[CR]A Visit with E.Csuka and Alex Singer Bicycles


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Date: Thu, 23 May 2002 22:56:14 -0700
From: Chuck Schmidt <chuckschmidt@earthlink.net>
To: classicrendezvous@bikelist.org
Subject: [CR]A Visit with E.Csuka and Alex Singer Bicycles

An interesting post from my archive of interesting posts:

A Visit with E.Csuka and Alex Singer Bicycles --Douglas Brooks

I returned home to all sorts of not-so-dormant obligations-in-waiting and have little time to sort through the experiences and now the pictures of my trip to France---which you may recall had a fine and legitimate pretext of University lectures. They went fine, the lectures that is, but there was also time for some bike shop visits and, of course, the trip to see Paris-Roubaix. Here I'll just cover my excursion to Rando-Cycles and then Alex Singer Bicycles.

After an early morning tromp through the Louvre we set out to visit Rando-Cycles, the shop that specializes in true camping/touring as well as audax-style bikes. (Thanks to the BOB who tipped me to the website.) The metro puts you only a few blocks away on the east side of Paris. The shop is actually two shops, Rando-boutique and Rando-cycles. The boutique had very normal things and nearly all of it entirely modern in terms of clothing and accessories, but of course geared towards touring, so fat tires, baskets, racks, etc. The fun part was the touring tandem in the window, built with 26" wheels and a 135 rear spaced hub (since it was an XT). Down at the shop we were greeted by Paul Dolomedes the owner whose mother is American. He, of course, spoke perfect English. He also quickly caught on: "You have come as a pilgrim, I see." He says that he cannot recall the last time he was visited by Americans but clearly he was happy to have us, spend some time talking about styles, parts, riding, fabrication, and the rest. He wanted to know how we found them, given that they have so little advertizing and I mentioned the iBOB and told him that there was indeed a market for such bikes in the US, albeit small. He made a point of emphasizing his interest in true touring bikes, ones with geometries and features that distinguish them. The Rando-cycles frames are made in the basement of the shop by one builder who Paul said had been hired some years ago when he realized that the custom needs of these frames and his customers made it cheaper and better to produce them in-house. All the bikes were built with Reynolds tubing, mostly 531 and 753, most lugged and others filet brazed. The construction, he said, depended on what was best for the particular bike, his own, for example, had an especially long headtube and 26 wheels and this was filet brazed. The lugs were very simple and functional but clean and there were no bikes in sight with fancy lugs (except two old Singers in for repairs). The paint was mostly powdercoated for durability and to withstand the sorts of use that touring bikes undergo; paint jobs were simple without pinstriping or bands or other features like off-set headtubes, though such things were possible he said. Most of his customers were interested in the functionality of the bikes rather than anything fancy. (While he offered a bike not for touring, these were rare and occasional sales.) The main issues distinguishing the bikes were wheel-size and racks. Some used generator lights, others used Nightsuns and others; many of the frames had internal routing for the lighting cables running inside the downtube and opening at the chainstays. I liked this feature a great deal: the bikes had lights and fenders but seemed entirely uncluttered. Every possible braze-on was used and he said he preferred, as did his customers, to build complete bikes so that everything worked properly together. He was willing to sell just frames and forks but said he had little market for these. "It is hard, but it is possible to sell touring bikes in France and make a living." He made the racks in house and they were all powdercoated, either black or to match the frames; some were stainless steel. He had, he said, a large supply of TA cranks in all sizes as well as older Shimanos---neatly lined up on the walls---and lots of Mafac centerpull brakes. But mostly he used cantilevers and Shimanos, the emphasis being on function rather than style. Most of what was on the bikes was modern, the fenders he said were not made in-house and that they were readily available in France. For shifting it was barcons or downtube shifters, usually Shimano but he had a fair supply of Simplex. He preferred shifters with both index and friction modes. For saddles, it was all Brooks; and for saddlebags and panniers it was anything you wanted including some handsome canvas items that were French made but bore no names. In short, these were simple, elegant, and utterly practical bikes with a strong emphasis on function and reliability. He showed us pictures of one customer whose around the world camping/touring odyessy seemed to cover every desintaton but the south pole. Self-sufficiency and a reliable battery of parts that if not repairable were likely to endure the rigors of touring: these were the priorities. I rode a used bike in the shop on consignment and much enjoyed the feel, though I only got one of those parking lot rides. It was, if I am may be so bold as to say from so short an experience, much like my experience on a Heron Tourer: that solid, steady, ready to take on the world at a gentler pace feel. Paul was also forthcoming about the legacy of Singer about whom he had only kind words, though he emphasized the differences between his world and the work of E.Csuka: "There you will find everything 20, 40 years behind the times. Even the cash register! If you like old parts and the old ways of doing things, you will like those bikes. Ours are more practical in the modern sense and we build with whatever parts the customer wants and that will best suit his needs." I asked him about odd sizes, including very small frames, and he said, "We have built frame as small as 41cm! No problem!" And how big? "Huge. Maybe up to 70cm!" All in all, it was a friendly and a BOBish shop filled with an atmosphere of work getting done. Fully equipped touring bikes with racks were running about 26K Francs, some less (at about 6.35 or so to the USD). Paul then graciously gave us directions to Alex Singer's shop on Rue du Victor Hugo all the way on the other side of the city, actually outside the city boundaries. I left wanting a Rando-cycles bike but in my case that's like asking if the kid at Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory likes candy.

