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.