Like a monkey handling a peanut

Grant Petersen remembers Sheldon Brown

Bicycle expert Sheldon Brown passed away February 3, and his influence was vast. Rivendell owner Grant Petersen shared a unique friendship with the late Massachusetts-based Brown, and wrote the following.

Everybody knows it by now, and thousands of words have been written about it by now. It should be hundreds of thousands. Even if hundreds of thousands, it wouldn’t approach the number of words Sheldon wrote in his enviable, concise, straight-to-the-point style that every communicator ought to have, and I wish I could do as well.

One thing you will read, or have read many times by now, is “there will never be another Sheldon,” and nothing is truer than that. It wasn’t just his hats and genius clownish demeanor, or his yellow-and-blue website, or his Sheldon Brownish knowledge of everything about bikes—from every era. His knowledge spilled over into music, acting, cameras, websites…whatever Sheldon was interested in he became expert at. But unlike many experts who flaunt it and use it to make those who knew less feel stupid, Sheldon was a humble educator.

Is there anything better to be? I think there isn't. Is there anybody who has helped more people, solved more problems, and contributed more enthusiasm and knowledge about bikes to more people? Nobody else is even close.

The last time I saw Sheldon was last September, at InterBike, the big industry trade show. Every year I'd see him at the show, usually the first day, and we'd talk for a while and then go on. Sheldon had multiple sclerosis, did you know that? He'd had symptons for a long time, and about a year and a half ago he went from cane to electric wheelchair, and from a regular bike to a three-wheeled recumbent, but if you didn't see it you wouldn't know it, because he was always the same. His mood was always upbeat and respectful. He didn't walk around like the hotshot he was, and he didn't talk about his condition unless you asked about it, and he didn't feel sorry for himself even though he had every right to.

Anyway, the first day of the show passed and I didn't see him, but I knew he was there. That night I was eating dinner at a buffet with a friend and some Australians, and Sheldon wheeled on over, and we talked for fifteen minutes or so, food on the table. It was always easy to talk to Sheldon. We had our separate worlds, but they were linked by the common bigger one, and the feeling I got that night was the same feeling I always got when I talked to Sheldon face-to-face.

I'm thought of as an expert at some things, it's just stuff that happens to me, things said or written, whatever it is...and I know people think it, and it comes less from what I actually know, and more from just being known.  I know at some level it's important to Rivendell's success, so I don't run away from it or anything, but what I want to say is that Sheldon was as much my hero as he was anybody's, and for me, talking to him was especially relieving and relaxing, because with him, I knew he knew all I knew and so fantastically much more, so he didn't have any expectations of me. There were no insights I could offer him, because he knew all I knew already. There wasn't any part from the past, or trend from the '70s, or even a flash-in-the-pan thing that he didn't remember better than I did.

About two and a half years ago when he came out to California to visit his daughter in college out here, he stopped by Rivendell and we went for ride. He'd lost about 50 pounds, and wanted to go on a good old ride, whatever I'd do if he wasn't there. So we headed up Mount Diablo, a 6.5 mile, 2,000-foot climb to the halfway up mark. My plan was to go easy, just talk and all, but I didn't have to slow much for Sheldon. He rode well and looked great on the bike, like a monkey handling a peanut, as smooth as we all want to be.

He wanted to ride something different from his normal riding, a ride he wouldn't have been able to do two years earlier, and asked about trails heading down. The most direct trail down is Wall Point, a steep, loose, bumpy trail that has some of everything on it, and much of it not fun.  He'd already surprised me on the way up, but I wasn't sure he'd be OK on the Rambouillet with 32s on the way down, since 99 percent of the riders you see on this trail have dual-suspension bikes, and it's one place on the mountain that you don't snicker at all that machinery.

Of course I wouldn't be telling the story if Sheldon stumbled, walked, or did any of that, but he rode the whole thing, talking most of the way, unfazed by sections he should have been fazed by. So.....despite his physical problems (which had started to show even before this), and despite his desk-jockey day job, and his unfamiliarity with this terrain, he rode it as well his first time as I did my thirtieth or so.

I wanted to tell that story, because Sheldon is so extremely associated with computers and websites and links and all, that it's easy to forget that he was a bike rider when computers were as big as refrigerators, and never stopped being one, and from what I saw that day, his skills never faded.

We in the bike world know Sheldon as a bikey computer guy, but of course there are more important things than bike knowledge, or computer ways, or riding ability. Sheldon always made you feel good. Even though he was a legend, he was easy to be around.

Sheldon died, and in our little bicycle world, news doesn’t get any bigger or any sadder than that.

Grant "I'm glad I knew Sheldon" Petersen

P.S.  In 2001 in Rivendell Reader 25, we did an 8-page interview with Sheldon.  You can download and read it here (it's about 2MB and you'll need Adobe Acrobat to open it). In the intro to it, last paragraph, you may notice the word "knowledge" is spelled three different ways, with only one of them correct. Not even half. Sheldon never would have let that happen. 

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