Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Remembering a Man I Never Knew

[image via sheldonbrown.com]

Because I live in Boston and have been writing about Harris Cyclery from the start of this blog, I am sometimes asked whether I knew Sheldon Brown. What was he like? Did he inspire my love of English 3-speeds? But I regret to say, that I have never met him. The first time I walked into Harris Cyclery was just over a year after Sheldon Brown's death, the anniversary of which was last week. I was already reading his articles at that time (this was Spring 2009), but did not realise that he'd passed away. And then at Harris, there was this basket on the counter full of little flyers with his picture and "1944 - 2008" underneath it. Seeing the flyers was like a punch in the stomach. "Oh no, he died!" I blurted out without thinking. I remember the moment well, and particularly the disappointment and sadness of it. Somehow, this man's articles about bicycles had managed to fill me with enough affection toward him, so that his death felt like a personal loss - despite learning of it a year after the fact. 

Sheldon Brown was a bicycle mechanic, whose technical knowledge - particularly of classic and vintage bikes - was not only vast, but presented in the most captivating manner through a seemingly endless series of articles, glossaries and instruction pages. He shared his writing, including technical information, history, and decades worth of personal journals and travelogues, via a website he developed with Harris Cyclery, which continues to be maintained today. His writing was sincere, funny, wacky, and excellent in equal measure, and its influence cannot be overstated. I meet people from all over the world who will casually mention that they learned how to work on bicycles "from reading Sheldon Brown," or that thanks to his website they identified an old bike found in the cellar, or even that they took up randonneuring after reading his online journals and descriptions of France. Bicycle forums and news groups are replete with Sheldon Brown references and quotes.

But you can find a far better description of all this in his obituary in The Times, and the tribute on Bike Snob is worth reading as well. I don't want to attempt to paint a portrait of a man I never knew. But I do want to acknowledge his impact on me personally.

[image via sheldonbrown.com]

Like so many others, I stumbled upon Sheldon Brown's website while looking for information on vintage bicycles. And I believe it's what I found in his writing that turned what could have been a passing curiosity into the seeds of an obsession. I cannot put my finger on what it was exactly that drew me in: Maybe it was his easy relationship with technical and historical information, which made everything read like a story, rather than a boring manual. Maybe it was his open-minded curiosity about different types of bicycles and different aspects of cycling. Or maybe it was the way he embraced eccentricity, without trying to either downplay or justify it. It's hard to say, but whatever it was - it got through to me and engaged my imagination. I am just one person, but I am certain there are many, many others who would say the same. And that's quite something.

For the last several years of his life, Sheldon suffered from Multiple Sclerosis and was unable to ride his beloved bicycles, yet managed to write an article entitled The Bright Side of MS. But the dominant image I have of him, is that of a young, strong man riding crazy bikes, as captured in his many black and white photos taken with a self timer.

Sheldon Brown was an avid photographer, and the above picture he took of himself has turned out to be chillingly prophetic. The impact he's had on "bicycle culture" is so strong, that three years after his death his presence remains vibrant. I am extremely happy about that. And I thank him for all the help and inspiration he has given me, despite my never having had the privilege of meeting him.

42 comments:

  1. Your post is indicative of his legacy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I did'nt discover him till after his death either in spite of having mutual friends in the bike business. That guy was the real thing as a Wrench, Artist, Writer and Human Bean. I've been consulting his writing for a couple of years now and he feels like a friend.

    If I can get a print of him stoking that Raleigh tandem I'll frame it handsomely and hang it over my own messy workbench.

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
  3. hear hear!

    an inspiration to us all. thanks for this Velouria!

