08 May 2015

Jobst Brandt R.I.P.

Late yesterday, I learned about the passing of Jobst Brandt.

As “The Retrogrouch” and others have pointed out, he had a rare combination of skills and talents:  vast and deep technical knowledge, and the ability to communicate it clearly in everyday English that those of us who are less technically-oriented can understand.  He’s one of those people who didn’t let all of his theoretical knowledge get in the way of pure and simple common sense. 

Because of his qualities, he—whether or not it was his intention—helped to create, along with the late Sheldon Brown and a few others—something I’ll call, for lack of any other term, a communal wisdom base for cyclists.

For generations, cyclists in Europe (especially England and France), Japan and other places learned about places and ways to ride, and which equipment was and wasn’t worth buying, from their local clubs or other experienced cyclists they’d meet.  In the US, that infrastructure, if you will, was all but lost during the decades between World War I and the 1970’s Bike Boom.  There were a few who kept the flame flickering.  But if you wanted to find out what Fred (!) DeLong had to say about tires or gearing, Dick Swann’s ideas about frame structure and geometry or John Forester’s wisdom about cycling and traffic safety, you had to be near a bike shop or newsstand that had copies of the magazines in which they were published, or a library that had their books.

In other words, cycling in the US was basically a sea full of ships passing in the night.   As often as not, you learned what you learned by having the fortune to chance upon the right people (or publications) at the right time.  Such was the world I entered when I first became a dedicated cyclist during the Bike Boom.

What made this situation difficult for new cyclists was something I didn’t understand at the time, or for many years afterward:  While the advice and wisdom your fellow riders shared with you was, usually sound, as it was based on experience, it didn’t come with a cogent explanation of why it was so.  Either the cyclist who gave it to you couldn’t analyze it technically, or he (the type I’m about to describe was usually male) was a “techie” who was on the frontiers of the autism spectrum.  I’m thinking now of a cyclist in my first club, a brilliant engineer who was the first person I saw riding a fixed gear outside of a track.  He proselytized for his setup but couldn’t explain the benefits of it in a way that made sense.

Jobst Brandt leaning over
Jobst Brandt

When someone like Jobst Brandt discussed, for example, wheelbuilding or particular wheel components, you’d come away understanding wheels and their components better than you did before.  And the knowledge he imparted helped you to understand, among other things, why that newest boutique wheelset was probably a waste of money for you and just about anyone else who has to pay for his or her own equipment.  

Although he tended to favor the best classic equipment over the latest thing, I think “The Retrogrouch” is correct in saying that he’d bristle at being labeled a “retrogrouch”.  He didn’t praise vintage stuff just because it was vintage.  (If you don’t believe me, read what he says about Sturmey-Archer three-speed hubs.  And he was talking about the ones that were made before Sun Race took over SA!) Moreover, he wasn’t averse to trying to improve what was already available:  After all, he designed Avocet Fas-Grip tires, still some of the best road rubber many of us have ever ridden.  

In brief, the man knew the difference between real technological innovation and the mere appearance of it.  In making that difference clear to us, he allowed us to see how rare true technological innovation actually is (something he, as an engineer, no doubt understood better than most other people) and how the appearance of it is turned into marketing hype.

Arthur Godfrey was an avid hunter who later became an ardent conservationist in an era when such a conversion was all but unheard-of.  A reporter once asked him why he still displayed the animals’ heads and other hunting trophies.  “To remind me of how stupid I once was,” he replied. 

Likewise, I save my mangled Rev-Xs, Kysriums, carbon forks and other techno-junk to remind myself of how ignorant I was before I encountered Jobst Brandt.  I’ll miss him. So will countless other cyclists.

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