Out for a four-month, 7,300-mile bike ride through Africa

Stephen Bilenky, an artisan frame builder known for making handcrafted, lightweight steel bikes at his Olney works, may join daughter Bina Bilenky Trahan in Tanzania or Botswana and ride a section of the Tour d'Afrique with her.
Stephen Bilenky, an artisan frame builder known for making handcrafted, lightweight steel bikes at his Olney works, may join daughter Bina Bilenky Trahan in Tanzania or Botswana and ride a section of the Tour d'Afrique with her. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 09, 2014

Two days from now, just before dawn, at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles in Khartoum, Bina Bilenky Trahan and more than 30 other intrepid souls will be pushing off from the Sudanese capital, heading for Cape Town, South Africa. Their trip will clock in at 7,363 miles and take them through nine countries, across deserts and mountains, in searing heat and subtropical cool.

On bikes.

And Bilenky Trahan will be doing the Tour d'Afrique - one of the most challenging organized cycling expeditions in the world - on an all-terrain touring bike with her name on it. Literally.

Her father, Stephen Bilenky, is the artisan frame builder behind Bilenky Bicycle Works, whose Olney-based shop is famous for its hand-built, lightweight steel machines. Dad designed and brazed one just for his daughter, who will pedal the bike with the trademark "Bilenky" on its down-tube through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.

"I'm super-excited about being on the tour," Bilenky Trahan said, sipping tea at an Old City cafe shortly before the Christmas holidays. "When you're on your bike, you see everything at a slower pace, and you're just more in tune with everything. . . . And I'm a crazy animal lover, and there's one section of the tour in Botswana called the Elephant Highway - the largest concentration of elephants in one place in the world."

Bilenky Trahan, 28, small of frame but big on enthusiasm, is on the Tour d'Afrique in an official capacity. One of two assistant directors hired by the Toronto-based company (it runs nine other transcontinental tours), she'll be in charge of communications, doing blog posts and documenting the four-month trip.

That's only one of her jobs. Bilenky Trahan, who organizes the annual Philly Bike Expo, is the "sweep" person on the Tour, making sure none of the slower cyclists are left behind to deal with lions or bandits or who knows what.

The riders pitch tents at night. There are 31 signed up for the full stretch, with an additional 22 registered for various sections along the way.

Although she won't be on her bike every day of every stage - the team of 10 support staffers have a bus carrying equipment, food, and supplies - Bilenky Trahan figures she'll be cycling for at least a third of the expedition. A mere 2,500 miles.

The Tour d'Afrique - now in its 12th year - is a for-profit operation, but the company, through its foundation, donates bicycles in Africa and India. More than 2,000 bicycles have been donated, and this year's tour will give about 150 bikes to health-care workers in Nairobi, Victoria Falls, and Cape Town, to allow them greater access to remote communities, Tour manager Shanny Hill says.

This year's Tour is different in one significant way: Because of the political turmoil in Egypt, the Tour begins in Khartoum rather than Cairo.

And the Tour is being routed to avoid South Sudan, another hot spot of conflict and violence. Bilenky Trahan is fine with the change in itinerary.

"The Sudanese route is all new," she says, "and a lot of it is very, very lightly traveled. So, we're not going to see the Egyptian pyramids, but we get to see the Nubian pyramids."

Bilenky Trahan has been training for the last few months in and around Lewisburg, Pa., where she and her husband, Justin Trahan, live.

"I was trying to do 100 miles a week, and that was no problem," she says. "But the terrain is another thing . . . . I can ride slowly, all day, but once you throw in sand and loose gravel, and the steep climbing, well . . . I've done a couple of short tours, two or three nights, sleeping in a motel, so this is going to be very different. I'm definitely a hotel tourer!"

Not that Bilenky Trahan is a stranger to bush camping. When she was studying biodiversity at Drexel University, she spent 31/2 months doing a primate census in Equatorial Guinea. She met her future husband there, and transferred to Texas A&M, where he was enrolled. She graduated with a degree in recreational parks and tourism science. The couple honeymooned in Tanzania.

When Bilenky Trahan landed the Tour d'Afrique gig last year - a perfect pooling of her experience in event planning, cycling, and tourism - she realized that she and her husband, who works in the oil and gas industry, needed to have "some sort of chat."

As it turns out, not much of one. He decided to leave his job and join her - and was hired onto the Tour's support team.

David Sylvester, a personal trainer at the Union League and author of Traveling at the Speed of Life - a book about his experiences on epic global bike treks - did the Tour d'Afrique in 2005. He calls it "a life-changing experience," and one that challenged him not only physically but also psychologically and spiritually. (Homesickness is not something to be discounted, he says.)

"You get to experience Africa in a very unique way, because you get to see all of the colors, the cultures, the languages, flavors," Sylvester says. "You're at ground level, you're going slow enough to feel everything that people are feeling."

He adds: "And the depth of those feelings, and how much you think of that, is up to the individual."

With her flagging tape and her water purification pills and her "portable Best Buy" (a GoPro, a smartphone, an iPad, a Bluetooth keyboard), Bilenky Trahan's Tour d'Afrique is about to begin - on a super-technical, high-end Bilenky with a unique curved top tube - a far cry from the store-bought Schwinn Hollywood she started her cycling life on at 4 or 5. Her father remembers building a tandem with a small back end, and he and his daughter were out riding around when she was only 9 or 10.

The elder Bilenky is considering dropping in on the Tour in Tanzania or Botswana and riding a section with his daughter.

Until then, Bilenky Trahan is on her own - with her fellow Tourers, her husband, and the scores of Africans she's bound to meet along the way.

And those elephants in Botswana, too.


Follow Bilenky Trahan's posts on www.tourdafrique.com/author/bina.

srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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