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Richard Sachs works and lives in a medium-sized yellow Colonial house on Main Street, at the far end of a quaint New England village. You can tell it’s his by the signature-red bike out front leaning, unlocked, against a white picket fence. And because above the front door hangs a black sign with a triangle shaped RS cut out of it’s center.
Through the front door in what would otherwise be the living room is a museum. On the far wall above a bank of wooden file cabinets subtly outfitted with metal Campagnolo handles, hang rows and rows of framed photographs and press clippings. Andy Hampsten’s 7-11 lycra full zip trainer, now faded and dirty, hangs over the back of an office chair parked one the edge of the room next to a track bike and two bike frames casually stacked against the wall. A floor model Sachs, built-up with SRAM Red, stands on a low show-room table in the center of the room silhouetted by a large bank of windows.
While Jeremy Dunn and I fumble with batteries and recorders and film, Richard gives us a tour of the rest of the house. The attached garage to the right is where the actual shop is. Two back rooms, walled in by floor-to-ceiling shelves, populated with tubes and proprietary lugs, serve as storage. The backyard area with patio table and chairs and a lightly landscaped and nicely shaded lawn, is a micro-mini retreat. Behind the house a hillside runs up into the forest. Upstairs is where he and his wife Deb live.
Richard is intense but not uncomfortably so. His left ear is pierced with a thin gold hoop. He wears jeans, a black T-shirt and comfortable non-descript athletic boots. He settles in and its immediately clear that he’s just Richard, without air or pretense. He answers questions without deliberation, he’s focused and to the point though not afraid to tell a story the old campfire way too. He’s unapologetic about his opinions, which are clearly the benefit of decades of refinement and practice. We talk about bikes, building bikes, racing bikes, touring, the Continental and how he should come out and ride with us sometime. He’s down.
Halfway through talking with him I realize that his convictions are probably often mistaken for arrogance or indifference. He just does what he does for the people that want it done that way. He’s like the antithesis of hype, and it would appear that in his world, substance trumps form. Here’s a quick selection of what we talked about.
What makes your bikes so special? Is it because you make bikes essentially only one way, a traditional road bike or race bike?
There’s no such thing as a ‘race bike’, any bike is a ‘race bike’ if you put it in a race, and race it. I’ve said this since the 70’s, Kierin, Track, Cross is all just jargon and focusing on jargon shows a general lack of depth on the part of cycling journalism. For years now, ‘road tests’ and the writing about bikes in magazines has been completely lame. Because what can you say? A bike is a bike. Lean a K-Mart production bike against the wall next to a Richard Sachs and neither is faster. That’s because it’s really all about the rider.
A properly designed bike is not so much about the event. In this day and age it’s not about making a bike for 18-speeds, 20-speeds or a triple in the front, everything works with everything else. If you told me you were going to ride through Central America and needed to carry packs and sleeping bags, than of course I would do things a little differently. But the only thing that matters on a bike to begin with is the position. I get the position dialed first and then I make sure the bike works technically; clearance and balance and all of that. So in your case, for the Continental, you just want a road bike with good clearance for bigger tires because you’re going to ride gravel roads and fire roads. So I’m not going to change what I do to suit what you guys are looking for because I don’t need to. Unless, like I said, you’re going to ride to Machu Picchu and you gotta pack your sleeping bag.
You are so into racing. The way you talk about it, it seems like a very important part of your identity and your business. What else is out there for you?
In the late 90’s my interest in racing started to seriously wane for the first time ever, I went through a little bit in the 80’s but nothing like this. Around the same time my wife, Deb, and I decided to take a bike tour in Italy with Ciclismo Classico. We’ve taken tours before but Ciclismo offers the widest range of tours and they charge at least one extra digit more than most because they do such a good job. And I gotta tell you, as a life-long elite racer, which means even when I’m not racing I’m training and riding for fitness and whatnot. From the minute we started this tour I swear to god I thought to myself, ‘does anybody else know about this, this is the most fun I’ve had on a bike, ever.’ I thought about all the racing I’ve done, placing here and there, all the state championships through the years and a few victories along the way. And in that moment I would have happily thrown it all away just to do another tour. If you had asked me - Would I rather have been touring Italy for the last forty years, no competition, no 10-mile sprints, no more racing weekends, just one long supported tour? I would have said – ‘You mean I don’t have to take anything except water bottles and a pump, because cause the van is always right behind me? Sign me up.’
I came back from that first Ciclismo tour the fittest I’ve ever fucking been. So the irony is that I came back ready to race, I was the thinnest and most tone I’d ever been. I went back years later and the same thing happened. You can go there 10, 15, 20 pounds overweight, and because you’re riding from breakfast until dinner, you’re going to come back in the best shape.
What’s it like being a benchmark. Do you think you’ve inspired next-generation builders? The craft is exploding and enjoying such a robust resurgence. What’s that all about, what does it mean for you?
You want be a frame builder? You don’t have a freaking clue. You don’t ride a bike, or if you do, you don’t ride fast. Or a lot. Because if you do, you realize you’ve only made 2 frames. First of all, a bike is a freaking vehicle. And you’re going make one and sell it to somebody and hope that it stays together in traffic, next year, next decade, we’re not talking about macramé or glass blowing here. This is something you put out on the road.
I’m talking about a skill-set and experience, I made a lot of fucking frames to get to where I am. And I made a lot of fucking frames before even thinking about starting my own business. Because in my peer group you had to learn on a line, we didn’t have books or UBI’s. I don’t condemn books or UBI’s but even they would tell you only 2% of graduates make a living. Just because you take a frame-building course and actually make descent frames, it doesn’t mean that you’re capable of running a business.
You can’t be a doctor after taking a surgery crash course or by reading ‘Doctors for Dummies’. These people get some tubes and a jig and they think they’re instantly a frame builder. Well, they’re not. Not until they make 500 frames and show, after a decade or two, that they hold up. Frame building, in a way, is like Latin. Nobody speaks Latin, nobody likes Latin, except for scholars. Except for a few, like Sacha White of Vanilla, I can’t imagine which one of these new guys is going be here in 5 or 10 years.
What is riding like for you around here? Are you into epic rides? What makes an epic ride?
I have favorite rides but nothing that I think anyone else would like. I love riding locally but its all so fast, you just go, no stop signs, no turns, through the woods, it’s all state forest land and I think its beautiful. But I don’t really take people, because I think they would get killed. You can’t ride two abreast, you can’t talk to anybody, you just follow the line. That’s my racing background. While I do ride for pleasure, if I have to train, I’d rather just go out and get the work done.
I like when you get to that point and I don’t know if it’s the endorphins kicking in or what, but you realize you’re so far from where you started, that you’re finally really somewhere else, a completely different place.
Epic for me is about food and how riding makes me feel. If I know I can eat anything I want and still be ahead of the game, whether it’s weight or calories or good tan lines. Tan lines become important when summer roles around, you come back and take a shower and you can see the difference in the mirror when you’re naked. These things are important. If I go out and come back feeling like I didn’t earn a donut or a pastry, then what’s the point of riding? So epic comes when you drain yourself so completely, somewhere along the line, that you can start eating whatever you can find. Most people wouldn’t understand that, but cycling is a vain sport.
For more information visit: www.richardsachs.com