If you haven’t heard of The Vanilla Workshop or Speedvagen, you’re behind the times. The two brands are known for handcrafting some of the world’s best steel-frame bikes; they’ve made our list of best road bikes of the year and the best handmade steel bike makers. And the man who put them on the map is Sacha White.
White has been building bikes for 17 years. While working as a bike messenger, White broke a frame and was inspired by watching a local frame builder fix it. The first bikes he made on his own — four cyclocross bikes, for his friends and teammates — are still being raced today.
The Vanilla Workshop, part one of White’s modern operation, is a head-to-toe, balls-to-the-wall custom frame shop with a wait list of five years and five-digit price tags. Speedvagen, Vanilla’s sister company, is dedicated to bringing the ride quality and ethos of Vanilla’s full custom bikes to a wider audience — with a lower price tag starting at $3,750 for the frameset.
Both companies stand out amid the steel-bike Mecca of Portland, Oregon. The ride qualities of their bikes are superb: supple, fast, responsive, comfortable and uncompromising. We caught up with White while he was in New York on the Speedvagen Fit Tour — a series aimed at letting people across the country take a test ride — to ask him about his inspired creations.
Q: Out of all of the bikes you make, what’s the one that you spend the most time on?
A: The Urban Racer for sure. It’s kind of a good everything bike. It’s not a good everything bike if you’re going to go road racing, but it’s the bike that I use every day. I take it to the movies and lock it up. I take it on 100-mile gravel rides and that sort of thing. It’s super fun. It has a rack and it has a pannier, but it’s a very minimal rack and pannier. You can bring some stuff with you but it’s not a full-on touring bike. It has a really short wheelbase so again it’s not a touring bike and it’s not a commuter bike.
Q: What’s your favorite place to ride?
A: I ride so much around town now [in Portland]. I love riding in cities because of my messenger roots. I was a messenger for four years, so I really enjoy that energy of being in traffic and having to be aware. You have to have skills.
That said, I love getting out into the woods or onto gravel. It smells good, it’s fresh, it’s quiet. Whenever I get out, whether I’m on a mountain bike or just off road somewhere, it always hits me how much I love it and how I want to do it more.
Q: Out of the parts that you spec on your bikes, what’s the one upgrade that you think everyone should splurge on?
A: We do a carbon seat tube on our steel frames. The base level would be a steel seat tube and then the carbon seat tube is an upgrade. It’s $850 and the cost comes from the initial cost of the materials along with the additional time producing it. It ends up saving somewhere between a third and a half pound and it takes a little bit of that sting out. So that’s one place where if you were buying that much weight savings in components, you’d be spending much more than that. So to me it seems like a decent bang for your buck.
The Speedvagen Urban Racer is a commuter bike that’s cooler than just a commuter bike. Road-racer-inspired geometry, huge tires and a skid-ready two-speed coaster brake make it White’s favorite bike these days. Learn More
Q: What’s the thing that inspires you the most?
A: The world doesn’t really need more stuff, right? There’s a lot of stuff in the world. There are a lot of bikes, there’s a lot of everything. Plenty of stuff to go around. But I feel like what we can bring to the world, what our value is, is that next level experience that each of us only gets to have maybe a few times a year. An example would be, you go out for a meal and the server is a career waiter and they do an amazing job. The food is really wonderful. You get to the end of the meal and you’re like ‘wow that was a little piece of perfection.’ The kind of thing that you want to take a minute and reflect on. That’s what’s inspiring me now when it comes to how we’re building our business, what it is that we’re making for people and how it is that we’re interacting with them.
Q: What’s Speedvagen and The Vanilla Workshop about in their simplest forms?
A: It’s definitely not about making bikes. It’s not about making more bikes for the world. It’s about bringing something really special to people and enriching lives in that way. Bringing value to the world, bringing value to lives of my employees. When I think about how we’re growing our company, those are the principles that I’m aiming for.