Talking Bikes With Legendary Frame Builder Richard Sachs

Ask anyone in the United States about handmade bicycles and one man's name will always come up: Richard Sachs.

The Godfather of American hand-crafted frame building, Sachs' fingerprints are all over the handmade resurgence, keeping steel alive in a sea of production-line carbon fiber and aluminum bikes. With 42-plus years at the bench, Sachs works in Massachusetts, brazing the traditional lugged joints together one at a time, selling his own tubing and lugs to other builders, and racing on his own cyclocross team. To appreciate a Sachs frame is to appreciate a fine Rolex—the commitment to quality, intentionality, design, and a highly personal building process. But as he's quick to point out, it won't make you any faster.

At the opening of Sachs's exhibition at New York's Rapha Cycling Club last week, we caught up with the famous frame builder who used to have a 10-year waiting list (now there is no waiting list). You may know the 61-year-old Sachs as highly-opinionated, witty, charismatic, and charming. He is still every single one of these. 

What makes handmade bikes so much better?
I don’t think they are better; it's just what I do. It’s the trade I inherited when I got into the business in 1971. I need to sell bikes to make a living—it is a business, and we need to make money. I’m not selling or promoting the fact that they’re better. I think there’s this mentality that people who bleed for their art are doing a better job than some robot just programed to spit out bicycles. And I kinda think that quality is quality, and if you can program a conveyor belt to make these, then it’s the same as what I would do.

Well you can’t really do that though, can you?
I’m not interested in that. Whatever I have now is the benefit of being grandfathered in from an era that preceded the one we’re in now. Everything has improved to the point that factory bikes now I think are better, dollar-for-dollar, than the guys who are making them at the bench, in the studio, or in the shed. Guys who say, “I made this by hand; I love my art,” all this kind of crap about craft—I just never bought that. I’m not trying to make the claim that what we’re doing is anywhere better or worse than a Trek or Cannondale.

You exclusively make bikes with lugs, which isn’t as common. Why?
It’s pretty simple. When I got into this, lugs were the traditional method. As I used the word earlier, it’s part of the baggage I inherited by starting in '71. If I were starting now, I would never do it this way. But I’ve also had all these years of experience—a decade goes by and another goes by—and before you know it, you’re mastering a process. Why change it?

I’m not trying to venerate lugs in frame-building; I’m not trying to venerate handmade frame-building. I’m a racer who happens to make bicycles. I’m not a fabricator. I’m not a craftsperson. I’m not one of those flakes who wants to make something beautiful and say "this is a bicycle." 

Can you make lugged bikes to any geometry?
I haven’t made a bike to anybody’s custom specs since about 1978, but when you’re a skilled welder—I’m skilled—and learn a traditional path, you learn how to take traditional materials and make them work for and with you. If you learned how to make frames in the Y2K Internet-era, where everything was already prefabbed, and you think of bicycle-making as an assembly just don’t have the depth of experience to do that stuff.

How many hours go into a single frame?
If you’re just talking about man hours, I could, end-to-end, finish a bike in two and a half days if I wanted to, but I don’t ever have the chance to have 2.5 days without interruption. In the old days, my business model was based on maybe four bikes per week. As the time has passed, everything evolved so that making the bikes better took longer. Little by little, I might do eight bikes a month instead of 10 or 12. I’m getting older, my motivation takes a hit, and I end up being comfortable with a bike and a half a week.

How do you select components for a handmade bike like this? What made you choose SRAM?
It’s better. I like SRAM because they started making components that I felt like I could see on my bikes. This was the height of the Shimano STI-era, and I just couldn’t warm up to the look of Shimano parts, especially when they had the cables coming out of the levers. Bikes have to look elegant, in addition to everything else. As I was assembling the bikes with SRAM, I could believe this was a European thing, and it kept going.

So it’s an aesthetic thing, not a mechanical thing?
It’s not a mechanical thing at all. I don’t have any issues with how they work; they all work fine. I make a bike that looks a certain way. As you can tell, I obsess about different things. I’m not an equipment freak...I don’t worry about weight. I’m a racer.

With aesthetics being so important, how did you go about the paint job?
I started the red and white thing in 1982 because we had our first sponsor back then, Le Coq Sportif. They gave me a bunch of red and white skin suits and said: “Have a good season,” which was pretty standard fare for the sport back then.

So I matched my paint jobs to the equipment they gave me and it kept going. After a long period of time with the racing team doing well, the red and white became a thing. Up until a few years ago it was something I did [myself] with different shades and combinations of antique white, off white, and decals—there was never a single red and white that we did.

When did you start working with House industries?
I woke up a couple years ago and said to myself, "I’m done with this." (Designing his own paint jobs.) I already had a relationship with House, so I wrote them an email [saying]:  “I would like you to fix it, tweak all of it. I want you to tell me what happens next.”

Two years later?
One-hundred percent success.

Many handmade bikes these days have production carbon forks from Enve or Ritchey. Yours don’t; you make your own steel forks. Why?
No, it’s better! People went to non-ferrous forks because the mountain bike thing tanked, and the fork industry started to support the bike industry. The Diamondbacks, Fujis, Treks, they never made their own forks, and I’ve always made my own forks. In my mind, a complete frame-builder makes the fork too.

A fork is not a component; a fork does not have a barcode added. I’m pissing in the wind, because I’m definitely from a different generation, but very little can offend me more than seeing a well-made or handmade bike with a guy shoving a carbon fork in. To me that says “I don’t know how to make a fork.” If you don’t know how to make a fork, you shouldn’t be taking money for the frame.

When’s the last time you rode a bike that you didn’t make yourself?
Oh, everyday! I have a Gaulzetti. I race on my own bikes, but my road bike is a Gaulzetti from last year. I have two of them. I think a bike’s a bike. 

How many bikes do you own?
I have my own two cross bikes and two Gaulzettis. I also have a Nagasawa, but I’ve never ridden it. I had that made for me 10 or 12 years ago.

You capped it at five?
I have a collectors gene for other things, but for bikes? No. Anything [that can] get the heartbeat up, race...that’s it.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is an editor at Supercompressor. He rides a steel bike most days of the week. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.