The Pull: Remembering Bruce Gordon

The Pull: Remembering Bruce Gordon

This week our show is an appreciation of frame builder Bruce Gordon who passed away June 7th at the age of 71. Gordon was one of the most experienced and talented frame builders ever to pick up a torch. He learned the craft from Albert Eisentraut in the first frame building class he taught after moving to Oakland from Chicago. He went on to invest in Eisentraut’s business and became production manager, before leaving to hang his own shingle. Gordon would spend time building in Oregon before returning to Northern California and settling in Petaluma.

The U.S. is full of talented frame builders, but even among them Gordon was a standout. His work rose beyond just craft and often distinguished itself as much for its art as for its functionality.

He was known as a curmudgeon, and that shaped his wit, which could be as dry as it was caustic. With Mark Norstad of Paragon Machineworks, Gordon created SOPWAMTOS, the Society of People Who Actually Make Their Own Stuff, though that last term has been softened from the one they use. The actual word will pop up later in the show and I certainly hope no one is offended by it. Initially, the SOPWAMTOS awards were a dig at big manufacturers, but in later years they took on a friendlier vibe and celebrated frame builders. As a result, they went from being a bit of a circus at the Interbike Trade Show to being a really fun evening in a bar in Sacramento during the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.

Aside from being a builder of his high-end framesets, Gordon had two additional endeavors. One was his line of TIG-welded touring bikes, which were known to handle well and offer stiffness that was lacking on many production bikes made by the big manufacturers. His BLT was a bike that those in the know said could go anywhere. He also had his own tire, the Rock ‘n’ Road, which was the first large-volume, 700C tire made for use on dirt. Gordon is rarely credited as the innovator of the 29-inch-wheel mountain bike or for the gravel-riding movement, but in both cases he got there before anyone else.

Gordon was something of an Eyeore in his frustration that his work wasn’t more popular. And his disappointment that he wasn’t better credited was understandable. Late in his career Gordon produced a carbon fiber bike with titanium lugs with Mike Lopez, the composites expert who worked with Specialized to produce the Epic Stumpjumpber and the Epic Allez back in the 1990s. The bike Gordon and Lopez crafted took the artful sensibility of Gordon’s lug work and married it to the functionality and reliability of carbon tubes bonded to titanium lugs. The were easily the most beautiful titanium lugs I’ve ever seen.

Gordon also produced a lugged titanium frame. He crafted lugs from tubing and then bonded the titanium tubes to those lugs. It looked like a lugged bike made from stainless steel but left unpainted. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

Many builders tended to do the same cutouts in their lugs on every bike they built. But not Bruce Gordon. He wasn’t content to cut a heart, a club or a spade into his lugs. He often went for asymmetrical designs, such circular windows arranged in an arc on one side of the lug and descending in diameter toward the point.

What truly set Gordon’s work apart is that even bare, it was possible to tell a bike that was his. For my part, the only builder I think I could ever have confused his work with was that of his mentor, Albert Eisentraut, and I can think of no higher praise for such a gifted builder

I’ve interview five people for today’s show: frame builder Mark Nobilette, his former co-worker at Eisentraut; Don Walker, the director of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show; our guest from the last two episodes of The Pull: Paul Sadoff, with whom Gordon produced frames under the name Schnozzola; machinist Mark Norstad of Paragon Machine Works, whose braze-ons, dropouts and other frame fittings are some of the most popular in the industry and with whom Gordon gave the SOPWAMTOS awards; and finally White Industries employee and the Soul Craft owner Sean Walling, who worked for Gordon early in his own career.

 

 

The Pull is brought to you by the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, the world’s premiere gathering of frame builders and frame building enthusiasts. The 2020 show will take place March 20th to 22nd at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas Texas. We hope to see you there.

 

Show links:

Memorial Potluck for Bruce Gordon

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7 comments

  1. John

    Rest in peace, Bruce. A great artist in the bicycle frame building genre.

    Many years ago Bruce built a rear rack for me that is still in use, I kind of wouldn’t expect less as it’s a rack. But it is also kind of a work of art. I also took advantage and got a pair of third party panniers from Bruce.

