Sunday, June 29, 2008

Stephen Bilenky Speaks – Part Two

In my first article on Stephen Bilenky, which I based on conversations I had with Bilenky during two phone interviews, I shared some of his thoughts on the bicycles built by Bilenky Cycle Works (BCW) and talked a bit about the history of the company. In this installment, I will focus more on Bilenky’s future plans, his thoughts on the broader bicycle market and his ideas on how bicycles can fit into society.

When I asked him about the ideal role of bicycles in today’s transportation picture, he told me about his longtime interest in community design. He sent me a link to a 180-page document on which he was the lead author, entitled, “Community Design for Optimal Energy and Resource Utilization.” Bilenky won a National Science Foundation grant to do the research for this paper while he was a student at Pennsylvania State University. We might conclude that Bilenky has put a considerable amount of thought into this question.

He summed up his ideas by saying, “The ideal is to have a large percentage of short range, routine trips done by bicycle, so gas consumption is reduced and congestion alleviated. The challenge is bringing new cyclists into the ranks of utility cyclists and finding strategies to safely combine street traffic, mass transit, and bicycling. My urban dream development is a network of underground concourses specifically for bike travel so it’s easy and safe to commute easily and safely in all weather conditions, people powered mass transit.”

Not all of us might be thrilled at the idea of riding our bikes underground, but perhaps living in Southern California has made me forget what riding through East Coast winters is like. And you have got to respect someone who dares to “dream big.” I certainly agree with his assertion that, “If it [our transportation infrastructure] is not shaped for cycling, how are people going to surmount the barriers?”

The BCW crew in action

I asked him about his recommendations for off-the-shelf bicycles. “The Somas are nice. The Surlies are okay.” He told me he liked the purpose-built Surlies, such as the Pugsley and Big Dummy. He did opine that the Surlies “are a little heavier than they need to be.”

He also added, “Trek has a lot of decent bikes.”

In terms of used bikes, he told me, “I have a fond spot for late 70s/early 80s Japanese touring bikes. Nishikis, Fujis, Panansonics, some of the early [Asian-built] Raleighs.”

We chatted about the American framebuilders who barely make enough money to survive. I asked him if he thought it would be possible for a USA-based bicycle manufacturer to become profitable enough to pay its employees competitive wages. “There are a lot of ingredients, but a key one is the scale of operations. One to two people have such high overhead that it is hard to make stuff and sell stuff and organize stuff, etc. It would have to be very premium priced.”

Working with the good stuff...

He talked about bicycle companies such as I.F., Seven or Comotion as being big enough to potentially succeed, while not being too big to maintain manufacturing only in the USA. He pointed at Cannondale as an example of a company that outgrew the viable size limitations and had to outsource some of its production to China after experiencing severe financial problems.

Bilenky is still trying to find the right size for BCW. Currently, there are eight people working for the company, but with demand for BCW products surging, that number might need to grow in the near future. At this point in 2008, they are looking for 50% growth over last year. In the next month or so, they will start production of their biggest batch of cargo bikes ever. They have already sold three times as many cargo bikes in 2008 as they sold in all of 2007. In Europe, the devaluation of the US dollar has made American-made bicycles amazing bargains. BCW has taken advantage of this trend and has gotten good exposure in EU countries.

Additionally, the revolution in electronic communications has left bicycle messengers feeling squeezed. Since important documents can now be scanned and sent via e-mail, messengers must find new services which cannot be provided electronically. One such service is the hauling of cargo. Need to haul twenty reams of copier paper across town? A BCW cargo bike can get your paper there with aplomb.

The new BCW "Rear John" cargo bike
Photo courtesy of Moving Target Zine with some rights reserved

And there are new cargo bike models coming from BCW in the very near future! In addition to the models I mentioned in Part One of this series, BCW is also developing other alternatives. Bilenky seemed most excited about the bike he referred to as the “Rear John,” as opposed to the “Long John,” which is how he described the style of his traditional, front-loaded cargo bikes. The Rear John, also known as the “8 Freight,” features a large cargo rack behind the rider. The rack is low to the ground for stability and control. BCW introduced their first prototype of this style at the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Toronto a few weeks ago. The bike impressed many, including the bicycle messenger e-zine “Moving Target,” which called it “shockingly light.”

Bilenky is also developing a version of the “Viewpoint” tandem in which the front, recumbent rider is replaced by a cargo area. Additionally, BCW is experimenting with electric assist options for cargo hauling and a center stand which will mount to pre-installed braze-ons under the front wheel. This stand will lift the front wheel slightly off the ground and provide an extremely sturdy, stable platform when the bicycle is parked.

