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Vicious Cycle

An urban bike race celebrates chaos in Olney.


From the November 21, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly

First you pedal down the oil-stained, cracked concrete driveway with gaps big enough to stand in. Then you hop off your bike, carry it down the narrow walkway past stacks of bald tires, dull chrome rims and a trailer full of assorted grimy engine parts.

When you see the rows of car doors with no windows, you hop on your wheels and ride through the auto graveyard, a sea of smashed, crashed, rusted, gutted, stripped vehicles and assorted monuments to man's obsession with motorized transportation.

There are Subarus, Cadillacs, Buicks, Nissans and Fords. The stereos are gone, the seats are missing and wires poke out from removed dashboards like garden weeds. There are taxicabs with no steering wheels, Hyundais with no doors and a Comcast minivan with everything missing but the rearview mirror.

You hit a hard right turn over the gray dirt, then fly across a flat 150-yard stretch that's purposefully set up so you have to ride through mysterious toxic puddles of antifreeze, gasoline, motor oil and water.

You pass a 19-foot Bee Craft motorboat (without the motor) near the wall of rusted axles and navigate the natural obstacle course of half-buried spark plugs, engine hoses and random shards of metal. Watch out for the old train tracks that emerge from the constantly moist dirt.

Hit the jump over the dilapidated pickup truck, traverse more cracked concrete, pass the cheering fans, and do it all over again - maybe 20, 30 or 40 times.

There's no prize money and no grand trophy for the winner of the second annual Bilenky Urban Cyclocross Race, which will be held Dec. 9. But a keg awaits finishers, as well as a live band, barbecue, bonfire and general merriment with others who share a love of bicycle culture.

"Racing has very little to do with the actual event," says Peter Dalkner, who placed second in the inaugural event last year and then nearly burst into flames when he stood near the fire in his muddy clothes.


"We kept looking at this place and saying how much fun it would be to ride," says Stephen Bilenky, owner of Bilenky's Cycle Works, which sits adjacent to the junkyard officially known as Big Guys Used and New Auto Parts.

Last year Bilenky, the custom craftsman with an international following, decided to have an open house in his Olney workshop. And to draw a crowd, they built the event around the race.

Bilenky and about a dozen other riders tackled the half-mile circuit. Some people rode cyclocross bikes - essentially road bikes with fatter tires. Others raced on old beaters, and one guy rode a mountain bike.

Some people sported spandex and traditional racing gear, but others wore jeans and T-shirts. Dalkner, who works at Trophy Bikes in Northern Liberties, wore the wool sweater and Dickies he'd planned to wear to work that evening.

"The people who raced last year got really, really dirty," says Bob Kamzelski, a Bilenky employee who watched the race. "They were covered in mud and oil."

Dalkner had to go home to change before working.

Not everyone completed the race. After a winner was declared about an hour into the event, some of the racers, Bilenky included, opted to join the party rather than continuing.

"Mostly it was people who just wanted a good time," says Kamzelski. "You could pick out the actual cyclocross guys because they were going really fast."

The race is open to anyone for a $5 entrance fee, and the party is open to all for free. Given the Bilenky reputation and more publicity (, this year they're expecting twice as many riders and an even bigger party.


Bilenky, 53, moved into the old industrial area along the R8 line 15 years ago when he started his bicycle manufacturing company. He's been working on bikes since he was a child. His first job was at the Schwinn store on Castor Avenue near Oxford Circle. He was 12.

Bilenky tailors his bikes to buyers based on measurements of their inseam, height, weight and length of thighs, arms and torsos.

"There's a real renaissance for custom-crafted bikes," Bilenky says. "People are appreciating old-fashioned, handcrafted machines again. Bikes are like jewelry to them."

The average bike costs around $3,000 with some selling for as much as $7,000.

Bikes take about three months to craft from scratch. The six employees cut their own steel from strong, thin-walled aircraft-grade tubing. They weld and braze the parts, do hand-pinstriping, then add all the components.

While they were once best known for their tandem bikes, they're now getting attention for their use of "lugs" that strengthen the connections between tubes and give Bilenky creations a classic look.

"Most of the major manufacturers got away from lugs because it was too labor intensive," Bilenky says. "But it's what a real bike looks like. It's very retro."

They also make cargo bikes with a platform that's strong enough to carry a small refrigerator, Bilenky says. And they construct bikes that can be taken apart, packed into a suitcase and transported anywhere.

Bilenky makes only about 100 bikes a year, and they're delivered to Japan, Denmark, Finland, Malaysia and Iceland, as well as across the United States.


It took two days to set up the urban cyclocross course last year.

One of the race features was the ride through an RV that was cut in half, with a ramp going in the side door and a jump out the back half. Immediately after the race, the junkyard crew crushed the RV before a cheering crowd.

"We get all kinds of junk," says Pat Yuhasz, who owns the yard. "Now we got half a school bus that we'll set up so they have to duck through the back exit and ride through the bus."

This year's race will be twice as long, which means even more mud.

Dalkner, who also races in traditional cyclocross events through bucolic parks and woodlands, plans to wear white Tyvek overalls this year.

"By the time I was done last year I was soaked from the chest down," he says. "It was pretty nasty."