The Philly Bike Expo isn’t just the largest independent bike show on the east coast — it’s one of the most unique events of its kind anywhere. Director Bina Bilenky explains how what began as a celebration of quirky and inventive design has grown into a hub for organizing and building stronger, more inclusive cycling communities.
Since 2010, the Philly Bike Expo has been Philadelphia’s premier noncompetitive cycling event — a gathering of two-wheel enthusiasts, activists, makers, and others connected with the city’s vibrant bike culture. Not just a trade show, the Expo has always celebrated the innovative and the eccentric in bike manufacturing, with a spotlight on handmade custom designs by artisans from around the country. It’s also become a center for learning and discussion aimed at forming connections and growing the bike community in Philly and beyond.
“We do seminars, workshops, demos, rides, parties throughout the entire weekend. And so we really strive for a ‘something for everyone’ atmosphere. We have exhibitors that range from like the tiniest handmade bicycle maker to the largest component manufacturers in the world,” said expo owner and director, Bina Bilenky.
Founded in 2010, the Expo has grown significantly over the years. As outdoor rec grows in popularity each year, the focus of the Expo is expanding with it.
“When we first started, it was started in downtown Philadelphia. We had a much smaller pool of exhibitors. This was over a decade ago, and initially we got sort of a reputation as an urban commuter focused event. And as the years have gone on and since we’ve moved to the convention center and the audience has broadened we pretty much cover everything,” said Bilenky.
With their motto “something for everyone,” Expo organizers try to make the weekend as accessible as possible for everyone interested in getting involved. The expo offers rides for all levels of cyclists and a range of seminars throughout the weekend covering topics from bikepacking to safety for urban cyclists. They also have a scholarship for people underrepresented in the cycling community to attend the Expo.
While a date has not been set for the 2023 Expo, stay tuned for updates at phillybikeexpo.com.
Josh Raulerson (00:01):
Today is Friday, January 6th, 2023. Happy New Year, and welcome to another year of Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. My name’s Josh Raulerson.
Since 2010, the Philly Bike Expo has been Philadelphia’s premiere non-competitive cycling event. It’s a gathering of two-wheel enthusiasts, activists, makers, and many others connected with the city’s vibrant bike culture, not just a trade show. The expo has always celebrated the innovative and the eccentric in bike building with a spotlight on handmade custom designs by artisans from around the country. It’s also been a center for learning and discussion aimed at forming connections among cyclists and growing the bike community both in Philly and beyond. Bina Bilenky is owner and director of the expo, and also the daughter of its founder, Stephen Bilenky.
I spoke with her recently about how the event has grown along with Philly’s bike scene and with the growing interest in outdoor recreation generally across the state. Here’s our conversation.
Bina Bilenky (01:03):
The Philly Bike Expo is unique in that it is a celebration of cycling. It is an indoor expo. The expo itself is sort of the main highlight. However, we do seminars, workshops, demos, rides, parties throughout the entire weekend. And so we really strive for something for everyone atmosphere. And we have exhibitors that range from like the tiniest handmade bicycle maker to the largest component manufacturers in the world.
Josh Raulerson (01:39):
Tell me a little more detail about the programming then. You mentioned education. I believe there’s some advocacy, community building. How much of it is, is that kind of thing versus what you might see at a more traditional type of bike expo, the gear and the industry stuff and that kind of thing? What topics do you cover and how do you approach them?
Bina Bilenky (01:57):
Gosh, so we cover a very wide range of topics. The programming goes on throughout all the expo hours, so we have seminars that start at 10:00 AM when the show opens and run until after the show closes. And we have everything from advocacy to clinics on the newest tech, to lifestyle and culture, training and racing, getting involved, like you said, community building. So topics that are focused on that. This past year we had a seminar on adaptive cycling. We also have sort of like, travel logs, but focused on important topics. Like we had Erick Cedeno, the bicycle nomad, do a recap of his journey of the bicycle corps. If you’re familiar with that, I guess it was in the 1880s, the Buffalo Soldiers going by bicycle from, I think they ended up in St. Louis. So that was really cool, really moving topic.
