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Bilenky Cycle Works

Matthew Butterman

Tuesday 02 May 2017

Bilenky Lawng Jawn: the best thing

Philly Bike Expo founder and local frame building icon Stephen Bilenky showed his Lawng Jawn cargo bike at the 2016 PBE.

Bilenky Lawng Jawn: the best thing
Brad Quartuccio/Philly Bike Expo

Original reporting by Paul Skilbeck.

We'll start our story about Bilenky Cycle Works' custom cargo bike, the Lawng Jawn, by explaining its name. 

According to the Frieght Bicycle page on Wikipedia, this approximate design originated in Denmark, in the workshop S.C.O. in 1923, and it was presented to the public at the World Fair in Wembley, UK, in 1924.  

Crossing the Atlantic to Philadelphia, USA, we encounter the term "jawn," which is approximates the way John is pronounced, and is unique to the vernacular of the city. The definition of jawn defies easy categorization. It has baffled academic linguists - scholars with PhDs from Center City Philly institution and Ivy League member U-Penn - with its ability to occupy nearly every position of syntax in the local argot. To quote the Atlas Obscura, "it is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to remember to bring that jawn to the jawn."

Bilenky Cycle Works founder, and the bike's creator, is located in Philadelphia, and Stephen Bilenky does a good job of capturing the term's essence. "Jawn means it’s the best thing in Philly slang. Like gimme that jawn. I need that jawn that switches the gears." And so Long Jawn just makes sense for this bike.

Bilenky started his eponymous brand back in 1983 in the basement of his repair shop, and now builds from a North Philadelphia frame shop with a staff of six (including a quality control expert, the shop cat Ferdinand). Bicycles are a family affair for the Bilenkys - daughter Bina is the Philly Bike Expo Director.

Bilenky builds bikes of every category from steel and titanium, but cargo bikes are something of a Philly institution; at home in a city where parking a car is an expensive and risky affair.

"Most of my stuff is not built for shows. It’s for a customer. This guy said 'I want a cargo bike, one of yours, but different, not off-the-shelf'. He wanted to use it for his dog, and other things, so its like a long jawn or as they say in Holland, bakfiets," said Bilenky.

The Lawng Jawn features a removeable, "plug-in" rack.   

"This is a concept bike. A real one-off. All the tubes were curved. It’s an exercise in flowing lines. Everything’s got a curve, a keel. It’s a Rohloff, disc brake bike so everything sits on the keep. One thing with these cargo bikes, if they’re not real rigid front to back, the bike kind of dives. The front head tube wants to come back and kiss the steerer tube. So keeping that front end rigid was essential."

Bilenky assured that rigidity by joining parallel tubes and fitting a particularly stout headtube. 

"We used a big oversize head tube from Paragon Machine Works. To keep the wheelbase down and to get the size of the platform, we put in a really nice curve. We used two stacked tubes, that harkens to the Monark, some of those Swedish bikes or the bikes like you see in Amsterdam."

The Lawng Jawn's cargo rack pulls out from the frame, and can be easily plugged back in. The bike is also fitted with S&S couplers (a Bilenky specialty), and will completely disassemble and fit in a travel case.

It's tempting to call the Lawng Jawn a utility bike, but as with anything Bilenky creates, there are ample touches of artistry as well. He cites a steampunk influence with the bronze touches and semi-gloss black paint that remind one of a locomotive's finish - perhaps not surprising in a city that once served as the headquarters for the massive Pennsylvania Railroad.

Steampunk design aesthetic.

The proof of any bicycle's integrity is revealed in the ride, however, and according to Bilenky, the Lawng Jawn does not disappoint.

"I’ve ridden it. Just super solid. If you get on some of these other [cargo bikes], those things are really loosey-goosey. This thing’s super solid. It doesn’t have any of that flex and wobble."

The Lawng Jawn took Bilenky about 400 hours to create. It was fillet brazed. Now that the prototype is under his belt, he has the bending tools and the viewpoint jig can be modified to produce similar bikes. There's already interest.

"We already have another one similar to this sold. It will be a mobile arts and crafts studio. All the stuff will be stored in an interesting looking box. People use these bikes for mobile businesses. Also delivery people looking for a car-free option.

"We’re looking for the bike that can go against the bullet."

This article was updated August 9, 2017, to include the origin of the term Long John.

All photos: Brad Quartuccio/Philly Bike Expo