Built to Suit

Stephen Bilenky works on a bike at his shop Bilenky Cycle Works. | Photo courtesy Bilenky Cycle Works

Custom bike building sees a resurgence in Philadelphia

While all bikes are good, some are extra special. At Firth & Wilson, the Spring Garden bike shop Simon Firth co-owns with David Wilson, the two will happily fix a flat, adjust a derailleur or upgrade a set of handlebars. Under the name Hanford Cycles, Firth also builds custom bikes, and is one member of a growing community of craftspeople doing so here in Philadelphia.

Custom bike-building, like fitting a suit, begins with a person and a specific set of measurements. While standard bikes are built to bear the weight of the heaviest potential person the manufacturer anticipates will ride them, Mark Weaver, of Weaver Cycles in Collingswood, New Jersey, says that he, and other bike builders, take into consideration a person’s height and weight, as well as the length of their torso, arms and inseam to determine frame shape and size, and the gauge of the tubing for the frame, whether it be steel, aluminum or titanium. Some materials are lighter, some heavier, but just as a suit can be made of wool or linen, “it’s all about the fit,” according to Weaver.

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Type Does Matter: What bike is right for you?

What type of bike is right for you? Here's some choices...

ROAD: Sleek and streamlined, the road bike is built for speed and maneuverability. You can spot them by their frame’s thin poles and even thinner tires, which make them very light. Many local cyclists modify their road bikes into fixed gears, trading in their extra gears for extra speed and control (and hipness). Favored by the kids, bike messengers, speed enthusiasts and professional riders.

  • Pros: Fast, and can be modified to go faster or travel long distance. Look like they can go fast. Dodge through traffic like a butterfly.
  • Cons: Higher maintenance. Thinner tires mean more flats. Extra speed can go to your head.


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Bike safely on Philly’s streets


illustration by J. P. Flexner

Contrary to what most medieval scholars thought (four humors? c’mon, guys), the brain is where all that “you” stuff happens, and keeping its little house intact and not cracked is important when navigating streets full of steel, plastic and rubber death machines. So wear a helmet. Yes, they look kinda dorky but until personal force fields are available, this is the best way to protect your head. Make sure the helmet fits over your whole head, doesn’t have any previous cracks and the straps are snug.

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Street Law: Stuart Leon fights for Philly’s cyclists in court


photos by Shawn Corrigan

Jude still can’t recall the accident. One moment he was on his bike at the intersection of Broad and Spring Garden, waiting for the light to change. The next, he was waking up in a hospital bed with a broken leg, two broken ribs, a shattered shoulder, about eight head staples and a bill of $360,000.

The driver, who’d sped through a red light, left Jude for dead and abandoned the car less than a mile from the scene. There were no police charges and no locatable witness, and Jude didn’t have health insurance. Luckily, he did have the name of Stuart Leon.

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Off the Rack: Bike rack competition seeks designs that blend art and functionality

As the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities gears up to introduce its new bike share program to Philadelphia, their colleagues in the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy are coming up with artistic solutions to deal with the resultant increase of bicycles. In conjunction with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the city recently launched a competition for artists and designers to create bike racks that will double as public sculptures.

David Byrne's "The Ladies Mile," on 5th Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets, in front of Bergdorf Goodman“We’re really trying to succeed on both fronts,” says Gary Steuer, Philly’s chief cultural officer. “We want these to be functional as bike racks, but also to be beautiful and engaging and interesting as art.”

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Big Wheels: Design Logic’s workhorse Phat Bikes are for more than just work

For Lance Portnoff, research and development doesn’t happen in a laboratory or a tech facility. The Fairmount-based bike designer prefers to do his research on two wheels, pushing himself against his closest competitors.

In 2010, he entered the Motor Assisted Bike Death Race in Tucson, Arizona on a cargo bike he had designed himself. He placed ninth out of 50 contestants in the race, and further developed that prototype using what he’d learned during the race. Soon after, Portnoff earned a patent for the design of his retooled bike, which was shortened, stiffened, braced and tuned from the racing prototype. He christened the bike “Da-Bomb,” and it served as the foundation of his new company, Design Logic. “Racing, you learn what works and what doesn’t, what breaks and what holds up,” Portnoff says. “It’s a starting point to figure out what’s going to eventually work in the real world.”