Josh Raulerson (03:08):
Given the setting I would, I think, expect the focus to be somewhat, at least on urban bike issues specifically. But I wonder like, how, wide does it range regionally? I guess that’s sort of two questions: Is your audience mostly from the Philly area and what kinds of issues matter to them? Are they, are they commuters? Are they interested in traffic safety, that kind of thing? Or you also do trail riding, gravel riding, mountain biking. How much overlap is there in those interests?
Bina Bilenky (03:39):
So, I mean, there’s so much overlap. When we first started it was started in downtown Philadelphia. We had a much smaller pool of exhibitors. This was over a decade ago, and initially we got sort of a reputation as like a urban commuter focused event. And as the years have gone on and since we’ve moved to the convention center and the audience has broadened we pretty much cover everything. Like you said about traffic safety we had workshops and demos on navigating Philly and other urban streets safely. But then we also have stuff about bike packing. We did a three part series of history and evolution of the mountain bike that was wildly popular and well attended. And our attendees come from, obviously there’s a large concentration in Philly, but really the entire Northeast corridor, and that’s actually branching further west.
Bina Bilenky (04:46):
We’ve had folks who are flying in from Illinois and from Michigan and Kentucky. We’re, I mean, we’re the largest independent bike show on the East coast the only woman-owned bike show in the country. There’s nothing else like it. Most events of this size are usually in conjunction with a prominent race or ride, and we are not. So our focus is on the community aspect. The educational aspect, the inspiring aspect and the something for everyone. So you don’t have to be an elite mountain biker to ride at this event and then as a result attend the expo. It’s open to everyone. And our audience is super diverse.
Josh Raulerson (05:40):
Do you also do outings as part of it? Are there rides associated with the expo?
Bina Bilenky (05:45):
For sure. Yeah, so I mean, we normally have like 6, 8, 10 rides in conjunction with the expo. And they range from family fun rides that’s like a couple miles and ends up at the expo. We do a mixed terrain ride, which is road and gravel in the Wissahickon that we had Ian Boswell join this year. We have some faster rides, we have some slower rides. We have some night rides. Same thing, we want to have a ride for just about anyone, so that if you decide, hey, I want to get a little, a few miles in while I’m in Philly there’s something that is going to interest you. We’ve had ones that’s more of like a historical tour This past year we had a nighttime cyclocross race held on Saturday night of the expo, so that was super fun. That’s also another thing we do as kind of our auxiliary parties and events throughout the weekend.
Josh Raulerson (06:49):
Let’s zero in on the advocacy piece a little bit. What are the issues, your attendees, your presenters are really fired up lately. What are the big issues you’re grappling with? How do you address those and how does that kind of map out given the reach of the event? How much of it is Philly specific versus sort of, of of broader regional or national interest?
Bina Bilenky (07:10):
There’s kind of the expected issues of like infrastructure and policy. So we always have a couple seminars on deck from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. They do stuff on the Circuit Trails and any other projects that are in the works. We also usually have something on e-bikes whether it be policy or more technical just because, even though they’ve been around a while now, it’s still newer than the original bicycle. So this year we had someone come from DCNR in Harrisburg to talk about their latest draft policy that I think came out in August. There’s environmental concerns obviously with any kind of production and manufacturing. So we had a presentation from Reynolds. They are a tubing manufacturer and they talked about steel and whether it’s the greenest or not, they did a full on study about it, some sort of environmental impact study.
Bina Bilenky (08:23):
And so they presented on that. So that was pretty cool because a lot of our audience is obviously interested and concerned with the sustainability of what they’re buying and consuming also, I guess cycling rights like bicycle law when in an accident is always a topic of interest. I would say, maybe more so in this city, but not necessarily. So we usually have a presentation on that as well. And then diversity, equity and inclusion is a big one for us. And we try and do less of talking about it and more of doing. And so rather than me putting out all kinds of things about what I think and what I want to do we make sure that our presentations and seminars and demos are represented well by all different communities and populations.
