A chat with Sacha White, Vanilla Workshop’s framebuilder extraordinaire
Framebuilder Sacha White has gained a reputation in recent years for producing some of the world’s most beautiful handmade custom bikes. White’s bike-building “community”, Vanilla Workshop, produces both Vanilla Bicycles – “pure, classic and focused on the pursuit of craft” – and Speedvagen – “modern, rebellious and built to be ridden”.
CTech Editor Matt Wikstrom caught up with Sacha White to learn more about Vanilla Workshop, how he first got into framebuilding, his motivations, and the philosophy behind the brand.
What is your cycling background? And how did you get into building bikes?
I grew up restoring and customising vintage Vespa and Lambretta motor scooters. At age 19, when I moved from Colorado to Portland and started messengering, my love of scooters shifted to bikes.
While I was messengering and racing, I was also working on friends bikes: a little paint work here, a rebuild there. Tricking them out. What I was doing though, eventually felt too superficial. I wanted to be doing something more substantial with bikes.
Right around that time, fortuitously, I broke the frame that I was messengering and racing on and a friend said that I should take it to this framebuilder to have it fixed. Before that time, I had no idea that framebuilders existed. When I went to see the builder, he was working on a new frame. This was my first exposure to brazing and the first time that I had seen how a frame really goes together. I was blown away. This was the next level that I was looking for.
Additionally, I have to say that since I started racing almost 20 years ago, cyclocross has been a big love of mine. I love the technique, and that it’s bike handling intensive, that it’s an hour of turning myself inside out, and ultimately, that it’s a celebratory environment where friends are racing against each other and crashing in the mud together. It’s the seriousness juxtaposed with the fun.
What was it like selling your first bikes? Was their any worry about safety, for example, or about disappointing your customers? Has that changed? If so, what made the difference?
The first four bikes I built were for myself and my friends/teammates. They were all cross racing bikes. The first test rides were at a race and I had no idea if they were going to hold up. For all I knew, they were going to spring apart! Well, not only did they hold together and not only did we race the shit out of those bikes, but they’re still being raced by those same friends today.
With that said, I only knew what I knew and in the early years, that wasn’t much. Some customers have lamented that they didn’t get on my list earlier and my reply to them is “you’re getting a better bike now than if you got one back then”. Everything improves just a little (or sometimes a lot), with every bike.
What do you find satisfying about building bikes? Is it about satisfying an artistic urge, mastering the technical processes involved, making your customers happy, or something else?
The aesthetic is one thing people expect from Vanilla and Speedvagen. The bikes look good. And while that’s important, the look is a tiny part of how the bike is going to impact the rider’s experience.
There are a lot of bikes being produced that serve a purpose and meet a price point. And to meet that pricepoint, certain compromises need to be made. I just don’t think that the world needs more of that.
So, whether I’m fitting a customer who may have traveled halfway around the world, or designing the bike to ride right for them, or fabrication where, in addition to the frame itself, we’re making many of the small parts of the frame, right down to the way we take care of customers throughout the process, it is all done with the goal of giving them an experience on and off of the bike that isn’t pretty good, or even really good.
The reason we do things the way we do them is to give our customers an experience that is going to blow them away. It’s like, if it isn’t going to be 100%, then why even do it?
Are there aspects of bike-building that frustrate you? Do the opinions of your customers interfere with your creativity?
Our customers are great. They love bikes like we love bikes and they are here because we resonate with their values: go fast, but be good to your fellow racer. And strive, but not at the expense of being able to laugh at yourself. That’s where the unicorn comes from in our family crest; it’s a reminder not to take it all too seriously.
As for what is difficult, conveying the benefits of handmade to the cycling public as a whole is a challenge. People see what goes into our bikes, and inherently, they know that there’s value there, but up until now, there hasn’t been much of a conversation about what the independent builder brings that is more than style.
Style is easy to talk about, just like price, and wait lists. What’s harder to talk about is process and the bike that comes out of that process. There’s a lot of space between buying something off of the shelf and working with the maker to have something built just for you. And even with a custom bike, there is a lot to differentiate maker from maker.
Where does your creativity come from? Do you look to others for inspiration? Where do you get your ideas from — standing in the shower, riding the bike, sitting down with a sketchbook?
Ideas mostly come from riding. When I ride, it influences how I fit people, because I can feel out the principals of fitting, come up with new techniques and then apply them to future fittings. Additionally, when I ride, I can picture how paint is going to look from the rider’s perspective; it’s a lot different than the 2D version on the screen. I also get stoked on new ideas for a bike when I ride.
Otherwise, I get hit by things when I’m walking down the street, surfing and playing around with my 45-year-old Volvo hotrod.
