.

Defying expectations to follow their passion was a common thread among the bike makers emerging from this era. Sachs best explains it when he says, “all of us had a little of that counter-culture streak and had the attitude of the generation before of doing your own thing.”

Like Sachs, builders Weigle and Serotta also studied at Witcomb in the early 1970s, while Mooney honed his skills from the great Ron Cooper at Cooper’s hole-in-the-wall shop in London.

“I went to England in 1974 and wandered around to three or four shops,” explains the Pennsylvania builder Kellogg, who held a Cat 1 license from 1974-1978, racing numerous road, time trial and track events. “I got job offers everywhere I went because at that point the crafts era was out of fashion in England but picking up in the states.”

And it was this handful of wide-eyed East Coast builders – along with a smattering of others in California, Portland and Chicago – that would return home to ignite a renaissance that would endure for more than three decades.

Made to Perfection

Even with cycling’s popularity in the United States during the 1970s, handmade bike builders largely operated under the radar of mainstream America. While many in their generation were embarking on professional careers, Sachs and Mooney, and their East Coast contemporaries, spent hours at their workbenches perfecting the art of building bikes the old-fashioned way.

“There were about 10 of us, and it was something unconventional in America,” says Sachs, who at 53 is still an avid racer and holds a Cat 2 license. “Most Americans don’t work with their hands. They go to college and live in the suburbs.”

Upon returning from England, Sachs and Weigle became the primary frame builders at Witcomb USA. After a few short years, Sachs had no desire to become part of the traditional bike manufacturing market. So he ventured out on his own, launching a shop in 1975, and Weigle followed, opening his Connecticut shop in 1977.

Like many American builders at the time, Sachs spent his early career looking to Europe as the pinnacle of bike building. After several trips to Italy, however, it became clear that there was nothing extraordinary about European-built bikes.

“We were young and had blinders on,” Sachs concedes. “Bike making is a trade, and despite what people tell you, in Europe, builders weren’t at a bench creating bikes one at a time. It was just a job. We tried to assimilate something that didn’t really exist.”

In essence, Sachs believes he and his counterparts were inventing their own style, one that has produced ageless, superbly crafted lugged steel gems. “We wound up creating something that had never occurred,” Sachs adds. “The way bikes are made now could be considered high art.”

This cadre of East Coast builders sits atop a family tree of builders and brands. Sachs and Weigle begat Chris Chance, who in turn begat Independent Fabrication and Merlin, which then spawned Seven Cycles. The careers of Ben Serotta and Tom Kellogg have intertwined with all of those brands. And such emerging East Coast builders as Mike Flanagan, Tom Stevens, Mike Zancanato and Toby Stanton have all woven paths with those masters.

After more than 30 years, it’s fair to question what has sustained Sachs and Mooney’s interest – what drives them to arise each morning, venture into their shops and pore over their workbenches alone. The common answer is that there is something very palatable – verging on mystical – about using their bare hands to mold a heap of steel into a beautiful machine.

“First and foremost, I love the bike,” says Mooney. “I love it in terms of what bikes have done for me. I love starting with all the castings, shaping the lugs and tubing and putting it all together. Bikes have gone through a big evolution, but I am buzzed by the history and what they can do for people and the planet.”

For Mooney, his business model emulates that which he learned in London. Whether fitting a three-year-old or a world champion, his mentor, Cooper, maintained direct contact with customers at every step in the process. Similarly, looking over Mooney’s customer list from the past 30 years gives him a distinct sense of satisfaction.

“I take pride in being a one-person frame shop,” he explains. “There’s no division between the builder and the end user. I get to meet with the customer and work with them through the fit process. It helps me understand what they like and don’t like. You can build a relationship with them, and I wouldn’t want to be in a setting where I couldn’t do that.”

Mooney’s clients are a repository of riders: those from the ’70s that remember the quality ride steel offers to bike messengers with tattoos to everyone in between.

It’s his ability to uncover what his customers want that enables him to build a truly custom bike, from the tubes and lugs to the components and paint.

“I want to offer the end user a unique experience,” says Mooney. “I want the customer to have their signature on the bike and come up with the color combinations to make it different. But sometimes I wonder how much people see through the paint.”

It’s here in their story, however, that Sachs diverges from his brethren Mooney, Weigle, Kellogg and particularly Serotta, who still crafts custom road bikes but also manufactures a line sold at professional bike dealerships. Sachs says the “line in the sand” was drawn for him in 1979, when the custom bike he built based on a friend’s specifications backfired.

“I did what customers wanted because I thought that was expected of me,” says Sachs of his early years in which he could turn out 100-120 bikes a year. “I now build one type of road bike to fit the rider and work on the road, period.”

Sachs has developed a predictable, repeatable construction model that allows him to craft a perfectly straight, perfectly balanced frame. And while no single feature defines a Sachs bike, it’s the seamless unification of his work through the signature parts he designs and builds, blended with his distinct vision and deft craftsmanship.

Sachs says he’s sheepish to admit he makes between 65 and 70 bikes a year now, but that’s largely because he’s spending time on other projects. Frustrated with the components available from today’s manufacturers – which are made to accommodate the aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium bikes on the market – Sachs has created a line of custom parts, such as lugs and bottom bracket shells. He also collaborated with Dario Pegoretti on a tube set for 21st century bikes.

Sachs will admit there are good mass-produced bikes on the market today, yet he refuses to look to the industry as a muse. He says years ago, he discovered there was simply little inspiration to be found because “everything became androgynous.” Instead, Sachs looks to experts in other crafts, including watches, guitars and even fashion, who like him, enjoy the entire journey and the rich tradition of creating products by hand.

