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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  7/1/2007

King of the Touring Nerds

At the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in March, I crossed paths with Bruce Gordon, one of the most respected, yet most puzzling, members of our California cycling community. Bruce is the self-proclaimed ruler of the touring nerds, maker of arguably the world's most beautiful yet functional touring bikes. But he's not that happy about it.

Case in point: His newest creation, a lugged road bike with custom titanium racks, brakes, and seatpost, won Best of Show. "I heard that people thought I didn't look happy," he told me later. "My throat was killing me and all I wanted to do was get the bikes back in the trailer, drive home and get in bed."

In fact, Bruce wins so many design awards, he's become kind of blase about it. "I decided I wasn't going to make a bike for a show that wasn't my size. I made this bike for me and I get to ride it!"

It's obvious the custom bike cognoscenti look up to Gordon. They love his bikes. They also love his components -- especially the ti cantilever brakes. When my better half got a look at them, he said, "I have to get a pair of these!"

Unlike most of the custom builders at the show, Bruce has been plying his trade for over 30 years. That makes him, well, about 30 years older than his average colleague.

He started as part owner of Eisentraut Bicycles. Back then he was probably one of only four or five custom bike builders in the country. Then he moved to Oregon and started his own business. Late in 1988 he came back to California, settling in Sebastopol.

Really, really beautiful bikes
Want to see just how beautiful -- yet functional -- Gordon's designs are? Visit his web site at BG Cycles. Or take a look at the extensive, extremely detailed slide show of his project bikes shown at Interbike from 2003 to 2006 at Classic Rendevous. Better yet, get your hands on Bruce's own CD-ROMs, "A Third of a Century of Bruce Gordon Bikes." This collection of two slide shows (manual and automatic) features nearly 200 images of 29 personal bikes created between 1974 and 2007. He had it prominently for sale at the show, principally to help finance trucking all those bikes to San Jose in a U-Haul. You can still get your own copy at his online Cycle Shop.

Bruce's motto: "A bike should look as good as it rides." That's why he offers custom lugged frames. Made from either "Old School Materials" (the old stamped steel lugs and tubing he used in the 70s) or modern investment cast lugs and oversized tubing, these are really beautiful bikes.

Yet, "anyone who thinks they can make lugged bikes and make a living is delusional," he told me. So most of the Bruce Gordon bikes you'll see on the road are either Rock 'n Road or BLT touring bikes.

The touring bike defined
"For some," the nerdmeister states on his web site, "touring is a 'Backroads'-type tour where you are followed by a Big Red Van with all your gear. For this type of touring, even a racing bike may be appropriate. This is a great way to start touring." Then there's the "weekend ride in the Wine Country with a large seat bag, a change of clothes, and a credit card." What's touted as a "Sport Touring Bike" works there.

But, Bruce reminds us, "the most demanding type of touring is Self-Supported Loaded Touring. . .where you are carrying everything you need, which may weigh up to 50 or 60 pounds. . . .[and]when I speak of touring, this is the type I think of." He proceeds to outline the rigorous design features for "Self Supported Loaded Touring":

  • Tubing: Most high-end bikes are elegant structures pared down to the minimum weight -- "perfectly adequate for the first two types of touring." But hanging 50 to 60 pounds on them can spell disaster.

  • Chainstay length: Loaded panniers hanging over short chainstays leave next to no heel clearance. Sliding the panniers further back moves the weight further behind the rear axle, which adversely affects handling.

  • Forks: A "real" touring bike requires forks that are substantial enough for front panniers, not because "lightweights" could break, but because front-end instability makes handling precariously dangerous. "Many people now ask us how to mount a front rack to a suspension fork," he adds. "In two words, you can't."

  • Components: Shifters on a loaded touring bike should be able to function in friction mode, he says. That means "brifters" or STI brake/shifters aren't a good solution. As for chain rings, the 30-inch lowest gear provided by some triples won't allow enough spin to haul 50 lbs. of gear up Alpine-type climbs.

  • Front Racks: Bruce eschews "hoopless" racks -- actually two lateral racks that attach separately on either side of the fork. "They move independently of each other, and therefore reduce front end stability," he claims. A Bruce Gordon front rack is one unit that fits over the front wheel. It's stable at descent speeds, he insists.

"A bike that will handle a full touring load may weigh a few ounces more than others," he concludes, "but being able to look at the scenery without having to concentrate on keeping the bike going straight is what the enjoyment of loaded touring is all about."

The BLT: A Bruce Gordon touring bike for the rest of us
Once upon a time (in the late 80s), Bruce had about 275 bikes made in Japan. They were less expensive than the Rock 'n Road, and Bruce felt that only the bikes he built in his California shop should carry his name of the downtube. That's when he came up with the name "BLT." By the 90s he'd decided to produce the lower-priced bikes in Sebastopol too. They're now called "the Bruce Gordon BLT model," and they're all built in the U.S.

My friends Tony and Jeanne in San Jose love their BLTs. Last year, when the forks on Tony's Gary Fisher bit the dust, he went looking for a new touring bike. He'd been impressed with the Bruce Gordon racks he'd used on the Fisher in the Alps, so he knew where to go. "I liked it from day one," he says. "It fits perfect. I don't think I could find a better bike for riding around town or touring with panniers." Jeanne liked it so much she got one of her own, a women's-specific design, this year.

"We bought the frames with front and rear racks," Tony says; "that's the beauty of it. Bruce was willing to paint the racks as well as the frame. We asked what colors we could get, and he said, 'Any color you want!'

"I trust his expertise. He does the little things others don't do. Like the extra attachment on the rear rack: for just $15 extra, I can attach a light without using clamps or tape. There's even a braze-on for fenders. It used to take forever to put fenders on, but now it's easy."

Entrepreneur wanted
"I like bicycles," says Bruce Gordon. "I like making them; I like riding them. It's the business part I hate, the marketing. I want to do the stuff I consider exciting: making titanium pumps, cantilever brakes, all these design challenges I find interesting. I have lots of ideas for things I'd like to do, ideas for panniers, racks, bikes."

The problem is finding someone to run the business end so Bruce is free to do the interesting stuff.

"I think Bruce Gordon Cycles is a viable brand and has a right to exist. I want to remain part of it. At this point in time I don't even have to own Bruce Gordon Cycles. I'm looking for someone who can do the marketing stuff. I need an entrepreneur -- someone who's always wanted to be in the bike business. Well, here's one ready made." The technology is in place, he says, and he has 12 more years to go on his lease at a rent that's one-third the current market rate. Such a deal!

"I'm putting it out to anybody. I'm not looking for someone who wants to learn to build frames. I just want a partner or buyer who can take over the business end and let me do protoptype stuff."

Well, why not? The nerds and entrepreneurs in high tech get rich creating the next great thing. Then they retire and run wineries. Maybe there's a venture capitalist out there who'd like to move to Sonoma County and fund the next big thing in city bikes, titanium racks or -- what a concept! -- touring bikes. If that's you (or someone you know), give Bruce Gordon a call.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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