Sheldon Brown's "Unfinished Interview"

Sheldon  Brown was a good friend to all of us who take biking seriously, and even those of us who don't. Bikers of the BR&K variety certainly can't be called "purists", but we care about the mechanics of our creations, and want to know how the things work. And even within a demographic seemingly made up of "lone gunmen", it's good that we can communicate with one another on our favorite topic, without the use of hand gestures- highly impractical with E-mail. Sheldon covered both those needs for us.

Sheldon was always a good friend to us, lending his expertise when asked, and contributing photos of one of his bike creations in the early days of our Gallery, when we needed it. Although not a fan of our sort of bikes, he always generously mentioned that his was in the BR&K Gallery when he showed that bike in his own website. 
We've run many interviews over the years, but had never done one with Sheldon. This past fall, I felt it was  time to remedy that omission. So, I wrote him with the request, and he agreed. Usually, my E-mail interviews occur at a very rapid pace, with the subject and I shooting questions and answers back and forth like a pro tennis game. With Sheldon, though,  the intervals were considerably longer. I was well aware that he had a very heavy load of correspondence in his daily schedule, so I wrote it off to that. Then, during our interview, I learned of his illness with a form of multiple sclerosis (primary progressive), and that made even more sense. So, I resigned myself to a lengthy process for the interview. 

At one point, I was waiting for the next answer to arrive for a particularly long time. Thinking that maybe he didn't care for that particular question, I sent him an alternate one; with more time elapsed. Finally, the time for the issue to go up became pressing, and everything else for it was finished. Since we already had two finished interviews for the issue, I decided to just let his interview wait for the next issue and go with what we had, after re-working the cover. 

Shortly after that issue went to bed, I left town for one of my long sojourns in Louisiana, this time for making a TV commercial for Subway restaurants. After that sort of mission, I usually spend a few weeks recuperating.  Eventually, I was ready to get back into the BR&K groove. I checked the in-box to see if Sheldon had sent me any more answer material. My wife usually forwards everything to me, but I checked anyway. Nothing.  Then, on February 4, John Brain E-mailed me the news of Sheldon's passing, due to a massive coronary event the day before. Oh!

I have a very good feel for the length an interview should be; and the following is not what I'd call a finished interview, as it's much too short, considering the stature of the subject. Of course, maybe Sheldon himself considered it finished. Consider his last answer below; ya gotta admit that it's funny, considering the nature of BikeRod&Kustom's style of bikes. And Sheldon was a very funny guy. 

Anyway, I'm running it here as a memorial to Sheldon, and because in my part of it I expressed why I and many others had reason to be grateful to him.  In a way, it was like giving him a chance to read my eulogy to him while he was still alive. Not that that's what I thought at the time, of course. Sure, he had lots more to do on his list, but his work forms a massive oeuvre anyone would be proud of. I hope we will see his like again, but I'm somewhat doubtful about the possibility of that happening. Maybe if we all try to apply what we learned from him, and follow the example he set by his generosity of spirit, we can cumulatively replace him.


Q: Hello Sheldon. Your site was almost the very first entry we put on our BR&K Links page, primarily because your incredibly comprehensive Bicycle Glossary and various technical articles are so useful to people who have no formal education in bicycle mechanics- such as myself and, presumably, most of our readers. As I recall, I also raved about the Glossary's literary qualities, which are a bonus feature, comparing you to Ambrose Bierce. But, for most people, it's a matter of the educational value of the information. I still see it being recommended by people on various bike forums to newbies in the activity. Was that Glossary the original basis for your site, or did the need for it manifest itself as you went along?

A:  The site started with half-a-dozen recycled magazine articles, including the ever-popular Cyclecomputer Calibration Chart. The original site went online December 21, 1995

As I started writing articles specifically for the Web, the need to define technical terms became immediately obvious, and the usefulness of hypertext links for that function also became immediately obvious.

The Bicycle Glossary, like the rest of the site, started very small, and just grew as I kept adding terms to it over the years.  The Bicycle Glossary started up on May 4, 1996.  I am constantly adding new definitions and new photos to it, so it continues to grow.

Having the Bicycle Glossary on my site has made it much easier to write technical articles, since I can freely use technical terms without needing to define them in context.

I am eager to share this ability with other Web writers, and am committed to maintaining stable URLs so that if anybody wishes to add a link to a specific definition, that link will never get broken at my end.

Q: Your Glossary is to Bicycle Speak as the Oxford Dictionary is to English Speak, which is saying quite a lot. I'd hate to imagine the Babel we'd have in the bicycle field without it. And the archival stability of your site is most commendable, and has been a big incentive to me for maintaining the core of the BR&K Archives. 

On behalf of our would-be composite frame designer/builders, I'd also like to thank you for taking on the continuity of Damon Rinard's excellent bike tech site. I can't think of any other on-line source for a lot of his information, especially his extremely useful carbon composite frame project documentation. 

