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By Michael Kleiner
Famous companies that got started in garages: Amazon. Apple. Google. Harley-Davidson. Bilenky Cycle Works. Bilenky is not the mega company the others on the list are, but it, too, had humble origins and is now a premier custom bike and frame builder, who has received a Best of Philly Magazine honor and an international reputation.
As a pre-teen more than 50 years ago, Stephen Bilenky ran a diversified business – penny candy and bike repairs for neighbors -- out of the family garage in Northeast Philadelphia. “I was a mechanical entrepreneur from early on,” he says.
At 13, he was hired at Supreme Cycles on Castor Avenue in Oxford Circle.
“I assembled Schwinn bicycles, particularly the Schwinn Sting Rays, which were popular at the time,” he said. “They weighed almost as much as I did- close to 50 pounds. And I had to carry them up the stairs after I put them together.”
He worked at Supreme until he was 19, when he went to Penn State. He worked in a bike shop in State College, running it solo in the winter when the owner went to warmer climes. He studied agricultural engineering. The connection between fixing and making bikes and agricultural engineering is not as far a reach as one might think. Students were required to take a farm shop practices course, which met daily for three periods. It also exposed him to ideas of sustainability years before it was popular.
“They taught all the various trades involved in maintaining a running farm and its equipment,” said Stephen. “That meant wood, sheet metal, machine shops, welding brazing, painting. That was one of my first introductions to metal manufacturing, fabrication, finishing, and painting.”
A few years after graduation, he opened a bike repair shop in the basement of his father’s beauty salon. In 1982, he opened up a full-size store, The Bike Doctor. He used the lessons learned from the owner of Supreme Cycle, who believed no bike was beyond repair.
“He was into how to bend back forks and frames, how to fix wheels,” said Stephen. “He didn’t throw anything away if possible. I carried that on with the idea I would try to maintain vintage bikes. People brought their bikes in that other shops said would cost too much money to fix. That got me into frame repair.”
He expanded into building customizable bikes from pre-existing bikes. After graduating high school, Stephen had biked from Philadelphia to Montreal and from Montreal to Maine. He realized his bike wasn't good for touring. Remembering that, he started building dedicated high performance touring bikes and dedicated commuter bikes. This brought national recognition in Bicycle Magazine in the mid 1980s, and expanded his customer base. He was at the forefront of utilizing S&S couplers that allowed bicycles to be easily taken apart and put in an airline-approved case as checkable luggage. He opened his current Olney location in 1992. The name had changed from The Bike Doctor to Sterling Bicycle Company to Bilenky Cycle Works.
“I started ordering frames to my specifications from England in '82-'83 because I couldn’t get the quality and specs here,” he said. “I went to England and worked with a builder who I got some frames from. He gave me some instruction. About a year later, I brought him over to the States to help me setup my first shop.”
Today, Bilenky's four-person staff uses steel or titanium, and builds road, ’cross, light and loaded touring, city, singlespeed/track, off road, cargo, tandem and their patented Viewpoint bikes. They also repair, restore, paint and retrofit. They won Best Road Bike (2010), Best Lugged Bike (2011) and Best Lugged Frame (2013) at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Their clients are serious hobbyists and those who like to travel by bike. A BCW electric assist Cargo bike is currently on loan to the Design Museum in London for their “Cycle Revolution” exhibit
Since 2006, they've drawn national attention for hosting the annual Junkyard Cross Race and Open House at holiday time, a first-of-its-kind event in the community. An even bigger community event, the Philly Bike Expo, is coordinated by Stephen's daughter, Bina Bilenky Trahan. Launched in 2010, the first Expo was held at the 21st Street Armory with 60 exhibitors. It's now held each November at The Pennsylvania Convention Center. What started with 60 exhibitors has grown to 179 booths presenting a wide range of bikes and bike-related products and services including Apparel and Accessories, Advocacy/Non-Profit Organizations, Custom Frame Builders, Shops, Components and Tools, Health & Wellness, and Sustainable Living.
“There wasn’t anything like the Expo anywhere on the East Coast and we thought there was a need for it,” said Bina. “We must've struck a chord, because we outgrew the Armory pretty quickly. The Convention Center provides more room for exhibits and for other activities such as an indoor test ride area demo space for things like wheel building and bike fitting, At the Convention Center, we also have double seminar rooms, which are larger, brighter, and better suited for tech set up.”
At the 2015 Expo, a packed schedule of seminars, workshops and panel discussions covered Advocacy, Education, History, Lifestyle, and Technical with such titles as “Ride Across America in an 1880 Bike”; “Retracing the Underground RR by Bike”; “Yoga for Cyclists”; “Derailleurs and Drivetrains Demystified”; “Aspiring Frame Builders”; “Design Trends,” and “Pedestrian, Bicycle and Trail Planning in Philadelphia.”
“Our goal is to have something for everyone, regardless of what type of cycling you do,” explained Bina. “We have little children riding bikes around --the newest generation of cyclists—as well as the serious commuter, racer, weekend enthusiast, and bike touring fanatic.
“What better way to show our commitment to sustainability than to have almost 200 companies under one roof that are all promoting bicycles as a transportation alternative?”