Bilenky Viewpoint Tandem

As we wrapped up our conversation, Bilenky talked about the preparations BCW was making for the 2008 Cirque du Cyclisme which occurred the weekend after we spoke. As he spoke of all the bicycles he was preparing as well as the presentation he was going to give, I felt that I was getting a real glimpse into this man’s life. We think of framebuilders as craftsmen or artisans. Stephen Bilenky is both of those things, and so much more. He is a scholar, a businessman, a social scientist and an ambassador for practical bicycles. He has dedicated his life to doing something he believes in and doing it well. He has both my respect and my gratitude.

Before we said goodbye, I did manage to ask him what he likes for breakfast. He told me that he was not a big breakfast eater. “I am a tea drinker, tea and cake, if I have my choice.” That works for me, as long as it gives him enough fuel to keep imagining and building the wonderful machines for which BCW has become famous.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Stephen Bilenky Speaks – Part One

Bicycles do not get more “real world” than those produced by Bilenky Cycle Works (BCW). Are you looking for a comfortable, efficient commuter? Look no further than BCW’s “Metro” line. Want to haul a bit more? How about A LOT more? Bilenky’s line of cargo bikes is impressive, and it is expanding dramatically! If you have special needs, if you want something uniquely suited to your riding style or your aesthetic tastes, BCW will make your custom dreams come true with a one-of-a-kind “Signature” or “Artisan” model designed and built especially for you. And while BCW cannot match the prices of mass-produced bicycles from China, with frames starting at $950, even the prices are real-world enough for me.

I have admired the bicycles made by BCW for many years, so Stephen Bilenky was one of the first people I contacted for an interview when I started “Cycloculture.” He graciously agreed, and I e-mailed him a list of interview questions. Most folks simply send me back a list of answers, which I print in my blog. Bilenky, on the other hand, pondered the questions for a few weeks then worked with me to arrange two telephone interviews so we could discuss his answers in depth. Throughout the process, he struck me as an intelligent, thoughtful man, in the sense that he carefully considered every question and gave me real, in-depth answers, not the “talking points” one sometimes gets from a publicist who is more interested in spreading hype than providing information (not that I have talked to any PR drones for Cycloculture as of yet). As a result, these two articles are a bit more conversational, perhaps a bit more personal. Enjoy.

Stephen Bilenky

When I asked Bilenky what he had learned in his three-plus decades building bicycles, he started off by saying, “Fillet braze quickly and shapely.” He went on to talk about the importance of both solving and avoiding fabrication problems. “Learn how to do the craft well. Learn how to fix mistakes. Learn how to avoid mistakes.”

He stressed the importance of using machine tools properly, and I knew what he meant. Almost anyone can grab a file and do a “good enough” job of shaping tubing after a bit of practice, but in order to perform these operations quickly, accurately and in large quantities, machine tools are required. Currently BCW uses only standard mills, lathes, etc. They contract out some work when using automated CNC machines makes more sense. Bilenky also stressed the importance of proper metal finishing. You need the right expertise and the right equipment for preparing surfaces for plating, polishing, painting, etc.

Members of the BCW crew that brings these bikes to life

He went on to talk about the nuts and bolts of running a design/manufacturing business. Computers are critical not only to design bicycles and communicate custom designs to customers, but also for running a business in general. He discussed the difficulties involved with coordinating multiple projects. Every day, he must juggle tasks such as building frames, granting interviews, training employees, preparing for various shows and events, and a list of other responsibilities. Over the years, he has learned to balance these jobs and keep BCW running as smoothly as possible. Critically linked to this balance is the art of getting along with people. Bilenky talked about the importance of working well with customers, suppliers and employees.

At that point, I got into more specific details of BCW-built bicycles. On the BCW website, Bilenky calls the Metro 5, a bicycle Bilenky originally built under the “Sterling” brand name, “the ideal bike.” I asked him why. “It’s light, strong, elegant, simple, comfortable and fun to ride for any kind of practical or moderate distance recreational riding. Plus to me it’s the perfected ‘English Racer’ that I never had when I was younger.”

A Bilenky Metro Luxe 14B

He went on to talk about a Columbia “Something Deluxe” that he had when he was a boy. He loved that Columbia, but had a hard time finding tires for it, so he bought a pair of 26X1 3/8” rims and laced his first set of wheels on the Columbia’s hubs. The shop owner who sold him the rims was impressed enough to hire Bilenky when his mom applied for a job on his behalf a few weeks later. He’s been thoroughly immersed in the bicycle world ever since.

