At a time when bike shows in the US are shrinking and the bike economy is stagnant, The Philly Bike Expo is growing. The Expo, now in its seventh year, has well outgrown its original venue. To boot, the Expo has come to be THE North American bike show where you can see pivotal builders including Richard Sachs, Winter Cycles, and Bishop. To help me better understand the context for the event, I sent over a questionnaire to the event organizer, Stephen Bilenky of Bilenky Cycleworks. But once you’ve given Stephen Bilenky a live interview, he’s not going to do them any other way.
This phone interview with Stephen Bilenky was taken earlier this week. In it, he discusses the origins of the Philly Expo, how it is a continuation of the spirit of the New York Bike Show of years past, and how he wants to make East Coast bike culture great again.
BIKERUMOR: Where did this show come from? Is this show a continuation of Interbike East from back in the day?
STEPHEN: No no, the only continuation is that I used to go to Interbike East back in the day. That was one of my inspirations in that we really needed an East Coast show again.
BIKERUMOR: There was the New York Bike Show, that was the thing. Then there was Interbike East or the “Philly Show-” that was the thing. And then nothing.
STEPHEN: Right, there is the original New York Bike Show- your dad will tell you all about it. It would be all the regular manufacturers, Schwinn, Rollfast, Raleigh. At the same time, it had a big European contingent. It was a really happening thing.
This current thing was, you know, I went to NAHBS. My first NAHBS was 2006. I went to this Denver show, the Denver Custom Bike Show. I thought, Philly, we should do our own show. We should do a show in Philly. Basically, it was a Bilenky Cycleworks production. We just said, well, we’re going to do it.
BIKERUMOR: You put on the Heartland Velo Show in 2011 in Madison.
STEPHEN: Yeah, that was after my first [Expo]. I thought, yeah, let’s do that. Let’s do one in the Midwest. Let’s do one in conjunction with San Diego.
BIKERUMOR: What was the original goal with these shows? What kind of show were you shooting for?
STEPHEN: I wanted a bike culture show. As much as I wanted to have frame builders, I wanted to have the whole spectrum. There’s a lot of mountain bike activity in the East Coast, but it wasn’t really represented. I wanted to have frame builders but I didn’t want to limit it to that. I wanted to have all forms of cycle culture- urban culture, mountain bikes, BMX, performance and sports stuff, and all the stuff that goes with it. It was like, well, let’s do a miniaturized old New York Bike Show.
BIKERUMOR: The New York Bike Show was more a cultural thing?
STEPHEN: It wasn’t all segmented then. If you were a bike nut, you hung out at bike shops, you got the one bike magazine, you went to the races, you went to the New York Bike Show to see everything that was going on with bikes. The idea would be to have the whole spectrum. In previous years we’ve had Raleigh and Bianchi. At the same time we’d have Bilenky and Bishop. We’d have clothing- for mountain bikes and urban hipsters and clothing for lycra clad stuff.
The [Expo] has the three word bi-line: Artisans, Activists, Alternatives. The Artisans, you get. There is this whole resurgence of small scale, sustainable, makers. That was all happening. People are making hats. People are making shoes. People are making clothes. People are making frames. People are putting things together. Then there are people who are involved in the infrastructure.
BIKERUMOR: The advocacy people.
STEPHEN: Yeah. I didn’t just want to have stuff to buy. I wanted to highlight and help nurture that. We have seminars on bike nerd technicality stuff but then we also have seminars on infrastructure and riding, and we have stuff on history. The idea was a show where you could learn what you wanted to learn on bikes. Not everything, but we would do our best to provide a wide range of stuff. People stepped up and showed up.
BIKERUMOR: How big was your first show?
STEPHEN: It was like a comedy, like “Let’s put on a show!” “Okay!” Basically, I turned this marketing guy loose. Between me and my contacts and this guy being a sales guy, it was like call, call call call. We’re going to make this show out of nothing. Lo and behold, we got 70 exhibitors the first year.
BIKERUMOR: No kidding! That’s not bad.
