Perfection From Racing

by | May 5, 1985

Connecticut craftsman Richard Sachs is a racer/framebuilder who, like an artist, lets his work speak for itself.

Amid antique shops, country art galleries, and whitewashed New England clapboard houses that all seem to sit on their own little hills in Chester, Connecticut, Richard Sachs is hiding. There is no handpainted, Colonial-style sign in front of his shop like the one in front of Restaurant du Village across the street and the gallery/pottery shop just a few doors down. His is just an anonymous blue garage attached to a small blue house.

Sitting at a booth in a sandwich shop across the street, where no one seems to know him, Sachs looked around quickly, then leaned across the Formica and whispered, “I don’t want to be part of the five-cent tour.”

Sachs is neither a recluse nor conceited; he is a shy, sensitive man who does not like to be misunderstood. In Chester’s world of arts and crafts, Sachs prefers to remain anonymous. He would rather not spend his day explaining to tourists why the bike frames hanging on the far wall cost $800 apiece.

The quiet, soft-spoken Sachs feels more at ease in the world of bikes and bike racing. Sachs, who often interrupts himself mid-sentence to ask nervously, “Do you know what I mean?” lets the frames speak for him. They are flawlessly crafted and beautiful.

Sachs does not mind being called a craftsman as long as you understand that he’s not in the business just to be a craftsman. “I appreciate the product as craft, but I could not be a framebuilder if I could not ride the bikes. I feel that if I hadn’t raced or ridden, I couldn’t speak with authority about design or longevity. Do you know what I mean?”

Fellow craftsmen in Chester don’t usually see, but fellow cyclists do. Fred Kuhn does. He runs Kopps Cycle in Princeton, New Jersey. When Sachs was going to prep school in the area, the young racer used to come in after a ride and stare at the Campy components in the glass case. “Fred took the time to show me the difference between a Campy-equipped bike and a Campy-bike with a fine frame,” said Sachs.

After graduation Sachs decided to go to Europe to learn how to build frames. He landed a job as a helper at the Witcomb frame shop in London.

“I was a bit naïve,” he admitted. “I thought the Witcomb shop would be a laboratory with tile floors and people in white coats. When I got to the shop, it was dirty and smelly and the people didn’t look like I thought they would. But it was a great nine months,” he laughed.

What had originally been conceived as a summer distraction became a viable career move. Sachs returned to the U. S. about the time Witcomb decided to open a branch in East Haddam, Connecticut, to sell handcrafted frames and production bikes. Sachs signed on as a boy Friday.

It wasn’t long after the company was formed that demand began to exceed supply—at least for the handmade frames. Sachs and Peter Weigle—who had also made a pilgrimage to Witcomb in England—were given brazing torches and told to fill the gap. But Sachs was a quality rather than a quantity man.

“To Witcomb the frames were units,” Sachs reported. They were dealing in numbers and production quotas. I didn’t want to do a big commercial thing. To me it was art—a craft—an interesting way to do your eight hours a day.” It was also driving him crazy. “I can remember throwing frames and pulling forks apart. I also remember doing a lot of good work and being pleased with it. But after a while I got fed up.”

In 1975 Sachs left Witcomb USA to set up shop in Chester, a few miles down the Connecticut River. He has spent the last 10 years there, refining his style and building a national following.

During those 10 years Sachs has become an Italiophile—he has moved away from the framebuilding styles and attitudes of the country where he first learned his craft. “(In England) I learned to build frames,” said Sachs, but the way I do things now bears no resemblance to what I learned there. In England, at least at Witcomb, the frames were truly made to order. The framebuilder’s job was to execute the frame according to the design the customer wanted. Once that was done, they would ornament it however the client wanted. That’s not how it’s done in Europe or Italy.”

That’s not how Sachs does it either. “Once the size is determined,” he said, “the customer doesn’t get to tell me what lug to use or what style to use. People leave it up to me—my methods are established.”

The Italian method of framebuilding that Sachs has adopted dictates that a framebuilder should be true not only to his client but to himself. The frame’s design should reflect the builder’s years of experience—not the customer’s whims. “The Italians look at the longevity of a design rather than whether it was made for a particular use, fashion, or style,” said Sachs.

