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Q&A: Steve Bilenky of Bilenky Cycle Works

By Alan Spooner

Stephen Bilenky and Bilenky Cycle Works will host the Philadelphia Bike Expo* on November 4th and 5th at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The annual event brings together bicycle activism, vendors, enthusiasts, competitive cycling, and lots more. The Bicycle Coalition are big supporters of the expo and we reached out to Bilenky to talk about the expo and, at the request of Simon Firth (owner of Transpor Cycles in Fishtown), his band.

Q: Stephen, who were you and how did you get there when you built your first frame?

A: I was always around bikes and I was working in a bike shops from junior high through college where I pursued an agriculture degree. I couldn’t find a job coming out of college so I moved back to Philly. I started a bike repair shop in the basement of my father’s beauty salon. It was called ‘Bike Doctor,’ and I fixed bikes and tried to save and salvage them as best I could. Someone would come in with a piece that was broken off or with a bent frame and the other bike shops wouldn’t want to repair it. I’d do brazing repairs, add-ons and re-alignments.

Q: And the band?

A: The basement doubled as the studio for my band the Notekillers. It was formed from the nucleus of a band we started in the late 60s called Dead Cheese. Our roots were psychedelic, blues and rock; that San Francisco stuff, and then we expanded, we had double drumming at one point, then saxophone and multiple players like Blood, Sweat and Tears. We would do a ‘Be-In’ in a large common backyard that was called ‘Cheese Nation’ (our version of what was happening at Belmont Plateau).

Q: Like Woodstock?

A: Yeah, like Woodstock. That would be ’69, ’70, ’71. Eventually it all fell apart and people went separate ways. By 1979 it was just the three of us. Music had changed a lot. We weren’t polished like the new wave bands, we were more like a cross between Free Jazz, world music and Black Sabbath.

Q: Did you cut a record?

A: A single, ‘the Zipper,” the b-side was ‘Clockwise’. We sent it to New York record stores and started playing up there, we played CBGB’s, Hurrah’s, Mawell’s, and some new wave clubs in Philly.

Q: The East Side Club? Downstairs from the Adelphia?

A: Yeah we played there, and also a club on the north side of Walnut Street, what was it? One night we were there on the same bill as the Stickmen.

Q: Funky Hayride?

A: What?

Q: I saw them open for Gang of Four at the Brandywine Club, must have been ’83? It was their hit. “Funky Hayride, get on board!” (I start singing).

A: Yeah, well, anyway, our drummer was kind of our strongman, and he was standing next to Mike McGettigan, who was in the Stickmen.

Q: (incredulously) Wait, what? Mike McGettingan, Trophy Bikes? He was in the Stickmen?

A: Yeah, he was. Well something happened and there were fisticuffs between them. There was bad blood between the Notekillers and Stickmen ever since. A few months ago I saw I heard from our drummers that he was standing next to Mike at an Anti-Trump rally.

Q: Fisticuffs again?

A: Nah. So, anyways, fast forward twenty years and I get a call…

Q: Let’s put a pin in that for now, when did you start actually building bikes?

A: So I’m a bike hacker and fixer in that basement. And it’s the beginning of the Mountain Bike era, ‘stump jumpers’. I get one. People are starting to use them as city bikes. They’re durable, but not great, kind of heavy, knobby tires, no kickstand, have derailluers. So I build a prototype for a city bike based on Japanese and European touring bike frames, lightweight, 700 C wheels, alloy parts, lights, and an internal hub. I call it the Metro 5. I met a guy Jim Gittins at the New York bikeshow. It was a trade show but if you were a hardcore enough bike nerd, you could usually figure out a way to get in for free. Jim was a frame builder, he worked for Crown Cycle. They were known for their Cyclo-Gear’ chain tool. They were diversifying, starting a line of bikes.

Q: Big Show?

A: Yeah, great show. There used to be more of them on the East Coast. Interbike East was here a couple times in Philly and Atlantic City. The first time I saw a Masi at one – it was a life changing event for me.

Q: I’ve heard that before.