    I spoke with Bruce a few years ago about building a custom frame. After five or so minutes it became clear that Bruce was strictly an artist. Basic questions such as a timeline and pricing parameters went unanswered. Bruce let me know he wasn’t the frame builder for me. I appreciated his honesty. I had a similar discussion with a renowned frame builder in Montana. When I asked questions about pricing, timelines, and warranties he told me he wasn’t the guy I should be talking to.

    I’m guessing that there are really two categories of custom frame builders: An independent artist that you contract with blindly in some ways and builders that manage it from a somewhat business position but still produce a beautiful custom frame exactly as I want it.

    I bought a custom steel frame from Waterford many years ago. Pricing was firm. They adhered to their loose time frame. I had a small break at the rack mount- the Bruce Gordon racks- and Waterford was fantastic in their warranty repair.

    I do have my own business and my pricing has to be firm. I have to meet deadlines. Warranty issues don’t come up often but I need to agree to honor any warranty issues before beginning.

    This blog devotes a lot of space to custom frame builders and I enjoy reading about them. But my impression is that many custom frame builders are indulging themselves. There are reasons custom frame builders may not be as successful as they want in a tough business.

    Rest in Peace, Bruce.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I do think it’s fair to draw two big divisions in the world of frame building. Certainly, the “businessmen” if we want to term them as such, outnumber the artists. I’ll even say that I think there are a number of builders who try to strike a balance between art and business. I’ve only met a handful of builders who were hostile to such basic questions as price and delivery timeline; it’s far more typical that a builder will name a price and a timeline and then blow the timeline and because they named a price that didn’t conform to their projection of the number of hours there would be in the frame, end up charging too little for the frame and not making enough money on their labors. I’ve certainly seen builders who had orders close up shop because they simply weren’t making enough money. To Bruce’s credit, if you want the thing and the thing isn’t a commodity, you’ve got to give the builder time to do the work. In the case of a truly artful frame, it’s unreasonable to ask the builder ahead of time just how many hours will go into it. A ballpark guesstimate isn’t out of the question, and quoting an hourly rate is reasonable. When Chris Bishop built my road frame I told him not to worry about what the invoice said. I just sent him money every month or two, so that he had funds trickling in, while he did his work. To this day I don’t know what I paid for that frame. At a certain point he sent me an email and said, “We’re good.” I got the frame I wanted, and I’m sure it had more than 50 hours of work in it. Bugging him to name an exact price on the front end would have killed the adventure of what he built for me.

    2. John

      Thank you for thinking about and responding to this, Padraig.

      I appreciate your position that you have been in the bike business many years and have a depth of understanding that I don’t. From my position I respectfully disagree on a lot of your interpretations.

      Asking parameters on pricing, scheduling, and warranty shouldn’t be deal breakers for custom frame builders. Being told that maybe in a year they’ll get to it I feel is self indulgent. I don’t believe I asked strict questions and nothing about hourly labor rates.

      I have been blessed to have three custom steel frames and before that a couple of great limited quantity frames that my local bike shop built up with components that made it close to custom. Oscar Junor, a twenty four hours velodrome racer and champion racer from San Francisco to Los Angeles owned the shop for forty nine years. He shared his knowledge about what to look for in a custom frame and separate the hype from the real art. This was over forty years ago.

      I had my first two custom frames built with the mental outlook you kind of describe. I was starry eyed about getting a custom frame and willing paid that local bike shop a thousand dollars additional as they explained they miscalculated. The price I paid to the frame builder, Waterford, was firm. The bicycles were and are fantastic.

      Some frame builders such as Waterford and Seven Bicycles have pricing, scheduling, and warranty information on their websites. They’ve surely taken their lumps on overruns on some of the frames they’ve made. I put frame builders such as these in a different category than small frame builders whom want it all pretty much their way on terms.

      We live in a free country. Artists can make anything they dream of. And make truly beautiful stuff. They just might not make the living they hoped for.

      I don’t have any disrespect for any custom frame builders. I surely couldn’t do what they do. Rest in peace, Bruce.

  2. Jh

    The very first custom frame builder I’d ever heard of, was Bruce Gordon. The first “Grail Bike” I dreamt of was A Bruce Gordon.
    I’ve always thought of Bruce Gordon as one of the few that would be carved into a 20th century custom bike builder Mount Rushmore.
    Rest In Peace

  3. Eric

    I would like the hear the end of the interview. The audio cuts out just when Sean Walling is talking about the rock and road tires and qs2

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