Where do old innertubes and pumps go to die?

Sharing Our Abundance

Cultural Center Portico

My cycling club is about to reward itself once again. Each year we offer t-shirts and/or jerseys to those who have reached certain mileage milestones. And those who are capable ride leaders get rewarded with t-shirts/jerseys that acknowledge their contributions. A special club meeting is devoted to this ritual and everyone congratulates themselves on having done the requisite things necessary to be so honored. On the surface it sounds a bit smug, especially to non-cyclists who might wonder whether all that money could be put to better uses.

To be honest the club (and most others) are using their membership fees to donate to worthy causes each year at Christmas. Sometimes we have purchased bicycles and donated them to orphanages. In the past few years the club has donated monies to families of children with severe physical handicaps that allow them to received adaptive transportation of some sort (usually a specially modified trike). So it is plain that despite our self-congratulatory t-shirt rituals we do practice good stewardship of our resources to some degree.

There are cycling cooperatives in Chicago proper which take donated bikes and fix them up and ship the bulk of them overseas to places like Africa where a bicycle is more than just recreational transportation but perhaps a means to a livelihood. And yes we contribute our old bicycles to this sort of thing and help organize the drives that get suburbanites in our contribute their worn out or discarded cycling equipment for this purpose.

Recycling is not just something that you do to stay “green”. It can provide something meaningful to people in places outside our borders where often the only thing they know about us is that we have a powerful military machine and know how to use it. Giving away our excess and unwanted items for use by others is a very noble thing.

An Interesting Problem

Surreal Landscape Installation at 31st Harbor

I ride the Chicago Lakefront Trail usual from end-to-end. This past year it has been fun to watch the improvements for cyclists and swimmers alike as new bath houses with much needed washrooms have been installed. At the moment a major installation is taking place around 31st Street as a new harbor is being created with a massive parking lot and some very interesting visual decorations.

Millions of dollars must have gone into this project and along with the harbor creation itself there has been a creation of a new underpass and rerouting of the bicycle path that is truly breathtaking.

The Chicago Lakefront Trail is about 16+ miles in length and provides a very nice gateway experience to urban living. You can see from the trail most of the Chicago Skyline. You pass alongside or quite near the Museum Campus just south of the Loop area and you even pass near the Midway Plaisance that lies on the University of Chicago Campus but you can easily hop off the trail and visit the Museum of Science and Industry or continue all the way to the southern terminus where you are graced by the lovely buildings and golf course of the South Shore Cultural Center.

The Peggy Notebaert Museum is near the Lincoln Park exit from the trail as is the Lincoln Park Zoo. And who could deny the convenience of being able to hop off the trail near Navy Pier and visit their grand walkway where a giant food court holds sway. On Saturdays the joint is rocking’ just south of the Navy Pier area as boats tie up and blast their music for passersby. It is a giant Spring Break right here in our own city.

I usually park at the La Rabida Children’s Hospital where the parking is free all week long and ride first to the washrooms in the Cultural Center and then head north to the turnaround point at the northern terminus of the trail. I always make a point to bring a bicycle pump, and a patch kit and tire levers because invariably someone gets a flat and has for whatever reason none of the things needed to be self-sufficient in the repair of that puncture. Add into this the number of riders whose chains are dropped and have no idea how to get it back onto their chainrings or folks who manage to suffer a failure of a dry rotted tire and its getting late in the evening. You have a recipe for some interesting situations.

Add to all of this the fact that there have been bands of thugs roaming the north end of the trail in past years who have intimidated riders, joggers and roller-bladers and you can see why having your bike suddenly become inoperable can be a real problem. Sure there are police at various points in the summer but right now they are in absentia. So whenever I spot a person who is in need I try to offer assistance knowing that there is precious little help to be had with all those people around. Its a bit like being aboard a stranded ship and slowly dying of thirst.

To make things a bit worse I am an African-American. And with the political climate as racially tinged as it is offering help to folks who are white is sometimes a problem. They have learned not to trust people of color and so often say no think you and continue walking along pacing out the miles until they reach their cars or home. I understand their reactions. And given the Trayvon Martin Incident I too am wary and have no interest in a frightened soul deciding that I am a threat and with their NRA card in hand and their Tea Party sweat-shirt proudly displayed make the judgment that I present a threat and so fire a pistol into my body.

So it is a somewhat dangerous thing to be out on the trail without tools and equipment to support yourself and it can be dangerous if you don’t share the ethnic/racial/cultural heritage of the person needing help to offer it. It provides for an interesting problem.

