Sheldon Brown was an American iconoclast; a builder, inventor, and innovator; a prolific writer, devoted family man, and possessor of an encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of the bicycle. There was probably nothing he did not know, and write, about bikes, and there definitely was not anything he could not fix.
His many web sites, linked together at sheldonbrown.com, are an unmatched resource of cycling knowledge, most (but by no means all) technical or historical. As he put it:
As a kid, I used to gather discarded bicycle parts and put together bikes to sell for pocket money. I have been tinkering with bicycles ever since, sometimes as a business, always as a hobby.
“Tinkering” was characteristically modest. Of dozens of bikes Sheldon owned, my favourite is found here. It is an early-1970s O.T.B. (“Only The Best,” a private label assembled in Boston by a very discriminating dealer), which Sheldon modified to have 63 speeds, three gear shifts, and an extra front brake lever, which makes for lots of cables. Here’s how you get 63 speeds on a bike: start with a Sturmey-Archer 7-speed internally geared hub, add seven sprockets to the same axle, and run that with the standard three chain ring arrangement at the pedals. 7 X 3 X 3 = 63.
His wife is a computer scientist, and Sheldon may well have been one of the world’s first bloggers. He first put his site up in 1997, and added to it continually thereafter. It grew to be so extensive that anyone with a technical question checked there first. In cycling forums, newbie questions were usually directed there with the initials AASHTA (“As always, Sheldon has the answer”).
Sheldon was diagnosed with MS in 2006, which affected his balance, and that meant he was unable to ride his bikes anymore. He enjoyed riding a recumbent trike for a while, but soon was unable to ride even that, and so zipped around on an electric scooter. He still personally answered hundreds of emails every day, happily sharing his knowledge, helping people find obscure bike parts, and so forth. He was taken by a massive heart attack on Feb 3, 2008, at the age of 63.
The response has been phenomenal. Impromptu web site memorials have sprung up (locally, see sheldonbrown.blogspot.com), there have been memorial rides across North America, and the obits and eulogies are everywhere. I found this, for example, on bikeportland.org:
I had the pleasure of meeting Sheldon many years ago while conducting research for Giant Bicycles. His basement headquarters was an Aladdin’s cave of obscure and hard-to-get gear, and Sheldon was a gentleman and a great host. We played a game for a couple hours with me trying to come up with really obscure components and him locating the said part. Sach’s Duopar long cage rear mech? Third row, bottom shelf on the right. French-threaded Stronglight alloy headset? Sixth row, second shelf down on the left and so on, until I ran out of ideas. I particularly remember him proudly showing us his 1910 track bike with wooden tubular rims, “for riding on dry days only,” he said. He will be greatly missed.
Sheldon’s presence - even though I only ever knew him through his web sites - was so life-affirming and his joie de vivre so irrepressible that it’s hard to think of him in the past tense. My little world will never seem quite the same without him.
Goodbye, Sheldon (sniff), I hope you get to fix the bikes in Heaven.
Image by wikipedia, released into public domain by subject and owner of copyright (that’d be Sheldon himself, also an avid amateur photograper).