Thursday, October 4, 2012

Bruce Gordon Was Nice to Me

Bruce Gordon, Interbike
I spotted him in the shadows, at the back of the exhibition hall. It was unexpected. This was Interbike after all, not NAHBS. But there he was, behind a big beautiful red bike with Bruce Gordon decals, underneath a banner with the mysterious word SOPWAMTOS (which, I soon learn, is the Society of People Who Actually Make Their Own Sh!t). A broad-shoulderd, slightly slouchy, gray-haired man with the face of a Soviet literary dissident circa the 1960s. I would give anything to have the writing skills to describe Bruce Gordon's facial features and expression. But alas, I must struggle. Coyly suspicious? Exuberantly grumpy? Playfully defiant? Something like that. 


Bruce Gordon, Interbike
If you don't already know, Bruce Gordon is a framebuilder out in Petaluma, California. One of the best, they say. One of those guys who has been at it for decades, one of the legends. At a loss for words from the bizarre charm of his physical presence, I blurt out something generic about being pleased to meet him. In reply he laughs with a bitterness that is masterful in its combination of sincerity and theatrics. "If I could go back and do something else with my life, trust me I would!" he snorts. "So... want a bike?" Out of curiosity I ask about the wait list. "I am all caught up," he says, "no wait list. You can go ahead and write that on your blog" (the last word is accompanied by a playfully-scornful - or maybe not so playfully, this is ambiguous by design - roll of the eyes. But who cares. Bruce Gordon has no wait list? Okay, I will write that.)

Bruce Gordon, Pointy Brakes
Next we discuss his famous Dangerous Pointy Brakes, which I'd recently tried on one of Pamela Blalock's bikes and discovered to be surprisingly functional (unlike most other cantis I've tried). He was pleased to hear this. For a small fortune the brakes could be mine. Alas I had neither the required sum, nor a bike on which these superior brakes could go. But yes, I would mention them on my "blog."

What can I say. I could have moved along at that point. But I don't know when to quit. And no, that's not even it. In truth, I was a little smitten. I wanted this man to keep talking. I wanted to study his face and figure out what or whom it reminded me of.  

Bruce Gordon, Interbike
So I stuck around, touched the bike, asked questions. He quickly grew suspicious of how much I seemed to know about frame geometry and such. "Oh don't tell me. You're planning to become a framebuilder!" I assured him that I was not, but confessed that I might be building a frame for myself shortly. Nothing serious. Just to give it a try. But becoming a framebuilder, no. I understand the amount of training that requires; I know that earning a living that way is next to impossible. "You're damn right it's impossible." And thus began a speech about the horrors and deceptions of the pipe dream of becoming a framebuilder that claims hopeful innocents of my generation by the dozen. Bruce Gordon's opinion on the matter is basically a more extreme version of this. "If I could save just one young person from becoming a framebuilder, I would die happy," he tells me. I believe him, and promise to never become a framebuilder. 

Bruce Gordon, Interbike
He eyes me with sadness and shakes his head. He asks what I used to do for a living before the tragedy of succumbing to bikes. I tell him briefly, and soon we are talking about bikes as one would talk about a disease. He tells me some personal stuff, I reciprocate. We commiserate. Before I know it, the conversation begins to resemble the sort of jaded, weepy, vodka-fueled exchange that takes place at around 3 in the morning. Except this is Interbike, high noon, and I am sober.

Bruce Gordon Was Nice to Me
The following day, I walked by the booth again and gave Bruce Gordon an uncertain wave. I genuinely did not think he'd remember me; it was as if our conversation the day before had been something I'd imagined. But he did remember. And then he gave me this pin. It's a limited edition. The regular one reads "Bruce Gordon was rude to me." 

And that is my story of meeting Bruce Gordon. You should buy one of his bikes. I hear they are good and he's all caught up on his wait list.

42 comments:

  1. Wait, so you've mentioned you have hand issues, yet you paint, take pictures and make frames? That out of the way...

    Bruce is a no BS guy and was nice to me a few years back, I think because I expressed disdain within earshot of him about something stupid happening to my wife. We talked earnestly about his bullet lights.

    I don't know what happened to SOPWAMTOS (The Society of People Who Actually Make Their Own Shit) but the world is a lesser place for it.

    Yeah anyone looking at a lugged road frame should consider Bruce and anyone considering a touring frame should just buy one of his because he sure as heck knows what he's doing better than that Detroit company wrt bikes, even if he's his own worst enemy in marketing. But maybe not. Look do you want a generic Surly or do you want to support a great American curmudgeon, i.e. the ORIGINAL SURLY MAN? The other is just a QBP brand and you have been duped into thinking it has character, but good design it does have if not a transcendent ride quality, to put it nicely. But then again the name is Surly.

