Pedaling in a Winter Wonderland

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People who know me well are aware of my hate relationship with cold weather. That’s a love/hate relationship without the love. Anything less than 60 degrees and I need a really good reason to go outside. Although I love outdoor activities (hiking, fishing, cycling – duh!), I just can’t get down with winter sports. I have been skiing once and snowboarding twice and barely made it up and down the slope 3 times before giving it up for hot chocolate and the warmth of the lodge. Needless to say, I never went pro in either of those sports. So forget about me getting on a bike during the winter months. While attending school at Texas A&M I was blessed with mild winters and being able to ride November through March. This is my first winter up north since 2008 and I’m really not a fan. I haven’t been on my bike (outside) since early November and I even find it hard to unbundle and get on the trainer since we keep our thermostat on the cooler side – yay oil heat.

I seem to be in the minority here as I keep hearing all about everyone’s lovely winter rides. How do they do it? How do they motivate themselves to get on their bikes when it is below freezing, dark, snowing or raining, or all of the above? I decided to get some answers in hopes of shedding some light on what is a mystery to me, and maybe even gaining some inspiration to do some winter biking myself. I’m sure all of my Embrocation readers already ride throughout the year and know what it takes, so just humor me while I investigate this topic for myself.

My awesome (virtual – although it would have been awesome to have this group all in the Bilenky shop together) panel for this topic: David Kirk – owner at Kirk Frameworks; Bike Snob NYC; Dan Langlois – Bicycle mechanic at Bicycle Therapy and racer for Rapha Continental and Bicycle Therapy; Harry Schwartzman – Bicycle Industry Sales Rep and NYBikeJumble; Isis Shiffer – Painter and framebuilder at Bilenky Cycle Works; Allan Z. Rodzinski – retired professional bicycle racer; Selene Yeager – Health and fitness advocate; Bicycling’s Fit Chick and racer for team CF; Eric McKeegan – Ad Sales Manager for Dirt Rag and Bicycle Times magazines; Jorge Brito – Philadelphia bicycle messenger; and Harlan Price – Cycling skills coach and racer for Santa Cruz Bicycles.

The winter bikes utilized by my celebrity panel included a Steelwool Tweed, Schwinn Suburban, Specialized Epic, unnamed mountain bike, converted single speed Trek, a Circle A, and a Bilenky track bike. A prize to whomever can match each bike to the correct panelist! Fenders are a must for cold, wet riding, as are waterproof gloves, flat resistant tires, and thermoses of coffee. While fenders are needed for wet weather, studs are a necessity when conditions are icy. Living in Montana, I would say that David knows what winter riding is all about, and Eric mentioned that reliability in a bike is key. “Nothing worse than standing around waiting for a ride; clothing that is fine for riding is never warm enough to stand around.” Eric also lists salt and grit resistant parts along with rust proof chains and frame saver for snowy, slushy weather. So here is your reminder to frame saver all your steel beauties! An alternative to getting weather resistant parts: Harry doesn’t recommend riding your favorite bike in the winter. “It’s got to be a POS that you don’t care about. It’s going to get fucked up with salt and ice.”

I am well aware of the great cycling apparel products that are available for winter cycling. I have even bought some in the past, thinking it might push me to get on the bike. It didn’t work, but my Terry tights are the warmest bottoms I own and I sometimes wear them under jeans even though they make my butt look disproportionally large for the rest of my body. According to Dan, Jorge, Harry and Al, wool is a must. I agree, as I have a small love affair with Smartwool base layers. Buffs got two votes, Selene came in with the unexpected answer of silk turtlenecks and Isis is loving her Fifo Cycle ear flap hat. David recommends Carhartts, and if you attended NAHBS last year then you know that I’m a fan of them as well and they can indeed be couture.

When asked about their strategy for dealing with cars at night, just about everyone answered with “lights” in some form or fashion. “Really bright lights buy respect”, says Eric. I guess this means that lights are still the best defense, along with being assertive and aware of your environment. Selene describes her light set up as “enough blinkies that it looks like a 5 car police chase rolling down the street.” While Isis recommends lights like everyone else, she has a couple other methods. “Lots of lights. And taking the lane. And hammering on windows and yelling, if necessary.”

