People Who Have Inspired Us: Ernest Csuka

csuka_tdf

It’s hard for me to believe, but it has already been three years since Ernest Csuka passed away. I wrote in his obituary in Bicycle Quarterly: “He was the last of a generation of great constructeurs.” Indeed, Ernest Csuka had experienced most of the post-war history of the French constructeurs first-hand and was a great source of information. But that doesn’t even begin to describe him. To me he was also a valued mentor and a great friend.

I still remember the day I first visited the shop in 1999 after completing my first Paris-Brest-Paris. I was just discovering the bicycles of the French constructeurs, and with the help of a French childhood friend, we figured out where this mythical shop was. As I turned the corner, I saw the little shop, tucked between the high-rises that had sprouted around it in recent decades. My elation gave way to disappointment when I approached. The windows were covered with whitewash, and a handwritten sign read: “On vacation until September 1.” It was August 31, and I was leaving Paris the next morning. I peeked through the narrow gap between the whitewash and the window frame and spied marvellous cyclotouring bicycles inside. So close, yet so far away.

singer_shop

Just as I was about to leave, a small, old man rode up on a bicycle. He tried to enter the shop with a quick: “C’est fermé” (We are closed). Before the door closed, I blurted out that I had come all the way from the United States to visit the shop. He broke into a laugh and said: “Well, in that case, come on in.”

I stayed for three hours that day and bought my first set of Maxi-Car hubs. I returned three months later on my next visit to Paris to order a cyclotouring bike for my friend George Gibbs – the first Alex Singer to come to the United States in decades. Every time I visited, I learned more about bicycle design and the history of the French constructeurs.

Ernest Csuka had started working for his uncle Alex Singer in 1944, when he was 16 years old. Singer himself only had started to make bikes six years earlier. Ernest rode for Singer in the famous Technical Trials as well as in the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. He formed one of the stronger tandem teams of the period with his fiancée and later wife, Léone Reymond. He was there when Tullio Campagnolo bought two Nivex derailleurs from Alex Singer at the Paris bicycle show. A year later, Campagnolo introduced his first parallelogram derailleur… and today, all derailleurs can trace their ancestry to that 1949 Campagnolo Gran Sport.

As my friendship with Ernest deepened, I was invited on his Sunday rides. I usually visited in the middle of winter, yet there were six to ten riders, all on Alex Singers. Ernest was the patron, who decided where we’d go and who entertained us with stories from the old days. After a few hours, we stopped at a café to warm up and dry out before heading home. I don’t believe Ernest missed a single Sunday ride until he was well into his 80s.

singer_ride

During the week, the workday ended when friends filed into the shop to have tea and coffee upstairs. In the old kitchen of Alex Singer’s apartment, we sat around the Formica table and talked. Ernest ran up and down the stairs to tend the shop. After his friends left, and the shop was closed for the night, the real work started. In the dimly lit workshop, Ernest set about working on cyclotouring bikes. Tending the shop during the day did not allow for the required concentration and focus. Watching him and occasionally lending a hand, I learned a lot about brazing and bicycle design as he added braze-ons, made racks and slowly created the complete bike. To answer my questions, he pulled jigs and tools out of the various corners of the shop and explained their use. Often, it was 10 p.m. before I took the train back to my friend’s house, elated by all I had learned.

When I started Bicycle Quarterly, the very first issue included a long interview with Ernest Csuka. For almost every issue after that, I called him to check facts, and with every conversation, I got some wonderful quotes. Not only had he been there and witnessed the events I was researching, but his memory was unfailing.

When I told Ernest that I wanted to ride a Singer, he was elated. However, instead of making me a new one, he suggested he could find a used one for me. And that is how I got the Alex Singer bike that I rode almost exclusively for many years. I completed my “best” Paris-Brest-Paris on it, plus many other memorable rides. The bike still serves as Bicycle Quarterly’s reference bike, as a benchmark of the performance a good bike should offer.

When one of the nicest classic Alex Singer bicycles came back to the shop after its owner died, Ernest knew how much I would appreciate it, so he put it aside for me. That bike was featured in a blog post earlier this year. I am lucky to be its caretaker, and every time I ride it, I am reminded of him on his own, very similar machine.

Even though time passed, Ernest did not seem to age significantly until he suffered a stroke in 2008. Despite a miraculous recovery, he no longer could ride his bike, and his ability to work was greatly reduced. Sadly, his life force diminished quickly from then on. I was lucky to spend a month in Paris the following winter, and he shared many more precious memories. When I said “Au revoir,” we both had tears in our eyes. We knew it was unlikely that we’d see each other again. Today, Ernest Csuka lives on in our memories, and in the wonderful bicycles he created. The one below is from 1954, updated with new components in the 1970s. Today Ernest’s son Olivier continues the tradition at Cycles Alex Singer.

Singer1954

Further reading:

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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21 Responses to People Who Have Inspired Us: Ernest Csuka

  1. azorch says:

    I think – and fervently hope – that I speak for many of us when I say that I feel fortunate to come to know a bit about about Ernest Csuka through Bicycle Quarterly. Thanks for sharing the words, stories, and anecdotes, Jan.

