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Road Kings: Racing Bicycles

A select few bicycle builders across the united states are hand-crafting the ultimate human-powered vehicles
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

Like most serious cyclists, Dave Genest rides nearly every day, and even races on weekends at master's level competitions around the eastern United States. On some cold fall mornings, as he speeds downhill at velocities approaching those at which light aircraft take off, the wind can be cutting. If he begins to shiver, his bicycle may start to shake along with him, and at 50 miles per hour, a mistake could cause massive injury. At such moments, Genest sometimes does what might seem, if not downright suicidal, plenty dangerous: he lets go of the bicycle's handlebars and, like a kid on a quiet street, briefly rides with no hands. The shake immediately disappears from the bike. It straightens right out.  

There are few bicycles in the world you can entrust with your life. One of these is a Richard Sachs signature model, a hand-built racer known for its superb balance and responsiveness. "When I got on the bike for the first time," says Genest, a Rhode Island-based corporate marketing and communications director and, at 48, a highly rated master's level racer, "I knew instantly there was a difference. Bikes tend to be jittery, twitchy. You can't keep them on the road. His rides are plush and stable. They absorb the road and ride very straight. You can lean the thing over through a corner like a Formula One race car."  

For most of us, the idea of comparing a bicycle to the sleekest race car seems an exaggeration, but very few cyclists ever know the feel of covering miles of pavement at high speed on a bicycle custom-fitted and hand-built by the best craftsmen in the world. Along with artisans such as Brian Baylis in California, Tom Kellogg in Pennsylvania, J. Peter Weigle in Connecticut, Roland Della Santa in Nevada and a few others, Sachs creates bicycles that are, simply put, the closest humans have come to perfection in a working piece of machinery. In an age in which handmade often means quaint, pretty, maybe a little lopsided or use-at-your-own-risk, such bicycles are a rarity.  

Remarkably, for a sport that is as European as baseball is American, many of the best custom-bicycle builders now work in the United States. "I had a really expensive bike made in Milan," says William Turnage, a onetime business manager of the late Ansel Adams and now head of the trust that controls the production and publication of the master photographer's works.

He owns three Richard Sachs bicycles, one for touring and two for racing around his Marin County neighborhood in northern California. "Then I got my Richard Sachs. It was like going from a Chevrolet to a Porsche. The feeling of control is incredible. I don't think anybody is making bikes of his caliber, not only here but quite possibly in the world. People in the know who see a Richard Sachs bike lie down and hyperventilate. It's almost embarrassing."  

That embarrassment of riches is for those who can deal with the wait--which for a Sachs bike can be five months or longer from order to delivery--and don't mind the bill--upwards of $5,000 for a complete bicycle, $1,500 to $3,000 for the frame alone (the chassis of the bicycle that makes all the difference in the ride). Sachs and other custom makers turn out a small number of bicycles per year, one frame at a time, and each has his own coterie of worshipers who sing their praises every time they begin to pedal.  

These craftsmen are an endangered breed. The efficiency of modern production technology, the complexity of working with popular space-age materials such as carbon fiber and titanium, and the small compensation for their efforts have all but wiped out the traditional bicycle builder. The boom in mountain bike sales has largely bypassed them, because new mountain bikes are prized more for techno-wizardry than for craftsmanship and beauty. (Some custom builders such as Seven Cycles have crossed over to the popular new models and construction materials, often by farming out some production aspects.) Few custom bike builders have the single-mindedness to resist enlarging their businesses by taking on less-skilled assistants, linking up with mass-producing manufacturers, or adopting mass-production methods themselves.  

Brian Baylis, a Lemon Grove, California, frame maker who turns out fewer than 10 frames a year, survives by restoring classic bicycles. He learned the frame builder's art in the 1970s while employed at the legendary Masi Bicycle Co., which was once among the most renowned custom-bicycle builders in the world. Baylis, who worked at the Italian company's Carlsbad, California, factory, says, "I'm an extension of Faliero Masi working under the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan. As far as little old craftsmen go, we're the only ones left carrying the flame. I've come close to getting out because I was starving, but I decided to maintain the purity. I'll stop completely before I change."  

The explosion of interest in bicycling during the past two decades has led to a great improvement in the quality of mass-produced bicycles. Any steel bicycle from a reputable shop that costs more than $1,000 is almost certainly going to be a decent ride that will meet all but the most serious cyclist's needs. Spending as much as five times that for a hand-built bicycle involves an appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of the craft, as well as the allure of the human touch. Tom Kellogg, who makes his frames under the Spectrum Cycles logo in an old barn in eastern Pennsylvania, says, "If you appreciate the fingers that roll your cigars, you should appreciate the fingers that file the lugs in your new frame."  

Those skillful fingers belong to a rare, dedicated breed. Sachs is typical of those who ended up devoting their lives to the craft. As a teenager in the early 1970s, he was a powerful racer. He became enamored with the beauty of bicycles, which at the time were made almost exclusively in Europe. He wanted to build them himself and apprenticed with Witcomb Cycles in England. Eventually he came back to the States, worked for Witcomb's now-defunct U.S. division, and finally set up his own shop in the charming Colonial village of Chester, Connecticut, on the banks of the Connecticut River. It's the right setting for an honorable artisan. "None of us lives in the past," says Sachs, "but having come from that, we continue the process of true handmade bike making."  


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