    ReplyDelete
  4. A really nice post - thanks

    ReplyDelete
  5. A beautiful tribute indeed...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dear Velouria, Sheldon's writing very much helped create and fuel the passion I have for cycling and bicycles. Cycling is making me younger by the day. :-). I am slowly turning family and friends 'back' to the bike, and the bike is changing them too. Love your blog. Thanks for all the time and energy you put into it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I too often came across Sheldon Brown's website on Harris Cyclery whenever I was looking for or researching something on bicycles. His photo struck me as odd at first, but I grew to love it. I then learned about his passing on another website when someone referred to him as the "late" Sheldon Brown. I felt a shock and was saddened by the news. Thanks Velouria for sharing this with everyone. I've also recently purchased a few items from Harris Cyclery and would like to add that their delivery and service is right on and stress free.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great Post. I stumbled accross his site while working on a old Azuki 10 speed I was converting to a single speed. His article on dealing with Cottered Cranks was a life saver and I wrote him to say thanks and got a nice reply, didn't realize at the time he was in the last stages of life and was sad to hear not long after that of his passing. Jim of Cyclofiend fame as a saying "As always Sheldon Knew best" when a tricky bike topic comes up there always seem to be some wisdom from Sheldon that points the way. Somewhere out there on the intertubes you can find an audio interview of Sheldon talking with Grant Petersen.

    RIP Sheldon Brown

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dead? He is so far from dead! Every time I open www.sheldonbrown.com, see that gooffy bearded face and start reading something I need for my bike he is more alive than many people around us!

    ReplyDelete
  10. x2 on everything.
    A really nice tribute to a Unique Entity.
    Thanks for writing it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wonderfilled Tribute. Misty eyed. Thank you so much.

    ReplyDelete
  12. What a lovely post. I, too, came to "know" Sheldon only after he'd passed. You captured the feeling of this kind of encounter perfectly. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  13. A very nice tribute to a guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of bicycles. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Link to Brown/Peterson podcast interview

    http://tinyurl.com/4fnpfg6

    Link to Brown's podcast page

    http://www.sheldonbrown.com/podcasts/

    X2 everything above. Had a similar feeling with Ken Kifer, whose pages I stumbled upon and read for a month before I stumbled across the notice there by a friend that he was killed several years ago while riding when a car bulldozed him.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Wow, that Petersen interview is right up V's alley. Petersen: "It really bothers me the concept you need to wear special clothing to ride a bike." (A Lance discussion). Brown agrees while adding that even while he rides dressed casually, there's a little calculation in it too.

    Great interview.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I also began reading his articles after his death and didn't realize he had passed away at first. Like so many others, I was also shocked and saddened. I learned how to fix bikes from Sheldon...his advice on cottered cranks, Sturmey-archer hubs, how to free a stuck seatpost, etc is invaluable. Where would we amateur mechanics be without his encouragement and humor giving us the confidence to DIY?
    A great mind, and a kind, decent human being. He is missed and fondly remembered even by those who never met him.

    ReplyDelete
  17. RIP, Sheldon.

    We are blessed that Sheldon's legacy will live on thanks to the internet.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I corresponded with him once, over a question about a frame lock I'd seen once. It was cool that he answered random email like mine. Somewhere I have the reply, which I treasure.
    Thanks for posting the pictures. I had never seen anything but the color photo of him with the silly flagpole eagle on his helmet.
    We have, here in Pittsburgh, something equivalent in the person of Jerry Kraynick, of Kraynick's Bike Shop in Lawrenceville. He has no web presence but he has had a huge impact on bicycling here, and runs a really cool shop. Worth a look if you happen to be in the 'Burgh. It is filled, I mean really filled, with bike parts, with a narrow aisle you can roll your bike in so he can have a look, and a place at the back where you can fix it yourself (he encourages this, and will lend you tools).

    ReplyDelete
  19. I knew of Sheldon and had seem him once or twice while I was visiting Harris; but at the time, I was somewhat inexperienced and shy, and never felt like I had a question or project that was worthy of his time. Still, he always seemed like a genuinely nice fellow, and a welcome change from so many other experts in the bike industry who seemed to guard their expertise jealously.

    His death was a bit of a shock, even if his health had been deteriorating, it seemed like he was finding new ways to keep on going. There's a nice little eulogy that his wife posted to Massbike, if you subscribe to their Google Group.