The directions to the Singer shop were solid insofar as we had the right metro stop and a general direction. But when it came in sight you couldn't miss it. You know how the "i" in Singer is smaller like on the decals? Well the sign outside went across the length of the building, some three full display windows wide. It looked like the family lived upstairs too. Paul from Rando had told us that Mr Csuka was the son-in-law of Alex Singer and that Singer's daughter was still around and about. The shop had display bikes and an outer counter, clearly custom bikes and then a fair amount of oddities like kids bikes and modern parts and the usual faire of a modern shop but not much---attention seemed focused on the bikes neatly lined up in the window. The shop was immaculately clean and well-organized with a fine mosaic tile floor. When we entered it was clearly Csuka behind the counter putting the last touches on a delivery. The bike being delivered looked to be about a 53cm, on the small side, and in a deep navy blue with a fair hint of metallic in it. It had an offset creme headtube, outlined lugs, and square pinstrip boxes on the toptube, seattube and surrounding the downtube decals. The headtube says Alex Singer and then underneath Fabrication du E. Csuka or pretty much something like that. The handlebars were deep honey brown, cloth or maybe leather? tape and shellaced perfectly, the gum hood drilled out Mafac levers providing the perfect complement. Brakes were Mafac centerpulls, TA hs and Cyclotourist double crank. This bike had 26" wheels and fenders and racks that appeared to be handmade. Other bikes in the display had the same racks but a variety of fender options. There were several models on display, from the Cyclo-Camping model with lights, racks, fenders, and more details than Daniel Rebour could draw to a more sparse but still be-fendered audax model with just a light on a front rack. Here the emphasis was as much on style as on functionality with much of what we see valued by Rivendell: mostly manual shifting bikes and old-school parts. My favorite was a black cyclo-camping model with gold pinstrips and red outlined in gold decals. It looked a lot like a Raleigh from the 70s but actually like, well, a Singer from that same era. The lightening was all internally routed and the amazing thing was the absence of wiring---it was as if the whole thing was hiddle. For having so much going on both in terms of accessories and paint, the bikes looked clean. Tubing was all Reynolds 531 from the downtube stickers and on the forks; square fork crowns and long rakes, like Jack Taylors. Csuka was an amiable man, clearly well into his 60s, wearing a full length blue smock and not speaking really much English at all. His French was also highly accented by, I dunno, maybe some other language but it was not alll that easy to dicipher. He gave me two sheets of specs, one for the cyclotourist bike and the other for the cyclocamper. I'll post the list of parts if there is enough interest from List members.

This was a trip clearly down a path that places its values and notions of function in the past. While Csuka had bikes built with modern parts, including some with RX100, the ones with shellaced bars and old-school paint (others with very, very simple paint) were clearly the favored notion. He said that he had enough old parts to build "anything you want." Boy, it was like I had won the ticket to Mr. Wonka's factory tour... The going price for the fully outfitted old-school camper was about 26,000F and another 1,000F for shipping, which he said was commonly done to customers in England and Japan and mostly from California in the States (but mostly Japanese). Pedals were TA with clips, racks and fenders were all made in-house. All the bikes I saw were lugged.

I know I must have appeared a bit, I dunno, pilgrim-struck but this seemed to leave no impression on Mr Csuka. All bikes were made to measure and the ones on display were merely there as examples. When I finally realized that I was not prepared to spend 3K USD that day, it became clear that it was time to leave.

I took lots of pictures of the bikes and they look as good in the pictures as they did in person. I will try to scan some this week, but it is the end of the semester and that will not make it soon. If anyone is going France and needs directions, I'll be happy to oblige of course. In another post, I can tell you about other bike shop visits and the day at the races.

'hope this was not too boring, a long note on a soggy saturday morning, Douglas Brooks Canandaigua, NY