Remembering a Man I Never Knew
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.
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.