In this long overdue -and next to last- installment of the FBQ, we head to the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, and home to Bilenky Cycle Works.
BCW was founded in 1992 by namesake Stephen Bilenky and he, along with a crew of dedicated family & friends [notably: Simon Firth] working under the Bilenky shingle: have been turning out everything and nearly anything from one-off ridable eye jewelry to absolutely practical two-wheeled steeds that help humans get things done. This guy, in my estimate, is a true innovator.
Stephen Bilenky in his own words...
1. How old are you?
In bike years?... In solar years - 54
2. Where were you born?
3. What's your earliest memory of a bicycle or something bicycle related?
It was the excruciating wait for my first 2–wheeler – a red, 20”, AMF convertible – the top tube could be angled down to create a step through frame. It was too large for me to stand over, so my father removed the bar, but I didn’t want to ride a “girls” bike.
4. What was your first cycle?
The AMF was first, followed by a gold 3-speed "Imitation Racer", with Shimano hubs and shifter. My cousin’s red roadster had “Made in England” right on the top tube and a Sturmey Archer transmission. It took me 20 years to overcome my quality perception of this bike and accept Shimano as a producer of quality parts.
5. How about first "high end" cycle?
My first 10 speed was a repainted French bike sporting Huret derailleurs and mis-matched, wing-nut mounted wheels. An old, white Raleigh Professional with triplex gears and Weinman brakes followed.
I worked at a neighborhood Schwinn dealer and ordered a Campy Nuovo Record headset ($8.80 wholesale) from the Schwinn Approved Parts catalog. The box and instruction sheet, plus each cup, bearing and locknut with their beautiful Campy engraving received admiration and scrutiny. I began to create the bike of my dreams: I stripped the frame, and painted it silver with dark blue seat tube panel and bands. This was my defining moment: a genuine Italian part installed in a Reynolds 531 frameset that I had repainted. The transformation continued until every component was Campy, except for the brakes. Lacking “all Campy” status caused component envy: after-school hang-outs were an opportunity to wistfully apply the Campy sidepull brakes of my friend’s pro road bike in all their smooth, solid glory. Upon releasing they “snapped”- announcing “the ultimate” existed.
I sold the Raleigh to buy a full Campy, Hill Cycle 12 speed road bike in silver and blue (albeit a bit too large and long for my 5’- 3 ¾” stature). I was determined to find the perfect bike; for me and for anyone else who would engage my services.
6. Did (does) your family (parents, siblings, etc) ride also?
My sister had a Columbia 3 Star Deluxe, balloon tire bike – but I only know it from pictures in the family album. My son and one of my daughters have become riders in the last few years and we have been doing day rides and short tours.
7. Did you like to tinker with bikes back then?
My tinkering career started with a percolator coffee pot (age 3). I sat on the floor taking it apart and re-assembling - this gave me confidence to dis-assemble Sturmey hubs in my garage a few years later. My play time was consumed building and modifying model cars, trains, tree houses and bikes. At 9, I developed a technique to center a coaster brake wheel and get optimum chain tension – the key was using my chin as a third hand. I started a bike repair shop in my garage at age 10 – an expansion of my already going comic book and penny candy store. I did all the bike repairs in a 3 block radius. I realized I was a mechanical entrepreneur.
8. Did you ever work in a bike shop... if so, where/how long?
Mostly, I worked in bike shops. It became my career path into framebuilding – building your own frames is a bike shop owner’s PhD. My start was at Supreme Cycles, Philadelphia in 1965 – I worked and managed that shop in between school until 1977. I also worked as a bike mechanic in State College, Pa. while attending Penn State University (graduated in 1975).
I opened a repair-only shop (Bike Doctor – Phila., Pa.) in 1977 which I transformed into a boutique shop in 1982. Sterling Cycles was the bike brand launched in1983. The name was changed to Bilenky Cycle Works in 1992.
9. Have you ever done any organized racing?
I did USCF racing from 1976 to 1980; I wasn’t powerful or aggressive enough for criterium racing.
10. How about cyclo-touring?
This was my passion: I toured every summer from 1970 to 1980; my longest tour was approximately 1300 miles from Phila. to Montreal, and then thru New Brunswick to Kent, Maine.
11. What job(s) did you have before frame building and also- do you have any other job currently besides frame building?
I did some landscaping and restaurant work. Bike building is my full time profession now (although I do play in an instrumental rock band – The Notekillers).
12. When did you start building?
I started doing braze-ons and repairs for Bike Doctor customers. I also started frame painting in 1983.
13. Who would you say is your greatest influence in designing & frame building?
Dave Moulton, Tom Kellogg, and Jack Trumball. Bob Jackson was my career role model.
