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Sep 10, 2008

Bilenky Cycle Works of Philadelphia rides a custom-bike building boom driven by discriminating buyers and sky-high gas prices.

By Matthew Card

While much of the booming bicycle market is dominated by a handful of mega corporations re-badging Asian-built bikes made from exotic, high-tech materials, a rising number of American builders are turning out bespoke steel bikes for a discerning clientele. These customers are looking for the meticulous fit unavailable in an off-the-rack frame, a high degree of personalization and the artistry of fine metalwork.
With more than 25 years of frame-building experience, Stephen Bilenky, the owner, designer and frame builder of Bilenky Cycle Works, is a respected and successful elder in the field. With his grizzled beard and stained cycling cap, he doesn’t look much like his typically toned and tanned colleagues—more Baggins than Armstrong, though he commutes daily, tours annually and produces some of the best and most interesting bicycles in the world.
Most frame builders come to the field from within the industry or because of an abiding love for the mechanics and aesthetics of the bicycle, and Bilenky is no different. From doing curbside fixes for neighborhood friends as a boy, Bilenky graduated to a small repair shop, Bike Doctor, in downtown Philadelphia. “Cupid’s spoke hit me when I was young and impressionable,” he remembers. As a kid, “we lived on our bikes…and I loved to tinker. My mom has a picture of me around age three taking apart a coffee percolator on the kitchen floor.”
Later, as an agriculture-business major at Penn State, he learned basic metalworking. His love affair with frame building began in 1982, when he started up Sterling Cycles with British builder Jim Gittins. Ten years later, Bilenky hung out his own shingle. Since then, Bilenky Cycle Works (BCW) has grown to eight employees (including his daughter, Bina) and now produces more than 100 frames a year.

Go inside the shop with some of the builders on Bilenky’s team in our short documentary video.

The BCW workshop is tucked into a marginal neighborhood of Northern Philadelphia, where an infamous annual race each fall ends with a keg party at the junkyard next door. His shop could be charitably called chaotic: all manner of antiquated mills, lathes, presses and jigs struggle for space amid piles of uncut tubing and countless bikes in varying states of dishabille.
Out of all this clutter comes a democracy of bicycles. Unlike most custom builders, who specialize in one or two models or styles, Bilenky builds just about anything with two wheels, from workhorse commuters and dependable touring bikes kitted out with all manner of racks, fenders and lights, to featherweight racers relieved of every excess gram, to stout tandems, including “viewpoints,” which positions the rearward rider in the classic upright position and the forward rider in a foot-forward recumbent seat.
“The mid-size frame shops of Britain were a big influence on my aesthetic sense and business model,” he says. “Their catalogs would have a full range of racing, touring, leisure, tandems and trikes. Plus, you could order them to your size, color and component choices. To me this was how you bought a bike. Also, every few years I would get into a different niche, and once I got though the learning curve of that market or technique I wasn’t eager to stop offering that model or method, so my cupboard always grew. Moving through the ’80s, ’90s and the current scene has left me with a large palette to work from.”
In response to skyrocketing oil prices, many of BCW’s current orders are for cargo bikes, designed to haul everything from groceries to children—essentially meant to replace a car. Long popular in the bike-centric Netherlands and Scandinavia cargo bikes have until now had limited appeal in the States outside of the courier set. (Hodari Palm, owner of New York City’s Checker Courier, is a Bilenky customer and has raced his cargo bike to medals in the Cycle Messenger World Championships.)

 

Check out other custom bike shops around the country in our sidebar. 


BCW’s prices range as broadly as its product list. An “Eco” model, which is still built entirely by hand, retails for about the same price as a mass-produced Taiwanese import, while a high-end “artisan” frame requiring weeks of effort could cost well into the thousands.
Bilenky currently delegates much of the frame fabrication to his staff via “gossipy gab with pinpointed work flow instruction,” and spends most of his time with sales, design and fittings.
But he still cannot resist picking up the torch for artisan models and frames that are fillet-brazed, a method of joining bicycle tubes together with molten brass or silver that requires steady nerves and a lot of experience. A perfect fillet is the ultimate bench test for a framebuilder.
Bilenky clearly revels in the fact that “the current hip world is discovering bikes” and that a “stream of creative and enthusiastic people want to put their hands into making bikes.” He also takes inspiration from the model of his children, who have taken up biking in a big way, and from “an 88-year-old guy I recently met in a train station who still rides.”
Finally, though, it comes down to what started him down this road. He loves the fact that “old bikes can look just as exciting as new bikes,” and that the allure of riding is just as timeless. It’s all about “being able to enjoy the scenery, wind and weather.” 

Suitable for Framing: Master framebuilder Stephen Bilenky tells FLYP about some of the standout models in his company’s line of bikes in our interactive slideshow.


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