Presta Valves and iPhones

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Why do they put these on consumer-grade bicycles?

A friend of mine sends me a text this morning.  He is trying to pump up the tires on his son't bicycle (by son, I don't mean an 8-year-old, but a 41-year-old) and saw these valves on the tires and said, "what the fuck is this nonsense?"

Presta valves.

Most of us plebes are used to the standard Schrader-type tire valve.  You have them on your car tires, and you probably have them on your bicycle tires.  They even use a version of them on air conditioning systems in cars.  If you want to pump up your tires at the gas station - no problem.  If you want to buy a new inner-tube for your bike at Walmart - no problem.  For probably 95% of the population, the Schrader valve is the way to go.

So why do "high end" bike makers put Presta valves on their bikes?   Well, there are technical reasons for doing so - and status reasons as well.  And this sort of shit goes back to the dawn of the bicycle.

When I got into bicycling as a teenager, I checked some books out of the library on the subject and learned about "sew-up" tires.  I recall at the time, few people were using them, and I think I saw maybe one bike store locally (the snotty one) having bikes in stock with sew-ups.  They provided less rolling resistance (supposedly) at the sacrifice of convenience.  The "tyre" was about as thick as a condom and was sewn together on the inside facing the rim.  The inner-tube - thinner than a condom - was inside the "tyre".   The whole mess was glued to the rim with a special glue.

If you got a flat tire (which was often, with such thin wispy "tyres") you had to find the leak, unglue the "tyre" from the rim, unsew the tyre, patch the leak, and then re-sew the tire and then re-glue it to the rim.

Simple, no?  You could spend an hour or more by the side of the road dicking around with this sort of nonsense.  It really only made sense for racing bikes, particularly board track racers.  Why anyone would want that for a road bike is a good question.

Oh, right.  Status.

You see, the whole deal with people taking bicycling too seriously goes back decades, even to the dawn of bicycling.  Even in the days of the "Penny Farthing" bicycle, the bicycle racers and clubs made what was a fun sport into an overly-serious obnoxious hobby.  When the "safety bicycle" (the kind with chains and gears) came along, the "serious" Penny-Farthing types sneered at it - a woman's bike!  No real man would ride anything less than eight feet tall.

They changed their mind about that.  And I think they changed their mind about sew-ups, too.  It was just too stupidly complex.  The clincher tube, as "lame" as it is, rules.

This whole concept of making things complex and painful is not a new one.  Back in the 1970's, Jaguar owners - the type who smoked pipes and wore turtleneck sweaters with elbow-patch tweed jackets - would bitch and moan about the staggering repair bills on their broken kitties.  "It's all part of the game," they would say, "when you want to own a fine motorcar!"  Meanwhile, the guy with the Toyota is putting 100,000 miles on his car on the original clutch, with only oil changes and maybe one set of tires.

"You just don't get it." the Jag people would say. But eventually they got it and Jaguar almost went bankrupt (and indeed today is owned by an Indian concern) before they realized that "British car quality" wasn't going to cut it on a world stage, particularly in America, where people drive 15,000 miles a year.

So pain becomes a selling point - a status symbol.  And Presta valves are a small example of this.  The "technical reason" for Presta valves is that their slightly smaller diameter means a smaller hole in the rim, making for a stronger rim.  They also lend themselves well to expensive composite rims, which are narrow and tall, as the Presta generally has this comically long stem.  For a few deadly serious bicyclists (who are fun at parties) maybe this valve makes sense.  For the rest of us, trying to enjoy life and not trying to win at it, it makes no sense at all.

If you are out in the country on a "rails to trails" bike path, and you get a flat tire, you can push your bike to the nearest Walmart and find a new tube in stock - if you have Schrader valve tubes.  On the other hand, if you have a fussy bike with Presta valves, you'll have to hitch a ride to the nearest college town to find a boutique bike shop.  Bring your credit card - it won't be cheap, either!

But hey, massive inconvenience is the price you have to pay in order to be a serious biker!  Those ridiculously long valve stems protruding from your comically thin rims (on a mountain bike, no less!) are the price you pay for status.  The plebes just don't get it, do they?  They're probably jealous, filling their tires at the gas station instead of using some tiny hand pump by the side of the road. Convenience?  Ha!  Why should bicycling be convenient!  This is serious business!  No fun allowed!

OK, so the deadly serious bicyclists are masochists who don't get enough beatings from their dominatrix.  We get it Bob.  Leave 'em alone!

If only it was that simple.  You see, the problem is, this sort of crap trickles down to the middle-class and particularly the upper-middle-class level, and makes life difficult for the rest of us.   Back in the day, we all pedaled one-speed bikes that weighed at least 50 pounds or more.  "Serious" racing bikes had "rams head" handlebars, hard-ass seats, no fenders, no provisions for carrying anything, and of course, ten whole speeds! (oddly enough, cars have that many now).

For racing, that's great.  For daily use, not so much.  The mainstream bike makers started selling bikes that looked like French racing bikes but of course, were heavier and not as well-made.  At the bottom of the spectrum, you'd see easily bendable steel rims (chrome plated, no less!) and cheap derailleurs that were riveted together.  They looked like a high-end racing bike, but only to the uninformed.  In terms of practicality, they stunk.  One drop off a curb bent those thin rims.  Riding in the rain or through a puddle meant you would be soaked to the skin by water flung off the wheels.  The riding posture - ideal for racing where low air resistance was key - was awkward, uncomfortable, and even painful for most people.

