Bruce Gordon’s Rock ‘n Road Titanium: a gravel bike decades ahead of its time

43 mm-wide mixed-terrain tires, stable geometry, drop bars, wide-range gearing, and front suspension — in 1993.

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Gravel bikes have exploded in popularity recently for a whole bunch of good reasons. The voluminous multi-surface tires offer acceptable grip on loose ground while still rolling decently quickly on tarmac; they’re not too heavy; their drop bars are more comfortable over longer distances than single-position flat bars; their wide-range gearing offers plenty of climbing prowess; and they offer a lot of the experience people have traditionally sought in conventional road bikes, but now with the luxury of avoiding motorized traffic by heading off-pavement.

But the idea is hardly new.

Bruce Gordon made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s building steel touring bikes and custom racks in Petaluma, California. A proud and true craftsman, he rightfully built a loyal following of customers that appreciated his workmanship and artistry. By all accounts, he was a constructeur living in the United States. He made frames and racks, yes, but also designed and built his own cantilever brakes, integrated lights, and so on. 

It’s remarkable to think how far ahead of its time this bike was, nearly 30 years ago.

But as often happens with various cycling genres, touring by bike slowly began to fall out of favor, roughly around the same time that mountain biking took hold. Gordon may have missed the boat on the mountain bike boom that rose on the backs of touring’s decline, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have thoughts of riding off-road.

Gordon continued to stick with drop bars, but partnered with Japanese tire brand Panaracer in 1988 to produce a tire that, at the time, was completely outside the bounds of what everyone else was doing. Dubbed the Rock ‘n Road, it was a 700×43 mm tire with a shallow knobby tread that was designed to basically go anywhere.

“Bruce Gordon was known back in the ’70s for touring bicycles, so a lot of his business was making bikes for loaded touring,” said the vintage expert who loaned us the bike (and who preferred to go unnamed). “He became really well known for his chromoly steel racks, and that’s the market he was catering toward. At some point, he realized having bigger tires would be more durable for his touring bike. So that’s why he developed the Rock ‘n Road tire.

“It was based on the Nokian Hakkapelitta snow tire. He took that design to Japan and had Panaracer make him a pattern that looked just like it. It was bigger volume and had knobs for gravel and dirt and so forth. He was just offering it to his touring bike customers, but he got this idea that maybe he could make a big-wheeled mountain bike with these tires.”

Panaracer today has a very solid footing in the gravel tire market, but it got its start nearly three decades ago.

Matching steel frames — also dubbed Rock ‘n Road — came shortly afterward and were built around the tires, with longer wheelbases and mellow handling, but still with the same provisions that hallmarked Gordon’s well-known touring bikes. They were designed for covering long distances over a variety of terrain, paved or otherwise, and often for carrying a lot of your stuff with you. 

It was a revolutionary concept, wrapping road-sized wheels with knobby tires that were nearly as fat as mountain bikes of the time, and putting it all into a package that vaguely resembled a traditional touring bike.

Gordon obviously didn’t know it at the time, but he’d basically invented the gravel bike, decades before the term had ever been uttered.

Steel vs. titanium

Although there were variations in the Rock ‘n Road frames during their run, they were all steel — except for two titanium ones. One currently resides in the Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Fairfax, California. The other one is the bike shown here, which was built in 1993 and recently fully restored by a renowned vintage connoisseur (who preferred to go unnamed). 

From the get-go, the idea was to build the bike around those Rock ‘n Road tires, but also with an adapted version of the Rock Shox Mag 21 suspension fork that was all the rage at the time. That fork was only ever intended for 26″ mountain bike wheels and tires, though, so there was some extra work to be done.

A custom crown and arch had to be made to adapt the RockShox Mag 21 suspension fork to work with 700c wheels and high-volume tires.

“He took a RockShox fork and worked with another guy and they machined the arch and crown to get a 700c wheel in there,” our vintage expert said. “The longer axle-to-crown made a normal ‘cross/touring bike, which had around a 71° head tube angle, go to around 69-70°. And so it started looking like mountain bike geometry in that sense. That was the idea.

“To make them — there’s just one and two — he talked with Wes Williams, who was a welder at Ibis, to make a titanium Rock ‘n Road, and it would have this fork and be able to be this sort of quasi-off-road bike. Wes had always been interested in the idea of the scorchers, which were these kind of large, off-road-tire, fixed-gear bikes — he was the one behind the Ibis Scorcher — so when this idea came about and it had these tires, he was like, yeah, I want to do that, too.”

This particular bike was Williams’s personal steed. He brought it with him when he moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, where he quickly discovered those 43 mm-wide tires were unfortunately outmatched by the local rocks. Thankfully, the 29er craze eventually took off in earnest thanks in large part to Gary Fisher, Marzocchi, and WTB.

“In 2001, when WTB made the first 29″ Nanoraptor tire — the first true 29er tire — [Wes] took his bike and tried to figure out how to squeeze those tires on to this thing. He crimped the inside of the chainstays for more clearance, and did this crazy cable routing so he could run a top-pull front derailleur because a bottom-pull would have this arm that would collide with the tire. The bike eventually got flat bars and a Manitou 700c fork.”

Although this frame bears the Bruce Gordon logo, it was welded by Wes Willliams. He was at Ibis at the time, but later started his own label, Willets Brand Bicycles.

This particular example is sort of a hybrid of the two bikes; it’s Williams’s bike, but it was restored to emulate how Gordon had his bike set up, with a smattering of period-correct goodness (but, sadly, not the incredible cantilevers that Gordon used to make in-house).

Exactly how closely the end product mirrored Gordon’s build is neither here nor there. What’s more important is how remarkably this bike — three decades ago —predicted the biggest trend in cycling gear in years. 

Rest in peace, Bruce. You are missed.

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