Friday, October 26, 2012

Signs of Richard Sachs

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
It was the day before the Providence Cyclocross Festival and Richard Sachs asked whether I was going. Richard Sachs is a bicycle framebuilder in central Massachusetts, maybe you've heard of him. He builds these nice lugged steel bikes for which there is a 10 year wait list. He also races cyclocross, with his team, on bikes that he makes (no wait list for those). They would all be racing in Providence that weekend, and if I went I would get to see them. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I should explain that I'd never actually met Richard Sachs at this point, though we'd exchanged a couple of emails. As another bit of indirect contact, some time ago I briefly rode one of his bikes - a blue and white 26" wheel brevet bike that belonged to a friend of the Blayleys. It was a nice bicycle, and I knew of the legendary status of Sachs frames. But what truly sparked my interest in the builder was his writing. His writing is extensive, addictive, and freely available online. Blog entries that read like essays on postmodernism. Quotes from his own interviews followed by commentary, analysis and critique of those quotes. He keeps records of things that happened 10, 20, 30 plus years ago. He tells and retells his history, using scanned photographs, scraps of receipts, and yellowed bits of newspaper as evidence. You can learn almost anything you care to know about Richard Sachs by reading through all of this. "[People] are buying me, not the bike," Sachs once wrote. "They want to have a little bit of me." And so he grants us access to his person, or at least gives the illusion of doing so. Naturally, all of this fascinates me.

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
The site of the Providence Cyclocross Festival was labyrinthine and chaotic. When I got there, I realised that I had no idea how to go about finding a specific person. There was no Sachs tent, and he had given me no instructions for where to find him. As I wandered around, I made a game out of looking for him. After 10 minutes the closest I got was spotting a red and white bike being wheeled past, with "Richard Sachs" on the downtube in yellow. 

Deb, RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Then I saw a woman with a fluffy white dog peeking out of her backpack. Both she and the small creature looked familiar. When I noticed that she too was rolling a red and white bicycle, I realised this was Deb, Richard Sachs' wife. The Masters men's race was scheduled to start soon, and she was headed to the staging area. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
All of the Richard Sachs cross team bikes are red and white, and all are fitted with identical components. The look of the team bikes has not changed much over the years, nor have his bicycles in general. "Why buy a frame from a one-man shop still using traditional hand-building methods?" his website asks. "Because technology alone is a poor substitute for experience." The experience he speaks of dates back to 1972. His frames are not custom, but made to measure, in the sense that the customer has no input into geometry or other core design elements. A Sachs frame means Sachs geometry, his own proprietary blend of (Columbus "PegoRichie") steel tubing, his own lugs, dropouts, fork crown. He has perfected his method over the course of 40 years. This is what the Richard Sachs customer pays for; this is what they believe is worth the wait. Spotting some more of his bicycles on the roofs of cars, I try to see all of this in the frames. But my novice eye just sees some classic lugged bikes. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I was now in front of a car that I recognised as his. "Richard Sachs" was everywhere, but still no Richard Sachs. Also everywhere was his signature acronym ATMO - "according to my opinion." ATMO is used on online forums, in written correspondences, in descriptions of things. Products are branded with it. You can buy an ATMO bag, t-shirt, hat.