Offering Help

Now our political climate has made it quite fashionable to be a self-absorbed jerk. Municipalities like Chicago could easily hire inner-city youth to patrol the Lakefront offering assistance. But the Tea Party types would cry foul because of the tax dollars involved in paying for their services. And of course kids being what they are (with raging hormones and all), without very tight supervision their time might be unwisely spent “chatting up” members of their teams rather than paying attention to the job at hand.

But besides all of those things there is the question of how costly the t-shirts for the trail helpers might be. The tools and pumps and spare inner tubes have to come from somewhere and that costs money too. Sure it means that providing summer jobs to inner-city youth would help both them and the economy but there is sure to be a session or two aired on the Rush Limbaugh Show about this sort of program as another example of wasteful spending, blah-blah-blah. You can almost smell the farts coming out of his chair as his massive carcass gyrates in animated expression. The spittle on his self-righteous lips would drip slowly onto his chest to dry up alongside the drippings from his most recent fat-laden meal eaten while on duty spewing hatred and discontent. I certainly admire one thing about the guy. He knows how to peddle himself enough to bring in a very righteous annual salary.

So how then do you get the help you know that is needed along the trail without costing taxpayers anything? And can you do this if the helpers are Black or Hispanic or even Muslim? And for their own safety can you construct an environment where they are not vulnerable to threats by hateful citizens who fear for their personal safety and in fear lash out with guns when all that was offered was a helping hand? Good knows that times are very difficult and the political climate makes it more so than would otherwise be the case.

Bicycle Clubs To The Rescue

New 31st Bike Trail Underpass

What if clubs were to do several things that otherwise go undone? In my experience most clubs go through hundreds if not thousands of inner tubes a season when on club rides a member suffers a puncture and replaces the damaged inner tube with a brand new one. I expect that these “old inner tubes” are tossed into a nearby garbage can and the ride continues unabated. And along with the inner tube (which by the way is more often than not likely patchable) goes expended CO2 cartridges as well. What a waste!

What if clubs were to gather up those punctured tubes and offering patching sessions for their membership. You know on that Thursday when the club meets once a month new members get to practice on actual inner tubes the skill and art of patching a puncture. And instead of air them up using disposable CO2 cartridges they are taught how to use a floor pump and better yet are shown how to operate a frame or bag-sized pump. I could imagine that the more experienced riders in the club could offer (if they even use them) their older unwanted pumps for this purpose.

What does all of this serve to accomplish? Well for one thing you now have a more informed citizenry that rides bicycles. They know how to take off their front or rear wheels, replace or repair their punctured inner tubes and even learn how to open their brakes to make removal of the wheel all the easier. This is especially important when dealing with the rear wheel. It would in my estimation be as important a session to hold on a regular basis (or as needed) as standing around eating refreshments and waiting for the inevitable time when a ride is brought to a halt in the field because of a puncture and members stand around grousing about being inconvenienced and worried about the impending rain storm while the more capable members are attending to the fixing of the flat.

All of this is useless if the person who suffered the puncture is not able to learn from the experience and blithely continues the ride without knowing how to take care of themselves on a solo ride. In point of fact I would imagine that it would be useful to alternate tire repair meetings with ones where simply in-the-field adjusts are taught:

  • How to adjust your brakes using the trim knobs on the levers.
  • How to get a broken chain adjusted and repaired enough to get you back home, even if it means being in a single gear.
  • How to open and close your brakes for wheel removal.
  • How to adjust your helmet straps for the best fit.
  • How to know when your bikes is set up properly so that your knees are not bowing out on each pedal stroke.
  • How to tighten your crank arm when you suddenly discover that the bolt which holds it on has loosened.
  • How to true your wheel if you have loose or broken spokes.

I could go on and on. I have come across people both here in Chicago and on suburban trails both here in Illinois and Wisconsin with just these kinds of issues. I try to offer help to those who need and allow it. Otherwise I move on and hope that someone they can trust will stop and give aid.

But how does all this blather about self-reliance among club members address the problems that occur in-the-field? How do folks riding the Chicago Lakefront Trail benefit from the newly acquired training of local club members from the city and suburbs?

Well, first of all if club members are aware of how to be self-sufficient then they are equipped to offer help. The lady I offered aid to yesterday would most certainly have welcomed the help of another woman who like her was white. It just makes sense. But she was quite willing to accept my help and so I made the effort. But if white female cyclists along that trail were there to do the job it would make it much easier for me to keep rolling and enjoying the day of riding I had planned.

