Half a Century Old and Still Going Strong

Half a Century Old and Still Going Strong

I am the fortunate custodian of a lovely 1962 Alex Singer that is in almost-new condition. It has all the features that make an Alex Singer special, and really represents Alex Singer’s ideal of the perfect bike: lightweight, elegant and performing.

Years ago, Ernest Csuka of Cycles Alex Singer sent the bicycle my way. I had wanted to order a new Singer with the same features. I remember him growling: “Those features are too difficult to make. I’ll have to find you an old one.” And he did!

The original owner ordered it for his retirement. He was a good customer, who already had bought several Singers. Orders were slow in 1962, and extra care was spent on this bike. All Singers from this period are very nice, but this one is nicer still. The original owner appears to have ridden it very little, so it rides like it did when it was new.

This year, the bike is a half-century old. To celebrate, I took it on a ride with my friend Sam.

Rolling along, this was the view of the bike. The bag is a special model made for Alex Singer by Sologne. (Today, it is made by Gilles Berthoud and available from Compass Bicycles.) Looking down put a smile on my face.

Both Sam and I had been working too many long hours, so we were especially eager to ride. Our pace was high, but the Singer had no trouble keeping up. Its handling was stable, yet agile. It responded well to my pedaling stroke, in the way the French call ‘nervous,’ a term borrowed from racehorses. I would translate it with ‘eager.’

The Nivex derailleur shifted as precisely as always, but I had to adjust my technique. Having ridden my 1970s bike with a more ‘modern’ derailleur lately, I had to stop ‘overshifting.’ With the Nivex, you move the lever until the new gear engages, and that is it. No fine-tuning necessary. The compensator lever on the spring keeps the chain tension constant, so every shift is exactly the same, no matter where you are in the gear range.

The front derailleur probably is the lightest ever made. Including the braze-ons, it weighs less than 50 grams. (An Ultegra front derailleur alone weighs 85 g, and then you have to add the cables, housing, shift lever…) It works remarkably well, even though the large step from the 32- to the 46-tooth chainring on this bike is not an easy shift. The compact gearing allowed me to ride in the big ring most of the time.

This bike is equipped with a chainrest. Next to the smallest cog, a ring is brazed onto the dropout. You can shift the chain onto the ring, and then remove the wheel without touching the chain.

Aren’t those Bell wingnuts lovely? They were forged for strength, so they never break or bend, even though they are made from superlight aluminum.

On a long downhill, I moved the chain to the chainrest. Now the chain no longer was on the freewheel, which allowed the freewheel to spin with the wheel. It was fun to coast in silence. Sam thought the reduced resistance made me go faster, but that is unlikely to be significant.

The Singer brakes are the lightest brakes I know, much lighter than modern Eebrakes and other minimalist designs. They work like this: Pulling on the cable rotates the cams, which push the pads toward the rim. There was plenty of brake power, but the brakes juddered terribly. I’ll need to file the pads to the correct toe-in again.

As we stopped at a cafe, I looked over the bike. I love the stickers on the Mephisto rims. The rims are superlight, and feature small wooden blocks inside the rim at every spoke hole to support the spoke tension.

I was grateful for the sealed bearings in Singer’s custom bottom bracket and in the Maxi-Car hubs. Neither have been overhauled – ever! – yet they still spin smoothly half a century after they were made.

Fortunately, we did not ride at night. The small light is cute, but it cannot compete with modern lights for illumination. Singer’s light mount is hollow, and the wire goes inside and then runs inside the rolled edge of the fender.

The taillight mounts to a dedicated braze-on under the chainstay. It’s well-protected there, and not blocked if you use a rear rack and carry a load. The frame is one of the most finely crafted I have seen regardless of maker or age; check out the connections of the stays to the dropouts.

The lugs have a fillet added to the crease to make them stronger and (more importantly) prettier. Roland Csuka, who brazed the frames, added a long tang to the seatlug. I suspect he welded the pump peg onto the lug before he brazed the frame. That prevented heating the seat tube again. The small cylinder on the seatstay is a lever control for the sidewall generator. You can see the ball end of the lever.  You reach down to switch the lights on and off while moving. The fender has a neatly formed bulge to allow the generator to touch the tire.

