The life and death of a bike pump

It wasn’t a very good floor pump. It didn’t cost much, didn’t have Bluetooth and didn’t have a digital gauge; it just put air into tubes, over and over again. But when it broke, a decade's worth of memories came flooding back.

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It wasn’t a very good floor pump. It didn’t cost much, didn’t have Bluetooth and didn’t have a digital gauge; it just put air into tubes, over and over again. But when it broke, a decade’s worth of memories came flooding back.

I was angry, and I was tired. I’d been trying to get a set of tubeless tyres to seat for most of an evening, after about three weeks of evenings pushing the same boulder up the same hill. I leant my weight on one side of the handle, reaching with my other hand to adjust the pump head on the valve to eliminate the hiss of escaping air, and then the shaft buckled. I tried to bend it back, but the damage had been done. A decade-long relationship with a tool that I’d used almost daily was over.

Life had changed a lot in that time. The saying goes that “life was simpler back then”, but I don’t think that rings true here, because it felt complicated both at the time and in retrospect. I think part of the reason why is that in those days, I hadn’t yet realised the therapy of cycling – I wasn’t doing enough of it, and so the time between rides only added to the pile of things I should have been riding away.

One weekend, in 2010, the seal went on an ancient Topeak Joe Blow I had, and I needed a new pump. I rode my flogged singlespeed across town to a bike shop that had an aluminium Giyo floor pump that looked OK and wouldn’t leave me destitute, strapped it across the back of my messenger bag like a rifle, and bore it back to the toxic environment of the apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend, on top of the Church Street hill.

By toxic: I don’t mean that our relationship was in a bad way – although in hindsight, it probably was – but that we were living in a dusty, mould-ridden shoebox that was literally poisoning us. Marie would get daily nosebleeds, and we both had regular headaches.

There was a kind of Heart of Darkness-delirium that seemed to shroud that pocket of Richmond. The upstairs neighbours teetered on the brink of drunken domestic violence; the churrascaria across the road was all cackling hens and bucks parties and the after-hours smash of bottles. And in the old mansion next door – Peter Lalor’s old house, post-‘birth of Australian democracy’ – the elderly neighbour’s daughter would, every so often, fly into a psychotic rage, bang her head on the wall and stare across the driveway into our living room, blood trickling down her forehead.

I could sort of relate. I felt like I was banging my head against a wall a lot of the time back then, too.

Image: Google Maps

My memories of that time are fragmented, and what I mean by that is that my recollections are splintered into what I remember and what I lost to black-outs. I’d spent four years at uni and had no relevant job to show for it. I would drive to a bike shop in the city’s outer fringe, work with alcoholics selling bikes to suspended drivers, come home, drink until I could pretend my writing was any good, scrawl hot-takes on a musicology blog that nobody read, and drift away.

It probably isn’t a great sign that the only feature of that apartment I remember fondly now was the bathroom tiles – emerald green, kind of Turkish-looking – because they were cool when I’d lie on the floor next to the toilet and listen to the trams rattle by.

One of the good fragments I remember, though, was when Marie got into mountain biking. We’d ride the Yarra Trails, drive home in our ’97 hatchback with the back seats folded down, the bikes dripping mud all over the inside of the car, and leave them in the boot to marinate until we could head out to my parents’ place to hose them down the next weekend. That little Mazda had jungle-musk.

We moved, spreading from one bedroom to two, which meant that at least we had somewhere to put our disgusting hardtails after we rode together. As people in relationships do, we grew older together. We hurt each other; we forgave. We tried to become better versions of ourselves, of ‘us’. We didn’t always succeed, but we slowly inched ahead in life. I got a bit fat, then a bit fit. We scrapped the Mazda for $200, and lived without a car for a year. We got jobs. We travelled. We moved again. We got married.

And over the years, when we rode bikes, together and apart, we’d use that pump to inflate the increasingly wider tyres on our increasingly expensive bikes to increasingly lower pressures. Every bike a cyclist owns is a story in itself, so I figure that if a pump’s inflated the tyres of 17 of my bikes over the last decade, it deserves a eulogy.

My daughter, born in 2016, has never known a life which doesn’t feature me parading around in lycra, though I’ve been cautious not to force bikes on her. It was the pump she fixated on first, anyway. By the time that she could stand, she’d wobble about the garage, try to connect the pump head to pedals, cranks, axles. Then she’d raise the handle as high as she could reach and push it down, the pump and the child emitting tiny twin puffs of thwarted effort.

Her balance bike has foam tyres but she still ‘pumps them up’ every so often. With the sinking sun blasting the inside of the garage into a golden oblivion of long shadows and future nostalgia, we work on bikes together, my kid and I.

The day after the night that I broke our pump, I told my daughter the news. She’s at that searing three-year-old level of honesty and curiosity where there’s absolutely no room for bullshit responses to questions like “Why did you break it, Dad?” Why? I was angry. I was tired. I wasn’t patient enough. I should have been gentler. I’m sorry.

We tidied out the garage last month and put out a pile of non-destructible rubbish, but the pump didn’t make it to the curb. It still sits there next to the new Lezyne I bought and kind of resent. On lazy weekend afternoons when the woman I love is pottering about the garden, and we’re working on bikes together, my kid and I, she grabs the old pump and pumps up her balance bike’s tyres.

With every little rasping 1/8th stroke, I’m reminded of fragility and resilience and guilt and forgiveness. Important lessons. A useless object with a new use. Something broken, reborn.

There’s a certain beauty in that, I think.

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