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Stephen Bilenky Interview

Outside Bilenky Cycle Works

Sometimes you find beautiful things where you least expect them. On a warm fall Saturday, I took a 10 mile ride from University City to North Philly looking for a shop. I turned down a dead-end street and I had no idea if I found my destination. It wasn’t until I saw a doorway tucked back at the end of the building with “Bilenky 5319” painted in red next to it that I knew I found what I was looking for.

I recently had a chance to meet with the owner and builder of Bilenky Cycle Works, Stephen Bilenky. Bilenky makes steel bikes of all shapes and sizes. They aren’t just bikes though. Some are tools, some are works of art. While Bilenky makes road, touring, mountain, and city frames, they are also well-known for their tandem and utility bikes.

Once you decide on what style of bike you want, you also need to think about the level of build. Frames can be your choice of one of their “stock” builds, or as custom as you want. For the Eco level bikes, you are limited to 10 stock color choices, stock sizes, and a TIG welded frame. When you step up to the Deluxe series, options increase. You get your choice of a TIG, lugged, or fillet frame construction, custom sizing, and 120 color choices. Signature series bikes come in lugged or fillet frames, custom sizing and geometry, custom paint in your choice of solid or 2 colors, custom decal color, premium tubing, and a custom fork. This is also the level where custom metal work becomes an option. For a truly custom bike, the Artisan series bike will be your choice. This “sculpture-in-motion” means it will be a one-of-a-kind bike. Think heirloom. The frame is built to your specs, whether it is TIG, lugged or fillet construction, size and geometry is custom, paint is top level in whatever paint scheme you can dream of, decal colors are custom, tubing is individually selected to meet your needs, and personal metal work is included. All bikes, regardless of the level of build, can be built with S&S couplers, and include an airline approved travel case. This means you can take your bike with you when you travel, without having to pay for more than a standard bag. Take that airlines!

When I arrived, I was greeted by Stephen. While his full beard is truly distinctive, it doesn’t hide his smile when talking about bikes. Knowing I was going to see a builder of quality steel bikes, I knew I couldn’t ride my usual carbon road bike. Instead, I brought my 1989 Raleigh Technium PRE, with a hodge-podge of parts. To my surprise, one of the first things we talked about was my bike. I felt honored Bilenky was interested in a bike I thought was fairly run-of-the-mill. It was a proud moment for me.

Work station in the shop

My first impression of the shop is exactly what I thought it would be:  full of character. The open work space sits inside of a brick structure, with work stations along the walls, and various tools of the trade, all in just the right spot, even if they don’t appear to be. Bikes hang from the ceiling in a range of stages of completion, anywhere from a bare frame where you could see their masterful welds, to painted works of art.  Don’t expect a retail space though. This shop is all about the business of building frames.

After chatting briefly, it was time to learn more about Stephen and Bilenky Cycle Works. While he has enjoyed bicycles all his life, he has been building since 1984. He started learning metal fabrication in shop classes in high school and college, with some additional vocational classes after college. In his early shop days, he performed the usual bike repairs, but his passion was saving damaged frames from being needlessly discarded. Adding braze-ons and custom modifications were the next step. From there, it was just a matter of time before he started building frames. For almost 30 years, Bilenky has worked at his trade, adding members to his crew from all across the country, and building the reputation as a quality builder.

Some companies grow and offer stock bikes. While Bilenky has some items he considers “stock” units, he is always working on something new. It could be a new frame design for a tandem or utility bike, or working with new types of steel to create a more comfortable and responsive frame. During my visit, he showed me a few bikes, including titanium frames and a new stainless steel road frame set up to be used with a Gates belt drive and internally geared hub. While he doesn’t use carbon often, he has used it on rear stays in the past.

Parts catalog at a wok station

Bilenky doesn’t chase after all of the trendy new standards, but he is not stuck in the rut of old technologies either. An example would be the 1 1/2” steerer tubes they have been using on their 29’ers as of late. He believes bikes should last for decades, not years. That’s why Bilenky uses quality materials, matched with masterful construction, and believes in using standards that will be available for years to come. What good is a frame if you can’t get parts for?

When asked about his favorite bike, it was hard to narrow it down to just one. There are a few every year that catch his eye. For him, it is all about the right proportions, and the right paint. As he thought though, there was on bike from back in college, a yellow and chrome Bob Jackson. It had a short wheelbase, perfect for criteriums, and was small enough to fit his short stature. As he told me more about the bike, you could see the passion in his eyes, as he described the bike as being “electric!” The bike he created for Shelly Horton, wife of Brett Horton of the famed Horton Collection, was another top creation. It was a challenging project, due to coordinating with the Horton’s vendors on the build, a short timeline, and working with a customer that is one of the top collectors in the world. The end result was nothing short of perfect. The maroon mixtie frame, adorned with a vintage 1930’s chain guard supplied by Horton, custom panniers, and wooden rimmed wheels, was a hit at the 2011 North American Handmade Bicycle Show.

Bilenky Cycle Works isn’t just about bikes though. It was at a bike show that he found a new project. When you look at the major bike shows in the US, Interbike and the North American Handmade Bicycle show, they have something in common. No, it’s not the bikes we lust after. Neither of them are on the east coast. In the past, Bilenky attended a bike show in New York City, similar to NAHBS. After going to past Interbike shows, he decided to bring a show to Philly.

Part of the Bilenky display at the 2011 Philly Bike Expo

His daughter, Bina, was working in the shop while attending school, and was able to help out in planning the event. They needed something unique to stand out in the crowd. Instead of focusing on the major brands, or the exclusive hand builders, they brought together a group of exhibitors to highlight the diversity of cycling culture. Hand builders, clothing manufactures, component companies, and bicycle activists came together for the 1st annual Philadelphia Bike Expo in 2010. After a successful first year, they were back for second, adding a fashion show and seminars on an array of topics. Companies like Reynolds, Fizik, Brooks, Watson Cycles, Rapha, Primal Wear, Road Holland, Rich Adams Bikes, Alloneword, R.E.Load Bags, and Bilenky Cycle Works highlighted a show whose motto is “Artisan, Activists, Alternatives.” The Bilenky’s aren’t planning on settling for status quo. Stephen hopes to be able to expand the show to include a week long schedule of events to bring together community leaders of all levels to help promote a cycling lifestyle in communities.

In a world of ultra light carbon bikes, Bilenky Cycle Works continues to provide cyclists with innovative works of steel art. Their utility bikes and tandems continue to win awards, while the timeless builds of their street and dirt machines continue to be ridden after decades of use. Don’t forget the S&S couplers so you can take your bike with you to see the world as Bilenky hopes you will, one pedal stroke at a time.

www.bilenky.com

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