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, with it's original owner, it was enamelled black in the 1970s and fitted with top of the range all French components 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.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

1952 Rudge Ulster Tourist

I spotted this bike for sale on the web locally. The machine appeared complete and original from the photos. I watched it for a few days before deciding to check if it was still for sale, before arranging a viewing of the bike. A quick phone call to the seller and the bike was still unsold. A leisurely drive in the autumn sunshine to view the bike and the deal was done. The bike was loaded into the back of the car and returned home with me. I have hankered after one of these Rudge 'Ulster' models for quite a while because of the association with this particular province of Ireland. Unfortunately the machine is too small for me, but I had a new owner in mind anyway. 
This machine is a 1952 Rudge Ulster Tourist Gent's roadster bicycle with a 21” frame, complete with tired original paint and transfers. 

It is fitted with an alloy Sturmey Archer FW 4 speed hub and 26 x 1 3/8” (650A) wheels.
The machine dates from when Raleigh owned Rudge and the headbadge still fitted on the head tube and the Raleigh 23-28 High Tensile steel tubing transfer confirms this.

According to the only 1950s Rudge catalogue on line in the V-CC library (1959), this particular machine was model 129. It had an entirely brazed frame with a brazed on pulley boss on the Gent's model only. 

The 1959 model had celluloid mudguards, but the 1952 has Raleigh pattern metal ones. 

The 1959 price for Rudge Ulster Tourist was £20. 4/-. 4d. with a further £2. 16/-. 4d payable for a Sturmey Archer dynohub . The frame was also Spra-Bonderized rust proofed. The paint finish was very similar with similar specification contrasting head panel colours and frame box lining This process was well regarded by cyclists of the time and in later years as one of the best available rust inhibiting processes. A lot of the artisan framebuilders such as Holdsworth and Bob Jackson used the process on their frames. The 1959 Rudge catalogue lists this model as having a Brooks leather saddle, however, the catalogue illustration shows the machine with a sprung type mattress saddle which the 1952 model has. The same image was obviously used in the catalogue for a number of years, despite the machine specification changing.
The chainring on the 1952 model incorporates the 'Red Hand of Ulster'. The machine is still very original down to the perished 'John Bull' tyre. The frame angles are more relaxed and the fork rake is much bigger than modern machines, but then many byways and minor roads were still to see tar in the early 1950s, It is a quality machine as evidenced by the more expensive alloy Sturmey Archer hub gear. The bicycle will need a complete strip down and new grease in all the bearings. Both of the original Dunlop pattern Endrick steel rims have acquired flats and from an assessment of the damage the rims will need replacement. Other than that, a good service and clean, this old Rudge should be ready for the road. Even the overhaul and service of the Sturmey Archer FW hub should present none of the problems associated with the FM or FC hubs. I hope the new owner is delighted with it. I'm looking forward to seeing it out on the road next year.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

In the Pink - the Grande Partenza

The autumn has well and truly arrived as the good weather during the month of September recedes into memory. It has been a record breaking month for dry weather here with only 5% of the expected monthly rainfall. It has been a year of contrasts with the weather changing from month to month. August was cold and wet and May started in a disappointing fashion. Dreary grey leaden skies and heavy showers greeted the Grande Partenza of the Giro d'Italia here in Northern Ireland from 9-11 May. Despite the disappointing weather the local support and enthusiasm for the start of one of three major European cycle races was something to witness. The local cycling fraternity sported special 'Giro' pink race jerseys. 

Pink bicycles appeared outside shops and local business premises, some councils like Newtownabbey near Belfast, repainted public art pink in honour of the race. The three days the race was in Northern Ireland was something of a cycling festival and the live TV coverage of the stages on the local TV network was every bit as special. 

I got to see something of the 196km Saturday 10th May 'Causeway Coastal Route' stage as it drew near to Belfast for the stage finish. I waited to see the result of the 4th category climb at 'the Bla'hole' between Whitehead and Eden on the live TV feed before making my way to the Shore Road. Despite the weather, the crowds packed the roadside of the route, a greater proportion sporting pink of the 'Maglia Rosa'. Patience and good humour was much in evidence with small children being perched on adult's shoulders to get a better view of the race. The tension began to build as the group of police motorcycle outriders appeared ahead of the race lead car. 

