The Artisans section will give peloton readers a look into the lives and art of frame builders. Their stories, or versions of them, will also be featured in the print issue of peloton. Our first interview, in two parts, features Richard Sachs.
Patrick Brady: Tell us where you're based?
Richard Sachs: I live in a western Massachusetts hill town of 710 people, on a dead-end dirt road.
PB: What caused you to move there?
RS: Chester, Connecticut became my home when I arrived back from my framebuilding training in London. I turned 19 years old there. One day, several years ago, my wife and I decided this village of 3,000 was too crowded and made a plan to leave.
PB: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?
RS: The riding here is extraordinary. An amazing ride that takes in some of the region’s dirt roads, called D2R2, starts about 30 miles from my door. This area’s landscape and solitude were major reasons why we chose Franklin County as a landing spot.
PB: How long were you in Connecticut?
RS: 37 years or so.
PB: Where did you grow up?
RS: I am from New Jersey but that hardly speaks to your question.
PB: Why not?
RS: Spending a lifetime riding a bicycle, and racing almost every available weekend, as well as working alone at what is more a creative endeavor than a routine job, and having no children of my own—all of this is a recipe for arrested development. I live within these very margins.
PB: How long have you been building?
RS: My brand began in 1975.
PB: How did you get your start?
RS: It all began serendipitously. I planned to attend Goddard College to pursue my interest in creative writing. This took a turn when admission was granted several months after the usual September semester start. Since I had the summer vacation and some extra months to kill, I took a menial job in Manhattan. One day, I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a bicycle mechanic’s position in Vermont. Within a week I was on a Greyhound bus with a one-way ticket to Burlington. Sadly, when I walked in to get my job I learned that it had been filled weeks earlier despite that the newspaper was still circulating the classified. Worse yet, in the layers of conversation I had with the staff, they made it clear I was not qualified. I took this personally and was very disappointed. By that point in my young life I was riding quality bicycles, doing all my own repairs, and had already a mild interest in the handmade stuff, being then a client in waiting for my first of what would ultimately be three W.B. Hurlow frames. So, rejection in hand, I deliberated on what was next. I had no backup plan to tide me over until my April admission to Goddard. I decided the only way to avenge what happened was to prove how wrong they were for not hiring me. In my mind, the only thing cooler than fixing bicycles would be making them, though I cannot for the life of me recall where that sentiment came from. I grabbed an issue of International Cycle Sport, a spiral-bound notepad and some pens, and spent an afternoon at the library at UVM. All in all, I collected some thirty names and addresses of firms that appeared to make bicycle frames on the premises. These became my targets. I wrote letters to each of them explaining my desire to come to England and work for free in return for their teaching me to build frames. Thirty letters were mailed. Three replies were received. Two said no. These were from Bob Jackson Cycles and Ellis Briggs Cycles. The one yes came from Ernie Witcomb, whose eponymous family business was in southeast London. To England I flew.
PB: Who else worked with you at Witcomb?
RS: Well the Witcombs: Ernie, his wife, Lil, and son, Barry, were there. A man named Jim Collier was making frames and so was David Cotton. There was also Charles Barrett and a boy named Rob whose last name escapes me. I was there for about a month when Peter Weigle arrived. In the course of my 10 months in Deptford, another two or three Americans came and went, all chasing dreams similar to mine, or one would assume.
When my stint in Deptford ended, I came back to the states and hung out in New Jersey for a month or so deciding what to do next. I had postponed the Goddard April admission. The Witcomb family had liaisons with a New England firm called Sports East, Limited. They were in the outdoor sports and recreation business but on the agency and sales side. This company, based in East Haddam, Connecticut, proposed to the Witcomb family to represent them and all they could supply to the North American market. This was at the height of the 1970s fitness craze, slash bike boom, slash oil embargo, and it was a good time to be in the ten-speed bicycle business at any level, atmo. I decided that the pull towards staying in bicycles, vis-à-vis a job offer at Witcomb USA (the division created at Sports East to market the English bicycles), was stronger than my then fading urge to write or attend college. I took the train to Old Saybrook and began work in East Haddam.
The job description was actually pretty lame and I knew that going in. My position at Witcomb USA was more as a gopher than anything else because, in reality, the division existed primarily as an importer and distributor. My place there was secured mostly because my 10 months in London gave them some much needed insight and credibility when it came to the bicycles they were an agency for.
Everything in Connecticut was going swimmingly well for a year or so until it was clear that the Witcombs (in London) were incapable of supplying frames to meet the demand the sales force in East Haddam had created. The long and short of this is Ed (the owner) told us (me and Peter Weigle, who had also been there all this time) that we were now going to make the frames that London couldn’t. Peter and I hadn’t held a torch since we left Deptford almost a year earlier. And when we left, we were not framebuilders, just two cats who worked at a framebuilding shop long enough to see it done. This didn’t matter to Ed at all. He had an investment to protect and the salesmen had orders to fill. Peter and I were going to make the frames no matter how much money it would take in tooling and trial and error for us to get up to speed.
Before long, Peter and I got a process dialed in and it was enough to make frames on the premises so that Ed and the crew could ship them to all points nationwide. By some fluke and many thousands of dollars invested, Ed created the Witcomb USA bicycle brand and we were off to the races.
My stay at the company lasted only a year more. In the interim we had hired Gary Sinkus to do set up work and we also trained Chris Chance to do prep as well as paint work. Before my departure, I recall we were making many frames and were very efficient too. There was no standing back and admiring lug edges or celebrating that we were taking part in some creative process. Ed and the salesmen gave us stacks of frame orders, and Peter and I took care of filling them.
Ultimately I left because I felt whatever enthusiasm I was holding to as a young framebuilder in an exciting era was too often neutralized by Ed’s all-business approach to what we had become a part of. In hindsight, the reality was that I was too young to have all the responsibility that came with being that important a part of his commercial plan. I wanted to make the frames, but without the routine and impersonal connections that became the norm. Well, that’s the short answer.