Things Fall Apart (Part I) By: Mike Courteau

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

From “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats

Part I: The Bike

The pump broke first.

On the day after Christmas, I was in my basement prepping my carbon-frame beauty, Jolie, by attempting to top off her tires before lighting out into the unseasonably mild December afternoon. I unscrewed the valve cap, unscrewed the Presta valve stem, and screwed on the Presta valve adapter since the pump my well-meaning wife bought for me was fit for Schrader valves only. I pumped and I pumped and I pumped and I pumped but no measure of pumping could put a rise in Jolie’s front tire.

I unsnapped the pump valve, checked the adapter, and repositioned the pump valve to make sure that it seated squarely over the valve adapter. I pumped and I pumped. When I pinched the tire walls between my thumb and forefinger, I discovered to my dismay that instead of the tire getting firmer, it had gotten softer. There must be an air leak somewhere, I thought.

Oh gee, you think?

With each downward stroke of the pump handle, I would watch the valve gauge jump momentarily to 90 p.s.i. before immediately dropping back to, well, zero. I pumped some more and this time, listening carefully, I could hear a hissing noise each time I pushed down on the pump handle. I examined the pump itself, applying all of the causal logic I could bring to bear on this vexation, and I discovered a small, plastic screw valve near the base of the pump cylinder. The air seemed to be escaping from there.

Aha! I’ll tighten it, I thought. I was really banging on all cylinders. The veritable Mozart of bike mechanics.

I tightened it, pumped again, but I got the same frigid response from Jolie and her coy front tire.

It was 2:15 in the afternoon on December 26th and an uncharacteristically mild 42 degrees outside. I had about two hours before the daylight would wane and the temperature would plunge to less comfortable riding temperatures. I feared that I was going to lose the opportunity for a rare post-Christmas ride at the rate I was inflating Jolie’s tire. So I did what does not always come easy for males experiencing mechanical dysfunction: I sought professional help.

I nearly grabbed Jolie and dragged her up the basement stairs and loaded her into my van before I seized upon the brilliant solution of removing her front tire and bringing that, only, to Freewheel Bike.

I drove above the speed limit, if I remember correctly. I plunged into intersections when the lights were already yellow and exited them as the lights were turning red. And, I must confess, I did not come to a complete stop at every stop sign.

It took me ten minutes to get to Freewheel Bike. And, just like that, I was standing at the counter with Jolie’s front tire in my hand telling my forlorn tale to the sales clerk who listened to me with the patience of a Bodhisattva before suggesting that perhaps she could bring the tire to the shop in the back, inflate it, and see if it would hold air. It did.

I also brought the suspiciously defective pump, and the sales clerk, after a comprehensive, three-second evaluation, determined that the pump was, well, defective. Since my wife had not bought the pump for me at Freewheel, I could not exchange it for a new one there, but the store clerk was kind enough to direct me to a better, more expensive pump that was fit for Presta valves, Shrader valves, heart valves, bi-valves, Valerie Bertinelli and Valhalla.

“Go ride,” she said and waved me out of the store without verifying that the credit card number that I had given them last summer would still take a charge—even on the day after Christmas. Bless her heart, and bless us all, everyone.

I broke all the same traffic laws on my way home that I had broken on my way to the shop. I had raced to Freewheel Bike, had Jolie’s tire examined, bought a new pump, and was back down in my basement in less than thirty minutes. All I had to do was top off the tires with my new pump and Jolie and I would be off on our winter afternoon rendezvous.

I eased Jolie’s tire between the front fork, carefully seated the wheel mounts over the posts, and pressed the quick-release lever gently back into position. Then, I did exactly as instructed by the clerk at Freewheel and pressed the pump valve up into place while the Presta valve stem was depending from the zenith of the wheel radius rather than pushing it down into place while it was projecting upward from the nadir. Huh?

I am the son of a mechanic, you see, which does nothing to explain the pseudo-astronomical language in the preceding paragraph but which should have aided me in repairing a flat bike tire.

I pumped and I pumped until my pumper was sore, but no amount of exertion would put air in Jolie’s tire. I unsnapped the pump valve, pressed it back into place, harder this time, and still, nothing. When I unsnapped the pump valve, I found that the Presta valve stem, you know, that little spindle that you have to unscrew and rescrew, was screwed. I had pressed down on it so many times during the previous hour that I had distressed it to the point of snapping. I had a new bike pump but now I had a new problem: I had to remove the inner tube and replace it with a new one.

How hard could it be?

When I bought my bike last summer the sales clerk at Freewheel sold me a bunch of stuff, but I was so drunk with infatuation for my new French carbon frame racing bike that that I paid no attention to these little plastic things he sold me that the French call, Tieyare Leevairs. They come three to a pack, like the top three finishers in the Le Tour de France, or, perhaps, like the three-word motto of France: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”–only I was busy trying to foment a different sort of revolution.

I didn’t know whether I was supposed to use liberté only or if I was supposed to enlist the help égalité and fraternité too. I separated liberté from the pack and began sort of jabbing with the flat end at the place where the tire wall meets the inner part of the rim. When that didn’t seem to get me anywhere, I thought that maybe I was supposed to somehow employ the hooked end of the tire lever. That, too, got me nowhere.

I am the son of a mechanic, you see. In his day, my father could fix most anything. He was a fighter plane and helicopter mechanic in the Navy during the Korean War, he was a car and truck mechanic who once owned a gas station and, yes, he even had a brief stint as a bicycle mechanic way back in the 80s, the 1980s, when there was no such thing as a carbon-frame bike and wheels were not even round yet. About all I can say is that I ultimately succeeded in getting the old tube off and the new tube on.

My father must be very proud.

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