“Throughout the 1970s,” he added,”when people were making criterium, time trial, or touring bikes, most good Italian frame manufacturers continued to develop a racing frame that could cross over into any competitive event. That’s what I feel is really important.”

Because he has spent his own career trying to perfect his own “crossover bike”, Sachs does not like to speak in terms of frame angles or fork rake. “I have a thing about using angles to describe frame design. People always talk about the seat and head angle determining the bike’s stiffness. But the seat angle has only one function—to position the rider, not to make the bike stiff or make it handle in a particular way. In my opinion, the head angle of a frame is as important for positioning and upper body reach as it is for (determining) steering.”

Sachs wants people to understand that a good frame is a function of how the frame rides and how the rider fits on it. Frame angles are meant to serve those ends rather than determine them. “I think if I were to broadcast the fact that my bikes have two inches of fork rake and that the head angle varies between 72 and 73 degrees—unless I could get up the nerve to say that this is the absolutely best there is—it would follow me around. People would say these are antiquated designs. I don’t think they are. They make my bikes fit and ride well.”

Keeping the bike low to the ground is a key part of the Sachs ride. His bottom brackets hang 10 inches from the ground, at least a half-inch lower than most production racing bikes. “If you have a higher bracket,” he said, “it’s at the price of stability and rolling speed. Like Indy cars, bikes need to be as close to the ground as possible to roll faster.” Even in tight criterium corners, he believe lower bikes have an advantage, because they roll into the turn faster and come through with more stability than a criterium bike.

Bringing his bikes closer to the ground takes time and work that doesn’t necessarily show in the finished product. “I have to shorten the head tube and alter the angle of the lug to bring the bike down—it doesn’t take two weeks to do, but it’s something that a production facility can’t afford to do.”

Sachs has to perform a number of other time-consuming operations to make his bikes work better, rather than just look better. He flattens the rear chainstay near the dropout on the freewheel side so that the wheel will drop out of the frame quicker during a wheel change. It’s one of the tricks he learned during a recent trip to Italy.

Another trick he picked up is to hand miter the front dropouts so that when they are fitted to the fork, the axle cutouts are exactly perpendicular to the ground. The wheels fall right out. On most production frames, the dropouts curve back toward the frame; team mechanics have been cursing them for years.

Although Sachs has added all these hidden touches to make his bike perform better in a race, the people who buy his frames are more in tune with what happens on the squash court than at the velodrome. Company presidents, doctors and lawyers are his clients, because he has had to price himself out of the racing market. “I don’t want to price it so the racers can’t afford it,” he said,”but this is a business and I have to survive.”

Survival isn’t all that difficult for Sachs, though, even with the loss of racing revenue. There will always be people who can appreciate—and afford—fine handiwork. Sachs is justifiably proud of his product. “I’ve taken the workmanship part of framebuilding and refined it to the point where there is no other frame available that is as fine.”

Like any good artist or craftsman, he does his work with a minimum of tools. His shop includes only a worktable, a brazing stand, a grinding wheel and an alignment table. He does not use jigs because, according to Sachs, “jigs don’t guarantee good alignment—only experience does.” He uses “fixtures”, small pieces of what look like angle iron mounted on adjustable plates, to position the tubes, and he holds everything in place with small clamps as he brazes.

Sachs uses words like sculpt when he talks about hand finishing the frames after brazing them. He’s very careful about making everything smooth. “Unlike cars, which people stand back to admire, bikes get fingered,” he said. “They feel it for smooth lines and joints.”

After three days of brazing, filing, and cajoling temperamental metals, Sachs pulls a finished frame off the stand—all except the painting, which is done by Brian Baylis of California. Sachs doesn’t feel that his three days of brazing are accurately reflected in the price of the product, however. “Unlike any other industry or craft,  you don’t charge for the amount of time that goes into a frame.”

For Sachs, limited financial rewards are offset by a wealth of freedom. He works like a fiend all winter, churning out most of the 100 frames he sells every year, so that when spring comes around, he can do what he likes best—ride. Sachs is a Category 2 racer who has been to the National Championships four times. He gives himself plenty of time to ride with a local team that he sponsors. Not a bad life for a cyclist who happens to make frames.

The above article was originally written by Christopher Koch for Winning Bicycling Illustrated, and appeared in May, 1985. All references should be kept in that context.