Alex Singer Cycles
Alex Singer Cycles
Levallois Perret, France
by Elvire Toulorge
photographs by Nicolas Joly
It was a morning of November, 2009 when the grand nephew of Alex Singer, Olivier Csuka opened the door to his bike shop, Alex Singer in Levallois, within the inner suburbs of Paris. We admire the bikes lined up in the showcase, whether for racing, leisure or cyclotourism, they all bare the brand Alex Singer: Colors, chrome, gallows, shellac finishes. All of which make the particular aesthetic of an Alex Singer bicycle.
The pictures on the walls, the books, the jerseys and the water bottles branded "Alex Singer"; the memoirs of the Singer house are scattered throughout the store. Before entering the work studio, we are in a small room in which various bike parts are stored, sprockets, trays, hangers and as many treasures that fascinate us. Once in the work studio, just look up to admire the dozens of frames and wheels hanging next to each other. While waiting for Olivier, we set eyes on every corner of the room in search of treasures that are hidden here, it is the whole history of cycling that is felt in these few square meters. We are at the heart of the myth Alex Singer, a myth of artisanal perfection. These tools, clamps, tubes, straws, which served decades of Alex Singer bike history.
Olivier joins us in the studio and tells his story, a story that begins with a serious fall when he was four years old. In 1968, Olivier rode a small bike, a fixed-gear without stabilizers and without any brakes, and finished his race in a rusty fence. He seriously injured his hand and caught gangrene. He laughs, telling us that his "first recollection of the bike is having injections in the butt." The comparison might be easy, but we are joking about the current state of professional cycling. The hand healed, Olivier is back in the saddle and dreams of becoming a world champion in cycling. He trains, wins many races and works in conjunction with his father Ernest Csuka Singer in the shop. In the beginning, he was repairing bikes and building wheels; a job that was charged "1 franc" at the time! Only later did he begin the work of manufacturing frames. Olivier learned from his father, Ernest Csuka (the husband of the niece of Alex Singer). Today, he is solely in charge of the bike shop, he is the only one to manufacture the Singer bikes. Olivier perpetuates the myth that has built since 1938, when Alex Singer moved as a manufacturer of cycles to Levallois.
Born in Budapest in 1905 and arriving in France in 1923, Alex Singer began very early in cycling competition. After a professional career, he devoted himself to touring and was dedicated to manufacturing cycles. He designed a bike exclusively for touring. The house Alex Singer was prosperous as cycling in France was growing, as was demand for the product. Alex Singer built a solid reputation on the market. He developed many innovations with the help of Ernest Csuka, making bikes of impeccable technical quality. If they are so popular, it is not only for their aesthetic, but also because they are adapted to the practice and morphology (individuality) of each client. Aesthetics do not replace technique. Alex Singer has developed a range of tailor-made cycles at the outset of their activity. This know-how is perpetuated under our eyes, while Olivier builds the frame of a bicycle which when completed, will be sent to Japan. The amount of work is however not what it was in the golden era of cycling, the great boom which occurred in the 1970s. There were 13 bicycle shops in Levallois and three competition clubs. Today there is only one club left which idles for a lack of riders.
The market cycle has evolved and the French industry is failing. Quite the craft system is ailing. Olivier deplores the standardization of products developed by manufacturers and the disappearance of many references. To illustrate his point, Oliver shows us two catalogs of Campagnolo. The first one is dated from 1974 and the second from 2009. The 1974 catalog is divided into several groups (slopes, common, great sport, etc.) and the products offered are detailed up with a reference piece. There were no standards then. Seat posts, brackets and other parts existed in a very wide spectrum. In comparison, the 2009 catalogue there is only one group. The products are sold in whole groups and not by pieces. If we take the hubs, they are no longer sold at retail; they are sold incorporated into a wheel built in its entirety. This situation is not unique to Campagnolo. Instead they're an example of one among many. Olivier also regrets trade relations with manufacturers. It is very difficult to order small quantities of tubing, parts and products of interest. In France, sales representatives are rare and craftsmen are struggling to escape this logic of large scale distribution. Increasingly, Olivier purchases from Taiwan, where he can place small orders of quality parts. If he needs only five wheels or ten hangers, it is more advantageous for him to purchase from Taiwan. In addition, he deplores the degradation of the French local craftsmen. Once the assembled frames and forks arrive for paint and chrome, again Olivier faces difficulties. The artisans are not as many as before and housing standards and anti-pollution regulations are drastic. All this affects Olivier's work; today around twenty bikes come out of the workshop each year.
This sad fact established, we are back to Alex Singer bicycles and frame manufacturing. Olivier thinks of a bicycle in its entirety, this is the reason why he does not consider himself as a "frame builder" but as "cycle manufacturer." Each bike must fit the morphology, but also the type of cycling. He recalls many types of bicycles as practical and to support his statements, he shows us all the bikes he owns, one for each use. Olivier teaches us to understand the qualities of a bike depend on its use. We then talk about the phenomenon of fixed-gear in major world capitals. Olivier is surprised by the use of these bicycles, given that very few fixed-gear riders practice track racing. We must reconsider the use of track frames, the trend of the fixed-gear comes from the United States, a country where the bicycle industry was poorly developed and where the practice was mainly track. Thus couriers and other enthusiasts have been primarily using track frames, and we all followed.
Olivier's experience fascinates us. Before leaving we discuss the future home of Alex Singer, we can not imagine the workshop closing. The transmission of knowledge is a difficult issue and it seems that nobody comes to him to learn the business of bicycle manufacturer. Olivier does have an apprentice working with him, and even if he produces no frame work yet, we hope that the Alex Singer shop and work will live through time...