Sacha White from Vanilla Workshop/ Speedvagen on form and functionBack to Blog
21 September 2015
All photography by Jeff Curtes.
Whether it's fit, frame design, fabrication or finish, some people still make bikes that look and ride the way they're meant to. Based in Portland Oregon, the Vanilla Workshop are a hardworking, fun-loving, dedicated community of craftspeople producing balanced machines that are close to perfection: Vanilla bicycles (pure, classic and focused on the pursuit of craft) and Speedvagen (modern, rebellious and built to be ridden. Hard).
Sacha White, cyclist, designer and frame builder is the man of uncompromised vision and founder behind the well-oiled workshop. We were stoked to have Sacha visit Sydney and Melbourne for the Speedvagen AU Fit Tour and he shares with us their bike building philosophy, why hard work trumps style, his thoughts on form and function and what it takes to hone the craft
Good Fuel Co: Many describe you as “a pioneering member of the new generation of frame builders”. What does it take these days to become a frame builder? How does it differ from when you first started out?
Sacha: I’m a pretty hands on learner. 15 years ago I dove in, made a lot of mistakes and over time, Vanilla and Speedvagen emerged.
Good Fuel Co: The Speedvagen philosophy is distinctly grounded in form and function and you've always build bikes to be ridden, not just to be hung on a wall and and admired. Where has this thinking come from for you personally?
Sacha: My background is in messengering and racing. And though I like to make something look good, if it doesn’t get ridden ridden ridden, it seems like something has been lost. I think that speaks to the kind of person that I want to have riding our bikes and representing the brand. Life seizing, fun loving, rides hard and appreciates a bike that rides incredibly well and not fussy about a little paint chip.
Good Fuel Co: Outside of the bike world, what are your favourite examples of understated design and craftsmanship? Who are some builders, artists or inventors you admire?
Sacha: Something about Alphonse Mucha gets me. Art Nouveau and Deco resonate with me. I don’t know, I keep a pretty inward focus and am definitely not an historian.
Good Fuel Co: You've spent 15 years + 45,500 hours at the Vanilla workbench dialing the process and design, stripping away non-essentials and innovating with what remains. What's one thing you would do differently if you could go back and change things
Sacha: It’s definitely been a good progression of making mistakes and learning from them. I guess trial and error is my particular style or learning. So with that in mind, I suppose I wouldn’t change anything.
Good Fuel Co: Which parts of the process do you love most? Which are the hardest?
Sacha: Well, I spend about 3 days at the workbench and 2 doing design, fittings and business management (we have 13 employees)
I’m most at home at the workbench and can really settle into a groove when I’m working on frames. I love fitting people, because I know that it can change their whole experience on the bike (even people who have been racing for 20 years). I’m happy doing the parts that I do and I’m fortunate to have a great team that can take on the pieces that aren’t my strengths.
Good Fuel Co: Regarding the parts that go into your bikes, there seems to be a preference for those with underlying tradition and history. What are some unique stories behind the parts you use?
Sacha: We use components that not only function well, but that are from companies that take care of their employees and stand behind their product. Enve is a good example of that. Made domestically, they pay living wages and support grass roots racing. Their stuff is bomber and if there ever were an issue, they do a fantastic job of taking care of it. I consider companies like Enve and Paul components kindred to The Vanilla Workshop.
Good Fuel Co: You oversee a community of the best and brightest fabricators, painters, wood, leather, fabric and metal workers. Despite the differences in materials, what do you all share in common? What qualities do you look for in a craftsman?
Sacha: A good work ethic, ability to be organized and follow through, positivity (people who want to be doing what they’re doing), and are more inclined to figure out how to do something rather than say that it can’t be done. Craft can be learned, but positivity, self motivation are either inherent in someone, or they’re not. Probably less sexy of an answer than you were looking for :)
Good Fuel Co: The Speedvagen Fit Tour in Australia was pretty solidly booked! What's unique about your fit program? What's an example of a little known subtle choice during the design that has repercussions down the track?
Sacha: It is common with any fitting for someone to have their posture on the bike dialed in. This means leg extension (saddle height), how stretched out a person is (distance of the handlebar from the tip of the saddle) and how upright they are (saddle to Hbar drop). And though their posture might be right, it’s easy to have their weight shifted too far forward or back on the bike. And if a person is not balanced on the bike, they end up having to compensate in all sorts of crazy ways, thus fighting the bike, rather than being truly connected to it.
So the posture is one piece. The balance though, is where the magic happens. All in all, the process takes 2-3 hours.
Good Fuel Co: Tell us a bit more about the Speedvagen racing family. What's the most rewarding aspect of supporting a team? What have been some of your fondest memories so far?
Sacha: I’ve always wanted racers on the team who are fast and driven to win races, but who are family and kindred spirits. This means people who are loyal to the brand and team and are not chasing a contract. Fondest memories are from traveling with the team. We take one big trip together each year (Japan for 2 weeks of racing in 2012) a big trip down the west coast into California in 2013, Colorado for a week with our Japanese teammates last year. That kind of time, riding and cooking/eating with eachother is priceless.
Good Fuel Co: Where do you want Vanilla Workshop and Speedvagen to be in 10 years time? What do you want non-riders to see, think and feel when they look at one of your bikes?
Sacha: Whoo, that’s a big question. It’s always been a slow and measured progression for us. We’ll only grow if we can do it well. I expect The Vanilla Workshop in 2025 will be similar to how it is now. A little bigger and better. Happy employees and customers. My goal is to be a great employer, and make great bicycles and through that, contribute something that is meaningful to the world.