“I don’t take cues from the bike industry because it is really the stepchild of the sporting goods industry,” he says. “It is no different than when Nike comes out with new shoes. You have to continue to reinvent stuff, or it will vaporize. I steal, borrow and get inspiration from wherever I can find it, but one place I won’t find it is in bike making. It has no bearing on my work.”

In some ways, it’s hard to blame Sachs for that decision. When a single builder is working in a shop handcrafting a bicycle, it is impossible to keep up with every trend or technological development. Quite honestly, it would defy everything these artisans embody.

Undaunted by Technology

The 1970s not only witnessed heightened interest in cycling, but that decade was the breeding ground for technological breakthroughs in bike design and construction. In fact, both titanium and welded aluminum frames first emerged in the mid 1970s. Then a small Connecticut bike maker, Cannondale exploded onto the scene in 1983 with its first bike: a less expensive, aluminum-tubed model.

The 1980s and 1990s continued this trend toward technological innovation, responding in large part to cyclists’ demand for lighter, more aerodynamic materials at better prices. Through it all, traditional steel frame makers have been tucked in their shops crafting bikes they way they always have. And in today’s market, many of these artisans believe they have an enormous advantage over the “big box” manufacturers. Quality.

“I am never perfect but I try to get as close as I can. I have set the bar pretty high for myself,” Sachs says. “The big manufacturers make excellent bikes for the money they charge but they are market driven. If money is no object, then between the two, my bike must be better.”

Many builders today are immune from the industry’s fickleness, focusing instead on improving their craft. It’s this relentless pursuit of perfection that keeps customers patiently waiting in the pipeline, sometimes up to 56 months in Sachs’ case, for their handmade bikes.

“I get excited by people who appreciate the material,” Mooney adds. “The nature of this business is extremely excited by technology. Now the darling is carbon fiber, where a few years ago it was titanium. Many people aren’t as enamored with the bike as much as they are following the flavor of the week.”

In an era underscored by technological innovation, mass production and marketing, Mooney and Sachs, along with their veteran colleagues, have proven that they are true artisans in every sense of the word. Just as 1970s fashions have seeped back into the mainstream, cyclists looking for a high level of customization and performance, are returning to steel.

The Handmade Resurgence

While it’s unlikely that lugged steel bikes will dominant the market anytime soon, there has been growing interest in recent years by both cyclists and up-and-coming builders enamored with the craft. Unlike the East Coast builders who had to cut their teeth the hard way, today’s builders have an easy entrĂˆe into the world of bike making.

With a few keyword searches on the Internet, emerging builders can find the resources and materials they need to get started. Online forums have been an especially popular medium to share ideas and lessons learned, and rookies no longer have to travel abroad to learn from the best because these builders are online too.

The widespread availability of information and accessibility to prolific builders has created a renewed interest among younger builders, something Mooney welcomes. “Very few things are engineered and designed by hand anymore,” he says. “Now there is some energy returning, and there’s a bit of resurgence. So it’s nice to see that younger folks are showing an interest in an older art form.”

In fact, it was the dialogue from the online community that sparked Texan Don Walker to initiate an annual gathering of builders. Walker, who started building bikes in 1991, founded the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) in 2005 to give builders a venue to showcase their work, meet in person and learn new skills.

“The focus is to gain more attention of builders that handcraft bikes around the world,” says Walker, who was a competitive cyclist for more than 10 years, primarily focusing on track racing. “Builders can scope out what others are doing and raise the bar of the level of perfection that’s already there.”

That first show in 2005 was held in Houston, featuring 23 builders and nearly 700 participants. Enthused attendees returned home energized by the weekend and word spread through online blogs and forums. In 2006, the show moved to San Jose, Calif. to accommodate the growth. Last year’s event featured 92 builders with almost 3,000 attendees. The 2007 show will return to San Jose March 2-4, boasting more than 100 builders from across the United States, Canada, Germany and Italy and an estimated 10,000 attendees are expected.

“People attending the show are advanced cyclists with an eye for quality and craftsmanship,” says Walker. “They might have a specific style or look of a bike they like, or they might be looking to have a bike built. Many will review the builders, interview them, make a decision and write a check on the spot.”

Sachs and Mooney, along with other East Coast builders, will exhibit at the show. Mooney believes it’s a great way to support the industry and help the next generation of builders. “I think the show provides a unique opportunity to interact with others,” he says. “It’s funny because people know my name but they don’t really have the sense that I’m still making bikes. My work has stayed local, so the show will expose my work to the other side of the country.”

The show not only gives newbie builders a chance to interface with the greats, but it also provides attendees a chance to rediscover, or discover for the first time, the splendor of steel. In some ways, the show reflects the sense of camaraderie that has existed for so long in the handmade bike world. It offers a venue where builders can share their passion and spirit for handmade bikes – a craft that the East Coast’s legendary artisans have helped define, cultivate and sustain for more than three decades.

“There’s a groundswell that’s created a market for handmade stuff,” Sachs explains. “People are tired of the generic. They want personal attention and want to know their frame is unique. Each builder has a sequence and a way that their hands touch the material. I think it’s that personal touch, along with how they handle the materials and their inspiration, that make a bike unique. The customer receives something with an aura I can’t quite explain.”

The preceding article was originally written for the Bike Culture in early 2007, by Dallas-based writer Lara Zuehlke. Lara is an avid cyclist whose work focuses on running, cycling, health and fitness.

Richard Sachs is a craftsman framebuilder who has been refining his skills for over a quarter-century.