    I still use his wheelbuilding page as a reference for when my memory gets sketchy and I might not remember which order the spokes are supposed to go in when lacing.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Even though I've been cycling for more than 30 years, I hadn't discovered Sheldon's invaluable site until after his death. I was going to suggest the Sheldon/Grant Petersen podcast, and was pleased to see somebody had already linked to it.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I learned how to build wheels from an article Sheldon wrote in Bicycling! magazine about thirty years ago. That, after buying a short book by a writer whose name I can't recall. That book was useless.

    I never met Sheldon, but I wrote to him for advice on one aspect and another of cycling. I was always impressed with, and appreciative of, the promptness as well as the clarity of his responses.

    But he wasn't just a techie who could explain things coherently (as if that weren't enough of a find!). He was also very human and humane. That, in itself, is reason to miss him.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Nice post Velouria.

    Sheldon helped me just last week when I had to re-dish a rear wheel and re-position the hub on the axle of a multi-to-single-speed conversion I'm doing.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks for this. You and I stepped into this at the same time and I also remember searching online and then coming to Harris and feeling lucky to have my lbs be the place he worked. That there was the echo of greatness there if that makes sense.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thanks, Velouria.
    Posts like this make me feel old, but in a happy way. I have had many cycling "eras" and Sheldon Brown only entered my world during the internet era, but surely he was the first on the internet with bicycle knowledge "writ large". I don't know what he was like personally, but I get that, if I had known him, we could have been friends.
    Sheldon still inhabits the pages of the Classic & Vintage pages of Bike Forums, in the person of the many who share their knowledge with wit and humility, and on this page too, though with a more stylish look.

    ReplyDelete
  25. The first bike I rode for transportation, my old Raleigh 3-speed, was fixed up by a friend using Sheldon Brown's website. So if it weren't for him, would I have fallen in love with cycling? I don't know. It would have taken longer, in any case.

    I loved looking up all the neato information I could find about my bicycle after I started riding. Within a few days I could brag that I knew my bike was from 1961 (after reading on his website to check for a two-digit number on my hub gear).

    I'll never forget the header to one section: "These are real bikes!" That was my mantra when people (particularly a now-ex) told me to sell the Raleigh because it was so heavy and slow, and get a "real" bike. It *IS* a real bike! Sheldon Brown says so! And he knows everything!

    A friend of mine who used to be an active mod on bikeforums said he was extremely generous with his time and loved answering people's questions on the forum, and that there was an acronym for "As Always, Sheldon Has The Answer!"

    And!! I hired a lawyer recently (Mark Ginsberg, here in Portland OR, *excellent* in bike cases) because I had a crash on private property. I was amazed and awed to find out that he worked at Harris Cyclery most of the way through college! Mark said he was in email contact with Sheldon up until the day he died.

    I never met him or communicated with him in any way, but I'm grateful for the effect he's had on biking, and I still use his website for reference probably once a week!

    Heh. I should find the plastic eagle flag-topper I got at his memorial ride here in Portland and put it on my helmet again. ;^)

    If cycling had saints, he would be one for sure. St. Sheldon! The saint of all curious cyclists and home mechanics.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Thanks Velouria. Like you I enjoyed Sheldon's style, humor and way with words. I never met him but was aware of him while he was alive through internet forums, etc. I had an experience like yours with a man named Bill Mason of canoeing fame whom I only became aware of shortly after he died through discovering his books. It says a lot that people can have a profound impact on others even after their passing.

    ReplyDelete
  27. So amazing and funny...I encountered Sheldon Brown in very much the same way. Every google search I did that involved Raleighs, vintage English bikes, rod brakes, what have you all seemed to the same place--Sheldon's site with that wonderful goofy photo and all of that wonderful, hands-on detail and info. And then yes--it was probably only after months that I came across the dates of his death and I was so sorry. Still, so incredible that he continues to help and inform so many of us and inspires such affection and respect.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I was lucky enough to have one email exchange with him before he died. My Dad was a Sheldonite before I had any idea- we happened to be in West Newton and my Dad was so excited when we drove past Harris!