A short delay before the riders appeared and the excited shout of 'Here they come' as the lead group ahead of the peloton came into view and quickly flashed by. Anticipation built as the crowd strained to see the whereabouts of the chasing peloton, then the advancing bunch hove into view, intent on chasing down the breakaway. They were by in an instant with a flash of muted colour, rider's begrimed faces grim with determination and effort. The team cars and broom wagon quickly followed before the police started marshalling the crowd off the road to re-open it to normal traffic. Being swept along with the crowd, it took around 15 minutes to get back to where I was staying, just in time to see the close of the stage. The race leaders had got to Fortwilliam Park on the Shore Road. The route then turned right, up North Queen Street, Upper Library Street, Millfield to Belfast Tech College before turning left to finish in front of Belfast City Hall. The sprint finish was won by the German rider Marcel Kittel riding in his first Giro d'Italia, who would also feature later in the Tour de France. The weather was a little kinder the following day for stage three from Armagh to Dublin and the crowds were in no way diminished once the race route crossed into the Irish Republic. 

So what effect has the appearance of a major European 'tour' had in this part of the world? It has been interesting to see how many local businesses used the appearance of the race in their marketing, one bakery running a competition to win a carbon race bike with special packs of bread.  I had to suspend my cynicism and actually purchase a current cycling mag from the news stand, something I have not done for years.   It was curious to see how the British cycling media reacted to the race being here, as generally Northern Ireland rarely if ever gets a mention in the normal run of things. 'Cyclist' magazine ran a Giro d'Italia special issue and even sent a journalist on his first ever visit to Northern Ireland to ride some of the stage 2 route. 
Perhaps the photographs will encourage others to come and ride the route themselves? The hosting of the race was well done by the local organizers and the Italian race promoters seemed very pleased with the engagement and support they received from the local public. The only thing that couldn't be helped was the weather, but rain is a fact of life of riding a bike here in Ireland, along with a headwind. The Giro had both!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Public Art beside Lagan & Lough Cycleway

It has been some decades since I last cycled in Belfast. As a teenager I regularly cycled into Belfast to my summer job during the school holidays. Many things have changed, the heavy security presence has now thankfully been consigned to history, but many of the older once familiar buildings have been swept away, in the planner's vision for a brighter, more modern city. One of the new things that stand out as unfamiliar to me was the public art which is displayed either on cycle route NCN9/93 or close to it, as it traces it's course along the northern bank of Belfast Lough/River Lagan into Belfast.

The first piece of sculpture I came across by accident, when I cycled down towards the Harbour entrance from the direction of Fortwilliam roundabout. There is a large silver seahorse displayed on a plinth. 

The seahorse is represented on the city of Belfast's coat of arms and is a testament to Belfast's maritime role as a major Irish seaport, as well as a former centre of shipbuilding. Anyone familiar with the old Belfast Corporation trolleybuses/buses will remember the seahorse from the crest on the side of the vehicles. Belfast by the late 19th Century boasted three shipyards, with one, McIlwaine & Coll having closed by the turn of the 20th Century. The second to close was Workman Clark in 1935, with Harland & Wolff still surviving today as a ship repair and marine engineering business. Part of the former shipyard Harland & Wolff shipyard is now probably more famous for the production and filming of the TV series 'Game of Thrones'.

The next sculpture is also beside the Dock Street entrance to Belfast Harbour in Princes Dock Street. It is located at the side of the Harbour gate and represents the bow of a ship complete with a figurehead. 

It is easily missed and I have to say that I didn't notice it on my ride into Belfast. I only really noticed it on my ride back. Another interesting feature of Princes Dock Street is that there is also another tangible reminder of Belfast as a major port. There are still some of the harbour railway lines in the road surface. 

Many of the harbour roads also had rails, as much of the freight going in and out of the Harbour was moved by rail. These lines would have been originally worked by the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway on behalf of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Those on the other side of the River Lagan would have been worked by the Belfast & County Down Railway. Princes Dock Street leads down to a gateway giving access to Clarendon Dock.

At the back of the Clarendon Dock building and twin graving docks stands a large sculpture of a set of ship's dividers formerly used in navigation in the days of paper charts. The sculpture stands in square between the two entrance gates to the the old graving docks. 