    • Zbyszek Kolendo says:

      Yes, I’m definitely one of the many that you speak for and and I do feel privileged to have stumbled upon this crowd.

      And a Happy Christmas everyone.

      Zbyszek Kolendo
      Gdansk,Pl

  2. Lee Katz says:

    Hi Jan,

    Your descriptions and stories all ring home. The first bikes in decades. I think we might have been the last prior. Maybe three small shipments, end of 71 or early 72 and then a couple of more times to about 74. Along with bikes from Herse and Alf Hetchens. Always keeping the best bikes we could find to go with the pure race directed bikes, the domestic artisanal builders like Al Eisentraut, what we built ourselves in our back of the shop frame shop and the day to day bikes that paid the rent. Then business changed and we became more and more race bikes and the day to day.
    We are building a new shop in Chicago right now. Working on bikes of our own for the new shop (borrowing a lot of proven ideas). First time in about 35 years. When I speak about the Singer’s and Herse’s and where we can go with our bikes to the younger guys there is a level of excitement and interest I haven’t seen in years. No guess as to where it really ends up but hoping to see people heading out on exceptional bikes, going on exceptional journeys. Some great examples of how to do this in the not so distant past.
    best regards,

    Lee Katz
    Turin Bicycle

  3. Ty says:

    What a touching story! Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    I find it inspiring to see how his life-force stayed so strong for so long. This is particularly meaningful to me as I just had a three-day hospital stay. I am very anxious to get back on the bike and know I am fortunate that I will be able to do so again shortly. Thanks for reminding me that I will not always be so lucky and to cherish every moment on this earth.

    Happy Holidays,

    Ty

  4. Rob Godby says:

    What a great post – and it sounds like from your description a wonderful man. Having just discovered your site and BQ I really enjoy read these sorts of bits. The love of riding and the tradition is what keeps me coming back and reading – and to learn about people like Ernest. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Paul Ahart says:

    Jan,
    Thank you for your warm recollections of Ernest Csuka. In an era of mass-produced cookie-cutter bikes that function alright, but have no outstanding properties, nor are produced with any particular care or attention, it is wonderful to read of a gentleman who devoted his entire life to producing the most perfect bikes that could be built. There is great lasting value in the machines he made, as well as the ethics he promoted. It is also amazing that new builders have “taken up the torch” to produce fine machines in the spirit of the great French constructeurs. Ernest Csuka, along with Rene Herse, and a number of other perhaps lesser-known builders, are the inspiration that drives the new constructeurs. May this tradition live on.
    Thanks again for the story.

  6. RosyRambler says:

    If I were in Paris standing in front of the entrance to the Alex Singer cycle shop on August 31, the day before I was to leave, and read a sign that said, “On vacation until September 1″, I’m sure I would have dropped to my knees and cried. (Especially after just haven ridden my first Paris-Brest-Paris!)

    Surely the bicycling stars were in perfect alignment when Monsieur Csuka said, “Entrez”, to you Jan.

    What a fortuitous moment in the continuing history of bicycles.

  7. Matthew J says:

    Jan: Hope you do not mind the slight diversion, but this piece reminded me that I have a beautiful Maxicar hubset. The rear hub is French thread. Among my entire Freewheel collection, I have one 13-19 Regina. All the rest are BSA.

    While I am sure Monsieur Czuka could have been trusted re-tapping, I don’t know where to turn now. Do you have any resources?

    • You cannot re-tap freewheels, and French is smaller in diameter than BSC… Ernest used to wrap Teflon tape on the hub threads and then put BSC freewheels on French-threaded hubs. He claimed it worked just fine even for a tandem. He didn’t use huge rear cogs, though.

  8. ol'grumpy says:

    One of my favorite memories from PBP (besides riding in it), was being allowed into the back of the Singer shop (multiple times) to poke around. Discovering Ernest’s porteur resting in back appearing to still be in use, as well as Alex’s porteur hanging from the rafters, was amazing. I only wish I could have met the men who have inspired my own work and riding.
    Gabe

  9. Wonderful story! A great legacy and inspiration to many. Hey, Jan, by any chance have you seen the Singer that is owned by ( or used to be owned by) Jim Cunningham of Cyclart? I used to frequent Cyclart a lot just to ogle at what Jim had, and one day he had on display this dazzling blue and chrom Singer. Being a racer at that time and only knowing Italian race bikes with full Campy, I needed a lesson regarding this French bike, and Jim graciously did so.

  10. Stevy says:

    I only met M. Csuka once. It was 2002 and I returned to Paris after a couple months touring. He welcomed me to his shop with a firm handshake and an initial quiet and reserved manner. I asked for a few odds and ends I needed which he fetched from various drawers and shelves. While I was paying he asked me where I was from and where I had ridden during my vacation. Then his manner changed as he enthused about the regions I’d visited and the routes I’d ridden.
    We talked bikes for awhile after that, then he lead me to the workshop out the back and lifted down a bike that was hanging from it’s front wheel. “A client his selling this one and it’s your size”.
    Unfortunately for me, in 2002 Cycles Alex Singer didn’t accept credit cards. As we said our goodbyes, he simply said. “See you next year, perhaps”.