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Socks. Seeing them somehow made me feel better prepared to meet him. Just one of those ridiculous thoughts that goes through one's mind. In fact I had no idea whether I'd be able to pick him out of a crowd. I flipped through my mind's database of all the online pictures I had seen of him. These generally fell into three categories: There was the thoughtful Richard Sachs in a black turtleneck sweater, brazing. The muddy, suffering Richard Sachs in a skinsuit and helmet, racing. The smiling Richard Sachs in jeans and a blazer, shaking hands at NAHBS. Tableaux.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I'd heard numerous stories at this point about what he is "really like." He is arrogant. He is humble. He is funny. He is humourless. He is charming. He is abrupt. But now I spotted him in the race, and my first impression was that he was a cyclist. Skinny and scowling, he stood and pedaled, staring straight ahead, breathing with his mouth open, as if gasping for air. "That bike fits him well," I thought, before I remembered that he made it.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I had picked the wrong day to attend the cyclocross race: sunny, dry, cheerful. The following day would be all rain and mud, but my pictures make the riding look like a fun little jaunt. There were at least two men in the Master's race wearing the RGM Watches-Richard Sachs team kits, but I quickly determined that Sachs was the one in long sleeves and that made it easier to follow him around the course. Not that this helped me much.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I do not envy sports photographers: This stuff is more difficult than a wedding. To get good shots, first you have to study the course in advance and wait for the riders you want to capture in the spots that not only promise action, but offer a good vantage point for photographing individual riders. Then you have a split second to compose a shot; once a rider passes you, there is no do-over. By the the end of the day I started to figure it all out, but when Richard Sachs was racing in the morning I had not yet gotten my bearings. It took a couple of laps before I even managed to get a picture where his head was not overlapping with a tree or other riders. Finally he was riding alone for a stretch and I got a few shots, one or two of which were even in focus. Still, nothing to write home about and certainly not worth all the running around I did. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Once it was over, I headed back toward the car where I had seen the ATMO wheels and dirty socks. On my way there I saw the other, short-sleeved Masters rider (David Genest?) rolling along while doing the double-bike maneuver. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Soon after that Richard Sachs rolled up, recognising me. His appearance up close was a little startling at first. He has very pale gray eyes and features that are both angular and delicate. The kind of face you might see in an expressionist painting. We said hello. He was tired, but willing to pose for pictures, even pointing out which parts of the bike and his outfit to photograph, so that sponsors would receive attention.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
"Make sure to get the watch," he said, and I did (RGM Watches). 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
The black team kits with cream horizontal panels and red edging are striking and elegantly styled. Sponsors' logos have the look of vintage newspaper headers. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I studied the bicycle - a Richard Sachs, with Richard Sachs upon it. I tried to focus on the details of the frame, take some close-up of the brake bridge and fork crown, that sort of thing. But instead I kept thinking of the steel tubes against the 59-year-old muscles. The streaks of dirt on the frame juxtaposed with those on his legs. The stylised RS headbadge with the weight of the actual man whom those initials represent resting above it. Richard Sachs has done an impressive job of branding himself. He has created a micro-universe of imagery, logos, words, phrases, even ideas that signify him. The red bikes. RS. RICHARDSACHS. e-Richie. ATMO. CFRS. "The frame is the frame." "Imperfection is perfection." I tried to see through these layers of signifiers and representations, to the actual flesh and bone person in front of me. But I couldn't see him clearly. Or photograph him in a way that satisfied me. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
We kept talking, not about anything in particular. He came across as open, friendly. At some point he picked up his fluffy white dog, cuddled it, held it in front of the camera. I took the pictures, but even as I did I sensed that this too was a tableau; that when I'd get home and look online, others will have taken the same shot. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
"Perhaps I am not I even if my little dog knows me," I thought. That's a lesser known version of a popular Gertrude Stein quote. I could not get a feel for the man, as a separate entity from the e-mythology that surrounds him. At the end, finally I came close - catching him off guard as he sat on the edge of his car and stared into space. It was a fleeting moment, and still perhaps a tableau. The post-race Sachs. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Before becoming a framebuilder, Richard Sachs had planned to be a writer. Of course, this was over 40 years ago, but it still "explains things," one could say - meaning his blog, his extensive documentation of personal history, the way he forms his replies in interviews. And the interviews with him are numerous, as are the biographical articles and the reviews of his bikes. Me, I can hardly contribute anything of substance to such a collection. Best I can do is share this story of meeting him.

44 comments:

  1. Great pictures V. I bet Mr Sachs will be pleased to have them. He seems like a very interesting person and a great role model.

    You are cumilating quite a collection of cycling people biographies from your own interviews and pictures. It's enjoyable to see people through your perceptions.

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  2. "Richard Sachs has done an impressive job of branding himself."

    Impressive or excessive?

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    1. That's a matter of personal opinion. And they are not mutually exclusive.

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    2. So, can you articulate when impressive crosses the line to excessive? Thx

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    3. To me, your question is a bit like asking "So when does something salty cross the line into something green?"

      They do not cross; they are entirely separate realms. Something can be impressive and excessive at the same time. Or just one of the two. Or a bit of one and a bit more of the other. Or neither.

