- The US State Department doesn’t often make contact with custom bicycle frame builders
- When one of America’s most experienced custom bicycle fabricators got a call from Washington, he knew it was serious
- Investing long hours to conquer a nearly impossible deadline, Stephen Bilenky delivered
Stephen Bilenky has been building bicycles since 1983. An authentic craftsperson, Bilenky produces an average of 75 frames a year from his workshop, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The customers are mostly experienced riders, who want something handbuilt. Customised to their particular tastes and body type. Government departments are not within the traditional Bilenky customer profile. Not even remotely.
When a cryptic message reached the Bilenky workshop in late May, Stephen was skeptical. The US State Department wanted a custom steel bicycle, built in less than two weeks, for a foreign leader. And they were operating within a strict budget. It all sounded a bit strange.
The US government - is a demanding customer
Bilenky initially thought it was a con. Although the American custom bicycle market is significant, customers are rarely cryptic – and seldom, if ever, government officials. All the US State Department would confirm, before Bilenky acknowledged the assignment, was that the foreign leader in question was 1.7m tall.
After agreeing to deliver on the project, Bilenky was told that he would be building a 'US-UK Friendship Bike'. It would have to feature an inspired British colourway and graphic design, but built with proudly American components.
To make things even a touch more complicated, this ‘Boris Bike’ could not exceed a budget threshold of R20 000. To give some context: the average Bilenky custom bicycle is R60 000.
Despite the challenges regarding budget and the desperately short delivery timetable of fewer than two weeks, Stephen Bilenky prevailed.
Rim brakes - but wireless shifting
In an attempt to keep the ‘Boris Bike’ proudly American in structure, Bilenky brazed the frame from a combination of Columbus and Dedacciai steel tubing. The geometry and shape is effectively that of Bilenky's 'Tourlite' customer frames.
Rims were sourced from Velocity USA, with White Industries supplying hubs, cranks and the headset. Pacific Northwest handlebar specialist, Ahearne, provided the M-shaped commuter handlebar, shipped from Portland. Thomson components were used for the seat post and stem, whilst a Selle Anatomica saddle came from California.
One of the world’s most powerful cycling component suppliers is SRAM, with its headquarters in Chicago. The ‘Boris Bike’ uses a SRAM drivetrain and to show how advanced the American cycling industry has become, it is wireless, requiring no tension cables to shift gear.
Any bike destined to be used in a city of global importance (London), requires a courtesy bell and the ‘Boris Bike’ uses one made by Spurcycle, headquartered in San Francisco.
The only notable component sourced from outside the American cycling supply chain, were Schwalbe tyres (Germany).
Bilenky bikes are celebrated for their excellent graphics and paintwork. Once Stephen realised he was building a bicycle for Boris Johnson, it had to be perfect. Union Jack details and a bold base colour, complemented by terrific detailing on the frame and Bern helmet, make this ‘Boris Bike’ a modern classic.
A most unusual State Department project, but one which served as a very original gift from President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during the G7 summit. World leaders and even our own president, are all getting into riding.