Along for the Ride: Stephen Bilenky

story by Julie LorchIf, like me, you routinely lust after the beautiful bicycles populating our fair city, then chances are you’ve probably coveted one of Stephen Bilenky’s custom creations. My first encounter occurred last spring on a ride with Curtis Anthony, owner of Via Bicycles. We were taking a rest under the cherry blossoms along MLK Drive when an insane tandem rolled up. It was light teal and deep purple. Curtis pointed to the name—“Bilenky”—scrawled across the downtube and remarked, “Now, that is a nice bike.”
Last month, I headed to Bilenky HQ, a crowded shop on North 2nd Street exploding with machinery and bike parts. I learned about the process of fabricating a bicycle by hand. It begins with tube cutting and dimension planning. After assembling the tubing in a jig—either by welding or brazing—the builder adds bridges, gears, brakes and accessories. Then there is the grinding, filing and sanding of all the joints, plus machine frame interfaces for component mounting. The final step is an outrageous paint job, and Voila! A new bicycle, perfectly sized for its lucky rider. Bilenky’s builders turn out about 150 bikes a year.
Bilenky and I rode a 36-mile loop from Frenchtown, NJ, to Easton, PA. It was a quiet route along the Delaware, and we passed through several small towns rife with post-industrial character. My companion’s passion for touring at a relaxed pace stretched our ride well past the six-hour mark.
Bilenky espouses the values of the Slow Bicycle Movement, started in Copenhagen in 2008. It’s all about the joy of the ride—taking pleasure in self-propelled movement and soaking in the landscape around you. It’s also, of course, about good company; riding side by side for six hours really greases the derailleur of conversation.
Bilenky’s life of mechanical tinkering began at age three when he pulled apart a percolator. After that came sewing machines, model cars, trains and Sturmey hubs. At 10, he opened a bike repair shop in his parents’ garage. He worked in bike shops throughout high school and college, and opened his own frame shop in 1983, under the name Sterling Cycles. In 1992, he changed the name to Bilenky Cycle Works.
For Bilenky, bicycles are both a perfect machine and a trusted confidant. “Bikes help us achieve practical goals and become like well-worn instruments,” he says. “They are like teachers who challenge and test us. In essence, they are a partner, and like other partners we romanticize them as they are and as we would like them to be.” He pauses. “We find and define ourselves through our machines and our adventures with them.”
Right now there’s a six- to 12-month wait for a Bilenky, and I have a jar of change sitting on my kitchen table. ?

Bilenky Cycle Works, 5319 N. 2nd St., bilenky.com

Julie Lorch is a student and bike enthusiast; she’s currently hard at work on "Where to Bike: Philadelphia", an upcoming print guide to cycling in the city.