      I cannot decide for you or anyone else whether something is impressive and/or excessive; that's everyone's judgment to make for themselves.

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  3. I've read a bit of Richard Sachs' thinking and while I'm not sure we'd really hit it off on a long car journey, I think he's got worthwhile things to say and seems like he's genuine and thoughtful. I want to be a little like him when I grow up. He certainly is one of the very best frame builders. Ever.

    I'm not surprised that he wanted to be a writer or that he seems to have adjusted his public face to accommodate what his customers expect and what he wants to be seen as being. Like a writer.

    If you make a durable product(especially an expensive, coveted thing) for a long time, your earlier, less developed ones are still going to be knocking around out there long after you have decided never to make something like THAT again, and in the back of your mind you already know what you want to change about the current, "perfect" offering, so you somehow have to be able to be "Richard Sachs"(or Charles Portis or Chrissie Hinds or Bob Dylan...), whoever people expect that person to be, independent of the creative product that make people take an interest in you in the first place. Some people do it well and some people become Truman Capote.

    I'm sorry I don't have the money or ten years to wait for a Sachs frame, it would be nice to have a Portis novel made to my measurement with no responsibility on my part to construct characters or develop the plot or try to provide the humor, but that's sort of what you get with Richards bikes. The best work he's doing now, made for you. I wonder about the folks who engage the services of good builders and then tell them how and from what they want it constructed.

    Spindizzy

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    1. "He certainly is one of the very best frame builders. Ever."

      Anon: I've certainly picked up this "vibe" over the years, and certainly a 10 year wait list supports such a reputation. What makes him so good and his bikes so desirable? I assume it is more than (even if it includes something of) his "mystique"?

      Must read more of his blog, etc.

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    2. The main selling point, as I understand it, is his approach to craftsmanship. RS might be the only builder today (not 100% certain though) who uses his own proprietary tubing and lugs. So the idea is that the bike is 100% Sachs, from tubing to lugs to design to mitering to brazing to finishing to paint. He works alone - no assistants, no outsourcing. And he's been doing it (mostly) the same way for over 40 years, which suggests a mature product.

      Do the bikes ride well? I am sure they do. The one I tried did. But that itself does not distinguish his bikes from the many other nice bikes out there. So my view is that the 10 year wait list and the pricing are based on the subjective value of the craftsmanship aspect of things.

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    3. To put a fine point on it, its value is gleaned from independent r & d and its assemblage; not just manufacturing craft, but how things work in a racing environment.

      Anyone can design stuff that gets down the road but few can independently come up with a design, in ferrous metal, that wins. "Nice riding" is almost a pejorative; the thing is designed to get across the line first.

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    4. When I said that about him being one of the best builders ever, I wasn't just talking about his bikes.

      As a builder he's managed to do it ALL his working life, built a solid reputation and developed a line of bikes he gets to make the way he wants that people get in line to buy. Even if the bikes sucked(they don't)he's achieved something difficult that few other builders ever will. I wonder if anyone ever succeeds by simply letting the product speak entirely for itself.

      If that requires a serious P.R. effort to achieve and capitalize on than that's cool. We all go to work having "put on a face to meet all the other faces" as someone(I can't remember who) said.

      Spindizzy



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    5. There is not a ten year wait list. Never was. How would such a thing be maintained? Another of the stories RS creates. He is simply in the enviable position of choosing who gets the bikes he builds. No time lost talking sales talk about stiff this and flex that blah blah blah. No time lost answering "where's my bike?" phone calls.

      Yes his lugs and parts are nice and making them available to framebuilders is a real service. But others do this sort of thing as well. First that comes to mind is Andy Newlands who has been the one man of Strawberry for even longer than RS has been RS.

      RS uses Joe Bell paint. Weigle has and may still paint a few.

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    6. My bad re the paint.

      Yes, Peter Weigle paints his own frames last time I checked.

      I think almost all builders' waiting lists are estimates at best. The 10 year figure is at least in part tongue and cheek.

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    7. Yes, Spindizzy, most do it simply by letting the frames speak for themselves. And the vast RS edifice would collapse in a moment if his frames did not speak.