Of course, Damon's site is only a small part of your site's articles content. While gearing up for this interview, I went back to cruise through your "Articles by You and Others" index and was barely able to escape, due to your having added so much fascinating content since my last visit. Do you have any idea of how many pages you add to your site in a typical year? And do you see any point at which you would begin to slow down that growth?

A: Since I've been afflicted by MS, I'm no longer able to do any mechanical work on bikes, and not I'm even tinkering with my own, (aside from my Greenspeed tricycle) since I'm no longer able to ride bicycles.

This makes it harder for me to keep abreast of new developments in a "hands-on" way.  As a result, the site is growing more slowly now than heretofore.  I do intend to try to keep it as up-to-date as I possibly can.

Q: I'm so sorry to hear about the MS, Sheldon! I had no idea. This is just another example of why I hate irony so much- that a vigorous guy who builds his own bikes and rides them like a fiend would be struck by a debilitating illness, rather than some sedentary guy whose idea of exertion is having to manually change channels on the TV when the remote control's batteries are down. I've known several people hit by MS, and they've never been lazy swine like me; nope, it's always the hard chargers.

It's a good thing that building and riding bikes has never been your only creative outlet. I've always been very impressed by your wide-ranging intellectual interests and areas of expertise, in addition to the bike thing. Sure, that's impressive, but the Sheldon Brown intellect is probably your most muscular attribute. 

Let's take a break from this bummer topic, although I'm interested in returning to it later, and discuss something else I've been wondering about your Glossary, recently.

Your Raleigh 20 Hot Rod Bike  is one of the earliest entries in our Gallery. While thinking of it recently, it occurred to me that if there were a dictionary entry for the term "Hot Rod Bicycle", that little bike of yours would be the illustration for it, since it pretty much matches the spirit of the original automotive term "hot rod". It's based on an old, small, cheap, comparatively- light donor frame, and fitted with more modern performance components to make it "hotter". Just out of curiosity, I went to the H section of your Glossary. To my surprise, you don't have that term listed, much less an illustrating photo. Is that an accidental omission, or did you just not feel that the term is specific enough to bother with, or is the example too specific?

A: I don't consider "hot rod" to be a cycling specific term, it's more generic, and, of course, originally referred to automobiles.

As it says on the title page: "Many of these terms have general meanings as well as special bicycle-related meanings. This glossary deals only with the bicycle-related applications of these terms."

Q: I've noticed, in touring your site, that it's not just bicycles that you "hot rod". For example you seem to be something of a "camera hacker" as well. Do you tend to view all your mechanical possessions as things to be customized?

A: Fer shure!  I could show you my folding cane that I've modified to also serve as a camera monopod...

Q: That's pretty clever; and a really natural concept, too. Not too surprising that it's photography-related.

I got some extremely useful information from one of your camera hack write-ups. I took advantage of the recent incredibly lowball prices on used Nikon gear to add to my wife's camera kit. She's always used a Nikon F for her serious work, so I started replacing some of her worn-out lenses, and added some she'd never had, such as a 55mm Micro-Nikkor for a close-up nature series she's planning. Since her Nikon F body has no through-the-lens light metering, I got her a compact Nikon FG body, along with a same-sized Nikon EM, neither of which, supposedly, have interchangeable focusing screens. For close-up work, as I'm sure you know, a plain matte screen is preferable to the standard one with a split-image circle in the center, which tends to go dark and be an annoying distraction.

I vaguely remembered a reference to your substituting a full-matte screen from another Nikon model into a Nikon EM you'd fitted with a fisheye lens, so I went back and found it again. Since I'd already replaced all the light seals and mirror-damper foam in both bodies, I had recent practice at removing the focusing screen retainers as part of that process. So, I bought a plain B2 screen that would work in my FE2 if it didn't work in the FG. But, it popped right in without any surgery needed. I probably wouldn't have tried it, if you hadn't already done so, and written about it. On behalf of my wife, thanks for being such a hardcore camera hacker, and sharing your experience.

Getting back to your Glossary for a bit, one of the most amusing topics I originally found in it was your take on "Wheelie Bikes". I found it particularly delightful since I'm something of a curmudgeon myself, and I mostly agreed with your take on the subject anyway. Of course, a lot of our readership has that sentimental attraction to the form, and I've always thought the craze was sort of positive because it encouraged creativity and the DIY spirit among children who didn't buy the bikes straight from the factory that way. I built one myself, back in the day, just because we had that sized frame in the barn and the local hardware store sold the saddles and handlebars. But, I was about 20 at the time, and felt like a geek when riding the thing, although the wheelies were fun. 

As you mentioned, it morphed into BMX eventually, and continued the marketing decline of the 24" bike format, which has always been a personal favorite of mine. The last two bikes I acquired or built for my daughter were that size, although it wasn't easy to find them.

