Bilenky Cycle Works
Interview & Photographs by Peter DiAntoni
Written by Eric Von Munz
Ahead of the curve...
Stephen Bilenky is an amazing man. Decades ago, he was a member of an experimental noise-rock band named the Notekillers that he never took all that seriously. Others took note, and the Notekillers' racket influenced the formation of Sonic Youth, which in turn led the noise-rock revolution.
Bilenky has built serious, utilitarian bikes since the 1980s. Their first frame was the Metro 5-a bike that has stayed mostly unchanged in the quarter century that has passed. What is there to change on a classic urban mainstay with comfortable geometry?
Nothing, I tell you.
COG was able to get inside their shop and talk to the man himself about Bilenky's history. We got some serious history.
Stephen begins with a timeline of sorts, naming a few now well-established builders that began creating frames for the mountain bike explosion from the late 1980s to early 1990s. It was an innovative time, and Bilenky was there, building his own style of MTBs, while the lugged steel road bikes waned.
With lugged steel road bikes on the wane and materials hard to come by, many builders were forced to adapt existing supplies for this increasingly rabid marketplace. Bilenky continued to produce the Metro 5, but to a smaller audience. Tandems were gaining in popularity. Urban riders began to gravitate to the hybrid bike, and Stephen sees that as the beginning of the recent renaissance of cycling.
Going back to 1993, he mentions an aspiring magazine (sadly defunct) called Bicycle Guide, a magazine more refined than Bicycling aimed at the cycling connoisseur. Bicycle Guide showcased unique builders through a column called "Hot Tubes". Bilenky's tandem design earned the praise, "Mercedes of Tandems" in that very column. While attending a trade show in Chicago, Stephen met the creator of S&S couplers. Stephen had never seen them before. Bilenky quickly realized that he could make a tandem "not so big." Have you ever tried to fly with a tandem boxed up? We didn't think so. In 1995 Bilenky created the first tandem design to feature S&S couplers-The Tinker Tandem-allowing a more reasonable tandem to travel abroad with. Bilenky's fillet-brazed Tinker Tandem was constructed of Airmet 100 tubing- a lightweight, high strength steel. It was the first tandem to weigh less than thirty-five pounds.
At the time, bicycle manufacturers were moving to aluminum, titanium and carbon as frame material. It wasn't Stephen's thing. Bilenky's association with S&S couplers early on attracted interested customers, and soon he was offering framesets constructed with them. As the rest of the cycling world switched to exotic materials and considered lugged steel passé, Bilenky kept steel framesets alive with the S&S couplers.
Included in that same Bicycle Guide magazine article was a unique tandem design from Seattle named the Counter Point, with the forward rider sitting recumbent style. Bilenky eventually bought the patent rights for that design, and ingeniously realized that it would be easy to convert the tandem into a cargo bike. Time passes, and Bilenky's Counter Point tandem inspired cargo bike fulfills a newly emerging market. Bilenky's cargo bike design took off in 2002, the year that the Cycle Messenger World Championships were in Copenhagen. As a sponsor for the event, Bilenky donated two of his cargo bikes as prizes for the winners of the cargo challenge. (I was at that CMWC-the cargo race over ancient cobblestones was no joke!) One lucky winner resided in Copenhagen, and that resulted in greater sales and exposure overseas. The American audience began to embrace the cargo bike design, with Hodari from NYC's Checker Couriers as an ardent supporter. Riding along side of Hodari on Toronto's streets, the Bilenky cargo bike effortlessly slithered through Toronto's thick traffic like a killer whale. Hodari has no problems with it in Manhattan, either.
Stephen is not afraid to say that he has weathered changing cycling climates over the years, while holding onto creating functional utility bikes. Bilenky has witnessed the early mountain bike surge, as road bikes waned. Next came the hybrids. Tandems gave way to cargo bikes. The Metro 5, now Metrolux, is bigger than ever now that more cyclists are gravitating towards utilitarian steeds for urban transport.
Thanks to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, there has been an explosion of quality frame builders with a focus on craftsmanship. That explosion has resurrected once rare items. Lugs are back, and easy to obtain. Columbus has even reissued their SL steel tubing. What was viewed as passé is now the cycle of choice for thousands of urban riders racing their daily Tour d'Work. Stephen chuckles when he thinks back on Bilenky's storied history: "We were always making things that no one really bought at the time, and then ten years later that's all they want."
It is all starting to come back around. Stephen ticks off various "Scenes" that are each contributing to the current renaissance. Now that it's happening in a bigger way, Bilenky is along for the ride. More people are taking a look and realizing some amazing work is coming out of Philadelphia. Bilenky has managed to stay well ahead of the curve. You would be well advised to get on his wheel and see where the future takes us all.