Today is the second anniversary of the death of Sheldon Brown.
It seems strange that a bicycle mechanic from Boston would gain international attention to the point that “Sheldon Brown” would become a verb in internet lingo. Its meaning is simple: look it up on Sheldon Brown’s website, because he has the complete information and concise instructions.
What length bottom bracket spindle do I need? Sheldon Brown it. I want to build my first wheel – how? Sheldon Brown. How do I measure chainline or BCD? Sheldon Brown. Always.
His popularity grew in part because of his article Fixed Gear Bicycles For The Road, which was a portal into fixed-gear cycling for many novices. His article had it all: explanations of fixed gears from soup to nuts that managed to be both basic and thorough. No better portal to cycling could be found: the combination of a knowledgeable wrench with a flair for archival and arcane memory, skilled at clear communication; and the fixed gear bicycle, which in its simplicity and unique, unusual ride experience got countless people back into the saddle after long absences, reigniting passion for the bike the world over. Forget rants about hipsters. When I started riding one, I knew that riding a fixed gear was fun and unusual and it was the start of an ongoing love affair with cycling. The gateway to much more.
For that, I have Mr. Brown to thank.
I’ve always tried to approach death and grieving in combination with thanksgiving, and while Mr Brown died before we met (though after several email exchanges, during which he was friendly, open to persistent questions, and informative), I regretted never meeting him and appraising his eccentricity in person. But I’m thankful that when my curiousity was roused and I googled “fixed gear” lo these many years ago, his website was there to greet me and to provide both enthusiasm and a rich volume of information.
What an introduction to the cycling world.
Thank you, Sheldon Brown.
My good buddy Al is the King of NYC Roller Racing. At last night’s roller races, he beat (ahem, BEAT) Olympic-level and professional track racer Bobby Lea and got to the finals, where he had a lead on Andy Lakatosh (as in, Andy Lakatosh!) before, well, finishing third to Lakatosh and somebody wearing stars and stripes – all things considered, a good result.
The cool thing about roller racing is that it’s a rare way in cycling to go head-to-head with people who are way out of your league, but whom you still have a shot of beating. Rollers offer little resistance, which all but removes power and strength from the equation – it is, in essence, a test of pure leg speed and its secondary requirements – stability, souplesse, and concentration, the latter of which is incredibly important in convincing your body to sustain 150+ RPM for almost a minute.
Obviously, Al wouldn’t be able to take these beefcakes on the track. But on rollers? Well, if it takes some National Champ and a pro to send Al all the way down to 3rd place, well – there’s no one in New York City who can take him. And he got to throw down with some national calibre races, and hold his own. And that is pretty damn impressive.
For the first time in years, I have more geared bikes than fixed gear bikes. The ratio swung quite recently from 1:3 to 4:3, not because I acquired three geared bikes, but rather, I acquired one, sold a fixed gear, and mothballed another (giving it “half a bike status”), giving me two geared bikes and one and a half track bikes – which, yes, are track bikes according to my terminological standards.
If you’ve ever spent a minute on Sheldon Brown‘s website, which provides an ABCs in bicycle education and is part of many neophyte fixed gear riders’ education, you may have come across the quote, “Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur?”
That was spoken by Henri Desgrange, the nerd pictured above. The full quote is, “I applaud this test, but I still feel that variable gears are only for people over 45. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. Come on fellows. Let’s say that the test was a fine demonstration – for our grandparents! As for me, give me a fixed gear!” and Desgrange was responding to a “test” off derailleur bicycles, which pitted a rider on a fixed gear versus a rider on a three-speed derailleur-equipped bicycle, which the latter won.
Is Desgrange calling me a weenie? An old fart? Desgrange is just a jerk who, as the founder and manager of the Tour de France, just told other people what to do. Well, Henri, all I’ve got to say i, I’m not the guy with a mustache that looks like I toss around a medicine ball with some guy named Finneaus.
This summer, me and the boys have spent some time in the farm country north of New York City, in the hills and valleys outside of Poughkeepsie, where there’s a farm house that needs scraping and painting and strong, undermployed young folks to pay to do so, and lots of sweeping country roads for evening rides.
Tired from working and tired of training, we went out one evening for a fun ride. No spandex, no helmets, no big ring, just fun. “Can you do a 180 degree skid?” Sure! I wound up destroying my race tire. Oops.
We got into a fierce debate about aerodynamics and descending skills (aided by the post-work, pre-ride beer), so we set about articulating the rules of a contest:
1. We start from a stop atop a crest, in the same gear, and allow ourselves a single pedal stroke to clip in and gain a roughly equal momentum.
2. Drafting is allowed.
3. The winner is the person who goes the farthest.
We line up and push off and clip in and enter our best aero tucks, rolling along at seven or eight miles an hour and slowly gaining speed down down the road. We’re wobbling with the low speed of it all but we pick it up until we’re descending, still at unimpressive speeds, but crouching as low as we can and casting fierce looks at each other.
Three of the four of us are not satisfied with the results competition so we continue to pedal and shittalk until we come to the next part of the road that provide a good starting line, and, rolling at the same speed, begin the competition.
This time, we get up to some more speed and are flying down the road, grimacing with the effort of holding the smallest, tighest aero tucks we can conjure up.
Suddenly, Al cries out from behind me, “Dear up!” and in front of me, William yells out, “Gear up? WE SAID NO SHIFTING OR PEDALING!” but before he completes his sentence, a deer runs out from the woods next to the road, across our line, practically brushing William’s nose.
If his tuck was a hair more aerodynamic he’d have run smack into its flank, into the fury of its lanky legs and sharp hooves. Instead it clattered off to the road and disappeared into the underbrush on the far side of the road as we, wide eyed, sat up on our bikes.
A sphincter-clenching moment, to be sure.