Pump Guardian cyclist
Some days I pack my mountain bike with forty pounds of cameras and tripods, but today I pedaled my luxury lightweight. Its steep geometry makes it turn and accelerate with abrupt joy; its aerodynamic brake levers conceal its cables; its narrow seat is like the snout of a whippet; and its slender aluminum wheels have metric tires with needle thin Presta air valves.

The name of the valves seems light and special: Presta. One spandex clad racer I talked to did not know the name and referred to them as, "the pro kind of valves," because they will not fit under an automobile air hose nozzle without an adapter.

I was eight miles out, halfway to the bulk film warehouse, when my rear tire went flat at 7:15 a.m. My location happened to be a gas station in a neighborhood where a high percentage of the stores were boarded up. Houses had dirt for front lawns. All the cars seemed fifteen-plus years old. One of the refueling cars happened to contain a caucasian passenger. I confess it relieved me to see him. Something inside me was relieved that I was not the only one here of that color. Have I explored the world so little that I find no other way to feel unity with people than by a grossly visible genetic trait?

I had a pump of my own and a tool kit attached to my bicycle, but I decided to try the automatic air pump. Sitting near it on the step to the convenience store sat an old guy with a cane. The worst that can happen, I thought, will be that he asks me for spare change.

I was entering the grizzly fellow's space, so I uttered a small, "hi," when I arrived and lay my bicycle down. He acknowledged me with a slight nod and continued to gaze beyond me toward the busy gas pumps. He was a portly man wearing dungarees spotted with grease. I wondered if he had slept in his faded brown sport coat. He wore a baseball cap advertising auto parts. His silver beard made his face quite long, and in a way, dear. The duct taped cane at his side gave him more a semblance of seasoned judgment than of infirmity.

From the flow of customers into the kiosk a man leaned down to shake the seated gentís hand and convey a wadded up dollar bill. "How you doin'?" said the customer, who quickly walked back to the gas pump island, got in his old Chevy and drove off. Several more people greeted the seated man as they passed.

I slid my right index finger slowly around the inside of my tire to check for small bits of glass. My happenstance companion finally spoke in a voice as scratchy and heavy as a metal barrel dragged over concrete. "You look like you done that before." He continued to gaze off toward the bustle at the gas pumps. Though low in pitch, his tone was almost cheerful. Perhaps he understood how bothersome my task was.

"Many times," I said politely as I thumbed my fresh inner tube into the tire.

"How far you ride every day?" he said.

"Ten or twenty." There was no sense in telling him that some days I pedal over 50 miles around town. What does he know about bicycles? Even if he is not a machine gun toting drug dealer, his world is very different from mine. I better not mess with it.

Then he spoke again. "It's like a horse to you. You treat her right, and she'll treat you right."

"True enough," I said, looking down. Plenty of car worshipers have attempted to humor me in such a way. I would soon be rolling away forever from this one, so I did not pretend he was a pal.

He spoke again "You get it yet?"

"Almost," I said.

Stooping with the reassembled wheel between my knees, I lowered the bike frame onto it. My tool kit contained a valve adapter which I would soon dig for. The gas stationís air hose stuck out of a dented metal box which seemed to have no "on" button. Perhaps it required quarters. I doubted that anybody present could tell me reliably whether the air pump was in working order.

The rough voice sounded again: "You can't use that." What did he mean? That he would not allow me? Did he intend to bribe me? If it's not a working air pump, why didn't he just say so? I decided that it was a good thing I had not been too chummy with him.

I asked, "You mean it's broken?" He may have witnessed many people attempt to use this pump.

"It don't work on Presta valves," he explained genially in his gravel pit voice.

"Oh," I said, flabbergasted. "Thanks." This thick, weathered apparently sedentary man who appeared never to have pedaled in his life may actually know a lot about bicycles. He probably saw through me the whole time and noticed my assumptions and fears. I was certainly not going to defy him at this point by producing my adapter.

I reached for my manual pump, applied it to my valve, wrapped my palm around the thin tire and set to thrusting and withdrawing the small plunger. I was still silent, but now with awe instead of apprehension. If I were to pass this way every day, maybe I would come to know his story. All I did then was give him my two quarters and pedal on my way.

by Ben Swets 1997
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composed by B.A.S Last updated 7 Apr 2005