      You can still buy a Della Santa. You won't wait too long or pay too much. Della Santa has palmares far beyond what RS has or will ever have. Have you ever even heard of Della Santa? I don't think Roland much cares if you haven't.

      Myself I ride a Rickert. Some plausible internet accounts will tell you Rickert has more palmares than any builder in the history of the sport. For a time his waiting list was all of the giants of the road. No assistants. His wife Doris did the paint, which is holding it much closer to the vest than shipping them back and forth across the continent to Joe Bell. And the two of them operated a fulltime LBS and built the frames in the back room. Mine was $300 as a complete Campag NR bike.

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    8. I waited 6 years for mine and received it last year. Certainly it is at least 10 years now.
      Jeff

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  4. RS is a fascinating character who has done yards for U.S. cycling.

    I don't agree with everything he writes but always look forward to reading him.

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  5. Yeah you and atmo have a yen for promotion and content or not and preying on our frail psyches. Of course you both are manipulating each other here.

    Quiz time: CFRS stands for what?

    Photographing sports 'n' movement will free you up from these still lifes you always do. Why is he not blurry from a long shutter?

    Cool story, nicely set up like a good ride report.

    Double bike thing is ghost riding.

    Hollowed out and angular -- that's what bike racers are.

    And I'm glad you saw the mud, sinew and muscles over the stupid lugs.

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    1. "Why is he not blurry"

      Because f4, 1/1k I think. Very bright sunny day.

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    2. Hate f4, so useless but nothing a stack of neutral density filters couldn't fix.

      Hey WWGRJ do for a quality action shot? Pre-focus and panmo.

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    3. CFRS stands for... Canada France Redshift Survey. Or at least that's the only meaning I'm familiar with for that acronym!

      "Technology is no substitute form experience" and sometimes vice-versa. I really like the looks of those team cross bikes but even if I had the money I can't see waiting ten years for one (or any bike actually)

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  6. I like that he strongly resembles Balthus, in many ways.

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    1. Really? I know he has that quote on his site from Weber's Balthus biography, but I don't see that many similarities between them as people.

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    2. Ahh, I think there are as artists.

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    3. And there still seems a resemblance to the Count :)

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  7. Anybody want to hear a funny story about a "ghost ride" gone horribly wrong? There's a donkey in it...

    Spindizzy

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    1. C'mon, Spindizzy....

      No such thing as a donkey that can ride two bikes at once...

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    2. Here's the story, it really happened although I only actually witnessed the last hundred yards of the deal.

      Where I grew up in rural Texas you still see donkeys here and there in amongst the scrub cattle and goats that people keep. They eat about anything, do a good job of keeping the stray dogs away and don't call in sick much. They can be pretty endearing and tend to become pets. You can ride the friendlier ones (less murderous than your average butt$%#@ Shetland pony).

      So my friend Ramon has this donkey but no bike(we're right on the cusp of manhood, say 13 so he really want's some wheels)and sometimes rides it around to the little store or whatever, but he really wants a bike.

      In the fullness of time we have a respectable sized hurricane and the whole county floods up and there's junk and debris everywhere. Ramon spies what appears to be a BMXish looking thing way back in a field up under a wire fence with all the mailboxes and tanning beds. Now all he would have had to do was go up to the house and ask nicely if he could go grab it and he would likely have been in and out in 10 minutes with no questions asked and the blessing of the farmer, but we're like 12 so he decides to go get it in the middle of the night(well, like 10:30)and slip out quiteish.

      His plan was to ride over on the donkey, who's name I can't recall(the kid around the corner who used to ride his to the store pulling a stolen grocery cart full of returnable bottles named his Jezebel, I do remember that) and ride the bike home leading the donkey by the halter with a rope. All goes according to plan including the part about silently extracting the bike from the fence and wheeling it through the field to the path. There he discovers that the donkey is a little skittish about being led while Ramon rides, in fact he resents it kind of a lot. To the point of jerking Ramon off the bike into the sticker burs and pear cactus. He decides to drop the rope and just herd the donkey(I wish I could remember it's name, dangit)with the bike and sets off to do just that, when the rusty chain jumps off and kinks up solid. Damn. Plan "B" or whatever, is to ride the donkey(Pedro, maybe, I dunn'o)and "ghost ride" the bike(we didn't know it as ghostriding, or any other name although we did it readily enough when necessary, carrying a rider on the handlebars was known as a "pump" though. I remember that well enough, the term was universal and spelled C-H-I-P-P-E-D-T-O-O-T-H). That works marvelously for about a minute and a half till he leans over just a bit too far at the same time the front wheel drops in a hole and he ends up under poor Ferdinand(or whoever) and gets a hoof in the nose. Imagine the blood, now imagine more, and just a little more. There, you got it.