A: It’s what we’re trying to do again with Bike Expo, there’s good bike culture here. People like to come to Philly. I got a call from a touring bag company in Quebec saying we love coming down there. (Stephen’s phone rings, he picks up and says ‘yeah, I was thinking it might be nice if it had a curved bridge….’ )

Q: So, the frames?

A: I order five of them from Jim and build them out like my prototype. I call it the Metro 5. I launch my company as Sterling Cycles, I give one of them to the tech guy at Bicycling Magazine, Tim Constantino, a tall guy but I have a 25” frame. The magazine does a feature comparing the best commuting bikes. There’s five of them, Trek Mountain Bike is in there, all around $500 which was a big price point back then, and the Metro 5 does the best of all.

Q: So then you went into manufacture?

A: No, but now I move upstairs into my fathers beauty salon and then I’m getting letters saying ‘I would like a Metro 5.’ I start doing them for people and the branching out into sport touring and metro bikes. The shop is like a boutique. And I start brazing, quality bikes were lugged in those days. Do you have experience with lugs?

Q: I do, but let’s not get into it. Why not lugs?

A: Mountain bikes were posing a big challenge to traditional lugged construction with their evolving geometries and tube sizes. You see, when he reviewed it, Tim had put one of the Metro 5’s on a contraption for testing bicycling called ‘the Tarantuala.’ The frame bent under pressure. I knew I couldn’t keep using those frames and needed something stronger. I had picked up brazing from my farm shop practices class during school.

Q: What was your major?

A: Agricultural Engineering. That was another thing, I had gotten into sustainable farming way before it was popular. The other guys there were making haywagons, but I got a grant to make a methane digestor. You put manure in and it starts making gas, I welded a tank together and brazed on bolts I had machined.

Q: I’ve seen some of your lathes at the shop – you’ve got some heavy duty ones that look pre-WWII.

A: They let me custom build parts. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and my farm practices class exposed me to tools that I never had before. So now I’m welding, brazing, and painting in the back of The Bike Doctor and I’m starting to take bikes to shows. I started making tandems, they’re selling, so we take one to Interbike in California. I bring a Metro 5 and someone sticks a business card in it that says, “Nice Bike” ~ Joe Breeze.

Q: So, you’re doing all of this in Philly in the 80’s. When did you first hear about the Bicycle Coalition?

A: There were only a few bike shops in center city Philly. One was South Street Bikes, owned by Tim Carey, He had a master mechanic, the go-to guy in town. He was kind of an anarchist guy with a big red beard.  They had posters from the Coalition. I don’t really remember how I got started in advocacy. When I started the Philly Bike Expo seven years ago, I used three words “Artistsans, Activists, Alternatives.” I wanted to bring back the bike culture that I experienced before at shows on the East Coast.

Q: Okay, so fast forward twenty years later and the phone rings…

A: I get a call from our guitar player. We haven’t spoken much in 20 years. He says did you know the Notekillers got mentioned in a column in the British Music Magazine MOJO by Sonic Youth’s founder Thurston Moore. Thurston had bought one of those singles we had sent to New York record stores back when he was starting Sonic Youth. He didn’t know who we were, but he our single on an ‘influences’ mix tape for the other members to hear when he was getting the group together. In the article he said we’ve got to find these guys.

Q: Amazing.

A: So, anyways, we still had some old material in the can, archived, and we were pulling some of it off of 8 track tapes. We remastered it and released it as an album (The Notekillers) on this guy’s label (Thurston Moore). We got back together and played a few gigs. That was like 2004. He was curating the All Tomorrow Parties Festival at Butlin’s Resort in Minehead, UK, so he invited us to play, and then we played other gigs in England and Italy.

You can listen the Notekillers single here and you can learn more about the 2017 Bike Expo or buy tickets here.

*The Bike Expo’s mission is enhancing individual and planetary health by promoting cycle culture in all its diversity. The event stands by its byline: Artisans, Activists, Alternatives. It provides a public forum to celebrate people and organizations that promote cycling in all its diversity. And if you’re a hardcore enough bike nerd, you can probably figure out how to get in free.

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