Sheldon Brown: 1944 - 2008

Sheldon Brown (July 14, 1944 - February 3, 2008) was an American bicycle mechanic and technical authority. He maintained an extensive website containing authoritative articles relating to bicycle mechanics and maintenance, as well as a thorough glossary of bicycling terminology.

He was an enthusiast for many old and unlikely forms of bicycles and cycling including Raleigh and their English three-speed cycles, the Sturmey-Archer hub in general, tandems, and in particular fixed-gear cycles. Sheldon Brown also wrote a well-regarded guide to wheelbuilding, available on his website.

In August 2007 Sheldon was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. After losing his ability to balance an upright bicycle to the disease, he was able to continue pedaling by using a recumbent tricycle. Sheldon passed away on February 3, 2008 after a heart attack.

An obituary on Sheldon Brown written by his wife, Harriet Fell:

In 1972, I was halfway home with a flat tire and walked into a bike shop that was just closing -- the bicycle Revival, River Street in Cambridge,. or maybe Western Avenue. Sheldon stayed late to fix it. That's how I first met him.

There were 46 bicycles in or around his house "with a few shared wheels", by his recent count, mostly in his basement. He didn't buy bicycles off the shelf -- as a challenge to his mechanical ingenuity, and a way to spend less money and spend more time doing what he liked to do, he cobbled up customized bicycles from parts he acquired mostly through special deals, barter or secondhand, to suit himself or someone in his family. He often came up with a something unique, clever and useful. You may read about his bicycles on his Web site. He had an eye for style, but also, one or two rusty clunkers hung out by the back door getting rustier, for the quick ride to the convenience store, and several old hulks of bikes lived under the front porch.

Much more history could go here...later for that. As David Wittenberg described him in an e-mail this morning: "He knew more about bicycles than anyone else I know, as was always happy to share what he knew." Lemonade out of lemons, serving his lifelong interest in photography: he drilled a hole through the handle of the cane so he also could use it as a monopod for his camera. He could no longer ride a bicycle because he lacked the coordination and leg strength to mount or dismount. He rode a Greenspeed recumbent tricycle slowly.

You wouldn't have known about his illness from his correspondence, except when he openly mentioned it. He hated euphemisms and didn't mince words: he wrote "I am now a cripple." He remained upbeat, active and involved and said that his illness was much harder for Harriet to take than for him, though "it's damn inconvenient." With his usual mechanical ingenuity, he had bought a hoist secondhand and rigged it to lift his electric 4-wheel scooter in and out of the back of his minivan, and that's how he got around.

But it was a massive heart attack rather than the MS that ended his life last night. He was 63.

He leaves Harriet, a PhD professor of mathematics and computer science at Northeastern University, and the first American woman to complete Paris-Brest-Paris. You may read about that too, on her Web site. Her opening line when she first met Sheldon: "I see you're riding fixed." And then he noticed that she was riding a Holdsworth, a high-grade British bike of the day.

Bicyclists and computer gurus mixed at their wedding in 1979. Would you believe that my seat was next to that of artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky? It was. Sheldon and Harriet rode away on a tandem.

Their two children, George and Tova, are both now doctoral students in mathematics.

Sheldon was widely read, with a special interest in science fiction. He spoke French, and read Jules Verne in French, having brushed it up when Harriet was on a fellowship in France and the family spent a year there, 1988-1989. He wrote with lucidity and technical precision, though he had been a square peg in a round hole with conventional academics and never earned a college degree.

Favorite quote from Sheldon:

"Everyone I know in bicycling is at least a little bit crazy, present company included."

Amen, to which I would add, the craziness I know in bicyclists often leads in good directions, or the bicycling keeps it within bounds. I know of a lot of people *not* in bicycling who are very much crazier :-)

Favorite quote about him, I don't recall from whom (Harold Lewis, Ed Trumbull?):

"When they made him, they threw away the mold."

This afternoon, I went out for a bike ride. That always helps get *me* going in the right direction when things are getting out of bounds :-).

I stopped at the post office in Weston and a woman in line ahead of me was saying that everyone is depressed because the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl game last night. Well, we all have our troubles, I guess.