Review: Bruce Gordon Basic Loaded Touring

By Adam Newman

Bruce Gordon is probably the most famous framebuilder you’ve never heard of. Opinionated, stubborn and prolific, he’s been building his own style of adventure touring bikes for more than 20 years. His work also features some of the finest handcrafted road and mountain bikes ever made, including best-of-show winners that can only be described as works of art. Read our exclusive interview with Gordon here.

A self-described “touring nerd,” Gordon began making touring racks in the late ‘70s and once went so far as to build a soybean-laden machine to test their load capabilities, allowing him to further refine and strengthen his design. In the late ‘80s, with the mountain bike boom in full swing, he began building a bike he called the Rock N’ Road, a TIG-welded frame and fork that could be used with 700c wheels on- and off-road. And with the switch to some stronger tubing, the Rock N’ Road became the Rock N’ Road Tour, a rough-road-ready adventure-style loaded touring bike. But those frames were handmade by Gordon and his brand, Bruce Gordon Cycles, in California and he wanted to make a lower-cost option available. This lead to the introduction of the Taiwanese-made Basic Loaded Touring bike.

The TIG-welded 4130 frame features geometry based on the Rock N’ Road Tour still made by Gordon. It is offered in five sizes, the smallest two built around 26” wheels and the three larger sizes with 700c wheels. My tester can easily swallow 700x38c tires and fenders or 45c tires without. There are three water bottle mounts for thirsty riders as well as the usual rack and fender mounts. Available only in a muted gray with blue trim, the bike looks elegant when built and can hide anonymously when locked to a bike rack or take on a colorful style when accessorized.

The BLT is available in both a frame module and as a complete bike. The module includes the frame and fork, a pair of 4130 tubular steel touring racks handmade by Gordon, a sealed-bearing headset, and a stem. Since the racks are designed specifically for this frame, they fit perfectly with no wiggles, rattles or DIY engineering required to install. They are available in black or blue. The racks alone are a $375 value, so when you factor them in to the module’s $750 price, the package is priced competitively against those from major manufacturers.

The choice of a threaded headset and a 1" head tube is unusual these days, but as Gordon says, “It’s worked for more than 100 years.” He reasons a 1-1/8” steel fork steerer is overkill, and the material weight saved with the smaller gauge would be better incorporated into strengthening the fork blades. A minor aesthetic quibble: the headset that comes with the frame and fork is silver, but the included stem is black.

Gordon also offers a build kit chosen to compliment the frame, and our test bike was equipped as such. The shifting is handled by no-nonsense Shimano bar-end shifters. The drivetrain runs through a Deore LX triple crankset with 44-32-22-tooth rings and matching derailleurs. The wheels are handbuilt with Shimano LX hubs and Mavic A119 rims. The WTB mountain-bike style saddle seemed like an odd choice but has been surprisingly comfortable throughout my time on it.

The Cane Creek brake levers come with gum-colored hoods, a nice retro-styled touch. The tires supplied are Schwalbe Marathons, which have always been a personal favorite and offer excellent flat protection, reflective sidewalls and a very smooth ride. The brakes are Shimano R550 cantilevers, which work fine, but come with Shimano’s fixed-length straddle cable, easing installation but limiting adjustability. I’ve always considered cantilever brakes more of “slowers” than “stoppers,” and going down steep hills while loaded required a strong grip.

Though the test bike came with the Deore group, the build kit offered by Gordon is now a Shimano SLX drivetrain with XT hubs in the wheels. The cost of the parts group is $975; however, if you order a complete bike, you will need to factor in the time or cost of assembling it yourself or having your local bike shop do it. There is no pre-assembly available.

There’s no doubt—this is a big bike. At first I balked at the size recommended to me by Gordon: XL, the largest of the five. But once I swapped the riser stem out for one with a neutral rise, it was spot on. At 31lbs. with racks, fenders and pedals installed, it feels planted on the road and the combination of steel tubing, long chainstays and the Schwalbe tires soaked up bumps like few bikes can. It’s a luxury liner for sure. Or maybe a battleship, as the muted gray paint suggests. Of course, it was a bear getting it up the stairs to my second floor walk-up.

Sadly, there is precious little loaded touring to be done in Pittsburgh in January, so the BLT became my commuting weapon of choice. I smashed it into potholes, rode it over curbs, locked it up outside, and it was always up for the task. The 46cm (18.1”) chainstays on the XL size I rode are the longest I’ve ever seen, and while they don’t slow down the cornering as much as I would expect, this bike is definitely not designed for carving apexes.

The 58.5cm (23”) effective top tube was also longer than I would normally think ideal for me, especially on a nonaggressive bike, but the relaxed head tube angle (72°) and high handlebar position left the bar right where I liked it. I had the distinct feeling of sitting down low “in” the bike, rather than up on top of it. Between the fit and the weight, I had to be less aggressive while riding it, in that I couldn’t hop over potholes and steer with my hips the way I could a road bike. I would have liked to been able to try the next size down to compare the ride. The slightly shorter wheelbase might have felt more nimble.

The granny gear on the triple crank came in handy for shuffling up steeper grades, but the wide-range cassette let me stay in the middle ring for most rides around town. That was great because I can’t say I’m a fan of bar-end shifters. The odd placement, awkward cable routing and extra housing required have always been turn-offs, and I was a bit disappointed that down tube shifter bosses are not available. Another retro-grouch curmudgeon complaint: there’s no pump peg.

But how does it carry a load? For the sake of the test, I strapped on some bags and headed out for provisions, namely of the liquid variety. With about 30lbs. evenly distributed front and rear, it slowed the handling predictably, but never felt unstable. Twisting the handlebars produced a bit of front-end flex, so I had to resist racing for town-line sprints when fully loaded. Standing while climbing did not seem to produce the same flex. With half the load, placed only in the rear bags, the front end retained its normal steering response. More than sixty pounds of bike rolling down the road is a lot to handle, but the BLT handled it well.

The BLT is a touring bike for sure, but can handle a lot more. It excels as a commuter, as long as you’re not in a terrible hurry. Throw some big tires on it and you can explore fire roads to your heart’s content. The weight and size are the two main concerns, and I see both as double-edged swords. It’s big and burly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Gordon only offers his bikes direct to consumers through his website. As a one-man operation, he feels it allows him to more easily connect with customers than going through a dealership. If you have a question about sizing or anything else, call his shop and he’s the one that answers the phone. In fact he prefers speaking to you directly rather than exchanging emails.

Tester stats

  • Age: 30
  • Height: 6’ 2”
  • Weight: 175lbs.
  • Inseam: 33"

Bike stats

  • Country of Origin: Taiwan
  • Price: Module – $750 plus shipping (frame, fork, headset, stem and racks); As tested – $1,725 plus shipping and assembly.
  • Weight: 31lbs. (with racks, fenders and pedals installed)
  • Sizes Available: XS, S, M, L, XL (tested) 

Keep reading

This review originally appeared way back in Issue #10. To make sure you see all our reviews as soon as they’re available, order a subscription for just $19.95.

 

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