      So now Ramon just drags the bike and the donkey along for about half the way home when he decides the answer is to ride Persephone(doesn't sound right but whatever) and CARRY the bike. Tied across his shoulders with the rope. Really. It works but he can't sit up and has to sort of lay across donkeys neck.

      I'm out in the road riding my bike when I hear hooves, quiet sobbing and vicious cursing. I bravely hide in the ditch and soon enough I see a donkey(Chago! It was Chago, I'm like 40% sure of it) and my friend Ramon, having been taken prisoner(after a bitter struggle apparently) by a Huffy Pro-Thunder. We chat, he shows me his brand new bike and we part ways, him still bleeding a bit and coaxing along a very tired and annoyed Chago and me jealous as hell about how everybody else is so lucky and look at me having to buy my bikes for 17 cents a pound at the scrappy.

      Next day he shows up on his new Huffy with a brand new used chain and all is golden. Till the kid who's name was scratched into the number plate saw it at the store and re-claimed it after hanging a minor beating around Ramon's neck.

      Good times.


      Spindizzy

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    3. CFRS stands for Cross Fckuing Rules and so does Spindizzy. And Ramon.

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    4. Spindizzy: great story; team up with Velouria on a book. It's even better than mine about riding, age circa 15, with friends from one house to another at about 1 am after smoking a lot at house #1, all on borrowed bikes, I, low on the social totem pole, forced to ride astride a Pletscher rack that, inevitably, broke half way, allowing me to experience the incompletely anaesthetic properties of weed.

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    5. Heh heh heh... Dude, you like, got racked.

      Spindizzy

      Books drool, blogs rule.

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  8. Two framebuilders of note from the same era as RS who make quality and art and do it completely differently. No promotion but the frames themselves: Chris Kvale in Minneapolis and Jack Trumbull of Franklin Frames near Columbus. And you can still buy them. No value judgment from me, only pointing at the contrast.

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  9. "Richard Sachs is a bicycle framebuilder in central Massachusetts..."

    I thought he was based in Chester, Connecticut?

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    1. He was but moved to Mass a while back.

      I recall he gave his reasons once in a Velocipede Salon post but off hand forgot what they were.

      Connecticut river valley and Central Mass are both pretty nice places to live provided you have the work, IMO.

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    2. I think his reason was that Chester was not sufficiently rural : )

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  10. Nicely done profile, in the vein of Gay Talese's famous "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." Of course unlike Frank, your subject eventually does show up, though still, you never directly quote from your conversation with him.

    You use the word "tableau" several times in this piece; I assume, in addition to its being a synonym for picture, to imply its meaning as a kind of staged scene.

    It could be argued that some, most, or all of us go through our lives enacting a series of tableaux, but then again, so what? In any case, did you expect the "real" Richard Sachs to be revealed to you in your first (or tenth) encounter?

    I suspect one's projection of a "tableau effect" is often in proportion to that person's celebrity quotient. Take a talented and opinionated framebuilder with a proclivity for writing and send him into the early days of the Internet with its heated forum free-for-alls, and voila! A Richard Sachs persona. Not quite Ol' Blue Eyes, but Ol' Very Pale Gray Eyes. ATMO.

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    1. I used the term in a tableau vivant sense.

      Look I rode the commuter rail for like an entire hour. Of course I expected full access to his unconscious.

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  11. Well why didn't you say so?! Commuter rails are fairly notorious for providing an atmosphere that encourages people to drop their tableaux.

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    1. Oh by the way, I did quote from the conversation with him. ("Make sure to get the watch")

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  12. Replies
    1. Well that was unexpected. Is that how the owner has it set up, or did you lower the saddle?

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    2. This is 100% the owner's setup.

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    3. Wow. I hope RS has not seen this pic.

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