Singer’s specialty was the unified head tube. Roland welded the lug sockets onto the head tube, before brazing the frame. The stem also is welded from steel tubing.

The saddle, a 1950s Brooks B17, is one of the most comfortable I have ridden. Its quality puts modern Brooks offerings to shame. Singers often had a seatpost with an internal expander, which gave a nice and clean look to the seatlug. You can see the expander bolt on top of the seatpin.

We rode 190 km that day, sprinting up hill after hill until we completely bonked. After we took a rest, we continued our manic ride. (It’s February, and rides like that help us get in shape for the season after losing much of our form over the winter.) The only allowance I made for the age of the bike was at stoplights. I accelerated a little more slowly to limit the torque on the rear wheel. There is no need to break half-century-old spokes!

Some may wonder whether such a pristine bike should be ridden at all, or whether it should be sealed away hermetically. I agree that it should not be allowed to deteriorate, but much of what makes such a bike special can be accessed only by riding it. Bikes like the 1962 Alex Singer have inspired Bicycle Quarterly’s vision of what a bike can be, both functionally and aesthetically.

P.S.: This 1962 Alex Singer is featured in our book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, where you will find studio photos of this and 49 other special machines.
P.P.S.: Several people asked about the rear brake cable routing. Here it is (click on the photo for a bigger image):

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Comments (43)

  • James F. Duncan (@jamesfduncan)

    Wonderful, informative and entertaining post! A bike like this really shows the soul of its builder and yours also in revering the creative energy that built it.
    Riding this bike is of course the best medicine for it and best honors the memory of its maker.
    (I also loved learning a new word, “juddered,” which I thought was a typo at first! Cool! ) Thanks. Jim Duncan

    March 2, 2012 at 7:46 am
  • neilsen

    Can you expand on the front cable hanger used. I assume it was made by Singer but would love more information.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:46 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Made by Singer, it’s a tube that is flattened at one end and bent at a 90° angle, then welded onto a Stronglight headset washer. The other end has a standard cable stop brazed on.

      March 2, 2012 at 9:51 am
  • Ford Bailey

    Thanks for the look at your beautiful Singer. Thanks too for updating the blog regularly. It has been a long span since the last issue of BQ, so it’s nice to have a treat like this every so often.

    March 2, 2012 at 11:44 am
  • Edwin

    “The saddle, a 1950s Brooks B17, is one of the most comfortable I have ridden. Its quality puts modern Brooks offerings to shame. ” What makes it higher quality?

    March 2, 2012 at 11:49 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Better leather. Back then, they didn’t put the leather out to competitive bid. Also, they cut the best saddles out of the spine area, which is symmetric, and used the rest of the hide for “lesser” saddles. Today, they just cut the hide up in any way that maximizes the leather, with little care to orientation. (The former info is from an article in Le Cycle in the 1960s, the latter from a recent visitor to the factory.)

      March 2, 2012 at 1:16 pm
      • Harald Kliems (@HaraldKliems)

        If you have a chance, could you maybe measure the thickness of the rails? According to Reinhard Mai, current Brooks saddles have thinner-than-average rails, sometimes resulting in broken rails (yes, it recently happened to me, too). I’d be curious to know if older Brookses had stronger rails.
        Aside from that: beautiful bike and a great article!

        March 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The 1990s Brooks saddle on my other bike has rails about 6.8 mm in diameter. The 1962 Singer’s saddle has 6.6 mm rails. A more recent Pro with titanium rails measures 7.0 mm. So the rail diameter does not appear to have changed.

          March 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm
      • Matthew J

        Agree with Jan 100% about Brooks then and Brooks now.
        When I got my 650B travel bike, I donated my Trek 728 to a local youth training group. For reasons I will never be able to explain, I failed to keep the 1980s vintage Brooks on the bike.
        I tried a new Brooks 67 and Professional but could not tolerate either. I’ve since discovered Berthoud which work better for me than new Brooks but do not match the ’80s Brooks.

