Philadelphia Business Journal
Bilenky Cycle Works makes bikes that are pieces of art
By Mia Geiger
Like most 10-year-olds, Stephen Bilenky loved riding his bicycle around the neighborhood. Unlike a lot of kids, though, as soon as he got a bike, he began taking it apart.
“I wanted to make the bike go faster or better — my parents were not too happy,” said Bilenky, who has parlayed his aptitude for building bikes into a career.
Bilenky Cycle Works Ltd. on North Second Street in the Olney section of Philadelphia makes and sells custom bicycles to enthusiasts locally, nationally and internationally. It is not uncommon for him to get a $1,000 deposit in the mail from a bike rider in Colorado, Kansas or Alaska.
The 43-year-old entrepreneur builds tandem bikes, racing bikes, recreational bikes and bicycles-built-for-three, formally called “triples.” Bilenky also makes bicycles that can be taken apart to fit in a suitcase, and he converts nondetachable bikes into “take-apart” bicycles.
The take-apart bikes are his biggest sellers right now, primarily bought by people who travel and like to have their own bikes with them, he said.
The bikes, sold under the brand name “Bilenky,” sell for between $2,500 and $6,000.
“Each one is a unique metal sculpture,” Bilenky said of the bikes, which take about two hours to sell, up to 15 hours to prepare for manufacture and another 40 hours to build. “Color and aesthetics can be as important as how many spokes are in the rim.”
Early on, Bilenky decided to manufacture specialty bikes.
“I was attracted to the best, and those were the things that were made in limited quantities by the masters in England and France and Germany,” he said. “That’s what I consider a good bike.”
He began building tandems in the ’80s, because there were so few manufacturers, and he later branched out into other types of bikes. Three-quarters of his business is direct sales to consumers, and the remainder is wholesale to bike dealers nationwide.
The company, which has four full-time employees, sells about 100 bikes a year. Revenues have increased because of more bikes being sold to individuals rather than to dealers. But, he said, “We still live from sale to sale.”
Making a profit is difficult because along with more customers comes more demands on his time. It’s also a struggle to allocate funds to marketing and organizational issues when money is needed for developing new products.
He has been working with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Pennsylvania to develop a data processing system to improve efficiency.
Bilenky, who rides his bike three miles to work each day — “not enough to keep in shape” — has always had an affinity for bicycles.
“You can ride somewhere in a car, but you’re not really there. When you ride your bike, there is a certain connection to the environment. You are on two wheels and everything that goes by, you see and feel,” he said.
His entrepreneurial spirit began at age 10, when he started doing bike repairs for other kids from the garage of his family’s home in Northeast Philadelphia. He also sold penny candy, comic books and soft pretzels.
“I was the first kid who could go across the two streets to the shopping center. I would buy stuff from the variety store, and set it up in my garage and sell it,” he said.
In 1977, with $5,000, he opened The Bike Doctor in the basement of his father’s hair salon in Cheltenham. Within a year, his father became ill, and Bilenky managed the hair salon while working part time on the bike business. Following his father’s death, Bilenky converted the hair salon into a bike business and stayed there until 1989, when he moved into a bigger space in Manyunk.
In 1992, a few friends became investors and the group incorporated the business, changed the name to Bilenky Cycle Works Ltd. and relocated to the 1,500-square-foot shop in Olney.
Customers often learn about the company from ads placed in trade publications.
A few years ago, after trying without much success to find a racing bike that fit him, 5-foot-5-inch Carl Manstein of Elkins Park bought a custom-made bicycle from Bilenky.
“I had other bikes. They just weren’t right; the geometry wasn’t there,” he said. “I wanted a frame that would fit me, and I wanted it very light and sturdy and responsive.”
More recently, he purchased a custom-made tandem bicycle to ride with his wife.
“I’ve looked at all the bikes; even among craftsmen throughout the country, Steve is at the top of the line in attention to detail and finishing,” he said. “They are pieces of art that you can ride. They are beautiful to look at.”
Last March, Ann and Jim Collins of Holland, Bucks County, purchased a tandem bicycle to use during organized bike rides. The tandem bike they already owned was too small in the back, so Ann’s neck would get sore from crunching forward.
“This bike is custom-made for our measurements,” she said. “It’s about 10 pounds lighter, it’s faster, it has less drag, it’s easier to pedal.” She is also pleased with the color, pearl white.
“It’s gorgeous,” she said. “When we picked it up, Stephen was real happy with it. He said, `Now take it and fall in love with it,’ and we did. It was so beautiful we were afraid to get that first scratch on it.”
Mia Geiger is a free-lance writer based in the Philadelphia area.