It was funny, but back in those days, I would see older people take their "10-speed" bike and reverse the handlebars so they rode up high, just to make the bike usable.  It was one way to do a work-around but it was just as ridiculous as trying to fake a racing bike.

Some rationality started to come to the bicycling world in the 1980s.  "Beach Cruisers" came into vogue - the same 50+ pound, one-speed steel monsters we rode back in the 1950's and 1960's.  In fact, those old Huffy's and Schwinn's started to become collector's items.  The "mountain bike" craze started, and while originally designed for off-road use, proved to be useful in an urban environment, although many had the hunched-over riding position.

Alas, rationality was short-lived.  As mountain bikes became more and more esoteric (full suspensions and whatnot) the consumer-grade bike makers (which by now, was China) made knock-off look-alikes for consumer use, that while looking like a serious mountain bike were just styled imitations thereof.  There are YouTube videos of guys buying these $89 Walmart "mountain" bikes and taking them down an expert trail on a real mountain.  The results are terrifying - the handlebars come off, the forks bend or break, or even the frame welds come apart.  I am not sure what they were trying to prove, I could have told you these poser bikes wouldn't last very long.

Of course, the ultimate idiocy was the "fixie" - a bicycle with no brakes and a fixed gear.  You go down a steep hill and the pedals will spin out of control. You have to be a serious bike racer or just seriously insane to go that route, although there was a certain artistic aesthetic to real fixies that were put together by hipsters from old bike parts.  Sure enough, within a few years, even Walmart was selling fixies.  Not real ones, though.  And insurance reasons meant they had to have brakes and a freewheel.  The plebes want to ape the real thing, badly.

So, this brings us back to Presta valves.  Do you need them or want them?  Probably not, statistically speaking.  If you race bicycles on a regular basis, sure - maybe that kind of thing is necessary.  But for the rest of us?  Just a massive inconvenience.  Our 23-year-old Trek mountain bikes (which today, barely qualify as a mountain bike) came with Presta valves.  It wasn't too long before I realized what a folly it was.  If I had a leaky tube, I couldn't just buy a new one at Walmart - I would have to go to a fancy expensive bike shop in an upscale town.  Since these bikes became our "RV" bikes, this just wasn't an option.  So I drilled out the rims and put in Schrader-valve tubes.  And on Mark's bike, we even extended the handlebars, as his bad back made the "hunched-over" riding position uncomfortable.

When bicycling becomes a hassle or is uncomfortable, you'll stop doing it - either consciously or subconsciously.  I've been to more than one old-person's home where they went out and spent over $1000 on a fancy bicycle and it sits there, in the garage, gathering dust and cobwebs, with two flat tires they can't figure out how to pump up, because they have Presta valves.  The bikes were too fussy, too uncomfortable and end up not being used.  Meanwhile, my neighbor down the street, who has a beater bike with two mis-matched rims, rides his bike every day, all around the island, as his form of general transportation.  He's having a ball, in great shape, and not spending a lot of money, either.

Who's the idiot in this scenario?

It is sad, but the Presta valve has become like the Apple logo on the iPhone.  You buy an iPhone so that Apple logo sticks out through the Apple-shaped hole in your phone cover so everyone knows you bought an iPhone.  At least the iPhone works, sort of, at a cost.  It can be staggeringly inconvenient on occasion, to repair, however.  The Presta valve on your faux serious bike is the same deal - it announced to the world that you are not just some plebe out having fun on a Saturday afternoon.  It is the HP calculator of bicycle tires.  For all the world knows, you are the next Lance Armstrong, on your way to the Tour de France!   Well, it could happen, right?

In recent years, I am seeing fewer Presta valves on consumer-grade bikes, and even "serious" bikes. I think the bike makers (China) are realizing that consumers have caught on to the scam and aren't really interested in buying a consumer-grade bike (95% of the market) with racing-bike features.  Presta valves for the masses make about as much sense as sew-ups.

Anyway, my friend is off to the bike shop to buy a Presta-to-Schrader adapter so he can pump up the tires on his son's bike.  No big hassle, right?  Problem is, I had such an adapter at one time, and my recollection was that it was awkward and hard to use.  By the time I got the adapter unscrewed, all the air came out of the tire.  (UPDATE:  The local hippy bike shop guy is cool - he gave my friend the adapter.  The bike shop on rich people's island would have charged $20 for it!).

Leave the professional-grade crap to the professionals.   It's OK to be a plebe, and in fact, a helluva lot more fun.  You'll never see anyone smiling at a bike race or a triathlon.   They are some of the most miserable people I've ever met.  Why go down that road?

The only thing worse that buying professional-grade equipment for home use is to buy faux professional grade gear and think you are all that.  No, buying a GMC doesn't make you "professional" over the person who bought a Chevy.  They are made on the same assembly line using the same parts.   "Professional Grade" is an advertising campaign, not a guarantee.  But it illustrates how we all crave expertise and status.

And how it usually leads to our downfall.