        March 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm
  • Carlos Pinto

    Thank you for sharing this with us. It is a wonderful bike. I assume that it is the one on page135 of T.G.A.O.H.M.B. There is a similar bike at the Alex Singer shop, but a more modern approach. That bike always captures my attention.
    Happy Birthday to the bike.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The one at the shop is Ernest’s personal bike. Similar machine, but Ernest’s has been ridden at least 100,000 miles, and been rechromed at least twice. I love that bike as much as you do, but it’s sad that its owner no longer is with us. I remember him riding it on our last ride together, after PBP 2007.

      March 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm
  • GuitarSlinger

    Build em right to begin with . Take good care of them over the years . Over time they’re still a joy to ride and behold , bringing a smile to your face every time . Ahhhh quality . Timeless .
    Beautiful . Love the feature in your book as well but its nice to see it on the road .

    March 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm
  • Steve Palincsar

    Lovely. Thank you so much.
    Can we expect to see new Nivex-alike derailleurs in the list of future Rene Herse components?

    March 2, 2012 at 1:20 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Maybe… It works best with a chainrest, which in turn needs a special rear hub, so it makes most sense as part of a fully integrated system of cassette hub, derailleur and shifter.

      March 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm
  • David Feldman

    See if anyone tries that with a 50 year old Trek 2500 carbon frame in a few decades! Seriously, Jan, a grey Northwestern day is great for a bike ride of any length. Just got back from a 10k loop of errands on a 1950’s Helyett myself!

    March 2, 2012 at 1:37 pm
  • Bryan Willman

    Where are the shift levers? I think I see one on the right side of the down tube, but there are 2 derailleurs.
    How old are those tires? Surely tires don’t last 50 years? (But 700c was set before WWII, no? So modern tires would fit those rims?)
    One amazing thing is how truly modern it looks. It has 10 gear ratios in something close to a compact double, it has what sounds like very nice handling.
    It’s good to see such things survive.

    March 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The front derailleur is operated directly with a lever behind the seat tube. The tires are Challenge prototypes for their Paris-Roubaix model. They are hand-glued, not vulcanized like the production tires, and roll very nicely. 700C tires have been around at least since the 1930s.

      March 2, 2012 at 8:25 pm
  • Marcus Helman

    Hi Jan,
    It is indeed a beautiful bike. Thanks for sharing it with us. I do have a couple of questions. You explained how the brakes activate to grab the rims, but how do the cables work? On the rear it looks like the main cable comes down the left seat stay, runs in a “U” then anchors on the right seat stay. Is that right? Why do it like that? How does the front brake work?

    March 2, 2012 at 9:38 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The front brake works like a standard cantilever brake, with a cable hanger at the headset and a straddle wire hanger. The rear cable runs over a pulley, so the mechanical advantage is doubled. (The double roller uses a chain link, with custom aluminum rollers.) I added a photo to the post that shows this. (Click on the “Read more” link if it does not show.)
      Some builders did this routing with standard cantilevers, too. It might be a good option for riders who don’t have much hand power, especially since many classic cantilevers don’t have a lot of mechanical advantage. However, why the rear brake should have more mechanical advantage than the front…?

      March 3, 2012 at 6:20 am
  • Fred Blasdel

    When you say ‘welded’, do you know precisely what processes were in use at the Singer shop?

    March 2, 2012 at 9:45 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Yes, I have spent many hours in the Alex Singer shop, and seen quite a few bikes take shape. Back in the “old days,” when Roland still was making the frames, many parts were gas-welded. When I saw an old Singer stem stripped for rechroming, you could see that it was all steel with no brass joining the tubes. I don’t recall whether the small eyelets for the handlebar clamp bolts were brass-brazed, or welded as well. The same applies to the unified head tube. Ernest Csuka told me that they were gas-welded.
      Today’s Singers use fillet-brazing instead. Gas-welding without introducing too much heat and/or distortion is a skill that few people have any longer.

