Monday, April 6, 2009
San Diego Custom Bicycle Show, Part II
Bruce Gordon is a man with a Reputation. Whether you think him principled, unconventional or ornery, if you've crossed paths with him or anything written about him, one fact always gets conveyed: He doesn't care what you think. Not about him, his bikes, the weather, tea from China or the latest Britney melt-down. If ever there was an iconoclast, Bruce Gordon deserves the monicker.
Unfortunately, that label has obscured what his real reputation ought to be: Super-Genius, Wile E. Coyote notwithstanding. I came to a conclusion while looking at his bikes at the show and realized that perhaps I've been more obstinate than he. I've been amazed by his bikes for more than a dozen years. Amazed, I tell you. But for reasons I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never thought of him the way I think of Richard Sachs or Peter Weigle. Those guys are a delight to talk to. Hell, Brian Baylis can be crotchety and he's easier to talk to than Gordon. And for that reason, I don't think I've ever accorded the man the full measure of respect his work deserves.
Take this bike, for instance: a lugged-titanium, single-speed upright with disc brakes. Who would even want such a left-field rig? Well, me, for one. In a way, it sums him up. Fringe, from the wood-inlay headset courtesy of Peter Gilbert at Cane Creek to the asymetric lug design. Too pretty for the fixie crowd and too weird for most roadies. Yet it showcases abilities easily disguised by Gordon's incredible talent. I spent the better part of five minutes trying to find out how he constructed it.
Me: "Okay, so it's lugged ti. How'd you do it?"
Gordon: "It's press-fit."
Me: "Whoa. Wow. How'd you get the tolerances?"
Gordon: "Nah, I'm kidding."
And on and on. He pulled my leg three or four different ways before he admitted that the tubes were bonded to the lugs and the lugs were milled from bar stock. Beyond that, when I tried to ask about how the lugs were welded and cut he'd only say, "Nah, there are a lot more steps than that and I can't tell you all of them."
He did admit that he consulted with Ross Shafer about bonding the handlebar sections into the clamp. Shafer called back a short time later and said, (slow sucking sound) "Yeah man. It's Ross. I know how to do it."
At the San Diego show visitors to his booth were so blown away by his fabrication that several asked if he made the carbon fiber fork and the hydraulics as well. Gordon chuckled, and shrugged off the suggestion, and while anyone knowledgeable of framebuilding would find the idea of fabricating a disc brake system from scratch laughable, the misunderstanding is a testament to just how good his work is, just how capable he seems. Without a single weld bead visible anywhere on the bike, one can be forgiven for thinking he could machine tiny moving parts with a chopping block and a carving knife.
The crisp paint by Joe Bell does much to accentuate the frame's unusual construction and the exemplary surface finish of the titanium tubing.
Such simple details as the fastback seatstays understate the incredible workmanship that went into fitting the tapered ti seatstays into the seatstay plugs.
The carbon fiber fork was custom built for him to include the disc brake mount, by hand. While it used a mold from a now discontinued product line, the fork is a one-of-a-kind.
In his case, it's a point of pride. Gordon is a man dissatisfied that he hasn't sold more frames made to his exacting standards and lofty aspirations. Unlike Brian Baylis who seems to be able to find buyers for his most outlandish creations, Gordon's best work sometimes goes unsold. To the degree that he might be bitter about that, it shows. And that may be the key to his sales, unfortunately. To paraphrase Chris Farley, he's not a people person. That's okay, neither was Glenn Gould, and no one questions his genius.
Asymetric lug designs aren't exclusive to Gordon, but he's more likely than not to cut lugs in some fashion not reflected in playing cards. No harts, clubs, spades or diamonds in his work.
Compared to eye required to carve such artful lines, polishing the stainless steel in these lugs is easy.
Another touch for which Gordon is famous: fully integrated accessories. From braze-ons for fenders, racks and lugs to specially crafted cantilevers, racks and toe clips, Gordon often fabricates far more than just a frame. Were you to see a Gordon frame with no decals, you might not guess who built it. The same cannot be said of a Richard Sachs or even a Peter Weigle frame. Each builder's work is of a piece; you can tell a Sachs frame at 50 paces. You can also tell one while riding it. I can't tell you a thing about how a Bruce Gordon rides or even how he likes to fit a bike, but one thing is certain: Each new creation is unique. From the lug designs to the materials used, no two are quite alike these days. If you want to know who the most original, surprising and creative builder is out there, you'll need to find someone more original, more surprising and more creative than Bruce Gordon. Good luck.