I felt that your take on the "BMX" form, which is still going strong in bike shops, was much less critical. Considering the number of kids who have been racked up doing stupid stunts on "Fake BMX" bikes, I was wondering if you're still as neutral on that particular subject?

A: It's unfortunate that kids get stuck with bikes where the handlebars are way higher than the saddle, makes for pretty awkward handling. As they grow and the saddle gets raised, the position becomes more appropriate though, and this causes a BMX-type bike to be "ridable" for a wide range of sizes of a growing child.

BMX bikes also often have excessively long cranks and resulting excessively high bottom brackets for use by young children.

On the subject of kids' bikes, I really object to bikes that don't have a front brake.  I believe this foolish setup is due to the widespread superstitious fear of "going over the handlebars" due to use of the front brake.   (I discuss this at more length in my article  In my opinion, that article is the most "important" thing I have ever written.  Feedback from readers suggests that it may already have saved several lives and a lot of injury.)

Q: I'd tend to agree with you about the importance of that article. I know that I learned more essential information about cycling from it than anything else I've ever read on the subject. Most aspects of riding a bike are fairly intuitive. But when it comes to braking, the best techniques are somewhat counter-intuitive. I found it to be a real eye-opener, and recommend that everyone read it. 

I did fly over the handlebars once, but it wasn't due to deliberate braking, but by the fender of my Raleigh Sports losing the screw fixing the front mudguard bracket to the fork crown. The fender pivoted downward and instantly locked up the front wheel while I was moving at a good clip down a gravel road. From that experience, I learned to check the tightness of everything before setting off on a ride.

Getting back to bike marketing: about the same time period when average bike shops had nothing on the floor for kids other than "pseudo BMX" styles, mature would-be riders were faced with nothing except "pseudo MTB" styles, with maybe a few high-buck road bikes available for discerning big spenders. I presume that the so-called "comfort bike" style was introduced in reaction to that trend. Do you think that the bike industry has finally become rational, or is marketing just as trend-driven as ever? 

A: The bike biz is cyclical, always has been, always will be.  Early MTBs were "comfort" bikes, and were mainly popular for that reason, in contrast to the skinny tire drop bar bikes that had been sold to so many boomers for whom that style was impractical.

Then people started racing mountain bikes, and the eternal pernicious influence of racing gradually deformed the mountain bike, making them faster, but less comfortable, as the handlebars moved farther forward and lower to meet the needs of the tiny racing minority.

"Comfort" bikes are just the reaction to that.  Unfortunately, in many cases, they're an overcorrection, so the bikes are too slow and stodgy for many healthy, reasonably athletic riders.

Then again, they're quite suitable for older, occasional riders. Unfortunately, this category of rider is commonly intimidated by the double-derailer gear system (the same sort of technophobes who have created the myth that there's something difficult about programming a VCR!)

I really would like to see a more general application of internal gear hubs to "comfort" bikes, and to commuter bikes as well, for that matter.

I'm particularly fond of the Shimano Nexus 8-speed, own two of 'em myself: and

Q: Although I probably fit the "comfort" bike demographic, I've never actually ridden one wearing that label. But until a couple of years ago my basic rider was a Ross Eurotour, which followed the Raleigh Sports pattern pretty closely, with the typical 3-speed rear hub. I found it pretty comfortable, and the relatively wide gear spacing was adequate for cruising around most of Manhattan, which is pretty much flat. I suppose that if I had a personal bike glossary, I'd have something like that illustrating the term "comfort bike". I'm without a direct weight comparison, but I doubt that it would be as heavy as a typical steel-framed "cruiser", which I consider an alternate term for "comfort bike".

For several years, we've seen adult-scale "chopper bikes" on the market, from numerous major bike companies, including Schwinn/Pacific. Have you tried any of those on? If so, what's your opinion of them?

A: I loathe, despise and detest them!

They're all about style, not function, just like '60s wheelie bikes. I like bikes which are made to be ridden, not just looked at.


So, there you have Sheldon Brown's last interview. I'm sorry there's not more of it, and even sorrier that we don't have a lot more of Sheldon himself. He will be sorely missed. 

One reason I consider the interview unfinished is that I wanted to work in a discussion to do with people like BR&K's readership volunteering to functionally customize or custom-build bikes for local people struck by debilitiating illnesses like Sheldon's, to make it possible for them to continue (or even start) biking. We shouldn't just aspire to creating kool bikes, after all. We should also aspire to be kool people, like Sheldon Brown, using our (perhaps Sheldon-given) knowledge, skills and energy to do good for others. 

Jim Wilson 02/07/08

                                      SHELDON BROWN MEMORIAL PAGE .
Boyd Coddington, Legendary Hot Rod Builder, dead at 63