But there is the issue of patch kits, inner tubes, pumps and the like that needs to be addressed. I had two inner tubes on my bicycle. I ride an Easy Racers Tour Easy recumbent bicycles. It means that to be self-sufficient I need to carry two inner tubes at all times. This is because the front wheel is a 406c and the rear a 700c. And into the bargain I carry at least one patch kit, tire levers, a Topeak Alien toolkit and a Topeak Road Morph pump with gauge. I can do most anything from truing wheels to changing inner tubes or even booting worn out tires. I have stopped for men and have had women stop me for help when they noticed me truing up my rear wheel as happened last summer when a mother and daughter discovered that the daughters crank arm was so loose that it could no longer be pedaled. They were white and nevertheless asked for help.

I gave it and at the same time offered my short lecture on the Nature of a Welfare Society. In essence coming out to ride when you have the means to be self-sufficient without bringing the tools and equipment is not unlike living on welfare. The only difference is one of degrees. I hope one day to be able to give that lecture to a Tea Party member whose bike has suffered a mishap, but I digress.

The lady yesterday was out-of-work. She had no money and was unable even if her flat had occurred down by the Clock Tower on Commerce Drive to afford to buy an inner tube or pay the bike rental shop there to fix her flat. I struck me that my Nature of a Welfare Society speech would have been high inappropriate here. This was all about a person needing help being able to get some without me going into Rush Limbaugh mode. So I shut up and went about the chore of trying to fix her flat and showing her what tools and techniques were needed. In the end the hole was too large and its location too near the valve stem to make the patching work.

I suppose I could have given her my only inner tube and considered myself a real hero. But I did not. With my luck I would have ruptured my own rear inner tube enough that replacement not repair would have been the only option and with my bad back walking any number of miles would have been more than painful. So I did the selfish thing and decided to let her do the walking. I explained the situation to her and she was gracious about it. She said that walking home would be just fine with her and so off she went.

Reflecting On What Just Happened

First of all this was a curious situation indeed. Usually the needy person in such a scenario would have been the person of color whose bike was in ill-repair and they would have been the one without a job and the means to pay for an inner tube. But in this instance the usual roles were reversed.

But it got me to thinking about t-shirts for mileage and wondering if those funds could not be put to better use. What if in addition to practicing the art of puncture repair in a bicycle club setting we took those repaired inner tubes and gave them out to club members who agreed to keep them as spares for personal use or better yet for helping out others who might be stranded not the trails we all ride? What if we took old discarded or unwanted pumps and fixed them up and then handed those out to club members to also pass along to stranded riders on trails who have nothing to use to get themselves back home safely.

What if the club members pooled their partially or almost empty patch kits to create functional ones that could be handed out to riders stranded by flats so that they could have something to use until such time as they could either make the time to visit their local bikes shop or pull together the money to buy what they needed when they once again were gainfully employed? What if clubs did what they do on the Erie-Lackawanna Bicycle Trail that runs through Highland, IN and have volunteers on that trail each weekend with a pump, spare inner tubes and tools at the trail head so that riders could get help and a bit of experience in how to be self-sufficient with the only payment necessary  being to pass-on their newly acquired knowledge to the next soul they found stranded?

None of these things require tax-payer dollars so this should be acceptable to Republicans and Democrats alike. And even members of the local hate groups formed to keep the alien interlopers at bay could justify doing something like this to “protect their own”. Who better than they know the dangers of Black guys like myself offering roadside assistance to white women. It just makes so much sense for them to “step into the gap”.

Now bike clubs could still give out t-shirts for mileage earned. Only this time the backs of the shirts could read “Trailside Assistance”. And the folks wearing these shirts could travel in pairs, kinda like the folks who come to your doorstep wanting to share their personal faith with you when you have a very busy Saturday schedule and would like not to be rude by slamming the door in their faces. Clubs could offer mileage to those members who take turns traveling their local trails doing this rescue work. In fact they could offer bonus mileage as an incentive. Riders could be out pedaling their waistlines back into shape and offering aid to stranded bikers using tools, and equipment that was donated and never wasting one thin dime of the tax-payers money. And for those on the Right who don’t want to be caught doing things that appear to be warm and fuzzy and Liberal in nature, they could use the excuse that they were out saving their women from roving thugs and rapists.

It all works for me. See you on the trail. And don’t forget to come prepared.