Bina Bilenky (09:28):
We have a scholarship that is sponsored by SRAM and it is the Inclusivity Scholarship for Frame Builders. And so that opens up the opportunity of exhibiting and attending the expo as a scholarship recipient for frame builders of underrepresented communities, women and trans people of color. And we’re on our fourth year of that. So that’s been really, really cool to see grow. The first year we had to actually go out and find folks to give the scholarship to essentially, and now we’re getting a bunch of applications each time, which is great, which shows that we’re creating awareness and we’re making a space for folks to feel comfortable and be represented. I mentioned the adaptive cycling thing. So making bikes accessible for all, both in a physical sense, this seminar was put on by a guy who runs a shop in New England, Adaptive Bicycles, but then also finding ways where we can make the expo accessible for folks who may not have the funds for a ticket or haven’t heard about it. So making sure that we spread the word and offer discounts or free admission to folks who might not otherwise be able to attend.
Josh Raulerson (10:57):
Following up on, on some of the DEI stuff that is an area that PEC and partners in the Circuit Trails Coalition have been focused lately, particularly on the question of like, access to trails, to bike infrastructure, how equitable is it (not very as it turns out). Where does that connect with the issues that you were talking about at the expo and when what you, you were outlining with the, the scholarship program that’s sort of focused on the industry side. What about the user side? Is there a push to kind of diversify cyclists and create or improve opportunities for all kinds of Philadelphians to get out and ride? Is that part of your programming?
Bina Bilenky (11:32):
Yeah, I mean, that was just one example, but the Bicycle Coalition youth cycling program manager, he put together a really good presentation this year on cycling, inclusivity and diversity and how can it bring us together. We also partner quite a bit with KRT Cycling. They’re a club in Philly, a Black-founded club, but anyone can join. And they’ve been really instrumental in, I would say, that topic of how can cycling bring us together, pulling folks in from all over and making it accessible. We try and do it kind of organically with having this “something for everyone” motto. We brought in this guy Darnell, on Instagram he’s @rrdblocks, but he’s like the wheelie king. He’s like really cool.
Bina Bilenky (12:25):
I think he’s based out of New York, but he goes all over and like droves of kids come out and follow him, want to learn his tricks and stuff. So he, like, he did a ride out from a shop in South Philly to the expo and us together with Burn Helmets, who is one of his sponsors. We provided free admission to any of those youth that came, and then Darnell did a demo at the expo. And so trying to not like pigeonhole groups of cyclists or what a cyclist is. We’re trying to just kind of expand to cover all spectrums and that cycling can be for everyone and in whatever capacity works for you.
Josh Raulerson (13:10):
One area where we’re tracking a lot of growth in the outdoor industry broadly and in cycling is, is gravel riding. It seems to really be picking up. What’s the gravel riding situation near Philly? Are there rides near you? Is there interest in it and what’s needed to support the growth of the sport in where you are?
Bina Bilenky (13:26):
Gosh, yeah, there’s a ton right in the city. There’s gravel in the Wissahickon and other connecting networks ,and then there’s a lot of gravel rides that are within an hour of the city. I think like the Brandywine Reve is one, Hush Money Bikes in Lancaster puts on some great rides only an hour from the city. The gravel thing, well I don’t know which one came first, but like the all-road bike has become really popular, that just makes sense for riding in the city, to have a bike with a little bit fatter tire and a little bit more traction. So I think a lot of folks are gravitating towards that for city riding. I mean, think of touring bikes back in the day. Gravel bike in a sense could be seen as that with just not as relaxed geometry.