    Stevy

  11. Michael Thompson says:

    I rode my Singer today. I have to pinch myself, how lucky I am to have such a nice machine.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/meauxtown/sets/72157607561587921/

    Merry Christmas

  12. Ben Van Orsdol says:

    The con- joined head tube and lugs on this bike is one of the prettiest sights I’ve seen on a bike. Someday, with the help of a skilled constructeur I’d like to recreate that look. Everything on that bike seems perfectly proportioned. If it rides half as well as it looks its a dream. Jan, as I stand 6’4″ I wonder about the availability/ existence of tall French vintage rando frames. Do they exist? Did René and Ernest make bikes bigger than the usual sizes? If so, do you know what their design concept was like? Stouter tubes or oversized tubes? There was an article earlier this year about tall frames, but it only made me more hungry for knowledge. Not every 6’4″ rider is stout and strong like Ryan. The geometry that suits the 50-60cm frames doesn’t always correlate to a well designed frame for tall folks… Does it? I know that the double blind planing and the frame geometry tests are expensive and take a lot of resources, but what, if anything, can we take from Ernest and René in terms of tall frame design?
    I hope you get to spend your day relaxing with you family.
    ありがとございます

    • There are a few huge René Herse bikes around, but we don’t really know how they ride. Since they are outliers, they may not tell us all that much… To some degree, you have it easier as a tall rider, since the constraints that short riders often face don’t exist. You don’t need to worry about toe overlap. And while the lightest-gauge tubing may still be too stiff for a short, light rider, that isn’t a concern on a tall frame, which inherently is more flexible, and a taller, and thus usually stronger, rider.

    • Michael Thompson says:

      While I was visiting the Singer shop, I looked at a very nice 62cm Rene Herse bike that was for sale. If you check my flickr site again, you will see it, it’s gray. cheers

  13. Oliver Pool says:

    Thanks for the story… Singer’s shop still looks the same, I ride past it twice a day, as the building I work in is in the same street (rue Victor Hugo in Levallois). Unfortunately, the spirit does not seem to be the same as what you describe.
    I do not own a Singer myself (a friend of mine, a semi-professional frame builder, built the frame and rack for my randonneuse, that we designed together), maybe that is why I did not feel welcome at all when I went in for some accessories. Well, if they want to sell their beautiful but expensive bikes, maybe they should be a little less arrogant with potential customers. Sorry guys, I may not buy a €4000 bike in the coming months, but I would probably buy accessories if I felt welcome in the shop. Being a “legend” does not excuse everything.

    • I remember the old days in Europe, when a customer was somebody who was petitioning the shopkeeper to buy something. Even today, if you catch somebody at a bad time, they may be less than cordial. It’s a tough balance to run a retail shop selling inner tubes and recovery drinks, while building high-end bicycles on the side. The latter requires intense focus, and the former can become a distraction. I didn’t find any snobbery when I entered the shop with my then-new American custom bike…

      • Tim Bird says:

        I am pleased to report that the “old days in Europe, when a customer was somebody who was petitioning the shopkeeper to buy something” are still with us – I have no complaints!Here in Yorkshire, England, my favourite bike shop is a strictly no frills experience on the surface (showroom…. what showroom?) especially to the first-timer but once you break through their cool reserve, the advice and service is exemplary; but often delivered in no nonsense terms. They have talked me out of purchases, with good reason, on a number of occasions! Doubtless it puts some folk off but the shop has a large and dedicated following countrywide. Perhaps you have to be of an older generation and european, as I am, to be able to accept such a way of doing business.

        Planning a 650B wheelbuild I visited the shop a couple of weeks ago and enquired a little nervously if the wheelbuilder might undertake such a project. As I expected, the owner had already coolly pointed out by email, all the problems I may face regarding spares. Now, having gained an audience with the wheelbuilder in person, he took his turn to hear me out, whilst twiddling the waxed tips of his moustache. Then he gave me a roasting for undertaking such a “foolhardy” project (650Bs are little known in the UK). No problem for me as I know the form now and I stuck to my guns despite the ribbing and went on to establish the serious nature of my project. Finally smiles broke out all around; I’d passed the test and I was swept through the shop to the wheel building “snug” to finalise matters. There I admired the rows of gleaming rims, odd one-off projects and the battered wood block used for years to pre-stress completed wheels. Finally my eye settled on the huge screw-topped clear-glass jar that was full of pickled eggs, positioned on a shelf, amongst the rims. I really must ask about that next time….

      • In our new René Herse book, you will read that almost nobody at the shop was allowed into the workshop in the back. Lyli Herse’s German shepherd took care of that! Like so many of that generation, René Herse could be somewhat cool when he first met somebody, but his long-time riders told me that he was a truly generous and warm-hearted person. So much so that his wife had to keep him in check, otherwise, the shop might not have survived the difficult years of the 1950s and 1960s.

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