10 March 2009

One Dollar

Nearly twenty years ago, I made a big investment in a one piece of cycling equipment: a Silca floor pump. What's so big about buying a tire pump? Well, at the time I was a starving undergraduate, whose primary income came from working at McDonald's on school vacations. And Silca pumps have never been cheap; depending on the model and the retailer, one can easily pay in the neighborhood of $100 these days. I seem to recall getting mine for about $35 or so --- a big chunk of change, given my income. But I made the investment because I was getting increasingly serious about cycling, and there were/are no better pumps than Silcas. Just borrowing other people's Silca pumps a few times convinced me of that.

My Silca outlasted the bike I owned at the time, and traveled back and forth across the country so many times I lost count. It flew with my bike in its case, and rode around in the trunks of cars that long ago went to the junkyard. It sat in sheds and basements and garages and barns in Illinois, Michigan, California, Washington, and Virginia.

And, eventually, it began to wear out. I hardly ever used it, or even rode a bike, between 2000 and 2007; only since then have I slowly begun to get back into the sport. This past year, as I've been getting increasingly serious about riding (both my own bike and the tandem with our kids), I found that the Silca pump wasn't holding a good seal with the tire valve stems. Air leaked like crazy as I pumped, and the pump head would easily disconnect from the stem at even moderate pressure.

My first thought was that I'd gotten a good run from my investment in the Silca pump, and that it was time to buy a new one. One look at current retail prices quickly disabused me of that plan. My next thought was to buy a new brass pump head. A little searching revealed that to be a better course of action, but it still felt odd to be paying $20 to replace a part on a pump that had originally cost me only $35.

I continued searching, and discovered something important: Silca pumps are designed to be entirely rebuildable. And even inside that brass head, the rubber washer can be replaced. I opened up my pump's head, inspected the washer, and realized that was probably my problem: it was hard and dry and didn't seem able to provide a good seal. Back to Google, I found any number of online retailers listing that rubber washer for just a few dollars. But, just as quickly, I also discovered the limitations of online retailing: every one of those sites was going to charge at least $7 or $8 to ship that tiny rubber washer. They could've put it in a letter-sized envelope and mailed it to me for less than a dollar, but every site was set up with automated UPS or FedEx shipping calculators. Simply on principle, it seemed wrong to buy something and pay three or four times as much for shipping as for the product. But I wondered how else I could get something as seeming-obscure as a Silca rubber washer.

The next afternoon, I made a point of stopping at the local bicycle shop ("local" being relative...the closest bike shop is 15 miles from our house). It's a fairly well-stocked place, and they've done an excellent job getting my bike out of mothballs, but the shop itself doesn't compare to what you'd find in Seattle or a college town. I didn't expect them to have the washer, but figured they could special-order it for me. Even if my total cost ended up being similar to buying it online, it was the principle of the thing. Especially in these economic times, I wanted to support a local retailer.

The first clerk I spoke with was significantly younger than I am. As I explained what I was looking for, he got a puzzled expression on his face. I quickly added that they'd probably have to special-order it, and perhaps we could look at some catalogs. He agreed, and led me to a stack of books in the repair area, but still didn't seem to know quite what I was talking about. As he began opening a parts book, a middle-aged (female) employee happened to go past us. (Fortunately, this woman was the very person I'd originally hoped to speak with; when I'd brought my old Bianchi in for servicing, she'd expressed great appreciation for its vintage Campagnolo components, so I knew she knew about old Italian bike stuff.) Young Clerk turned to her and tried to ask which book he should look in, but he didn't even know how to describe what he was looking for. "Rubber washer for the head of a Silca pump," I told her.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I think we may even have those," and walked briskly to a wall of parts bins in the service area. A moment later, she returned with a small plastic wrapper containing not one but two of these rubber washers, marked 95 cents each. "Perfect!" I exclaimed.

As the female employee hurried off to assist the customer she'd been working with, I turned back to the younger clerk. "Is that all you need?" he asked, still looking slightly bewildered.

"Yep," I smiled, removing one of the washers and producing a dollar bill from my wallet.

Later that night, I showed Homeschooled Farm Boy how to change the rubber washer. Earlier, he'd had to help me me inflate the bike tires by holding the pump head tightly to the rim --- but even then, we'd lost a lot of air to leakage. Now, with the new rubber washer, everything worked perfectly.

I'm hoping I get another twenty years of service from this pump. And maybe Homeschooled Farm Boy will someday show his own son how to rebuild it for just one dollar.


Zach said...

Just think, Chris -- you could have invested that dollar and bough a share of CitiGroup...

Athos said...

My grandfather, who had a 120-acre farm in Edwardsburg, MI (pretty sandy soil, but grew corn just fine), had a similar hand-ax. He told me it had been in the family for 200 years. The head had only been replaced twice and handle three times ...