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Philly bikemaker surprised by diplomatic bike request

President Biden gifted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson an American-made bicycle and helmet custom-made by Bilenky Cycle Works.{ } (Painted Dog Media and Daniel Kilkelly){p}{/p}
President Biden gifted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson an American-made bicycle and helmet custom-made by Bilenky Cycle Works. (Painted Dog Media and Daniel Kilkelly)

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PHILADELPHIA (SBG) – A shop owner in Philadelphia got quite the surprise when the U.S. State Department reached out a week before Memorial Day with a special request. They wanted to know if Stephen Bilenky, 67, could build a custom bike for a diplomatic gift.

“I first thought it was some type of scam,” said Bilenky, founder of Bilenky Cycle Works. Regardless, he answered the email to get more information.

The State Department didn’t reveal many details, only that the rider would be 5’8” tall and weigh around 175 pounds. They also needed it expedited, shipped within two weeks.

“In our world, we’re usually six months, not eight days,” said Bilenky.

The other catch: the price tag. Bilenky’s basic bikes start around $4,500. He estimated this project was upwards of $10,000.

The State Department’s budget was $1,500. The rest, he was told, could be a charitable deduction on his taxes.

“I was already dreaming over Sunday night and Monday morning that a rush job with a lot of specifications would be a big dollar ticket, but apparently the budget was very small compared to what our bikes cost. I had to make a decision whether we'd be interested or not.”

In the end, Bilenky went for it, deciding it was akin to making a bike for the Pope. It could raise exposure for his business, the Philly Bike Expo he founded, and help the bike industry on the East Coast.

Bilenky’s team set aside all its other projects and got to work on this special order. They received a computer rendering of what the State Department was looking for, which is when his team realized the gift was for someone in England. Their image was red, white, and blue with the Union Jack in the details.

The gift, in fact, was for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. President Biden met him in person for the first time Thursday.

The White House says the gift was “a gesture of friendship and in recognition of their shared interest in cycling.”

President Biden enjoys cycling and brought his Peloton to the White House. Prime Minister Johnson used to commute by bike to work when he was mayor of London and was criticized for breaking his own COVID-19 restrictions with a bike ride.

There wasn’t any publicity surrounding the gift-giving.

“I was hoping to see [Johnson] put his leg over the bike, so I was a little disappointed,” said Bilenky. “I was waiting for the president to hand it off in person. I hope the bike doesn’t just sit there. It is not a museum piece; it’s made to be ridden.”

Bilenky praised his team for stepping up and putting together a quality product in such a short time. He called it “top-notch” and the “culmination of many years’ work.”

One of the requests from the State Department was that Bilenky use as many American-made parts as possible. He was able to get several suppliers on board, from Michigan, Illinois, and California.

Bilenky said this project brings him “full cycle.” His early inspiration came from British bike builders and his business launched in the 1980s when one of his British-styled bikes was featured in a magazine.

“The bike that they’re giving the British Prime Minister came from a U.S. builder with British roots,” said Bilenky. “I thought that was a good end to the story.”

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He’s considering creating a more basic commemorative model to take orders for next year.

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