    His plastic features spell lugubrious and charmed in equal parts I think but Solzhenitsyn doesn't come to mind. More like a Dutch Walter Matthau.

    Those are my words (rolls eyes)today in your "blog".

    Oh yeah buy a Rock Lobster too for the same reasons.



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    1. BTW I hope you weld up some alu tubes so you can understand why "blobby" welds exist, then try to finish it by machine and hand so that it smooths out. And, upon finishing it, I would hope you would find a new appreciation for bike maintenance.

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    2. Bruce once chewed me out for 15 minutes after I cold set one of his steel rear racks to fit on a tandem.

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  2. Oh my god, that was hysterical. Bravo.

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  3. Your enthusiasm for bikes must have reminded Bruce of his own passion. I hope Bruce can find happyness really soon - work at it Bruce! You must have been like an Angel to him, nice one.

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  4. The framebuilding advice regarding steel tubing thickness on Bruce Gordons website was interesting. Challenges the mindset that more expensive steel tubing is 'better'. Perhaps this also contributes as to why dutch bikes feel smooth, although I have no idea the thickness the tubing used on those.

    I was wondering how if seeing the simplicity of the Rene Herse at the Old Spokes Home and all the meetings/experiences you have had at Interbike have evolved your ideas for a randonneur design?

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  5. He almost looks like he's holding back a smile in the top photo. I hope he enjoys the post!

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  6. This is the funniest thing you've ever written.
    On the facial expression -- maybe you are thinking of Droopy Dog? (http://www.toonopedia.com/droopy.htm)

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  7. The kid who is managing the new shop here needs to read this and the Richard Sachs article you linked. He dropped out of school one semester from graduating to run this shop and become a frame builder(it's OK about his dropping out, he was an Art Major with a JEWELRY specialty). He's finishing his 4th or 5th frame and seems pretty confident he can go ahead and hang up a sign now. He actually builds a nice useful bike and is certainly the type who could be one of the better builders if he sticks with it for a decade or two. His emphasis is on details and craftsmanship and if he hooks up with someone who knows how to DESIGN a bike, he should, in 4 or 5 years be able to build nice bikes as good as a Surly for 4 times the price.

    When he was getting started messing around with all this he would come to my basement and use my torches and stuff and watch while I swapped dropouts on fixie conversions or repaired a broken stay or whatever, the conversation invariably ended up at "Why aren't you building frames?" All my answers of "I like to provide the occasional sip of milk to my children", or "I will when there are no longer part time jobs in used bookstores to be had" never seemed to sink in. He always seemed to be under the impression that I wasn't ambitious enough or something.

    I wonder how many Pianists feel compelled to build their own pianos, or how many Chefs need, on a "soul" level, to construct their own Ideal kitchen range. Bikes make us stupid. I've admired Bruce Gordons bikes since I first saw on in a shop in Corpus Christi in about 1978, I was 14 and had seen his adds in the back of Bicycling. His Fastback seat cluster is still the highest point of perfection for that particular arrangement of tubing in my opinion but even then I had a sneaking suspicion that as a vocation it was about equivalent to "2nd assistant to the junior shop flunkie" in the long term financial security department.

    I wish there was a way that people like Bruce Gordon and Richard Sachs could be rewarded for their toil but I'm afraid it would only encourage more young people who would be better off joining the Army to go buy some torches. Let's all commit to buying one really nice custom bike in our lives, painting it matte black and only discussing how wonderfull it is with other riders of matte black bicycles and encouraging everyone we know under the age of 30 to pursue a career in marketing and go buy a nice Trek.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Good points. Most framebuilders take a vow of poverty. That or they have a significant other who makes real money or they have a trust fund. Richard and Bruce, I imagine, are doing OK now but I'm sure there were lean years. I'd hate to discourage up-and coming framebuilders, there are hundreds who gave it a go and didn't last but some of them made some beautiful stuff before they quit. I'm collaborating with a welder friend (he's welded in the bike industry for almost 20 years) to build a frame but it will be a one-off and it will be lugged.

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    2. Oh my, the honesty.

      Some frame builders must make money. Seven? Does Firefly make money yet? Does Geekhouse? This is all pretty sad since the independent frame builders' work that I know is so good.

      This reminds me of House, by Tracy Kidder. I knew an amazing carpenter (who built his house, including the doors, which were functional art) who knew the Apple Corp crew. I thought my friend was amazing but he said no, the Apple Corp was so much better than he was. And they made only a decent hourly wage on the "house". It's not just frame builders.