The older buildings are cheek by jowl with new corporate development. This modern style of architecture in my humble opinion lacks any of the panache or architectural statement of the older Victorian buildings.

Beside the Lagan Weir and near the Custom House is the last and biggest sculpture along the cycle route into Belfast -  Belfast 'Bigfish'. This was the first piece of sculpture that I was aware of and has been there since 1999 and even has it's own Wikipedia entry! 

The most striking new sculptured building to appear in Belfast is the Titanic building on the south bank of the River Lagan. The building when viewed from certain angles is meant to represent the bow of the ill fated White Star liner RMS Titanic and is probably the best Titanic exhibition in the world and a fitting memorial in the city in which she was built and launched. 

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Taking your Bicycle by train

How easy it to take your randonneur or touring bicycle on a train? If the cycling press in Britain is to be believed, not that easy. You need a ticket for a non folding bike and even with that, space is limited and a ticket doesn't guarantee it will travel on the train you believe you are expecting to travel on. Train travel in Britain is very expensive when compared to other European countries.

France is very different. If you are travelling through Paris, there is no central railway station. You can check via the SNCF website before you go to France to get some idea of which Paris railway station you need to travel from. Train travel is cheap and the electric trains very efficient. Most of the Grand Lignes express style trains I travelled on did not stop for the first hour or so of their journey. The destination board at the platform ends will list the stops, so if the station you intend to travel to is listed, it will stop there. You will require a ticket for your bicycle, whether on the TGV, Grand Lignes or the local trains. There are limited places on the TGV trains, but so far I have not had a problem and that includes travelling on a French public holiday.

The local trains of the Nord-Pas de Calais have bicycle racks in one carriage in the multiple unit, very much like Translink in Northern Ireland. The carriage has a large bicycle icon on the outside, so it is easily seen. You are expected to move quickly onto the train as the trains are very punctual!

The local trains I travelled on in Nord-Pas de Calais were of the double deck carriage type, with the bicycle racks in one corner of the carriage. The bikes are suspended and hang by the front wheel. Again bicycle space is limited, but the service is frequent, so if no room on one train, there should be on the next one.

The TGV service south to Paris Gare du Nord from Valenciennes was the next service that I used. It was an ambition realised to travel by TGV and the fare was not much different to the standard Grand Lignes service. Bicycles are carried at one end of the train, with a luggage compartment in one of the driving ends. Each carriage and seat is numbered so your ticket is for a specific seat unlike the Intercity service. The bicycle space is limited in a TGV and your bicycle may have but the space is also shared with bulky luggage or children's buggies, etc. This will have an effect on how quickly you can disembark from the train, so bear this in mind if you are rushing to catch another service from either the Gare du Nord or any of the other Paris railway stations. The TGV service from Valenciennes runs on local lines to Arras and then runs on the high speed line to near Charles de Gaulle airport where it slows down and uses the existing rail network into the Gare du Nord.

I was catching another train from a different Paris railway station which required a cycle journey from the Rue de Dunkerque outside Paris Gare du Nord to the Gare St Lazaire. There is a cycle route using the bus lanes, but in my opinion requires some knowledge of the street layout between the two destinations. There is some signage but it is not as good as it could be, but again, it is a lot better than nothing. I had the biggest problem I had on the route was when I got to the Place d'Estienne d'Orves, where it crosses in front of the Eglise de la Trinite. There are a number of tourist buses which stop in front of the church and the road goes round the front of the church and then forks. The map I had was confusing, because it directed an immediate right turn on entry into the Place d'Estienne d'Ovres which is wrong and will take you onto Rue Blanche. You need to go round the front of the church and take the first left up the hill, (there was no street name visible at the end of the road), which is the Rue des Londres. From this junction you need the first road (as opposed to building entrances) to your left which should be the Rue d'Amsterdam which leads onto a tree lined square. There is a taxi rank along the side of the square and the entrance to Paris Gare St Lazaire is under a modern office block on the right hand side of the road. This is the best entrance to use as it is fairly level unlike the main entrance at the front of the station building which will require carrying your bicycle up flights of steps. The entrance from the Rue d'Amsterdam leads straight onto the station platform concourse.