Bilenky told me that BCW manufacturing consists of a good mix between production bikes and one-offs. BCW “Eco” series frames start at $950. The “Signature” series frames top out at $2500. I asked Bilenky to walk me through the differences. “We try to cater to a spectrum of buyers that goes from basic steel handbuilt steel frames to a one of a kind commission. Our different price levels represent a combination of design and finish options, material, construction method, and fork. The $950 that you mention is a tig-welded track frame, no braze-ons, no fork included, built to our stock plans and tubing. As we go up to the Deluxe level there is more customer input and customization available - forks go from production to handbuilt, material is upscaled, lugged and fillet brazed construction is available. The signature represents a finely detailed and hand finished sculpture in motion, fine tuned to the requirements of each customer.”

A single speed, lugged Bilenky cyclo-cross bike

Recently, BCW introduced the “Artisan” line, which is a step up from the “Signature” series. Frame prices start at “$3500+. Their website describes the “Artisan” frames as “Our ‘sculpture-in-motion,’ features one-of-a-kind metal work that distinguishes each frame as a unique creation. Material specifications are determined by the riders' measurements, style, and intended use. Material is chosen from the best the world has to offer - USA, Italian, and British steels. A frameset of heirloom quality.”

I went on to ask Bilenky about my favorite element of BCW production, their cargo bikes. He told me that they had been building the cargo bikes for ten years, and that their cargo bike business was booming. They are dramatically increasing their cargo bike offerings, with models including a shorter wheelbase version which still has a steering linkage, a rear-loader with a big cargo box in back, and a front-loader with a 40cc two-stroke engine.

A short wheelbase Bilenky front loader

He is also “contemplating” manufacturing pre-made attachments for the cargo bikes, such as standard boxes, lockboxes, waterproof containers, etc. “We need to be in the 'solutions business,'” he told me, “Is that [cargo bike accessories] going to be the next big thing?”

Bilenky cargo bike with large front box

Bilenky and I chatted for quite a lot longer. In the second and final article on this interview, I will talk about some of BCW’s future plans, new models they will be introducing soon, Bilenky’s thoughts on the role of the bicycle in today’s transportation picture, and, of course, what he likes for breakfast. Stay tuned.

Read the second half of this article here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Electric Bicycles, China-Style

I recently wrote an article on the electric bicycle phenomenon in China for There are already millions of e-bikes there, and they seem to be getting more popular all the time. At this point, the default commuter vehicle in cities such as Shanghai is an e-bike. Cycling does not get more "real world" than that.

See the full story here.

Electric bicycle rush hour in Shanghai

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fifteen Days in the Belly of the Beast