14. Did you apprentice... if so, with who?
A short time with English builder, Jim Gittins. He taught me how to brass braze lugs.
15. What's your idea of the "perfect cycle" regardless if you built it or not?
Selecting from all the bikes that have won my heart is very difficult. I’ll single out an orange and blue Hill Cycle (built by Holdsworth) with drilled out chainrings and derailleurs, fluted seatpost and brake calipers, Cinelli buffalo saddle, Cinelli 1A bar and stem, and Campy bar-con shifters.
16. Shooting a guess... how many frames would you say you've built?
About 800 (a large percentage being tandems); now that we are a “larger” workshop, I’m mostly involved in the selling, designing and fillet brazing of BCW’s current production. That’s approximately another 1000 since 1995.
17. Any cycles out there that you secretly wished, "Darn, I wish I'd built that!"?
The Major Taylor by Ant Cycles and any of the steel bikes that won prizes at NAHBS 2007.
18. Your idea of the perfect client?
They know what they want and what they choose works well, but they also want a creative surprise in the frame build. When they see it and ride it they are ecstatic.
19. What defines a nightmare client in your experience?
Someone who keeps changing the specs and re-visiting the design decisions 2 - 3 times per week until the bike is built, then is upset when some aspect of the final product doesn’t match something we had decided.
20. Any words of advice to up & coming frame builders?
Get experienced with the style of frame(s) you are trying to build before you start selling them. Deliver on time and consider the enterprise as a business (unless you know it’s just going to be a hobby). Be organized, stay out of trouble and answer any interview questionnaires ASAP. [**Ed. Note: I sent Stephen this questionnaire 3 years ago - and he sent it back, completed, 3 weeks ago ;-) **] Be gracious to those who help you along the way. Love thy customer as yourself.
21. What do you find most funny or peculiar (in a kind way-not brutal) about the cycle-buying public... what don't they get or aren't they seeing?
They will spend a lot of time selecting things to be just right in terms of practicality, performance and price, but will make a large compromise in their criteria in order to get the right brand, color or shape.
22. What do you think of mass-produced bikes (without naming names)?
It’s amazing how much performance and value you can get for a modest price.
23. What cycle don't you have anymore that you wished you did?
A 1970 Gitane Tour de France.
24. What cycle do you currently ride most, even if it wasn't built by you?
An early 70’s Jim Redcay.
25. When did you last ride your bike and for how far?
On the weekend of March 29th; about 35 miles up Route 99 from Whistler, British Columbia.
26. What's your idea of the perfect ride?
Riding, getting tired and hungry, then eating some great food.
27. Could you ever see yourself being Car Free... just using mass-transportation and your bike to get around?
I’ve done that at many times in my career, since I didn’t have enough money to repair the car that had just died. In running a business it’s hard not to use someone’s car / truck to get something moved around, but I could see taking part in a car share program for the small amount of times I do need a car.
28. Why do you think so many folks have romanticized bicycles & bicycling?
Bikes help us achieve practical goals and become like well worn instruments. They are like teachers which challenge and test us. They can transform our body and heal our mental state. In essence they are a partner, and like other partners we romanticize them as they are and as we would like them to be. We find and define ourselves through our machine and our adventures with them.
29. Any (other) passions or hobbies in your life?
Gardening, music, natural sciences, and drinking tea.
30. If you could say one thing to Lance Armstrong what would it be?
What’s it feel like to do the impossible?
31. In a pinch... McDonald's or Burger King?
McDonald's in the UK; they use vegan friendly oil to make their chips (fries).
32. What kind of shampoo did you last use?
33. Favorite libation: wine, beer or fire water?
34. Even though there seems to be a real tradition to it-what do you think of folks who spend more time setting up their cycle with just the right color saddle, bar tape, bags, hoods, etc than actually riding or at least commenting on the ride?
The people I know who find this important also find it important to actually ride their bike, so I’m agasp.
35. Did you go to college... if so, what was your major?
36. Your favorite music while working (if any)?
37. If you had it to do all over again... would you be building cycles?
Well if I wasn’t a bike builder, I’d be a musician or a farmer, so I don’t think I would be any more mainstream than my current lifestyle.
38. What's your favorite lunch food during a work day in the shop?
39. When it's all said & done-what kind of legacy will you hope to have left behind?
That we made some great bikes and ran a first class business that people liked to deal with and work for (besides being an innovator of the mountain bike, city bike, and travel tandem).
40. How can folks get in touch with you to order a custom cycle?
Thanks for taking the time to read my interview responses and thanks to Scott for providing the opportunity to present some of my thoughts.
You can contact me at:
5319 N. 2nd St.