Saturday, 18 October 2014

1940s Alex Singer - Une Belle Chanteuse

There are some ambitions in life which you may hold in hope, but never reasonably expect to fulfil. I held one in this category for many years, never believing it would ever be fulfilled, but by a unexpected turn of fate over the summer, I was able to realise it. I refer to riding a machine made by the great Parisian constructeur, Alex Singer. I have been fortunate to ride quite a few different hand made British and Irish lightweight steel frames over the years. My curiosity was aroused from childhood, listening to the cycling stories of my parents and the various marques of bicycle ridden by their siblings, friends and clubmates. As my cycling horizon broadened, I became aware of the great tradition of randonneuring in France and the top of the range 'constructeur' built machines. Paris was famous for the 'constructeurs' like Cycles Alex Singer, Cycles René Herse and Cycles Goéland- Louis Moire to name some of the more well known. There was debate amongst owners of Cycles Alex Singer and Cycles René Herse as to who was the better maker, with many favouring René Herse. The closest Britain got to a 'constructeur' was the Taylor brothers from Stockton-on-Tees who had some connection with Goéland-Louis Moire. These beautiful hand crafted French bicycles had mudguards, often had integrated lights, derailleur gears and were fast and light according to what I read. Were they that good I wondered? How did they differ from a British hand made frame? It has taken me decades to find out. I have some experience of riding a 1960 650B Goéland Randonneur built from Reynolds 531, which rides much better than many machines I had ridden up to that point. It was my first real experience of the 650B wheel size on a proper constructeur built randonneuring bicycle and I was very impressed with the integrated bike and it's responsiveness. 

I then unexpectedly had the chance to try a 1940s Alex Singer with 700C wheels. The machine came with some history and was beautifully made, yet understated. The bicycle was originally a full chrome model, but over it's long life, it's original owner, Pierre Berthet, had it enamelled black in the 1970s and fitted with top of the range all French component groupset from the same era. Perhaps some may consider the bike changes to be negative, as the machine was altered from the original constructeur's spec, however, the bike was used and ridden by the original owner and he considered the changes made to have been an upgrade. Many of the components are unique to this machine and were custom made for the owner with a gold anodised finish. 

My first impression was the beauty of the understated paint finish of the frame carried over onto the mudguards, complete with gold lining. The highly polished cranks of the triple chainset gleamed in the sunlight, before lifting the bike equipped with decaleur and sacoche, which was a revelation at how light the machine was. 

After checking the saddle height I got on the bike and from the first input of the pedals it was a joy to ride and just glided along. It looked right and it rode as well, if not better, than it looked. Of all the 27 inch/700c wheel touring/audax bikes I have ever ridden this is without doubt the best to date.

It has the performance and is close to the weight of a top drawer steel competition racing bike but with touring bike frame geometry, and mudguards. Everything just works together so well, no creaks, no movement of the decaleur even on pavé, no chain rub on the front derailleur, the responsiveness of the bike to input and the rock steady handling. The only drawback I found was riding it over pavé. The surface vibration is bearable, however, I found it not as comfortable as the 650B wheel size, transmitting much more of the road vibration. However, my interest has been stirred and I would love to try out a pre 1980 Cycles Alex Singer in 650B wheel size to see how the two machines would compare. I don't wish to denigrate in any way, other artisan frame builders, but can say the Alex Singer is the most joyous 700C wheeled machine I have ridden to date. It is a bit like Edith Piaf singing 'Je ne regrette rien', how do you isolate one element which you can say makes the performance so special? I don't believe you can, it is the sum of the whole. I think the Alex Singer is like that, hard to define one outstanding unique quality, rather it is the sum of the constructuer's skill, attention to detail and experience, all brought to bare in the creation of an individual machine. I always had a smile on my face after riding the Alex Singer.  

Singer in English has a different meaning to French. I think a wordplay on the English meaning, in French, sums up my impression of this 'petite reine' very well - une belle chanteuse.

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