Over at the Kogswell Owners Group (KOG), there was a recent discussion about the “Yo Eddy” fork, manufactured by the late, great Fat City Cycles.
It was generally agreed that this is a very good bicycle fork design. It was also agreed that this was a difficult fork to manufacture. There are many parts which require complex metal-forming and precise alignment before welding or brazing. Still, Kogswell owner Matthew Grimm is moving forward with producing this fork for a version of the Porteur/Randonneur (P/R). This is great news! Many people were surprised that Kogswell could manufacture this fork within the budget of the reasonably priced bicycles they produce.
A "Yo Eddy"-style fork by Planet X (no relation to Factory X)
Now let me tell you about a factory in China I recently visited. Let’s call it Factory X. Factory X builds Yo Eddy-style forks in a mass-production environment. This factory has well-designed fixtures that hold the tight alignments required. From what I could see, I estimate that 75% of the welds from this manufacturer would have passed inspection at Fat City. The other 25% would still have been an improvement over what consumers saw on Diamond Backs and Univegas from the 1980s.
Factory X builds these forks for bicycles which they sell directly to big-box retailers. The bicycle which uses these forks sells for around $80 at Walmart. Oh, and they make more than 2000 of them every day, six days each week, throughout the year.
A "Next" brand bicycle, available at Walmart and built by "Factory X," with a"Yo Eddy"-style fork cleverly disguised to look like a suspension fork
Don’t get me wrong here. The P/R is vastly superior to any bicycle produced in this factory. At $600 for frame, fork, fenders and assorted goodies, the P/R is one of the most amazing bargains in the bicycle universe, and the Yo Eddy-style fork will make it even better. Kogswell’s fork will likely use custom drawn cro-moly tubing with very nice droupouts. The fork from Factory X, in sharp contrast, is made from high-tensile steel and the dropouts are stamped into the same pieces of tubing which form the fork blades.
That said, Factory X builds this fork, and all of their other products, to extremely high quality standards, given their financial constraints and the jaw-droppingly large quantities they build. They employ dozens each of highly trained welders, machinists and assemblers, most of whom could walk into an operation of similar caliber to Fat City and immediately start building products to the highest quality standards imaginable. Factory X is spread over four enormous buildings co-located on one industrial campus. It produces more than 900,000 bicycles per year presently, but the owner of the factory assured me that they could easily boost production to 1.3 million units using their current resources. Of course, if they “tap out” their current capacity, they have many, many acres on their lot to build more facilities.
During my business trip, I visited eleven bicycle factories in China and Taiwan. Factory X was the second largest factory I saw. The largest factory was a self-contained citadel as well as a manufacturing center. Its total manufacturing capacity greatly exceeded that of Factory X. It could form steel or aluminum into nearly any desired shape, then heat treat the material any way imaginable after welding. Many of the workers lived in on-site dormitories.
"Factory X," located near Nanjing, China
On the other side of the spectrum, I was dragged through a small factory producing the cheesy cruiser-style bicycles one frequently sees advertised on Craigslist. I was visiting a components maker, and I suppose he owed the factory owner a favor, so he offered me up as a potential buyer from a big American company. I was not interested in anything that factory built. However, when I compare this relatively modest manufacturing plant to my tour of Huffy HQ in Ohio back in 1998, the awesome scope of Chinese bicycle manufacturing becomes even more clear. The most humble factory I saw on my trip produced goods of far higher quality than anything Huffy produced ten years ago.
In between these two extremes, I saw everything from well-established factories building high-end equipment for some of the biggest names in the bike business to small companies producing less than one thousand specialty bicycles each month. I did not see any sweat shops. I got the distinct feeling that, because of the manufacturing boom occurring in China, most of the workers were able to demand fairly good working conditions. If they did not get them at one factory, there were plenty of other factories hiring.

The Shanghai skyline, the heart of China's economic revolution
Perhaps I was imagining it, but I also thought I saw a sense of cooperation and mutual purpose amongst the workers in the Chinese factories that was distinctly lacking in various American factories I have visited. In a former professional life, I spent a fair amount of time in GM and Ford plants. The union workers I encountered in these plants seemed determined to make as much money as possible, a trait they shared with their Chinese counterparts I observed on my trip. However, the American union workers also seemed determined to return as little work as possible for the money they were paid. This contrasted sharply to the attitude of the Chinese workers, who seemed to understand that when the company made more money, they could make more money. Workers and management seemed united in a capitalistic profit frenzy which resulted in efficient workers being given what they needed to get their jobs done as well and quickly as possible.
I was also surprised by the level of technological sophistication that complimented the “good, old fashioned” manufacturing fundamentals I saw at the factories in China. The well trained, professional employees were supplemented by rows of robotic welders, CNC machines, automated test equipment and other technologically sophisticated equipment which were set up, monitored and maintained by many experts in the various technological fields. The efficient work-flow patterns were made even better by elaborate conveyor systems which took parts wherever they needed to go. In addition to excellent execution of basic manufacturing techniques, certain factories employed “cutting edge” processes as well, such as aluminum brazing. I saw a combination of old and new. These factories did whatever made sense to build the best products at the lowest prices.
In China, they know how to build bikes for the real world
It is difficult to express in words how seeing these remarkable manufacturing centers made me feel. I was filled with a combination of awe, fear and hopefulness. I was awed to see such amazing manufacturing abilities applied on such huge scales (not to mention small and mid-sized scales). I was fearful that China’s incredible manufacturing might will allow them to increasingly “eat our lunch,” economically speaking, over the next several decades. While Americans are working in circles, feeding our “service economy,” China is building not only material wealth, but the infrastructure required to build exponentially more such wealth in the near future.
But I am also filled with hope. There is nothing inherently superior about China’s ability to build, staff and operate factories. Indeed, they have taken many of their industrial cues from the USA. American workers have proven that, given the right incentives, they can be as enthusiastic and efficient as anyone on this planet. While it is true that the world economy currently favors goods made in China, this situation will not last forever. Economic balance will be achieved at some point in the future. When it does, and when oil prices and other issues force us to replace our cars with bicycles, I look forward to building millions of them from a state-of-the art manufacturing center near my home.