STEPHEN: We had food trucks outside. We rented this church across the street where we had the seminars, the Unitarian Church. We had a fashion show in the church. The whole idea was marketplace, swap meet, a place for all cyclists to geek out, parties- we’re just going to throw everything at it. I also had this idea that as the years would go on, it would become the annual meeting for people who are in the infrastructure would in the east. We are trying to rebuild that now. We’re hoping for that to be part of the next growth spurt for the show.
BIKERUMOR: How big is it this year?
STEPHEN: I think as of this morning- I guess we’re at 120 booths that represent probably 135 because we do booth sharing. You can shove three frame builders in a booth if you want, or you can do this with this company…
BIKERUMOR: And you name all the companies too.
STEPHEN: If you’re a company you’ll get that exposure.
BIKERUMOR: And there is no minimum requirement for what you have to be to show up. You have to be doing something, you have to be stoked on it, you pay the fee and you can get a booth.
STEPHEN: Right. If you have a program and you want to do something, we have booths, we have table spaces. It’s definitely growing. It’s been a challenging year for the bike industry, so some people have been reluctant. We just got a call this morning from Shimano, so… we’ll see where that goes.
BIKERUMOR: Why should people come out to Philly?
STEPHEN: People say it has a great vibe. It’s really chill. It’s a whole other audience. People on the West Coast- these people aren’t going to get to see you unless you come here.
BIKERUMOR: Like I said earlier, you’ve got all these big name builders who have chosen your show as their expo for the year. Why do you think they choose your show?
STEPHEN: Some people have gotten turned off from other shows. If you look at our show, we’ve never really pushed awards so there is no politics of awards or who is better or whatever. We’ve let people come and enjoy the bikes, let builders do their thing. We’ve also let builders take part in the seminars. We have a builder’s panel and we put different people on it.
The show is super organized- Bina [Bilenky] does a really great job. Participation is up. Customer service- we get back to you, we talk to you, we solve problems.
BIKERUMOR: You’ve got Bina, who is arguably the powerhouse behind all of this. How is that, working with your daughter? She’s compelling, she’s on it. You really lucked out having a right hand person like that.
STEPHEN: I guess I willed her into existence. But yeah, she’s just that natural talent. She trained here, so she learned a lot of the business. She learned the people. She would stand up, when she was I don’t even remember how old, “Everybody loves me!”
BIKERUMOR: I mean, it’s true.
STEPHEN: -and she’s just kept that brand going. She’s on top of things, she’s efficient, and she’s friendly.
BIKERUMOR: It’s cool that this show is carrying on in the tradition of these other East Coast shows, especially at a time when people are inundated with this messaging of cycling and cycling culture in the rockies and west coast. It’s a lot of what you see, and that bums me out because of the rich and unique tradition of cycling on the east coast.
STEPHEN: Right. There are a lot of people here who have been in bikes the whole time. We have our own race culture and bike club thing. We had our own east coast bike development thing.
BIKERUMOR: And your own very distinct lineage of bike builders too.
STEPHEN: Right. You’re probably familiar with the thing- once again from the bike boom days, Witcomb opened a Witcomb USA in Connecticut. At Witcomb USA, they hired some guys… one guy was Richard Sachs. The other guy was JP Weigle. The third guy was Chris Chance. The fourth guy- I don’t really remember his name. You know what Chris did. And Weigle and Sachs went on to do their things.
I was on a lot of these different people for years saying, hey, this is cool. Bishop came to the early shows because it was a no brainer. It was cheap. It was easy. It was there. And as he gained notoriety, in some ways he didn’t need to go to other shows because he wasn’t really pushing for orders for anyway. He was already too busy. So why travel?
I bothered other builders for years. They come. I guess they like it because they come back.
We’re trying to create a great atmosphere that people want to go to. A lot of it is just everyone just getting together and sharing stuff. Yeah, we can make sales and stuff like that, but the builders just being with each other is a lot of what it’s about. It should be really fun. Obviously it has caught your attention, so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to put the East Coast back on the map.
The Philly Bike Expo plays out November 5th and 6th at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, PA.
For more information, visit: PhillyBikeExpo.com