Road Kings: Racing Bicycles
A select few bicycle builders across the united states are hand-crafting the ultimate human-powered vehicles
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."
Through the years, he has worked alone by choice. He says he "gets used to the silence." Sachs married in 1997; before that, Turnage says, "It's almost as though he's led a monastic existence. He's totally wrapped up in the work." All to the customer's benefit: "As a solo craftsman, he has tremendous quality control every step of the way."
Guiding a visitor around his showroom, which contains only one of his bicycles mounted on a platform in the center of the room and a few frames awaiting shipment, Sachs has the slight awkwardness of someone who spends most of his work day alone. To the back of the showroom is a still smaller room with workbenches, metalworking tools and closets crammed with fittings he's already prepared for his frames. He also collects unused, vintage Italian components, which he saves for the occasional special-order "classic-style" bicycle. He makes frames that vary from the standard road-racing bicycle, such as touring and historic racing frames with the more upright geometry of the postwar racers, but he's never considered delving into mountain bikes or other exotic frames.
At 46, Sachs is an avid and accomplished racer, riding daily and competing in 40 to 50 races each year. Along with Genest, he sponsors two New England teams of aspiring young racers, providing and maintaining their bicycles--a very low profile for a bicycle regarded by some as the Stradivarius of the trade. But it's the reality of the modern bicycle manufacturing business that the best frame builders are virtually anonymous outside the world of serious riders. Marketing is generally beyond their means, and getting high-profile professionals to ride a specific brand of bicycle costs huge sums.
Sometimes, the riders want a particular bicycle but must disguise it. In the late 1970s, Roland Della Santa, a Reno, Nevada, frame builder, sponsored a junior team that included Greg LeMond. Riding on a Della Santa in 1979, LeMond was the first American to win the World Junior Road Race Championship. Della Santa remained LeMond's frame builder for 14 years, but when the greatest American racer ever, a two-time Tour de France winner, went pro, Della Santa had to ship his frames raw to Europe where they were labeled with LeMond's sponsor's brand. Della Santa is happy to be associated with LeMond's achievements and accepts that his work didn't get the recognition it deserved. "There's no way I can supply $40,000 worth of equipment and throw in another couple hundred thousand to make sure they ride it," he says.
Sachs also has had a few of his bicycles entered in major events. Adam Myerson won last year's national cyclocross championship--carrying the bicycle over obstacles--on a Richard Sachs. ("A good road bike," says Sachs, "can be used for almost anything, even off-road if the tires and rims are stout enough.")
Two years ago, he commemorated his 25th anniversary as a bicycle builder by turning out a series of 25 specially numbered and detailed frames over the course of a year, while maintaining his normal production of 80 frames a year--each taking three to four days to build. As has been the case for years, the entire series was sold before the work began--one collector ordered two. Several were purchased by people who already owned Sachs bicycles. With just one craftsman, the wait for a completed bicycle from Sachs--and most other top frame builders-- generally runs several months to a year. "If Sachs were in New York City, San Francisco or Los Angeles," says Turnage, "there'd be a 15-year wait."
The term "handmade bicycle," in reality, applies only to the custom-fitted and hand-built frame. (Many frame makers also invite customers to select finish colors and detailing.) The rest of the bicycle is fitted with select components--cranks, headsets, saddle, pedals, derailleurs, brakes, rims and tires--made by a few manufacturers, most prominently Italy's Campagnolo, Japan's Shimano and France's Mavic. When they have the choice, the frame builders usually choose Campagnolo components. "Campagnolo has a jewel-like quality and draw," says Sachs.
"It's Campagnolo or you're on your own," insists Baylis.
A custom-made bicycle is much like a custom-tailored suit. It begins with careful measuring and fitting before the first stitch is sewn, or in this case the first tube length selected. As with clothing, the term "custom-made" is often confused with ready-to-ride products that are altered for fit. Sachs and other frame builders bristle when their products are compared to the highest quality lines produced by the big bicycle manufacturers such as Trek, Cannondale and Bianchi. "The word 'custom' is badly misused when talking about bicycles," says Sachs. "Each measurement is suited to a specific person. It should be a made-to-order, made-to-measure frame. My bikes are designed to the millimeter. The industry makes the most convenient geometry and size ranges. You adjust the bike. But you want the bike to position the rider. If a bike is designed for you, then it'll be right for you without adjustment."
The fitting need not be done in person. In fact, Sachs never meets most of his clients. They fill out a form with body measurements, as well as measurements of their current bicycle. A photo showing them riding also helps.
Bicycling and the aerospace industry have long been linked--the Wright brothers built their plane, the Kitty Hawk, in their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop. More recently, the mountain bike industry has been influenced by aerospace technology. The consumer demand for innovation drives mountain bike manufacturers to push the envelope in materials and construction.
