Sheldon Brown: 1944-2008

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Sheldon Brown

Sheldon Brown, technical guru and internet legend, has died of a heart attack aged 63.

Sheldon was born on 14 July 1944. He grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where as a child he would scour the town dump for discarded bicycle parts, assemble bikes and sell them. It was the start of a lifelong enthusiasm for bikes, but it would be wrong to describe it as an obsession. Sheldon had plenty of time for things other than bikes, but it was with bikes that he chose to make a living with Harris Cyclery. Thanks to Sheldon, Harris Cyclery was one of the first shops in the world to have a web site.

Before the World Wide Web was even invented, Sheldon would be there in the Usenet rec.bicycles.* newsgroups, dispensing wisdom. He rose above the flame wars and ad hominems that sometimes tended to replace sensible discussion – if Sheldon knew the answer to a question he’d deliver it, straightforwardly, generously and good-humouredly. And when it came to questions about bicycles, Sheldon had pretty much all the answers – www.sheldonbrown.com became a legendary resource for anyone needing to know finer technical details like the difference in sprocket thickness between nine-speed Shimano and nine-speed Campag, or what length (and angle of taper) bottom bracket to use with a particular crankarm, or the ETRTO numbers for obscure European tyre sizes.

Having experienced gradual nerve deterioration for several years, leading to him becoming unable to ride a bike (although he rode his Greenspeed recumbent trike just a few days before his death), Sheldon was finally diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in 2007. He dealt with his illness has he did everything else – philosophically, and with good humour. Noting that MS was unlikely to spread to his upper body, he simply adapted and got on with things.

Sheldon will be remembered as a knowledgeable, dignified, generous and good-humoured man, and will be missed by many. But there can be no better way to sum up Sheldon’s character than to use his own words. Writing in 2007 following his diagnosis, he said:

“I really don’t mean to be gloomy.

In most ways my life is a dream: after 27 years of marriage, my wife and I are still very much in love.

We’ve got two great kids, both of whom are doing well in graduate school and appear to be on track toward happy, productive, independent lives.

We live in a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood. I have work that I love and a kind, understanding boss who values my contribution, even though it mostly comes over the computer keyboard these days, sometimes at the shop, more often from my home.

My condition is a major inconvenience, but doesn’t appear to be life-threatening, and there is no pain involved, so I really consider myself a very fortunate person in general.

MS isn’t all that bad, at least not my case.”

News of Sheldon’s death came as a great shock to the world wide cycling community – he was posting helpful advice on forums on the day he died.

Sheldon Brown died on 3 February 2008. He is survived by his wife Harriet Fell and children Tova and George.

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