The hardest thing for me is getting motivated to go outside, so I wrapped up with that. Allan, (or Big Al to those who know him) and David said that it is simply the love of riding that motivates them. Hmmm, obviously that hasn’t worked for me. Despite the weather, biking is still the easiest option for Eric as his wife and two kids usually get dibs on their one car. I tend to go stir crazy pretty quickly, so when Selene said she would go psycho if she didn’t get out, I was able to identify with that. “By imagining my future as a depressed android” was Harlan’s answer to how he stays motivated. I’m pretty sure a depressed android is some form of cabin fever as well. Cabin fever/stir crazy/straight up looney seems to be the trend as Dan listed that as well. Jorge’s motivation is money, which is a no-brainer since not riding for him means he isn’t working. Same with Harry, as he does all of his traveling as a sales rep by bike. Isis’ motivation is the adventure that comes with winter riding. “I like being the only vehicle on the road. And how else am I going to get to the sledding hills? I live in South Philly, which is totally flat.”

While my answer to cold weather is riding indoors, Bike Snob feels the complete opposite. “For me the key is to be versatile and let the weather tell me what to do. If it’s frigid and blustery and the ground is clear I ride in the woods. If the trails are a mess I stick to the road. If riding is impossible I spend that riding time doing something else bike-related, like maintenance. The only thing I’ll never do is ride indoors. Tuning up your bike or learning how to build a wheel is a better use of recreational cycling time than spinning on a hamster wheel. Also, often in winter the streets in the city are clear but the roads outside of it aren’t, so you really learn to appreciate commuting.”

I really enjoyed hearing which songs and mantras were used for getting through cold, dark riding. From the Star Spangled Banner playing on an endless loop in his head (Al), to perfect silence (Selene), NPR (Eric), RAWR (Harry), Tom Waits (David), lots of cursing (Jorge), (which I can totally understand) and meetings with wildlife. “Well, mostly my goals are motivation, but I always relish the chance encounter with a deer in the woods. We’ll stare at each other till I can’t figure out if I’m me or the deer.” –Harlan Price

Bike Snob has survived some cold weather riding by knowing that he can bail at any time. “I admit I’ve gotten through some nasty winter night commutes by telling myself repeatedly I can always just get off the bike and hop on the subway.” Dan just focuses on what is not a good artist for staying motivated. “I just try to block out the Billy Joel really. That is the sound of your own impending doom.” I completely agree.

*Photos by Bina Bilenky and Stephen Saxton


Mud. Blood. Scrap metal. Glory.

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“It’s that time! Get your tetanus shots, get your knobbies, and come out for the most unusual cyclocross event in the country.” – Isis Shiffer

For those of you that aren’t familiar with this event, the Bilenky Junkyard Cyclocross Race is just that. Every December we host a cyclocross race in our adjacent junkyard. It started out as a combination holiday party, Bilenky open house, and a fun conclusion to the cross season. Anyone who is brave enough races over junked cars, through hollowed out school buses, around scrap metal and puddles of oil. This year’s race director was the lovely Isis Shiffer with lots of help from the rest of the Bilenky crew (thanks Jake, Naomi and Kasy!), and a handful of hardworking volunteers.

There are a few essential ingredients for the Bilenky Junkyard CX. First and foremost you need the awesome Bilenky crew, followed by a junkyard (thanks Big Guy’s Auto Parts for making this possible every year!), several kegs of Yards beer, and a food truck. It may sound simple but the result is crazy enough to bring people from Asheville, Chicago and even Quebec.

The race is now in its 6th year and has grown to over 150 registered racers and 4 kegs! To accommodate the growing number of racers we decided to incorporate smaller heats for a less chaotic race. 80 semi-drunk (or completely drunk, depending on whom you survey) guys going through obstacles involving a mostly metal and asphalt course can get hairy. We are happy to say that the majority of our injuries this year were just loose gravel road rash. Oh, and one separated shoulder, shout out to Andy Glaser. The medic recommended treatment as soon as possible, but he stuck it out for the entire event and made the smart decision to switch to beer instead of racing. All injuries (other than the shoulder) were tended to by the man himself, Stephen Bilenky.

The race had four categories: Men’s “A”, Men’s “B”, a Women’s race and an alternative bike category. If there were a prize for the craziest alternative bike, I would have to go with the tall bike tandem. We had a great mix of full racing kits, street clothes, costumes, and of course the token cx dresser. A larger than life fish created by Naomi Littel directed race traffic to the first off-road section. At 19’ and made from 30 french-fry oil containers and 1,000 plastic soda bottles – the fish actually floats. Also new this year was the VIP bleacher section at the start/finish line. Maybe next year we will introduce a red carpet for all the celebs that attend. After all, a video of the race did make it to the Bicycle Film Festival.

