Imperfection is perfection

How and why Richard Sachs builds bicycles

Richard Sachs is a bicycle racer, craftsman, designer, husband of Deb, fork-crown aficionado, and cyclo-cross team manager, and his motto for the 13 years I've known him has been "imperfection is perfection."

To anyone that knows of his framebuilding prowess or has seen one of his bikes in person, it would appear that Sachs is a hypocrite. The crisp lug work and attention to detail on his handmade steel frames and forks is as close to perfection as heaven itself. The phrase 'rideable art' doesn't apply anywhere else, and the Chester, Connecticut-based Sachs is living proof that an artisan can still design and make lightweight steel racing bicycles by hand in 2008. As former Bridgestone product and marketing manager Grant Petersen wrote in the 1994 Bridgestone Bicycle catalogue: 'nobody, not even a really big fool, would make a railroad spike from aluminum or carbon fiber. Bikes and spikes are made to hammer, and should be made from steel.'

It was Sachs who also contributed to the famous Bridgestone catalogues of the early 1990s, throwing in his two cents on lugs, fork crowns and the like. In fact, when Petersen started Rivendell Bicycle Works in late 1994, it was Sachs who designed the first Rivendell lugs. Petersen honored Sachs' contribution by giving him a world exclusive on using the unique Rivendell lugs on his own frames.

I worked for Petersen as his production coordinator at the Waterford Precision Cycles factory in southeastern Wisconsin. Two former Schwinn executives, Marc Muller and Richard Schwinn (yeah, a great grandson of Ignaz), took over the former Schwinn Paramount factory in 1993, and were building Rivendells by 1995. Reynolds 531, 753 and the then-new, air-hardened 853 tubesets were used, joined to investment-cast lugs from Henry James in the US and Long Shen in Taiwan with silver and brass brazing. All frames and forks were handcrafted and painted by 15 or so trained framebuilders and painters, and the process still amazes me. Bridgeport machines lined the outer edges of the interior, with spinning cutting tools eating away any unnecessary metal to mitre tubes before the jigsaw-style assembly took shape. Nearly every aspect of the building process required a special one-off fixture or tool, and most everything was air-powered for efficiency. Each master framebuilder had his own sturdy framebuilding jig, and a handful of machinists were focused on one thing:  chainstay prep or fork making.

In Richard Sachs' world, there's just one man, one torch, one jig, one fork fixture, one alignment table, one seemingly antiquated vise, and several files. He wears somewhat goofy-looking red Ray Bans to shield his eyes from the glow of the torch, a reflection of his nearly 36 years of making framesets, and an affinity for all things red.

In April 1997, I spent a long weekend with Richard at his former shop in downtown Chester, which would flood often when the nearby Connecticut River would swell and spill into his below-street-level workshop. After 18 months of designing bikes for customers, I designed my first personal bike, a custom lugged Reynolds 853 Waterford 1200 with Henry James lugs and dropouts, Colnago-style straight-blade fork, coated in school-bus yellow with red and black accents. I brought the new bike with me to Chester, and enjoyed saddle time with Richard, who, of course, was riding his signature red and white Sachs with Campagnolo Record.

Sachs has been racing since the late 1960s, and after getting hit by a car from behind while out training in 2001, has dedicated himself to cyclo-cross racing. He manages and sponsors a highly successful team, whose members over the years have won several national championships across the categories. The Richard Sachs 'Cross Team has won nine US national championships since 1997; according to Sachs, the 'cross team itself has been part of his 27-year sponsorship gig since about 1995.

This gentleman framebuilder allowed filmmaker Desmond Horsfield to chronicle his daily routine, and the result is an enjoyable 28-minute encapsulation of what makes Richard Sachs tick, where he came from, and where he hopes to go.

The short documentary is titled "Imperfection is Perfection," naturally, and despite the raging waters of 'new technology' that try to push Sachs and his methodology into the ditch, this glimpse into the mind of a bicyclist's bicyclist should give hope to those who think an automated world has forgotten its roots. Craftsmen like Richard Sachs have influenced many these past 36 years, evident in the striking works from the hands of Sacha White (Vanilla), Joseph Ahearne, Jeremy Sycip and a growing legion of like-minded metal artists

Take a peek into the world of Richard Sachs - I think you'll like what you discover, both about the man and his passion for two wheels. It's been my pleasure to know him as a friend and peer in this marvelous industry.

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