      March 3, 2012 at 5:27 am
  • Petar Breskovic

    Thank you for this beauty! I have smile and tears on my face at the same time (tears for not having or only seeing such bike). Everything is “like God commands” – as our old proverb says; nothing to change! Your explanations are so clear and easy to understand, like Brooks saddles
    quality – I didn’t know the reason. I ride excellent Pinarello Montello SLX adopted for everyday commuting, but this Singer is another universe. Hope one day I will have something like this, but not likely. Happy ride and keep on with beautiful things you are doing (BQ and others)!
    Petar Breskovic
    21000 Split

    March 3, 2012 at 12:41 am
  • Joe Kendrick

    Your bike is as pretty as a girlfriend. What’s the handlebar tape?
    Joe K

    March 3, 2012 at 5:09 am
  • msrw

    The Singer is indeed lovely.
    For road riding, how do the Singer and the Rene Herse compare? What do you notice as the main differences ON THE ROAD?

    March 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The only classic Herse I have ridden extensively is a 1952 650B model. Both handle similarly, but the Herse, with its wider tires, feels more planted. The Singer’s more flexible fork blades, on the other hand, add a good measure of comfort.
      My new Herse is an attempt to combine the best features of both bikes, with the Nivex derailleur and thin fork blades of the Singer, and the 650B wheels (and associated geometry) of the Herse, plus a frame that is more flexible than both based on our experiments with frame stiffness.

      March 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm
  • Hal

    Jan, thanks for the tour of the Singer. I notice the rear fender has a brace to distribute stress where its attached to the seat stay bridge. I don’t see any rivits or screws attaching the brace to the fender. Is there simply 1 bolt/screw through both brace and fender attaching both to the bridge?

    March 4, 2012 at 7:38 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Singer simply sandwiched the reinforcement plate between fender and frame. It still distributes the stress.
      The idea originally came from Herse. In 1951, Lyli Herse and Robert Prestat rode the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race at record speed on the tandem, but got disqualified because their fender had broken – apparently, they crashed taking a sharp hairpin at very high speed. Herse devised the reinforcement to prevent this from happening again. Herse’s reinforcement attached to the fender with two screws.

      March 4, 2012 at 7:51 am
  • Hal

    One more thing. Are the fender edges rolled so that there is a hollow to get an electrical wire through? Most fender edges now are tightly crimped.

    March 4, 2012 at 7:55 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The older fenders usually are a little more open, so it’s easier to get a wire through. But you can open the current fenders pretty easily – at least the Honjo aluminum ones we sell. Stainless steel fenders are harder to manipulate.

      March 4, 2012 at 10:39 am
  • Paul Glassen

    One commenter says, “ten speed”. It looks more like four cogs and two chain rings for eight to me. How many teeth on the cogs and chain rings? I am wondering about the gear range and steps.

    March 4, 2012 at 12:34 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Four cogs and two chainrings, for a total of 8 speeds. The cogs are 14-16-19-22, which is just a tad larger than I’d like it. (I prefer a 5-speed). The chainrings are 46-32. The gear range isn’t huge, but I’ve never been dropped on this bike because I spun out, and there hasn’t been a hill I couldn’t get up.
      By the way, if the original owner would have liked more gears, they could have opted for a triple and five or six cogs on the rear. Triples were common in France starting in the 1930s, and five-speed freewheels gained popularity in the late 1940s.

      March 4, 2012 at 12:54 pm
      • Bubba

        “The cogs are 14-16-19-22, which is just a tad larger than I’d like it. (I prefer a 5-speed)”
        What’s a tad larger than you’d like? The cogs are larger than you’d like, or the jumps between cogs are larger than you’d like? I assume you mean the jumps. What’s perfect, 14-16-18-20-22?

        March 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Sorry, I meant to say that the gap between gears is a tad larger than I like it. Yes, 14-16-18-20-22 on my new bike is perfect. In PBP this year, I used every gear except the 32-22. I used that more than enough in the Pyrenees. In fact, next time, I’ll bring a 24-tooth cog for that ride!