I have always steered clear of other builders’ sites and other big brands, too. I don’t really want to be influenced by what the bike industry is doing. This keeps Vanilla and SV pure and also different. Even surprising some times!
Do you place much pressure on yourself to improve upon your products?
Yes, and the improvements happen at a natural pace and in small increments. When we’re making something one at a time, there’s a subtle improvement with each frame. It’s a different type of R&D than you’d find in a mass production setting.
Where does that pressure come from: devotion to the craft or your own perfectionism?
With Vanilla bikes, I feel a pressure to live up to the work of my predecessors. People that do insanely beautiful work, perfect work, like Mark Dinucci and Peter Weigle.
Speedvagen bikes, on the other hand, are less craft intensive, so the drive that I feel is more about pushing the envelope. Speedvagen is about blazing trails and rebelling, where Vanilla is more about honouring the heritage and craftsmanship. It’s good this way. We get to have it all!
What is the basis of your bike-fitting ideology?
A good fit is made up of two facets. The first is form; the posture and shape a rider takes on the bike. This includes leg extension, the curve of the back, the arms coming into the torso at an angle that will make for a supportive structure, etcetera. That is the easy part, and something that can be achieved with different stem lengths seat post configurations, moving the saddle forward or back and other component variables.
The second part of a good fit takes the riders form and balances it above the contact points (the saddle and handlebar). If a rider has the posture piece, but doesn’t have the balance piece the body compensates in all sorts of crazy ways like locking the elbows out and jutting shoulder blades back, making for discomfort, but also affecting the rider’s agility and ultimately their connection to the bike and the road or trail.
Do you ever take time to step outside of your comfort zone when it comes to bike design?
I like to do new things. Sometimes it’s a subtle change like a new brake bridge that improves upon the traditional design and sometimes it’s big, like a type of bike that doesn’t exist in the world. Like I said above, the evolution is generally slow and fairly methodical. Occasionally though, lightning will strike, I get obsessed and I won’t stop until it’s done.
How do you see your position in the industry and the world? Artist, innovator, metalworker, businessman…?
It’s important to me that I build a business that takes care of its people and that we keep the spark of domestic manufacturing alive. That means hiring and teaching framebuilding and painting; thus growing the trade. In that way, I’m a businessman.
The business needs to be strong for us to be able to take care of our customers and also for us to play a meaningful role in our community (both bike community and otherwise).
The heart of the thing though, is innovation, design and craft. There is a really exciting tension at our shop between the way things function and the way things look.
Is there anybody you would like to build a bike for? Have some customers been more inspiring than others?
When I know that this is a customer’s dream bike and that they’re going to ride the hell out of it (be that racing, or adventure rides across some part of the country, or shredding around town) that is inspiring to me and I feel a responsibility to build something that is going to live up to their goals and needs.
What is your definition of precise fabrication? Does it apply equally to the individual parts as it does the finished product?
My definition of precise fabrication is to take what comes from the fit and design (which at that point are nothing tangible, but just an idea of the right bike) and duplicate that idea in metal. With fabrication, it’s easy for an angle or cut length to be off a bit, or for alignment to be based on a part of the frame that isn’t straight to begin with. Any little thing that’s off creates a cascading effect.
For instance, if the head tube angle is a little too shallow, it also drops the front end of the bike down, which tilts the seat tube angle forward, putting more of the rider’s weight on the handlebar. It will also change the front-end handling, in this case making the bike twitchier. That’s just one example and can happen because of just 1 or 2mm’s of error.
If you have good fit and good design, but the fabrication isn’t nailed, then the bike is only going to be some fraction of the awesomeness that it could be. Similarly, if you’re basing the design and fabrication on a less-than-great fit, or if you have a good fit and good fab, but a sub par design, the bike will only ever be “good” and never great.
How do you handle a customer that wants to haggle over price? Have you ever had a customer refuse a finished bike?
If a customer is haggling over price, I take that as us not conveying well enough what is going into the bike that we’re building for them. Company-wide, including not just the work on the frame, but all of the customer service, and the admin to keep the business healthy, the packing and shipping, full builds, etc., there are 200+ hours of work in each bike. There is a lot of hidden value there that some customers will only see once they come to us for a bike.
Beauty and craft, precise fabrication, and function and fit: it sounds as if you have developed your skills in each area at different times over the years, and now you have reached a point where you are able to integrate them in a way that wasn’t possible before. Looking back, can you see how that has happened?
It has really come with time and experience. I don’t think I ever gave enough credit to the more experienced builders when I was coming up. Now I realise that, with more experience comes a more dialled bike. I am so appreciative of the people who commissioned bikes from me in the early years and those bikes were good in their way (what I lacked in experience I made up for with sheer hours into each frame) but the bikes are better today then they were last year or 10 or 15 years ago, just as they will be better next month than they are today.