Richard Sachs, the master bike builder, doesn’t do high-performance materials (just steel). But for a hand-built bike from him, you must wait years and pay top dollar. Here’s why.
But the era of Armstrong-approved factory bikes produced an unintended consequence. “It got to the point where you’d show up to a group ride, and literally everyone would be riding a mass-produced carbon bike,” says Janssen. “A big part of the appeal of a custom bike is the uniqueness of it. I love having a bike that not everyone else has, that was built just for me by someone I have actually met and ridden with.”
Sachs’s shop is now deep in the woods of Massachusetts, on the shore of a small pond. Or at least you think it’s the shop; there is no sign. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that you’ve arrived at the spot where North America’s finest road bicycles are assembled.
Richard Sachs emerges. He’s a short, slight fellow with deep-set eyes the color of raw steel, multiple silver hoops in his left ear, and a lean, almost hunched build, the result of decades spent alternating between his workbench and the cockpit of a racing bicycle. Sachs, 58, still races regularly and can put the hurt on riders half his age.
Sachs’s business remains entirely a one-man operation. If you call Richard Sachs Cycles, Richard Sachs answers the phone. If you e-mail, the reply will be from Richard. It is Richard who makes all decisions about how your frame will be built.
All this would be trivial if Sachs didn’t possess a degree of skill that’s the envy of anyone who’s ever picked up a torch and file. “He set the bar for everyone else,” says Mike Zanconato, the man behind Zanconato Custom Cycles, who has been building steel frames since 1998. “All the sculpting and file work he does is really on another level.”
After measurements are taken and materials gathered, building the frame — almost exclusively for road bikes — takes Sachs three to four days. His signatures include a preference for blood-red color; joints that are hand-filed with artistic precision; and, most famously, an arrow emblazoned on the fork crown, a piece of metal where the forks and steering column join.
What’s intriguing about Sachs, aside from his immense skill, is that his success seems to also depend on his assertion that his bikes are nothing extraordinary. Sachs’s eclectic, almost curmudgeonly approach to building draws nearly as much attention — and followers — as the quality of his frames. In a business driven by technology and the hype that surrounds emerging advances, Sachs’s frames are still made of steel — eschewing the benefits of lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber. He doesn’t consider the industry-wide measurement of stiffness acceptable — “I don’t know what stiffness is” — and his frames are always, he claims, imperfect.
“The human element in my bikes means that no matter how hard I try to make the perfect frame, it’s not going to happen. For a long time, I tried to overcome my own humanness, but I finally realized that the quirks and mistakes and emotions I put into my work are all part of the equation.”
Sachs’s frame sets sell today for about $4,000, but by the time an order is delivered, that figure could jump 50 percent or more because of the cost of material and his ever-rising charges for labor. The wait list is now approaching seven years (Janssen got his white frame in three), and it is only getting longer. In January alone, Sachs took 30 orders, nearly six months’ worth of production.
With $1,500 factory bikes ready and in stores now, it’s fair to ask, is a Sachs frame worth it? Janssen sighs, as one does when recalling intense pleasure. “I don’t want to exaggerate,” he says. “But it’s the best bike I’ve ever ridden. Was it worth it? Let’s put it this way: I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”