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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

(continued from page 1)

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.  

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