Friday, December 7, 2012

Alex Singer

When I was 13, I hung out at the Cupertino Bike shop and got a glimpse of another world in the bikes and magazines from Europe. Eugene Sloane's "Complete Book of Bicycling" was a cherished bible.

My first trips to Europe 30 years ago were like pilgrimages. Visits to the icons of cycling by a kid who grew up in a cycling desert. Campagnolo didn't know what to do with me, so they loaded me up with posters and sent me on my way. I visited Cinelli when they still had the old building with iron gates and a little brass plaque 'Cino Cinelli & Co.'. The man at the  retail shop parts counter allowed me to buy parts at dealer cost. Faliero Masi gave me a cycling cap at the holy site at the old Vigorelli Velodrome. I bought a beautiful  frame from Emiliano Freschi, a friendly and helpful person.

My 2007 trip was different. Battaglin was a modern corporation making nothing but plastic. All the Italian shops looked just like U. S. shops with all carbon and aluminum. It was a big let down as I realized it was all gone. I should not have been surprised because we tend to picture places and people as we last saw them.

So, I found myself using my last hours in Europe negotiating the metro in Paris looking for a little shop on Rue Victor Hugo. It has been there for half a century.

Here we are, my last chance to touch the past. In the store front windows are
T. A. chainrings, crochet-backed cycling gloves, and Brooks saddles. 

We enter. It is small and feels like a real bike shop. No fancy displays. A workshop with tools in the back. Not pretty and immaculate but functional and used. 
There behind the counter is a piece of living history. He is chatting with a man with a tan beret who appears to be a long-time customer. I look at the first bike to the right of the counter. I recognize this bike from Jan Heine's book 'The Golden Age of Bicycles.' It is Ernest Csuka's personal bike, an all chrome 1953 Alex Singer with a wire cage front derailleur that lever shifts at the seat tube. It has a 5-spd block with a Huret Jubilee rear mech. It was made by Csuka the year I was born and he still rides it.  
There are boxes of shoes on the shelves that use cleats for toe clips and cage pedals. Cloth tape and canvas touring bags are stocked. About eight beautiful new Alex Singers ready for their owners. I flash back to 1973, the first time I saw an Alex Singer at Talbots in San Mateo, right next to a black and gold Rene Herse and, the most beautiful bike I have ever seen, a fully-pantographed red and white De Rosa. 
There is a little sign in the window that translates to 'bicycles made to measure' and trophies on the wall.  

There is such rich cycling history here but they also make modern racing bikes with carbon forks.

I feel bad because this is a business not a museum and I am not a customer but a  tourist. I buy a jersey and Mr. Czuka throws in a water bottle. I ask my wife, who speaks French, to ask the cost of a frame. I already know that it will be out of my price range. He responds that he only makes complete bikes. Of course; after all, he is the last constructeur. 

Mr. Czuka has since passed on and the cycling world has lost a cherished craftsman. The business continues with a new generation. I am only heartened by the many new keepers of the flame that may someday be able to carry his torch.

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