From a distance you might get the wrong impression of Richard Sachs and his bicycle company. If your only interaction with Sachs is seeing his team van at Northeast cyclo-cross races you might think he was a big builder trying to raise his profile in the ‘cross world. And if you try to visit his shop you might end up driving around Chester, Connecticut for hours, looking in vain for the impressive production facility where you assume his frames are built. The production facility is, in fact, two small rooms on the ground floor of the Sachs family’s yellow clapboard house and the team van exists solely to support a four-rider ‘cross team, establishing ‘cross cred within the bike industry has never entered the equation.
Richard Sachs defies just about every assumption you make about him as a sponsor and as a frame builder and he knows it. All you really need to do is look closely at one of Sachs’s bikes to see that it, and its builder, is not run of the mill.
“Perception is weird,” says Sachs. “I’m a racer, racing is fun to be around, and this is what we do. When somebody calls up and asks, ‘Can I speak to Richard?’ or ‘What do you guys do?’ I always wonder why they’re speaking in the third person plural. If you go to my Web site it says I work alone. If you read my brochure it says I work alone. To me it’s comical, but in a good way.”
Sachs builds every one of his lugged steel frames by himself; he even produces his own lugs. While the brazed frames look like throwbacks to the days of Merckx and Anquetil, Sachs bristles at the insinuation that his bikes are showpieces or vintage replicas. Richard Sachs bikes, he insists, were born of a racing background, are made to be raced and can stack up favorably against any racing bike on the market.
“I really think that what I do is cutting edge,” says Sachs. “It’s the kind of thing that you can’t do in a factory; I work here not at the factory. More than anything, I think the waiting list is growing because people know that I’m not going to make a monkey out of them with this year’s model or this year’s flavor. That’s important. I feel like I’m a life-long racer and I work alone so the time clock/price point thing has never been part of what I do. I’ve only had one model frame, called the signature model, and through the years I’ve tried to hone my assembly skills so that the quality of that model evolves exponentially.”
And what percentage of the 75 frames he sells annually are for ‘cross?
“Pretty much none,” says Sachs with a small grin acknowledging the irony. “The team gets all the [‘cross] bikes and because the team has success, clients who have the road bikes also want to get a ‘cross bike. But everything is made to order and the team is the priority. When people start thinking about getting a ‘cross bike they’re usually doing it in June or July because ‘cross is around the corner. But I have about a 22-month backlog, so unless you’re very patient a ‘cross frame isn’t going to happen, but being involved in the sport and being a sponsor and having fun, the ‘cross thing is pretty much what we do.”
And Team Richard Sachs does it well. While cyclo-cross’s popularity has ebbed in recent years, Sachs’s sponsorship has remained front and center. Jonathan Page’s dramatic win at the 2003 Nationals (in December 2002) may have been the team’s most high profile win to date, but it was the ninth National title the squad has won since its inception in 1996. Junior, under-23, Collegiate and Masters racers have all won Stars-and-Stripes jerseys under the Sachs banner.
“Speaking about Jonathan specifically, it was a three-year effort,” reflects Sachs. “He started riding for us in 2000, he spent most of the year in Germany and he came back for the Kansas nationals. But it wasn’t something that just kind of happened; it was more the tip of the iceberg. He had two or three National Championship jerseys as a Junior and Espoir in ‘cross before he even started riding with us, and then basically on that day [in Napa] he dominated so it was beautiful.”
Sachs started sponsoring road teams in 1982, but says that the trend towards riders moving from club to club and team to team eventually created an atmosphere in which retaining a core group of riders became nearly impossible. But ‘cross offered racing opportunities with a very loyal clique of riders and that’s where the bulk of his support started to gravitate.
“It got harder and harder to even have a [road] roster, some years, like ’99 and 2000, the road team was down to two or three people,” remembers Sachs. “All we could do was wait for ‘cross season to come around so we could have fun again. It’s a different type of pressure; it’s a more consolidated season. I think in terms of marketing, which is something I don’t think of for myself but more for the other sponsors, it’s clearly more bang for your buck. It’s more manageable.”
Even with the loss of major sponsors and smaller fields, Sachs still throws his weight behind a four-rider squad — Alicia Genest, Konrad LeBas, Tyler Johnson, Katrina Davis — providing fully equipped bikes, traveling expenses, and race day tech and pit support. Sachs laments the loss of the SuperCup series and other well-supported teams, but remains resolute in his reasoning for being in the sport.
“I think it’s too bad for everybody else, it’s too bad for the discipline, but quite frankly we’re not in it for those reasons,” says Sachs. “We do this because this is what we do. It’s fun. We don’t have an agenda. We’re not trying to put it on the map and make it the next big thing.
“However, I do think that it really ought to be the next big thing. For American sports consumption, the potential for ‘cross to be in the public eye is even greater than anything. When Lance and the Tour get press, it’s like a three-week blitz and everyone in America that doesn’t ride a bike knows about it. However, once August rolls around they don’t know what a bike race is. If any of those people went to a cyclo-cross race and saw what kind of entertainment value it could have for them as an outsider, it would great. For consumer potential ‘cross really should be at the top. It’s a closed environment, it’s a fixed schedule, and it’s a short attention span thing for the people that are viewing it.”
According to Sachs, one of the great side benefits of the late-90s ‘cross boom has been the birth and development of a dedicated ‘cross supply industry. Gone are the days when tandem brakes, used up road wheels, and touring frames passed for ‘cross gear.
“Most of our sponsors now are sending us ‘cross specific parts,” says Sachs as he ticks off the names of his team’s sponsors and their respective contributions to the ‘cross team. “Now you can look at a ‘cross bike and say it doesn’t look like a science experiment. The bikes are made for ‘cross, not city riding and not made up of old mountain bike stuff, castaway parts.”
Sachs says he too has tried to raise his game when it comes to producing ‘cross worthy equipment. Even though he’s been building ‘cross frames essentially the same way for 25 years, Sachs feels his ‘cross bikes stack up favorably to any on the market.
“My fork crowns were developed specifically for ‘cross and I use them on my road bikes, it’s a nice coincidence,” says Sachs. “I think I live outside of the lines with respect to the bicycle industry. I don’t even feel like I’m in the bicycle industry and I haven’t felt a member of the industry since the early-’80s. I don’t feel threatened at all. I don’t read the trade magazines; I don’t go to trade shows. I live in a kind of vacuum.”
Living in such relative isolation, Sachs says, has allowed him to make decisions based on what he thinks is best, not on fads. The races, he insists, are the best place to see what works and what doesn’t, both as a builder and as a sponsor. Marketing is a term Sachs spits out like piece of spoiled food. When he speaks of being a bike builder he uses the pronoun “I” but when talk turns to the ‘cross team he switches to “we”. Sachs looks at himself as a member of the ‘cross team rather than its benefactor.
“I really want it to be a family thing. I’m a one-man shop; this is not corporate so I don’t want to seem corporate or calculated. What we do really doesn’t hinge on whether there’s a SuperCup or whether somebody else is doing a series. We’re basically racers who go to races. We still have a group and the group still has support and that’s not going to change. The fact that we have success in it is icing on the cake.”
The preceding article was originally written for VeloNews by Chris Milliman, and appeared in an altered form in the November 10, 2003 issue, with the headline “ONE MAN SHOW: For Richard Sachs, lugged steel frames are cutting edge”