Petaluma bike maker Gordon dies at 71
Bruce Gordon, a master maker of hand-built bicycle frames and designer of tires credited for inspiring new trends for recreational cycling worldwide, died in Petaluma June 7, according to friends. He was 71.
An icon among bespoke bicycle builders in the United States, Gordon was an unapologetic and vocal critic of outsourcing manufacturing for profit, and was a champion of craftsman producers. Friends acknowledged his unfiltered opinions earned Gordon a reputation as a curmudgeon for some, yet for those who knew him well, Gordon was a complex man whose depth rewarded the patient – a versatile intellect who made decisions for his trend-setting business based on virtue, not profit.
“If you really cared about him, Bruce was just Bruce,” said David di Falco, a longtime friend who moved to Petaluma in the early 1990s to work and apprentice under Gordon.
It was 1989 when Gordon would begin selling a then-fringe tire of his own design that some credit for inspiring a modern generation of mixed-terrain riding, the “Rock n’ Road.” Gordon argued the larger-diameter size was superior to the smaller-wheeled mountain bikes of the era, and was perhaps the first to build all-terrain bicycles around the standard.
Sales immediately fell flat, but Gordon refused to abandon his design in favor of building more marketable, mainstream mountain bikes, said Sean Walling, who builds bike frames under the brand Soulcraft in Petaluma and worked for Gordon at the time. It would be decades before large-scale manufacturers followed suit, and Gordon’s idea, today, is an established industry standard.
“That was a great lesson in itself,” said Walling, 49.
While the proliferation of Gordon’s wheel size philosophy across the bicycle industry helped reinvigorate his brand in recent years - including a relaunch of the Rock n’ Road - fellow bicycle builders lauded most of all his immaculate and understated style of frame building.
“His work, in my opinion, was elegantly understated, almost Zen-like,” said di Falco, 60, owner of Petaluma’s di Falco Fabrications.
Recalling his job as a 22-year-old bicycle mechanic in Santa Cruz, Paul Sadoff, who today builds frames under the brand Rock Lobster, stumbled onto a Bruce Gordon road bike tucked between other high-end rides at the shop. Now 63, he described the moment as a turning point in his life, where the perfection of Gordon’s craftsmanship would inspire him to pursue his own path in building bicycles.
“I saw my first Gordon frame and thought, ‘Wow, who the hell did that?’” Sadoff said. “I had never built a frame at that time, but he gave me the idea. I always admired his aesthetic, his quality level.”
Sadoff admired Gordon from afar for years, in deference to an allegedly rough exterior. Yet an encounter at a national hand-built bicycle show, where Gordon expressed familiarity with Sadoff’s work and complimented his role in a jam band, was the beginning of a long friendship.
“He elevated the level of frame building for everybody,” he said, describing Gordon as a standout icon in the last century of bicycle frame building.
Gordon moved his 12-year-old frame-building business from Eugene, Oregon, to Petaluma in 1988. A Chicago native, he adopted symbols from Petaluma’s history as “The Egg Capitol of the World” into his work.
He was a fixture of west Petaluma for decades, a regular at local spots like Dempsey’s Restaurant and Brewery and Water Street Bistro, di Falco said.
“When he’d take lunch - you could set your watch by that,” he said with a laugh.
Gordon sold the assets of his business in 2018 but continued to update a related blog. He wrote of trips to France in May, and friends said he was settling in to life in retirement.
Once an avid rider, Gordon noted in a February blog post that he had not ridden in three years because “my sense of balance is gone.” He still wrote of the emotion experienced in seeing others riding on his bicycles and tires.
“The picture makes me long for the trails around here a lot,” he wrote of a customer-submitted photo. “I guess I will live the rest of my life through the pictures of other people riding through the glorious countryside and my memories.”
Gordon died in his home of natural causes, said Tanya di Falco, a longtime friend of Gordon’s. Surviving Gordon are his mother, Eleanor, and his brother, Steven, she said.