I took the train to Cherbourg to catch the Rosslare Ferry. The first stop on the route was at Caen and we stopped at Carentan. There was a huge Stars and Stripes as well as the French Tricolour flying from the Hotel de Ville in Carentan ahead of the 70th anniversary D-Day commemoration. I will certainly return to explore the Cotentin Peninsular by bicycle at some stage. The railway station at Cherbourg is some distance from the ferry terminals. It is easily cycled but you will have to negotiate all the ferry traffic especially the heavy goods vehicles. If you don't have a ticket, one has to be purchased from the ferry office.

An overnight sailing got to Rosslare at 15.30 in the afternoon. I disembarked with the vehicular traffic and had a friendly greeting from the Gardai before exiting the ferry terminal. The railway station is now located outside the port boundary. There is a limited train service from Rosslare northwards to Dublin and the service is often delayed by the suburban Dublin Dart trains enroute to Dublin Connolly station.

I was able to make the connection with the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise and got the last 20:50 service north. Rail fares like France are very reasonable, E27.30 to Dublin Connolly , and £50.85 first class on the Enterprise Express with a bicycle. The railway staff in Ireland were as friendly and helpful as their French counterparts. An onward ride home from the railway station In Belfast to my overnight accommodation was problem free using the dynamo lighting before travelling home the next day. I will do it again soon.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Visit to Le Quesnoy, Nord - Pas de Calais

2014 has marked a significant change in my life, hence the absence of entries on the blog since February. Cycling has had to take much more of a back seat than I would like, due to these altered circumstances, but hopefully as things change there will be much more opportunity to use the bicycle. 

 One of the highlights of the year so far for me, was a trip to France at the end of April. I travelled via Paris and took the train from Gare du Nord to the Nord – Pas de Calais,Department. It was a pleasant journey through the countryside, but as the train neared the Belgian border, between St Quentin and Aulnoye-Aymeries a small British military cemetery was seen amongst the gently rolling arable fields. A stark reminder, if needed, of the terrible carnage of a century ago. I travelled to a town near the Belgian border, near to the Forêt de Mormal. The Forêt de Mormal offers some excellent off road cycling and is popular with the locals. After the kindness of a superbe lunch, a local dish of sausage and potatoes served with a fresh side salad, I was able to collect my bike and change into my cycling gear. Loading my handlebar bag (sacoche) with a present of two apples for the journey, I set off in the spring sunshine towards Le Quesnoy. The road was undulating, reminding me a little of County Down, but the fields were much larger and without the destinctive pattern of hedges found in that part of Ireland. The local houses, built of rustic red brick with pantile roofs and their painted wooden shutters, are un-mistakenly French. The trees were showing much more foliage than at home in Ireland and the dry soil and growing crops in the fields told their own tale, of a much drier winter . The temperature was much higher than I expected and I had to stop to peel off some of the clothing layers. I feel overdressed. 

On the road I am passed by some local cyclists out for a training run in their lycra club jerseys and carbon fibre machines. Each rider acknowledges me with a friendly 'Bonjour' as they pass by. It is in such marked contrast to the experience of riding my bike at home, where few if any speak, or acknowledge you, especially as I am riding a steel frame. I continue my leisurely journey towards the walled town of Le Quesnoy, as I want to visit the New Zealand War Memorial. I have been advised to purchase my train ticket at Le Quesnoy today for my onward journey to Paris in the morning, as this is a public holiday in France and most places will be closed. I reach the edge of the town of Le Quesnoy and take a wrong turn. This route brings me round the town on a ring road to a roundabout. I am finding riding on the right counter-intuitive, but of necessity quickly adjust. A right turn into the town brings my first experience of 'pavé' for which the region is famous. Even 650B tyres cannot iron out the effect of the cobbles completely, but thankfully the road surface is dry and even the steeper camber of the road surface is manageable as I am forced to the side of the narrow road by passing cars. I cycle through one of the ancient town gateways, through the walls fortified by Vauban in the 17th Century. This is contested ground and has been fought over for centuries. I enquire in the tourist information office for directions to the New Zealand War Memorial and about accommodation for the night. After sorting out where to stay, I ventured up onto the walls of the town and follow the path which will take me to the war memorial. 

The afternoon sun is warm and a family with two young children are on the path ahead. The joyfull, excited shouts of the children bounce off the towering brick and earthen walls of the old town, breaking the late afternoon stillness. I cycle leisurely towards my destination. 