Bina Bilenky (14:19):
But yeah, it’s hugely popular. We’ve had seminars on it. This year we did a seminar called Bikepacking Your Backyard, basically like all-road gravel touring stuff, but not having to get so far out. And it was put on by a guy who just did the Continental Divide Trail. And then we’ve had more gravel-specific seminars in previous years. But if you were to attend the show, you would see that the bicycles there we had had, I don’t know, like 40 custom frame builders and then another 20 or some production bicycle companies. It was dominated by gravel bikes. I think that’s honestly just the trend for everywhere.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are feeling like they want to get off the road a little bit, just based on how things are going infrastructure-wise, safety-wise, that seems to be even if you’re not somewhere where you have gravel right out your back door, that if you’re going to be traveling on the weekend, that’s what you’re looking for.
Josh Raulerson (15:27):
Speaking of getting off the road, what, what would you say is the affinity, the shared interest between people that are huge into cycling and people that are just sort of outdoorsy in general and specifically interested in the environment. What are the shared interests and the goals that, that make these groups kind of natural allies and what are the other natural allies that cyclists should be partnering with?
Bina Bilenky (15:52):
I would say most everyone I know in addition to cycling either also hikes or also runs or also paddles or also climbs. I don’t really know anyone who’s just like, oh, I’m only a cyclist. And then by default, most people who are going to be into cycling and any other outdoor activity is going to have an interest and a concern for the environment. I see a lot of rides heading in that direction. Things have changed with like how many disposable cups are used at aid stations, that used to be like totally the norm and then you slowly start to see that go away and that’s like one teeny tiny example. But if folks are outdoors, they have a vested interest in the environment and an outdoor recreation. Yeah, I think the more people that get outside the better for everyone
Josh Raulerson (16:53):
As interest in outdoor recreation generally. And I think cycling specifically is way up since the start of the pandemic, even really before that, but especially in the last couple of years. How are you seeing that reflected in participation of the expo interest in the topics that you talk about and in cycling generally? Are you seeing that up swell of interest?
Bina Bilenky (17:14):
For sure. It was already on the up before the pandemic and then obviously that kind of forced a lot of folks outside in a good way and got people interested in it. And I’ve seen that continue. I mean, most of the people that I know who have picked it up over the pandemic kept with it. We’ve also seen our audience become increasingly more diverse since the pandemic. I think folks who maybe weren’t working from home or were into other types of recreation, got into outdoor recreation from a lack of options during the pandemic. So we kind of use our audience as a guide to the topics that we provide. We always put out a survey at the end of each expo, how was the programming? How were the sessions? What would you like to see in the future?
Bina Bilenky (18:11):
And so, this past year we ran quite a few programs on like kids’ bike maintenance, because that was a big one that we got last year was like, oh, they really wanted to see stuff more stuff for kids. So that was really cool. We did some like basic bike maintenance for two different age ranges. I mean, that’s one of the most rewarding things of the expo is seeing all the little ones run around and ride and be into the parts and accessories that they see because they’re our next generation of cyclists and they’re the ones who are going to have the impact on the world. So I love that part of my job.
Josh Raulerson (18:51):
Well, I mean, the other facet of Covid as an event organizer, how has it changed the way that you run the expo? Has it affected the way you think about the mission?
Bina Bilenky (19:01):
Yeah, I mean, that was challenging for sure. I mean, we didn’t have a show in 2020. I kicked around the idea of like a virtual expo and ultimately decided against it. Cost was a factor. I am an in-person event coordinator. Virtual type stuff is not my forte, and I would’ve had to bring in some team to run it. And then I just felt that it just wouldn’t be the same. So we just, we opted to take a year off and in 2021 we did have a show, a lot of a lot of events. Still didn’t come back in 21, but we did, and we just obviously we followed all city and state guidelines, so it was a, a mask required show. Our food and beverage had to be consumed in certain areas, and that was about the extent of the major changes that we had to do for that year. And then this past year was back as normal as —
Josh Raulerson (20:05):
Normal as it’s gonna be,
Bina Bilenky (20:05):
Right? There was no mask requirement. But some folks obviously felt more comfortable in them and being the vibe that we always give off, everyone was friendly and respectful of each other’s choices. We have started recording more of the sessions than we did in previous years. Like in previous years, we would just kind of pick a handful of like new notable, kind of like quote unquote celebrity presenters and record those. And this year we recorded like the majority of them for anyone who tested positive that weekend or just wasn’t comfortable going yet and still wanted to have access to the knowledge and inspiration that we provide over the weekend. So those are a couple things that we’ve continued.
