2017 Philly Bike Expo
With an expanding expo, sublime parties and a stratospheric seminar program, Philly's Bike Expo, November 4-5, has come a long way in its eight years, and it now holds a position of national significance.
To be fair, there was some puzzlement eight years ago when the Philly Bike Expo announced its first edition. It was a cycling expo for everybody, we were told. 68 local and regional businesses attended in the first year, but it was thought of as a small regional show that defied an exact definition. All that would change though, and now the expo has grown into one of the most significant small-scale cycling events in the USA, with around 170 exhibitors. But as attendees know, this event about a lot more than the product exhibitors.
The Philly Bike Expo was co-founded in 2010 by Stephen Bilenky and staff members in his custom bicycle frame building workshop. Instrumental in that group was Simon Firth, a one-time cycle messenger from London who’s next flourishes after the Philly Bike expo resulted in establishing Hanford Cycles and Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles in nearby Fishtown.
Simon Firth was one of the main instigators of the Philly Bike Expo. Photo: Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles
Firth recalls: “There was an idea bouncing around Bilenky Cycle Works that if we were going to have a decent biking city we needed more than striped lanes, big rides and a bicycle coalition: we needed a big annual expo event too. We couldn’t get NAHBS to come here, Interbike had long since left the east coast and the Cirque du Cyclisme was winding down, so we decided to have our own show.”
The new event came together fairly rapidly. “Steve and I went to look at the Armory building [original venue, ed.] on our way to the airport for Interbike in fall of 2009. Some friends of mine had suggested it and we thought it looked about right, and so we called around all our friends and contacts in the bike industry and the next year we had first the expo.”
The expo was initially meant as a way of providing a cycling event for Philadelphia. The thing is, though, cycling has deep roots in that area and has come to mean a lot of different things to different people. The embracing of such a wide swath made it difficult to explain the event in a long paragraph, let alone the tweet-sized morsels that were starting to make up the majority of the public discourse back in 2010.
Firth recalls: “It was a pretty rough-and-tumble start to the whole thing. You know, super grassroots. Really it was a little bike shop that wanted to put on a show, and somehow we managed to pull it together. We had a good amount of people first year. I didn’t want it to be stuffy. I wanted it to be more of a bike party, and fun. And not a competition. We decided not to have awards, although I think last year a People's Choice award was started up and that seemed to work fairly well.” A Prince tribute bike made by Minneapolis company Peacock Groove was chosen by show-goers.
After the first few editions, Stephen Bilenky’s daughter Bina took over as the expo director. While the event benefited from having a dedicated manager with management training, Bina kept it on the same track as it had started: fun, informal, irreverent and welcoming. The big change she made was to move the venue to the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia.
Bilenky and Co. Stephen Bilenky (centre left), show director Bina Bilenky (centre right), and staff. Photo: Mark Dawson Studio
“The show has grown organically,” said Firth, “Bina understands about having fun and she has directed it that way since she took over.” Over the years the show has developed and stayed true to its slogan: Artisans, Activists and Alternatives.
The diverse Philadelphia cycling community warmed to the idea of a bike show that enabled groups to promote their discreet nooks in the cycling world. For a few years a cycling fashion show was held there, high wheel demonstrations have been part of the show, as have various aspects of bicycle frame building and design, cycling advocacy, yoga… the list goes on.
Something for everybody at the Philly Bike Expo. Photo: Philly Bike Expo
Over the years, the Philly Bike Expo found a spot so sweet that frame builders from around the USA, and many in the more mainstream cycling world have wanted to be part of it too.
More than a couple of dozen handmade Custom frame builders exhibit at the expo, and they remain the brightest stars of the show, as they should, but larger companies have found being there makes sense for a range of reasons.
Stephen Bilenky said, “There seems to be more engagement with the expo these days, I think people are understanding more about who’s there and what it is,” which is pretty well everybody and everything cycling.
Kryptonite is sponsoring the bike valet, and along with Ortlieb is sharing the cost of an open bar at the industry party - which is expected to be a big event on Saturday night. 75 dealers have already pre-registered for the newly-added industry hours from 8-10 a.m. each morning.
“It’s become quite a big event for dealers and manufacturers in that way,” says Bina Bilenky. “People will come to me and tell me about all the new accounts they signed or new relationships they established here.” This might be surprising news to expo-goers, because it has neither the look or feel of an industry event, rather it looks like a cycling consumer show with more things than usual to do.
Dealer relations seem far from the minds of these two children at Pello's Have-a-Go session. Photo: Paul Skilbeck
“People come to us during the summer with ideas about things they could do at the expo,” says Stephen Bilenky. “It was always our idea that this should happen: we don’t curate those events, we just provide a venue and promotion and help them to happen.”
Community organizations such as ArtBike! Neighborhood Bike Works and Cycling Savvy will be active on site. ArtBike! Leads a ride to the expo for highly decorative bikes and inside the hall is providing an area for children and adults to create and display bike-themed art. Cycling Savvy teaches street skills for cyclists, while Neighborhood Bike Works runs a suite of youth and adult programs designed to encourage more people to ride and maintain their bikes.
ArtBike! submission. Photo: Paul Skilbeck
The components maker FSA is planning a dazzling exhibition of custom bicycles, all of which are equipped with FSA components.
Richard Schwinn will join collectors Larry Black and Via Bicycle to present a vintage bike concours that could be a show stealer… if there weren’t so many other exhibits of extraordinary quality in the hall.
You might see a Curly Hetchins there, or something even sweeter. Photo: Paul Skilbeck
A vast array of breathtaking hardware notwithstanding, one of the most impressive features of the 2017 Philly Bike Expo is the seminar program. Three seminar rooms will be in action morning to evening on both days of the expo, and many of the cycling industry’s leading lights will be speaking. The highlights of the seminars and panel discussions are many and varied including an impressive roster of names from across the bicycle manufacturing industry. There are so many leading lights it's hard to know where to start. You just have to look at the schedule for yourself.
HBG will attempt to provide video highlights from some of these sessions among its expo coverage.
Since cyclists seem to enjoying talking as much as they do riding, the industry party on Saturday night is likely to be jam packed. But those who lack the correct credentials or who cannot make it that night might enjoy Simon Firth’s Friday night pre-expo gathering that’s been running for a few years now at Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles in Fishtown. It’s a fundraiser for the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, there’s a food truck and beer, and it’s bound to be a lot of fun, whatever kind of cyclist you are.
All details are on phillybikeexpo.com