    I think that the magic of his website is that not only is it so comprehensive and exhaustively crosslinked, but it's written in a completely accessible and surprisingly non- technical style (Ok except for the gear ratio stuff which I can never understand). It actually reminds me a bit of the Car Talk Guys- pragmatic and results oriented.

    "So you want to spread your rear dropouts. Here's how you do it...."
    No, ooh- this is crazy and technical and you should really pay someone else to do it" Instead it's very encouraging and implies that anyone, no matter how inexperienced can do just about anything to a bike with the appropriate amount of persistence and a bit of guidance from an old pro.

    If he's looking down from the great bicycle shop in the sky, I hope he's proud of the growing re-appreciation of old steel bikes and bicycles for transportation.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Great post, Velouria. Like you I discovered him after he died, while researching hub gears. I was so saddened to see on his website that he was no longer with us...the guy was a genius. His website is not only full of brilliant articles but laugh out loud humour as well.
    Happy freewheeling, Sheldon, wherever you are.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Incredible man, always loved his passion for English bikes!

    Ben
    (Lincoln England) Home of Elswicks

    ReplyDelete
  31. Maybe the last image is prophetic in the sense, if you look hard or out of the corners of your eyes you might discover he is still here.

    Al

    ReplyDelete
  32. It says a lot about a person who can affect so many who didn't even know him personally, even after his death. I too stumbled across his website purely by accident whilst looking for vintage bike parts. His articles really gave me the help I needed working on the 3-speed bikes I love so much. I think this is a great tribute, and may his work continue to help other bicycle lovers and owners to become a little more self-sufficient in their bicycle repairing adventures! What a great person!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Sheldon Brown is looking over my shoulder every time I lace a wheel or have a mechanical problem. Who sez he's dead??

    ReplyDelete
  34. vast experience X love to share X sensitivity X attitude... make a truly great man. - funky head wear and expressive facial hair come as no hindrance.
    craft X reflection is something that to us humans comes as a very rare and highly appreciated - almost poetic - combination. it is also for example what we love in true design of any kind.
    sheldon's highly accessible way of writing to me lives somewhere in the same sphere. it puts me right into his head and makes me look at his hands. zen and the art of bicycle maintenance.
    a generous man. the soul of cycling.

    ReplyDelete
  35. We only knew him in passing before his passing but we rode out with others to attend his memorial service. Due to personal things that were going on at the time we felt connected to him in five very deep ways, something I've shared with his wife when I bumped into her.

    I sat in that church and I looked at the people around me and I pondered what I could do, in my own way, that could influence or inspire people in a small approximation of what he had done.

    On the bike ride home I decided I could start a blog, and the next day I did: inspiration for this blog

    ReplyDelete
  36. Wonderful post... I, like you, continue to learn so much from Sheldon via his superb writing and deep, deep technical knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
  37. beautiful post and nice selection of images of sheldon... definitely a giant figure in todays vintage bike boom... along with grant pedersen, hiroshi iimura of jitensha studio, he has had an immense influence on my obsession with (particularly) japanese bicycles... well done!!!

    ReplyDelete
  38. What a great tribute and a great post.

    ReplyDelete
  39. That is very sad news for me also. Thank you for the article and the photos.

    ReplyDelete
  40. Very well said. I too came across his webpage and found him fascinating. He has lots of info about a Raleigh I was restoring and helped out tremendously. Much like you, I was upset when I found out he had passed just a few months prior to when I first discovered him. May he rest in peace.

    ReplyDelete
  41. He was so kind and knowledgeable about most things. He even helped me decide on a Brooks leather saddle over the phone. I'm glad I spoke with Sheldon, the iconic presence in the world of cycling. I still have the saddle, which I will someday pass down to my grandchildren with a little story to accompany it.

    ReplyDelete