We’re definitely kind of like in a buildup phase because 2019 was our biggest show ever. And then 21 was pretty scaled back. And then this past year we like doubled from last year, but still didn’t quite hit 2019 numbers. So we’re hoping that this next year will kind of get back to where we started. But I think to some extent there’s always going to be folks now who, because of whatever’s going on in their life currently, they’re just like not ready for an indoor experience with a lot of people.
Josh Raulerson (21:31):
So the expo is growing, evolving. The outdoor industry in Pennsylvania, as we’ve been talking about, is also growing and evolving. What are the challenges and opportunities that you see ahead of the expo? Given the, the growth of the industry, the surge of interest in outdoor recreation, what’s the future for the Philly Bike Expo look like? Given all that?
Bina Bilenky (21:53):
For me, I don’t see anything negative or concerning. I think it’s all, it’s all good stuff as far as like the outdoor recreation growing, I see a lot more events popping up, rides and races and that sort of thing. So I think those events are going to really have to step it up to kind of highlight what’s different and unique about them.
I’m actually currently here in Lewisburg PA, which is home of Unpaved, the big gravel race. When Unpaved started, I don’t know, I guess it was like five years ago, there was maybe only like one or two other gravel races in central PA and now there’s a lot. So again, I don’t see it as a bad thing. My motto has always been like, the more the merrier just provides more opportunities for more folks. It’s like, oh, now there’s an event that’s even closer to home, now it’s less expensive for someone to get to.
Bina Bilenky (22:53):
They don’t have to stay overnight, it used to be right, like if you wanted to do an epic gravel event, you had to travel to Kansas and you had to stay overnight for several nights and fly or gas. I think of it as a positive thing for sure. But I think that they’ll have some brainstorming to do on showcasing what makes them unique so that folks put them on the calendar. We’re kind of in a shoulder season and that’s on purpose. We don’t want to compete with amazing outdoor events. I want to be at amazing outdoor events in the spring and summer and early fall. So yeah, we do the shoulder season specifically.
And you mentioned like the growth in outdoor recreation. I’m sure you’ve met Nathan, the new outdoor rec director for DCNR. I met him actually at a gravel race back in the spring. And I had him to Lewisburg for a little tour of Lewisburg recreation kind of thing. And that’s super exciting to me that the state created a position just for that. That just shows where we’re headed. I’m out on the gravel roads in central PA a lot and I still don’t see many cyclists out there, but more than I used to and, and folks that I don’t know. So people are coming out specifically to ride those roads, which is really cool.
Josh Raulerson (24:16):
Do you have a date set for the 2023 Expo yet?
Bina Bilenky (24:19):
We don’t. It’s a little unusual, but going back to Covid stuff, that’s something that has affected us a little bit with the return of events, which is really great. We’ve run into some scheduling things and events that used to be like every other year have all kind of stacked in 23. And I’m a little bit on the picky side. There is one hall that I like because it has these huge front windows, like floor, ceiling, windows, and you get all this natural light and you can see the Philly landscape out there and all the buildings. And so I’m kind of holding out for my hall. So we should have something announced in the next couple of weeks.
Josh Raulerson (25:06):
Great. Well, I hope you’ll keep us posted. PEC sent some of our staff to hold down a table last year, and I imagine we will be there again this year. So we’re looking forward to that.
Thanks for being on Pennsylvania legacies.
Bina Bilenky (25:17):
Yeah, for sure. Thanks for having me.