          March 7, 2012 at 5:33 pm
  • Tom Howard

    I clicked on the TV just as I started reading your post about that beautiful Alex Singer. On TV, Jacques Pepin was making soup. I enjoyed the simultaneous dose of French culture. The bike is, obviously, worthy of being in a museum. But I’m glad that you continue to ride it. Thanks for sharing.

    March 4, 2012 at 4:53 pm
  • Jeff

    Thank you for posting the brake cable detail. How many cool things can a single bike have? How difficult is it using the front derailleur on the seat tube? Any chance for a photo of that?
    Repeating the above comment, thanks for the blog, books and products.

    March 5, 2012 at 7:25 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The derailleur on the seat tube is very easy to use. In deference to the bike’s age, I don’t slam it to the big ring as I would with an Herse derailleur, but it just picks up the chain and moves it to the big ring.
      Consider this fact: The first front derailleurs of the 1930s were operated with a cable and downtube shift lever. The direct lever on the seat tube was seen as an improvement! I suspect this was because the direct lever a) saved weight (remember, this was the time of the technical trials when weight was everything) and b) it offered a more feedback, so there was less risk of overshifting the chain to the outside or the inside.

      March 5, 2012 at 7:35 am
      • Bubba

        I would be very entertained if you could post a 30-second youtube movie of that front derailleur in action on the repair stand. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would watch it.

        March 7, 2012 at 4:11 pm
  • Conrad Kornmann

    I’m curious about the brake “judder”. I have found that using salmon pads and adjusting the toe-in of the brake shoes helps a little, and that having a fork crown mounted cable stop helps tremendously and usually completely eliminates the judder. Modern cyclocross bikes with cantilever brakes often have problems with judder. Do you commonly encounter this issue on classic bikes equipped with cantilevers?

    March 5, 2012 at 10:31 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The Singer does not have cantilever brakes in the modern sense. The judder comes mostly from play in the sliding surfaces of the brakes. Singer abandoned that design when centerpull brakes became popular.
      Classic bikes with cantis usually don’t judder. It appears to be a problem that occurs especially with modern bikes. I suspect this happens because modern bikes’ fork blades are stiff, but their steerer tubes are flexible (made from carbon or aluminum). So instead of flexing in the lower portion of the blades, the fork’s flex is concentrated in the steerer. In that case, moving to a fork crown-mounted cable hanger is a work-around solution, as the steerer tube flex no longer affects the brakes. A better solution would be to redesign the fork.

      March 5, 2012 at 10:51 am
  • craig celse, riverside ca

    Jan, always happy to read and see some great pics of the older Singers.. I am the custodian of three of them. My touring cycle was ordered “new with old’ equiptment. Cyclo rear, Simplex JUY 56 front. Maxicar front and rear and a very interesting Mahe seat pin, forward and aft movement. My maden trip with the Singer was Holland, Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg….A great trip.

    March 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm
  • David G

    How do you like that mini front bag, Jan? The lid opens from front to back, opposite of the larger bags, correct? Can you access the contents while riding?
    Several stores sell the Berthoud Mini 86, which is different, and less elegant, in my opinion. This bag from Grand Bois looks very similar to the one on your Singer: http://www.cyclesgrandbois.com/SHOP/bag_f_AS.html
    I wonder, did Grand Bois ask Berthoud to make a reproduction of the Sologne/Singer bag? Is it now only available from Grand Bois in Japan?

    March 11, 2012 at 11:37 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The bikes I usually ride carry a large handlebar bag, so it is obvious what I prefer. The small bag can hold a raincoat, spare tube, wallet and small camera, but it gets overwhelmed when you need a spot to put a long-sleeve jersey as the day warms up. You cannot access the content, because the bag sits too low and opens the wrong way. The bag in the link from Grand Bois is the same bag as that on my bike. I believe it is available in the U.S. as well.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

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