Before we left on this trip, I was a photographer in Long Beach, CA, trying to make a small name for myself as the wacky photographer that goes to all his photo shoots by bicycle. During my emerging photo career, I needed a new cargo bicycle that could carry my dense Pelican case of gear, as well as some lightstands, and still be fairly mobile in traffic. After voluminous research, I went with Bilenky Cycle Works. That was several years ago. I have a fascination with handmade items and the artisans behind the work, so it was imperative that, should we pass anywhere near Philly, we go to Bilenky.

But before we get there, we have to go somewhere else first.

Through a strange small world coincidence, one of the people who works at Bilenky, Bob, was also a reader of our site and invited us to stay with his family. (Another small world coincidence: we stayed with an old high school classmate of Bob in Nashville – Dan, who now runs Nashville Bicycle Lounge.) Bob is about as nice a person as you’ll ever meet. He is soft spoken but friendly and generous beyond measure. He volunteered at Neighborhood Bike Works for years, having only recently stopped because he has a son to look after now. He shares an old row house in West Philly with another couple with child, so living quarters were a little tight, but nonetheless they greeted us with open arms. Our first evening there, he made an amazing feast of stewed pork and vegetables with beans and freshly made tortillas (we helped by making the tortillas on a tortilla press he recently acquired).

Bob’s first bike was cut, mitered and welded in a living room. His roommates at the time weren’t too happy with him. About five years ago, he knocked on the doors of Bilenky Cycle Works because he needed to use some tools to finish his frame – and through that first encounter, he began a relationship with Bilenky.

Bob is an avid bike tourist himself who has an impressive stable of randonneuring, touring and cargo bikes (most of the dozen or so frames he has built for himself and others are touring- or transportation-focused). He is tasked with making the forks and racks at Bilenky, as well as a fair amount of finishing work on the bicycles. Bob also designed the popular Bilenky booth at this year’s NAHBS, which was a re-creation of his work station at the shop, inspired by the concept of dioramas.

I start with Bob, because in my head I always had a vision that bike builders were somehow classically trained, newly-minted UBI graduates and not DIYers with welders next to their sofa. I suppose I always imagined bike builders to work in spaces that were as pristine as the mirror-polished lugs on the bikes they built. I imagined Dvorak blaring over the scream of mills and presses, perhaps a bottle of wine on a tool cabinet. It’s not like that at all.

It is a dirty job. It is sometimes a painful one. Bob tells me that he hasn’t burnt himself in a while. Kasey relayed to me that during the first few weeks of working at Bilenky, he managed to cut his eyelid with a piece of errant tubing (he now wears eye-protection all the time).

Those elegant images we see of builders with a torch in hand, like a orchestra conductor, are preceded by hours and hours of cutting and filing with crude and obstinate hand tools. I suppose it’s easy to correlate the seemingly high price tag of a custom bicycle with an imagined life of luxury of its builder, but that is part of the magic or illusion of frame building. A well-crafted and finished bike speaks nothing of the labor behind it. You can’t imagine it being made by nothing less than the graceful fingers of angels, when in truth it is the work of cut, blistered and burnt mortal hands.

Bilenky Cycle Works is nestled next to a junkyard (where their annual urban cyclo-cross race takes place) and steel fabrication business. They are at the end of the street, in a small brick building, with nothing to indicate that one of the country’s most well-respected bike builders work there, other than a hand painted sign that says “Bilenky.”

When we were there, Stephen was busy leaping from project to project. They had just been commissioned to make a bicycle that, when completed, will be their NAHBS bike for 2011, so he was working with Isis on the design. He was also checking up on Brian, who was painting a restoration of an English bicycle, and helping Kasey with a frame that was fluxed and ready to be brazed. On top of this, he was working with Ray to organize the first annual Philly Bike Expo.

Stephen had written an eloquent letter to Don Walker, frame-builder and organizer of NAHBS, lobbying for NAHBS to come to Philly. In the letter, Stephen wrote about the vibrant bike culture in Philly, the miles of new bike lanes, its accessibility by train (Stephen is a big Amtrak supporter) and the various bicycle cottage industries in Philly (such as ReLoad and Fabric Horse). In short, Philly would make an ideal host for an exhibition that celebrates the bicycle. In the end, Don Walker decided on another city, but the letter he had written, Stephen decided, was just too good. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. He contacted the local bike coalition and threw the idea around of having a bicycle expo in Philly, to which they responded immediately, with an enthusiastic yes.

The tag line of the Philly Bike Expo is “Activists, Artisans and Alternatives.” The scope of the event is beyond just hand-built bicycles, and also opens the discussion to bike infrastructure, the various handmade bicycle accessory makers, and how people can incorporate cycling into their daily lives. In a short time, they’ve managed to fill most of their booth spaces and develop great seminars to attend. Georgena Terry (of Terry Precision Cycles) will be doing a seminar on women’s bike fit, Richard Schwinn will be giving a talk about the Schwinn Paramount, and BikeSnob will be doing a book signing. SRAM will be sponsoring the “fastest bike mechanic in Philly,” where local mechanics will compete to see who can install a complete gruppo the quickest.

The last few years have proven to be good media years for Bilenky, with several articles written about them and a number of prizes at NAHBS and Cirque de Cyclisme. It seems only logical that they should take the extra step to organize an event that shines the spotlight on bicycling Philly. When I asked him why the sudden involvement beyond just frame building, he gestured around the shop and half-jokingly said, “I’ve got to feed all these people.”

Bilenky is more than just Stephen now. It is Simon, Bob, Kasey, Brian, Carl, Isis and the others that have come and gone.

It’s probably too cliche to imagine a solitary frame builder slaving away under a torch. We are somehow more comfortable with that image of the lone craftsman – there is something very ‘American frontier’ about it. And yet, while many begin that way (sometimes even in a livingroom), the ones that have been at it for a long time, like Bilenky, have grown to include more than a single pair of hands – and each of those hands bring something special to the work. Bicycles aren’t immune to the cult of personality. We want to imagine every brazed eyelet to be done by Stephen himself, or that Grant Petersen hand-dunks each shellacked handlebar grip on their bikes. But the truth is that there are many people involved with these bicycles we love – and we are the richer for them.

When the time comes to order my next Bilenky, I’ll be happy to know that it is not just Stephen himself who has worked on the bike – but Simon who has mitered the tubes, Bob and his passion for touring who has made the fork, and Kasey who is in the shop with his laconic smile, looking on from behind his safety glasses.