Dan Chabanov, racer on the Richard Sachs CX team took first in the Men’s “A” race. This led us to wonder where our reigning champion, Ed Bush of Wissahickon Cyclery, disappeared to. BrittLee Bowman won the crown for the women’s race. Congratulations to all of our winners! The super fabulous, couture victory crowns were fabricated by Isis out of bicycle parts, of course. “All I know is I will keep coming back as long as you guys keep putting it on. It’s the best bike race/party/thunderdome of the season.” –Dan Chabanov

And now for some of my favorite quotes from the race:

“When you feel like you’re getting too serious about racing, throw on a lacey dress and feather boa and get back on your bike.” –Izzy Cohan

“Dude this is my most favorite event of the year. The whole Philly cycling community comes together. Guys, girls, bmxer’s, MTBer’s, and cyclocrossers. We’re all there for the same reason: the love of the junkyard.” –Damien Talese

“If we have to explain it, you just wouldn’t understand. Good work Bilenky Cycle Works.” –Bicycle Times

If you missed the race or if you just want to reminisce, check out the awesome videos by In the Crosshairs, Erik Silverson, a helmet cam memoir, and many more photos posted here

The Bilenky Junkyard Cyclocross Race is bike shenanigans at its best. Some might say it’s even tattoo worthy. Tony Lepetit and two of his buddies got matching cowbell tattoos to commemorate the fun times at the junkyard CX. We salute you Tony and your tattoo twins. Whether or not you find the event deserving of ink, we know that you will have an awesome time. A big thank you to everyone who attended and our hardworking set up and race day crew. Can’t forget our prize sponsors: Urban Velo, Bicycle Times, White Industries, Chris King, Primal Wear, Pedal Pushers Club, Bicycle Revolutions, In the Crosshairs, and Fi’zi:k. See you for year seven!!

*Tattoo photo courtesy of Tony Lepetit
*Fish and winners photos courtesy Bilenky Cycle Works
*All other photos courtesy Patrick J. Engleman
All rights reserved


The Fatherhood of the Traveling Pants

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So my dad’s birthday was coming up and I started racking my brain for gift ideas. I’ve had some home runs (an on-sale REI fleece that he doesn’t take off from October through April, and an Amtrak gift voucher), but most clothing items are a real bust. Although Stephen Bilenky may not look like a fashionista, he is very picky about his clothes. Socks must be tall enough to store his cell phone while riding, preferred colors are green and blue, and absolutely no polo shirts (even though his beard hides the hated collar). If you commute quite often in regular clothing you know that the seat of your pants are usually the first to wear out. This is no exception with my dad. Sometimes he retires the pants and sometimes he keeps wearing them…

In the last few years several brands have developed jeans designed specifically for riding. Each pair is different, but have the same basic purpose: to withstand the stress on the fabric from riding and to be comfortable and look good while on the bike. I first saw the Rapha jeans at NAHBS in Austin. Slate Olsen was wearing them and he was looking preeeeetty good… Of course it was the subtle pink details that really caught my eye. I have a hard time finding casual cycling wear that I like because it still looks so bike-y. Some people are going for that look and there are tons of great casual-but-technical accessories and apparel out there. For me, when I’m not spandexed out, I want to look like me – which isn’t cropped knickers and a club fit jersey. I’ll be wearing my painted on jeans, a tank top and flip flops (or a sweater and Uggs if its winter. Booo.). I have yet to find the equivalent of this for biking, but enough about me!

The Rapha jeans are my idea of the perfect casual-but-technical biking apparel. They have a really nice straight fit with a slightly higher rise in the back so you don’t moon everyone when you are riding. The material has a little bit of stretch for extra comfort and they come in quite a few sizes and lengths to accommodate cyclists of all shapes – even if you aren’t 6’ and built like a Tour de France rider. Because the denim is resilient without having a noticeable reinforced butt patch, they look exactly like regular jeans. Well, not regular, more like inconspicuous designer jeans. Since they look like jeans and not funny riding pants, they look great with anything from a t-shirt to a sweater, and even a too-big flannel shirt (my dad’s wardrobe pick). I have no doubt they will pass the riding test, but I’m curious how they will hold up as haute couture brazing wear. My favorite detail is the reflective pink piping and Rapha logo when the right leg is rolled up. You may think this is a Rapha pitch, but it isn’t just that. It’s part praise, part product review, and part hint: hey Rapha, I wear a women’s 00. Just saying…

I gave my dad his present early when he came to visit for Thanksgiving. He hates trying things on and I figured I would need the extra time to make sure they were the right size. He didn’t say much when he opened the package but it wasn’t more than a couple of hours before he tried them on. My husband asked him how he liked them and my dad did his best impression of a Rapha model with a Zoolander face staring off into the distance. He then proceeded to wear them the rest of the night and the next day and probably this whole week if I had to guess. Apparently once you have Rapha jeans there is no need for any other pants, since he left the pants he arrived in at my house. His feedback after riding in them: “no bunchin’ up or chafing – just delightful! Thanks – great present for the guy who doesn’t buy clothes”.


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