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Sheldon Brown 1944-2008

Sheldon Brown, bicycle guru, historian and tireless champion of practical transportation. July 14, 1944 – February 3, 2008

A Revolutionary Force Pedals On

A Tribute to Sheldon Brown, 1944-2008

By Forbes Bagatelle-Black

When I think of vehicles that could save our world, I think of a sleek electric sports car that catches people’s imagination, a gossamer flying wing with skins made of solar panels, an old bicycle leaning up against a snow bank…


Sheldon Brown's Snow Bike

Yup, to me that old bicycle represents more hope for our future than virtually all the high-tech “green” gizmos so blithely splashed about the media these day. The specific bike in question belonged to Sheldon Brown, who passed away from a heart attack on February 3, 2008. It was his “snow bike,” because heaven forbid that a few feet of snow on the roads in and around his Newtonville, Massachusetts home should force him into a car! For decades, Brown dedicated himself to showing the world that bikes could be more than just exercise machines or fashion accessories. He eschewed the trends which pushed American cyclists first onto lightweight road racing machines, then onto off-road behemoths designed to plunge down boulder-strewn trails, then back onto even sleeker, lighter more fragile bikes which could be used on only the smoothest roads. Instead, Brown showed us what a bicycle could be when one looked at it as a vehicle, not a toy.

Most of the bicycles in Brown’s enormous collection had only one chainring and no derailleur, or “derailer” as Brown insisted on spelling the word, citing concerns over linguistic imperialism and purity. Instead, Brown mounted internally-geared hubs on most of his bicycles, and urged others to do the same. He offered the following advice, “Internal gear hubs are more reliable than derailer systems, and require much less maintenance. Unlike derailers, they may be shifted even when the bicycle is stopped, a valuable feature for the cyclist who rides in stop-and-go urban traffic.”

This statement is classic “Sheldon.” He almost always looked at bikes through the critical lens of practicality. Bikes with fenders. Folding bikes which could be carried like luggage. Bikes which could be ridden while wearing street clothes without fear of getting black gunk on your pant legs. These were the types of causes Brown took up and carried with gusto.

But he was much more than a passionate advocate of bicycles for the real world. Brown’s website, www.sheldonbrown.com, is viewed by much or most of the cycling community as the de facto source for encyclopedic cycling information. From extensive historical documentation covering the entire “cycling era,” to a host of articles describing bicycle maintenance, design philosophies, and general cycling advice, Brown’s writing skills were colorful, precise and understandable to a wide range of readers.

He was also a prodigious contributor to seemingly countless e-mail lists dealing with bicycle issues. Whether a question was from a cycling novice who needed the most basic advice or from a seasoned bicycle veteran asking for obscure or highly technical input, Brown would provide answers that educated and amused those who read his postings. Always, he would end his post with a literary or historical quote relevant to the original question. Brown was not simply a walking dictionary of cycling information, he was also a Renaissance man in the truest sense of the word. He was an avid actor, photographer and music-lover as well.

So, the next time you look lustfully at a Tesla Roadster and curse the fact that you cannot afford it, simply go out to your garage, take down your bicycle and ride it to the store. You will be doing far more for the environment than those rich and famous folks who can afford to show off their expensive green toys. And Sheldon Brown, on whatever path he might now be riding, will look down on you and smile.

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