Bilenky Cycle Works sits in North Philadelphia, wedged between a desolate set of railroad tracks and an imposing junkyard. The rugged façade of the shop, however, belies the artistry contained within; cyclists who know, know that you go to Stephen Bilenky for the best fillet brazed frames around.
Bilenky, the man, is a pioneer of sorts. He started his first retail operation before he hit the age of 10. His innovative band would go on to influence one of the most important punk outfits of our time. He would host the first Urban Cyclocross series (which snakes through the aforementioned junkyard). And he is renowned for the variety of bikes that he builds, which include touring, tandem and cargo bikes in addition to more traditional models.
Walking through BCW, you are immediately infected by the controlled chaos that seems ubiquitous among hand-built bike shops. Framebuilder Simon Firth, a transplant from the U.K. whose hobbies include beer drinking and origami, is another fixture behind the east coast brand, and adds his own refined ethos to the environment.
What was your first exposure to bicycles?
My first bike was a red AMF and as kids we would ride our bikes up and down the driveway. Once I was riding next to a neighborhood friend and I realized I couldn’t keep up with him. He was about my size, a little kid. He had an older, black nondescript bike. I realized that there was something inherent about his bike that was faster. That got me messing around with my bike.
So right from the start you were tinkering around with the mechanics of bicycles?
Well, when I was under 10 I started fixing other kids’ bikes in my garage on a commercial basis. I also had a candy store in there. I was the only kid on the block that was allowed to cross the street so I could walk to the variety store and buy candy and comic books and sell them to the other kids.
Pretty early on I was going places by bike—just seeing how far I could go. It was a big thing when I rode out of Philly and got to Delaware. When I got to junior high, commuting was on bikes, going to band practice was on bikes, going on adventures was on bikes. My family would travel out to Bucks County and instead of going out there by car we would go out by bike. And that’s what got me into bikes carrying things.
How did you transition from the garage-based shop to building frames?
I went to college for general agriculture where I had to take courses in farm tool practices, like welding and painting, and there was this realization that you could make whole things from scratch if you knew what you were doing. I wasn’t really a metal person—I was more into wood shop—but here you could make useful stuff and I realized that I could build a bike. First I got into improving things, like adjusting derailleur and altering brake calipers.
Then I went and lived with a friend in Michigan. There I took welding classes and other types of shop classes and got more into brazing and that got me into wanting to build bikes. After a year and a half I came back to Philly and opened a bike repair shop. A lot of people would come in with bent frames and parts broken off, so I started getting into frame repairs, bending and braze-ons. Well, whatever was broken I would fix it.
And what went into the two bikes you built for the Rapha Continental Team?
The bikes that I build are fillet brazed and everything can be kind of free form—smooth and simple and with a unified look. I got really involved with Pierre [Vanden Borre] and Peter [Rubijono] and listened to what they wanted, and worked one on one with them.
What was the genesis of the Urban Cyclocross Race?
We would sit in Simon [Firth]’s area and we would look out at that paved driveway and the fences and the gateways and the junkyard, and we said: wouldn’t this be a cool place for a race. Then we thought, wow, we could do a cyclocross race. And Simon pushed it so we took the plunge. It kind of grew out of an open house. We wanted to do some kind of off-season open house. After the first year, when nobody got hurt, it really got rolling. The second year it really caught on and lots of people started coming.
So, rumor has it your band, The Notekillers, were one of the major influences for Sonic Youth. Is that true?
We used to have a thing, a three-piece instrumental rock band. It was a combination of avant-garde, downtown New York jazz with punk rock.
Then, in 2000 or 2001, a friend called me and showed me an article in Mojo magazine about Thurston Moore. They asked him what were the 10 records that most influenced Sonic Youth and one of them was The Zipper by The Notekillers.
For more information visit: www.bilenky.com