      I did my part and bought one custom frame but George Sykes convinced me that it shouldn't be black, or brown.

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    3. How does the saying go? If you want to make a million dollars in the bike biz, start with 2 million...

      Love the BG brakes. Functional bike jewelry.

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    4. The fact that some of them(Usually companies like Seven Firefly, Mercian etc. that EMPLOY framebuilders) make money shouldn't blind us to the realities of the rest of us trying to live off it. I'm better than average at a few things and people are constantly asking me why I'm not doing those things for a living and raking it in, Well, there's a pile of waiters in Nashville that sing way better than I draw, weld, write, cook etc. etc. I'll keep doing what I love for myself and keep making a living doing the mundane stuff.

      Also, the people who really ought to be doing it can't be discouraged from it anyway and the those that can be scared off bloody well ought to be.

      Oh My God, I'm starting to hyperventilate...

      Spindizzy

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    5. Years ago a well known painter told me something which I think is true for all folks who go towards art or crafts....He said the two most important factors in becoming successful are stupidity and stubbornness, the ability to keep pressing ahead even though the work is hard and the rewards aren't ver good, and the ability to do something for which there doesn't seem to be any need, want, or desire in the real world and just keep doing it until you get good enough that you create a need for it....

      it's daunting and I'm glad Bruce has done just that!

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  8. I can't believe Bruce even attends Interbike. I love the crabby guy act but his bikes are no joke. Ditto for his racks, brakes and stems.

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  9. I did my cross country tour on a lovely blue Rock n' Road. The geometry seemed odd when I took the bike out of the box. Not tall enough and a seemingly small wheel base. But when I built it up everything was perfect. Bruce clearly does not do what everyone else does, but he does it correctly.

    Bruce has said he would never build another Ti lugged carbon frame http://www.flickr.com/photos/23259799@N05/sets/72157623747045659/

    I keep finding myself thinking maybe if I made an offer he could not refuse. Of course then I would have paid more than many pay for housing over a matter of few years for a bike I would ride a few times in the summer. Still he did say he has no waiting list ...

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  10. Oh, and Bruce is originally from Chicago's northwest side. Maybe it's a Chicago thing, but he and I have got on fine in our conversations.

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  11. I met Mr. Gordon a couple years ago when I had him powdercoat the rack on my recumbent trike. If you are ever in Petaluma, you owe it to yourself to wander into his nondescript shop to buy a light or pedal-clips. The place is lined with the entire history of BG bicycles and racks. A truly stunning sight.

    Btw, Bruce's reputation for "gruff" far exceeds the reality: He was very nice to me, and the guy having racks installed on his Taiwan BG production bike (since discontinued)seemed to be greatly enjoying the conversation I interrupted. Further personality note: Zach Kaplan (Norther California recumbent dealer) told me he saw Bruce at a Christmas party. He brought a wreath made of titanium shavings :)

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  12. You should find a copy of the book 'The Custom Bicycle' by Michael Kolin. It must of come out in the late 70's, before there were bike builders on every corner, and gave a glimpse into the history of the production of custom frame building featuring many builders including the young Bruce Gordon. The book started my passion for bikes and the cool thing was Bruce was building bikes in Eugene at the time, so I often saw him pedaling around and enjoying coffee at the public market and there were many, many of his frames on the street. Elegant is an understatement when describing his craftsmanship and completed bikes. One could easily become mesmerized when peddling behind one of his bikes b/c those beautiful fastback stays were so sleek and lovely to look at. And those were the days when everyone raced with steel bikes/Campy equipped and his where in demand and I was able to see lot's of them around town. His reputation reminds me of the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld :) Meaning he's a perfectionist and knows what he's doing!!
    Cool that you were able to see his work.

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    1. "You should find a copy of the book 'The Custom Bicycle' by Michael Kolin. It must of come out in the late 70's, before there were bike builders on every corner, and gave a glimpse into the history of the production of custom frame building featuring many builders including the young Bruce Gordon." - Velouria may allready be aware of it, but other readers might want to know that the complete book is online under http://classicrendezvous.com/publications/thecustombicycle.pdf . I discovered it just a few month ago and was overwhelmed by the richness and quality of information provided there. The authors tried to get in direct communication with all framebuilders and manufacturers (e.g. Raleigh or Bob Jackson) of notable reputation in the US and in Europe in order to give the reader a clear picture of the ideas and methods of the respective framebuilder.
      I would highly recommended the book as a primary source of (historical) steel framebuilding knowledge.