Road bikes have followed, sometimes reluctantly, in their wake. Racers are often like wrestlers preparing for a meet in their obsession for losing bicycle weight. Even though a lightweight steel frame weighs less than four pounds--astonishingly light considering the forces it undergoes--and can be lifted easily with one finger, the urge to trim away ounces drives some cyclists into a frenzied search for still lighter frames.
Aluminum was the material of the late 1980s. Although very lightweight, it tended to flex too much for hard riders, especially bigger men. In the mid-'90s came titanium, a superlight material--weighing from half a pound to one and a half pounds less than steel per frame--that makes a durable and strong frame that hard-core racers appreciate. Next came carbon fiber variants. Recently beryllium, a metallic element used as a hardening agent in alloys, has found its way into bicycles. Some framemakers combine materials into special matrices. Others favor aluminum or carbon fiber for the front fork and different materials for the rest of the frame.
Traditionalist riders don't subscribe to the trendiness of new materials. "Titanium is hot stuff," says Dave Genest, "but do you want to buy the latest fad? Compared to body-weight differences, the differences in bicycle weight are nothing. It's the person, in the end, who makes it happen."
Sachs believes that the traditional chrome-and-molybdenum steel alloy tubes--upgraded and made lighter in recent years--are still the best, precisely because steel invites human enhancement of the finished product. "In my opinion, the reason bikes are not made of steel anymore is because nobody knows how to anymore. You wouldn't want Stradivarius to make violins out of plastic if he were working today, would you?"
Tom Kellogg of Spectrum Cycles disagrees. Although he makes both steel and titanium frames, he rides a titanium, which was first cast for him by Merlin Metalworks of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his design specifications, and then finished by him in his Pennsylvania shop. (Merlin also produces its own line of titanium frame bicycles designed by Kellogg but finished in its own factory.)
"I've never ridden a steel frame that rides as comfortably or in as lively a manner as titanium," says Kellogg. "I'm a weight weenie. No other bike will give the weight savings. Nothing works with you like a good titanium frame." He puts strong emphasis on "good." A quality titanium frame is by definition expensive, at least $2,000 or more. A low-cost titanium bike, says Kellogg, "is not worth buying. Much of the titanium stuff out there really doesn't work well."
Some riders learned the hard way. Until a couple years ago, J. Peter Weigle, a renowned frame builder whose shop and home are across the river from Sachs in East Haddam, Connecticut, feared that the widespread use of titanium would dry up his frame-making business, leaving only repairs and restorations. Instead, his backlog of orders for new frames runs close to a year. "I've had a steady stream of customers who've had titanium bikes and now want steel again," Weigle says. "It's the tradition, the beauty and the feel."
The most obvious difference between steel and other materials is appearance. Kellogg admits, "Steel bikes look nicer, but that's a personal thing." Although titanium never rusts and resists dings and scratches, such bicycles are largely characterless. Unless painted or polished, which defeats the point of using it, titanium frames have a sort of lead color and dull finish.
Steel is all about character. The construction process and finish on a handmade steel frame are important parts of the art, with the details separating the merely good from the great. The points to notice are where the various tubes and fittings join together. Most production frames are welded and sloppy jobs are more common than not. (Titanium requires a special electric welding process called TIG welding.)
Sachs employs a process of low-temperature brazing typical of jewelry making. He never uses an extra drop of material. He also pins the jointed tubes together during the brazing to assure no variance in a straight alignment. "I want my frame not just to be exactly perfect for the ride, but exactly perfect," says Sachs. "If you cut my frames down the middle, they'll be exactly equal on the axis."
Sachs's painstaking work ensures no need for later corrections. "I like to say my frames are born straight, rather than built and straightened later, like production frames. If I build my frames straight, they will stay straight. If they're built and then straightened, the frame will want to return to where it was, because steel has a memory."
Once Sachs completes his work, he ships the raw frames to Joe Bell in San Diego, who paints them fire-engine red with white trim. Small inscribed markings are tucked into various angles on the frame that are barely noticeable. There's nothing flashy or avant garde about the Richard Sachs look. The lines are clean and classic. "I was blown away by the beauty of the work," says Turnage. "It's the best paint job I've ever seen."
The frame then comes back across the country to Sachs for a final inspection, the addition of wheels and components if requested by the customer, and delivery.
Other frame builders consider the painting part of their craft. Weigle, Kellogg and Baylis offer customers virtually any color that moves them. "Every bike should be different and have character," says Baylis. "One of my goals is to maintain the absolute individual characteristics of each bike based on the customer." Dennis Caprio, an editor at Yachting magazine and an amateur racer, had Weigle paint his bicycle sea-foam green highlighted with a deep metallic burgundy. "It's an astonishing combination," Caprio says. "Peter is an artist."