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It’s a Bike World After All: Philadelphia joins more than 500 cities around the world with bike share programs

The first bike share program in the world was the White Bicycle Plan, the brainchild of the Dutch anarchist group Provo. White-painted bicycles were placed at locations around Amsterdam in 1965, intended to be used for a single trip and left behind for others to use. Within a month, the bikes were gone, either stolen or chucked into the city’s canals.

Other free bike systems were tried in France and the U.K. over the next few decades, with varying degrees of success. The first important “second-generation” bike system was implemented in 1995 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The city’s ByCyklen program, which continues today, required a refundable deposit to unlock its bikes from their stations.

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Vicious Cycles: “Share the Road” begins at home

illustration by Steve StreisguthLet’s face it: bicyclists are better than everyone else. 
No carbon emissions —  unless you’ve just had a particularly nasty slice of pizza. No gas pumps. We keep the trouser clip industry alive. You can practically hear the crank and chain and hub and wheels going sustain-ability, sustain-ability as you pedal along.

I’ve been riding my bike around Philadelphia for years now, just about every day that it hasn’t been monsooning or snowing (remember snow?). And as the city’s cycling culture continues to grow — more bike lanes, more bike racks, more bike shops, more Share the Road signage, more cab drivers shaking their raging fists — it feels good to be part of a community. There are times when you’re moving along Pine Street in Center City, on Walnut in University City, across Spring Garden, all around town, when you find yourself in a virtual peloton of fellow commuters, café-goers, students, medical residents and nurses still in their scrubs and clogs, moms and dads with kids on bike seats or perched on those wobbly trailers, restaurant workers — everybody doing their bit to help the environment, keep their bodies fit, save money and get to where they’re going quickly, neatly, on a beautiful brainstorm of an invention. Two wheels, a frame, handlebars, a seat — genius!

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Art on Wheels: New bike map provides tour of Philly public art

The Lion Fighter | Image via museumwithoutwallsaudio.orgIf you’ve lived in Philadelphia for more than a month, you’ve likely already posed triumphantly next to the Rocky statue. But what about The Lion Fighter sculpture just a stone’s throw away on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum? Or any of the dozens of other outdoor masterpieces sprinkled throughout Philly? Well, here's your chance. Get to know all 38 outdoor works of art with Fairmount Park Art Association’s (FPAA) new interactive bike map.

The map features a four and 10-mile loop, with the longer trail beginning at the Philadelphia Art Museum, moving north on Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River, and then heading back near the museum through West Fairmount Park. FPAA will bring the map to life on Saturday, April 14 and Sunday, April 29 with free bike tours of either loop. The tours, intended for urban cyclists with experience riding alongside traffic, will provide information on 18th and 19th century works from the Iroquois sculpture at 24th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to The Wrestlers at the Horticulture Center. Unfortunately, registration for both the four and 10-mile rides are currently full, but you can join a waiting list by emailing cmartin@fpaa.org.

If you can’t make it for the official tours, roll on through at your own convenience by downloading the map here. Accompany your tour with detailed descriptions of the featured art from the audio program Museum Without Walls. The program allows you to hear recordings of the artwork descriptions from your phone or mp3 player to introduce you to lesser known statues and enrich your understanding of old favorites. So go ahead and visit the Rocky statue again; the accompany audio track begins with the film’s theme song, so you won’t have to hum it as you pose for a picture this time.

Connecting the Dots: Expanding lanes and trails is part of a grand design.

“How can we all coexist on these very skinny streets?” asks Rina Cutler, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for transportation and utilities. “We don’t have room to add more, so we have to make better use of the streets. For me, it’s less about biking, [and more about] creating complete streets and giving people choices.”

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Along for the Ride: Via Bicycles' Curtis Anthony

Julie Lorch pedals along with notable members of Philly’s bicycle community on a route of their choice. They ride, they chat, she reports back.

Nice ride!” shouts a dude on a bike. “Awesome!” yells another. In 2010, a high wheel bicycle is a strange sight in Center City. But in 1886, the year that Curtis Anthony’s prized Victor was built, the high wheel represented state-of-the-art bicycle engineering.

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Bikes: Along for the Ride with Andy Dyson

In a new column, Julie Lorch pedals along with notable members of Philly's bicycle community on a route of their choice. They ride, they chat, she reports back.

I met Andy Dyson at St. Mary’s Church, Neighborhood Bike Works’ (NBW)  headquarters at 3916 Locust Walk. Director of the organization since 2002, Dyson spends his days surrounded by broken bikes and people who want to fix them.

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