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  13. I stopped by Bruce Grdon's booth at NAHBS when it was in San Jose years ago. I didn't need a touring bike, but I bought a pair of the half clips, which are as wonderfully designed as they are useful. For the riding I do, they're perfect. They have the best toe box for everyday shoes of anything I've seen; they roll into position every time; they're light. BG will get even less rich making them than frames, but I smile every time I look at them, which makes me richer.

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  14. The only builders who make money are those who are able to turn their craft into a brand. Hire other people to do the work. That frees you up to spend your time on lifestyle branding, publicity and such. Then your brand will be held in great esteem by "those in the know," and you can make a good living.

    The lone craftspeople who make the best bikes in many cases are almost unknown. Some who have gained at least a little name recognition, like Peter Weigle, have achieved this only after decades of hard work. But if you ask the average cyclist about Peter Weigle and Colnago, they'll have heard only of the latter.

    I am told it's the same in the art world...

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    1. until you die, and then, sometimes, your estate and owners may reap the benefits of peoples new found affection for your work.

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  15. Velouria may already be aware of it, but other readers might want to know that the complete book is online under http://classicrendezvous.com/publications/thecustombicycle.pdf

    Indeed it is. Whereupon someone, somewhere, is working on a post about the folly of trying to make a living as a writer.

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  16. Oh my gosh this is hilarious! I couldn't wait for you to get home from Vegas, because Vegas was so boring (to me) and here you tell this story from Vegas that has Humanity & Craftsmanship in the same place!
    I would love to be as rude as Bruce Gordon seems, but am not brave enough, I want to be "nice" to everyone, which equates to being a push-over.
    Oh yeah, I don't let my wife push me over, let me tell you!
    Anyway, most everyone in that society-whatever-it-is-called, is probably on welfare, despite working 80 hours a week. I'm living my dream building guitars, and my 17yr old son who is working at the mall part time, brings home a better paycheck than I do.
    What is it about folks who can't keep their hands still?

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    1. Take comfort from the fact that you know something REAL. Facts can be useful or fun, but knowing something REAL sets you apart from gibberish that can simply be googled.

      As a handspinner, I know that machines spin yarn faster, but when the machines break down, real skills will still be there.

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  17. What you've done - and something a lot of Gen X, Y, Z, AA, etc. need to learn - is approach a proprietor somewhat on his terms, especially an older one. I see so many Yelps from youths saying "so and so was so crabby" or "he was such a meanie-pants and don't ever set foot in his store." I discount a lot of those complaints and so went to one such dis-Yelped craftsman, a shoe repairman, for a seat bag repair. He had absolutely nothing to do yet tried to talk me out of the repair. I gently let him know that I knew it might be foolish and I appreciated his advice, but I was willing to blow $10 (yes, $10!) on a pair of new leather straps sewn onto the flap. So I had it done and picked up next day. This guy Gordon clearly enjoys being the curmudgeon and you clearly made his day.

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  18. Course he was nice to you - you're LOVELY!! Plus, you actually know stuff about bikes, and about how difference in design and construction affect performance, and all that. As every good bike blogger should. That's why yours is a world renowned blog which people turn to for valuable information, whereas mine is where people click when they just want to waste a bit of time talking about sex and shoes and bikes and stuff.

    When I grow up I want to be just like you.

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  19. I think these are some of the most beautiful bikes I have seen. I especially like the fact that the name on the bike belongs to a real person.

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  20. spotted him in the shadows? face of a Soviet literary dissident? small fortune? theatrics indeed! :)

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  21. Ha, Mr. Gordon told a buddy of mine to eff off @ Interbike.

    He wears that honor like a badge, or maybe a pin!

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  22. wonderful blog post... Mr Gordon is a real American bike legend... I feel like each one of us should go to his site and buy something!

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  23. Good lines! " ... with the face of a Soviet literary dissident circa the 1960s." "Before I know it, the conversation begins to resemble the sort of jaded, weepy, vodka-fueled exchange that takes place at around 3 in the morning." Approve!

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  24. I'm glad that he can die happy! Sweet pin! Thanks for the report.

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  25. Remember when Bruce built me a bike back in Eugene in 1980 and I had a set of Campy Record brakes that the threading was bad on one. So he shortened and rethreaded them and used an inset allen bolt. Before Campy brakes had the nut on the outside with a washer, well no more. Probably one of the first to do this. frame # 8061078. One thing about Bruce is it is nearly impossible to get decals for your Old bike from him.

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    1. Jeff M said:
      """One thing about Bruce is it is nearly impossible to get decals for your Old bike from him."""

      Thought I'd reply - I have original design decals for all the frames I have built in my shop (Not the imported ones).
      They are easy to get - but, you have to buy them.
      Regards,
      Bruce Gordon
      www.bgcycles.com

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