I find there is a low narrow passageway from the gravel path through the walls up to the viewing area overlooking the memorial. I have obviously taken the wrong route, but the passageway is wide enough for the bicycle, and I have to adjust, by stooping down to pass through. The passage emerged onto a small square which overlooks the New Zealand War Memorial. The memorial is fixed to the town walls on the opposite side of the moat from the viewing area. 

There a number of floral tributes in front of the memorial. One bouquet, of exotic flowers and foliage, particularly marks the sacrifice and commemoration of the loss of life of their sons in 1918 in a far way country. The town was recaptured from the Germans on 4th November 1918 without a single civilian loss of life. The New Zealanders were not so fortunate, but they opened up the Sambre Gap in November 1918 to allow the allied armies into Belgium and Germany and force an armistice. In this foreign field they are still not forgotten. I linger awhile with my thoughts, before quietly taking my leave. 

Lest we forget. I'm glad I made the effort to visit.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Ideale Saddles

Ideale saddles were a brand of leather saddles made by Tron et Berthet from Pont Saint Pierre, Eure Department, Haute-Normandie, France. Tron et Berthet sourced their leather from two suppliers in France, one in the north of the country and one in the south. The leather for the best saddles had to be a certain thickness, too thin and the saddle top would stretch and sag, too thick and the leather fibres would break as the top was formed causing failure of the saddle. Even when cutting up the hide, knowledge was needed as to which parts of the hide were to be used for the best saddles, the rest of the hide being used for children's saddles. Tron et Berthet under Marcel Berthet, had started their Ideale saddle production in the 1930s and had an association with the Dunlop Company of Fort Dunlop, Birmingham before the outbreak of the Second World War. Tron and Berthet had sourced some of their machinery from England, which would later cause problems, as it was calibrated in imperial dimensions (inches) and of course, France was metric, which required time consuming conversion.

Changing patterns in agriculture after the Second World War was to have an impact on Ideale, as cattle breeds were changed to facilitate greater food production. The newer breeds did not produce the type of leather Ideale required and made sourcing the required leather much more difficult and expensive for the company. The changing fashion, within cycling, from the 1960s onwards, for Italian plastic saddles like Unica-Nitor, would also have long term impact. As the fashion amongst cyclists changed from a purely leather saddle, in favour of leather covered padded saddles over a plastic base, (Cinelli, Concor, Milremo, Rolls) meant in reality, many cyclists were not prepared to invest time and discomfort in breaking in a leather saddle to achieve a comfortable seat. So Ideale's market share for bicycle saddles began to decline, as their top of the range saddles were leather, in addition to the other difficulties.  Ideale also had VAR Tools produce a saddle adjustment spanner which would fit both Ideale and Brooks.   
Unlike the English made Brooks saddles, Ideale leather saddles were waterproof, so didn't absorb rain water and sag if they got wet. Ideale had developed their own secret process which allowed the leather to be waterproofed in the saddle manufacturing process. Ideale also experimented with different materials for their saddle frames. Initially they used steel, which on some models was chrome plated. Chrome plating became harder to have done towards the end of production, as changing health and safety regulations forced many platers to close.  Tron et Berthet also experimented with alloy and produced saddles (Model 90R Competition) with an alloy frame. Towards the end of production in the 1970s Ideale made saddles with Titanium frames and seatposts. Special saddles were produced on occasion, an example of which I saw with the leather top drilled full of holes for lightness much like the fashion for drilled components used by time trialists in the 1970s. 

Ideale did produce a copy of the Brooks B17 saddle (Model 80 Record)) which sold well. They also developed the Daniel Rebour branded Model 92 'Diagonale' and Model 88 Competition.

The Berthet family sold the business to another company which wanted to modernise the business and mass produce the leather saddles. In reality, the new owners had little appreciation that the leather had to be hand worked. Their attempts at mechanisation failed and the company went bust approximately six months after the new owners took over. A sad end for an iconic brand. Ideale saddles are well regarded by collectors and were the saddle of choice of many French 'constructeurs'. Ideale saddles in good condition are now beginning to command high prices on French ebay.
Ideale saddles was one of the lines that Ron Kitching imported and sold from his Harrogate cycle parts business. They were considered expensive by many in the 1970s and I don't have any recollection of any local clubmen from that time using an Ideale saddle in this part of Ireland.