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IN PERSON

Engineer, Ex-Racer Reaches Olympian Heights in Bike Design

July 29, 1996|RUSS LOAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was perhaps inevitable that Scott Gordon would end up spending the last two years inside a Santa Ana warehouse, contemplating the shape of a bicycle.

A former bicycle racer who worked in the aerospace industry, Gordon has spent the better part of his life pondering how to make everything from two-wheelers to aircraft lighter, stronger and faster. Especially faster.

Now he leads the 14-member engineering team at GT Bicycles that created the Superbike II ridden by U.S. Olympic athletes in Atlanta.

"This is the culmination of ideas from a variety of people from all over the country," Gordon said last week as he made last-minute arrangements for his trip to the Olympics from inside the warehouse where the Superbike II bicycles were painstakingly assembled. "The only thing that is standard on this bike is the chain. Everything else has been custom built."

Gordon is now in Atlanta with 24 of the technologically advanced, 16-pound bicycles, which he estimates cost about $50,000 apiece to create. Used by the U.S. Olympic team only for track events, the bicycle has already seen action in Erin Hartwell's silver-medal-winning ride Tuesday.

Gordon knows the slightest refinements can make the difference between victory and defeat at the summer Olympics. But while the use of computers has radically changed the science of bicycle design since Gordon's own racing days more than a decade ago, the 50-year-old Costa Mesa resident still relies on his eye.

"When we started to design the SB II, I could tell them what it should be shaped like before it went to the computer. The computers just verified it," said Gordon, whose late father helped create the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. "When I look at an object, what I'm looking for is: How do I get the air around this object at a certain speed, with the least amount of effort?

"It's a matter of creating clean air. You look at the interruptions of the shape and basically what you're doing is cleaning up the shape."

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It's a talent Gordon perfected during more than 20 years in the aerospace industry, testing aircraft designs in wind tunnels and experimenting with composite materials designed to be lightweight, yet strong.

"With composites, we can make shapes that we can't do with aluminum or steel. Then you have to take that shape and make it as strong as you can.

"I gotta tell you that the SB II is not the fastest design. We have a faster design. We will significantly reduce the weight and improve the shape by the year 2000."

He dates the technological revolution in bicycle design back to 1984, when he helped develop an ultralight, convex-shaped bicycle wheel made of Kevlar and carbon for the Olympics that year. East European officials who then dominated the leadership of international cycling had long resisted changes in design, he said.

"They stifled a lot of the designs. They were pretty much old school. Their philosophy was that a bike's a bike and it's all pretty much the rider who makes it happen. When we took these new wheels to the Olympics in 1984, we didn't know if they'd be approved until we got there."

The cycling officials gave in and approved the wheels, which turned out to be just one of several design changes made by countries competing at the 1984 Olympics.

Gordon was still working in the aerospace industry during the 1984 Olympics but had also started designing bicycle products on his own, inspired by his late son Jim's success as a racer.

"He was young and I was getting to the point where I wasn't competitive. I had been heavily involved in the sport, from racing to promoting for cycling events. From the time my son was about 8, he had been state champion about 12 times in California."

In 1988, Gordon and his 24-year-old son won a state championship together on a tandem bicycle.

Gordon was called in as a consultant by GT Bicycles two years ago because of his reputation among bicycle designers for innovations such as flat spokes and a device that lets riders snap their shoes into pedals like ski bindings.

He did not quit his job at an Anaheim satellite-building company until a year later, when he was hired full-time for the project. He sees it as a fairly long-term assignment, because GT bicycles has also been contracted to produce Superbikes for the next Olympics in the year 2000.

"The love of the sport was what convinced me to come here, and it took a lot of convincing. I had a nice 40-hour-a-week job. I did not need to come here and work nights and weekends."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Scott Gordon

Age: 50

Hometown: Phoenix

Residence: Costa Mesa

Family: Wife Victoria; 7-year-old son Sam

Education: Bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Cal State Long Beach; graduate work in business and engineering

Background: Worked for various aerospace and engineering companies; 20 years with Lear Siegler Corp. in Santa Ana; worked for three years on the "Star Wars" strategic missile defense project at Reynolds & Taylor in Santa Ana; owner of Aerosports Inc., a former Huntington Beach bicycle products company

Currently: Design team leader for the Olympic Superbike II at GT Bicycles in Santa Ana

On Superbike II: "This is the culmination of ideas from a variety of people from all over the country. The only thing that is standard on this bike is the chain. Everything else has been custom-built."

Source: Scott Gordon; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times

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