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Pumping up bike tires and myself


When I first got to campus, I told my dad that I wouldn’t need to bring a mechanical bike pump. I had scoped out the school during Admit Weekend, and Stanford’s gleaming website assured me that the campus was well stocked with bike repair stands.

Those were famous last words.

The first time I wandered over to the station near my dorm, I took a look at the two options offered before me — an unwieldy hose nozzle and a floppy slim jim. I assured myself that I, a Stanford Student™, would certainly understand how to use an automatic bike pump. I had even checked Wikihow beforehand. The instructions were simple: unscrew the top of the valve of the inner tube, align the pump and press on the handle.

That should be easy enough, I thought. And it was. I picked up the small red tube, fitted it to the valve and inflated my bike tires successfully.

I was proud. Much like the student who first learns to separate darks and lights when doing laundry, I felt that I had taken my first step toward true adulting. That notion deflated faster than my love for fuzzy caterpillars in spring the next time I visited the bike repair stand.

Three weeks later, my tire pressure was low again. My backpack was heavier. My courses were ramping up. I had been visiting LAIR so often that my roommate referred to it as the Batcave. The cave analogy came to life as I hunched over the pulsating screen in the dark, watched Karel consistently fling itself off the cliff, no matter how I tweaked the code or begged the laptop.

On my second attempt, the thought of inflating my bike tires pumped me up throughout the day. Now there was something I’d done before successfully. This, if nothing else, would prove that I was a competent student, ready to stitch my life back together.

The slim jim I had found success with before was now haphazardly held together with a wad of dusty duct tape that did little to conceal the sound of a rubber tube dancing to its afterlife. This left the blue garden hose nozzle — a relatively heavier monstrosity I could hardly figure out how to use. After a quarter of an hour, I had dusty knees and bruises from my bike falling on me to show for my struggle. I took my ride to the campus bike shop around the corner. There, I was met with a funny look and had my bike with its tires perfectly inflated handed back to me.

And that confirmed it. I was not a competent person. I could not deal with life. The Stanford Admissions office had clearly made a mistake in admitting me. All that rot about me belonging and them always being right was utter rubbish. Maybe their finger slipped when sending out acceptance letters — instead of the Angela Zhao from the Bay Area, they meant to recruit the Angela Zhao from southern California.

Was life better at Berkeley? Probably. They had an animal for a mascot.  

The next time I visited the bike shop, I felt so much shame. What college freshman can’t use a bike pump? I supposed I was an aberration, a prime example of evolution gone wrong. When I tried to use the mechanical bike pump at Arrillaga, it was conveniently broken, as if the gods of bikes had been lobbied to confine bike pump use to Tresidder.

For the rest of the bike year, I referred to my stops at the bike safety stations as my routine fifteen minutes of shame. It took me so long to finagle the pump into proper alignment with the valve that, by the time I finally managed to force air into the inner tube, another rider would be waiting behind me. The slim jim had given up all hope of revival by winter quarter and would remain dead until the end of spring.

My fifteen minutes of shame occurred monthly. I’d manage to get some air into my tires, and suddenly I’d be more energetic, classes would become easier and I’d be more eager to learn. The minute my tires began to visibly flatten, my energy flagged. I wanted to sleep more. I barely made it to classes on time. My neck hurt from looking up at my classmates. And then I’d go back and fill the tires.

I limped along like that all through freshman year. And never once did it occur to me to go ask a friend for help with the pumps. But like a bull ramming its head into the wall, I finally managed to learn how to get through the plaster.

So, to prevent the new freshman class from my same fate, here is a bike tire-filling guide.

Align the bike pump with the inner valve. When you press down on the pump, the head should move into the Schrader valve (the one with a cap you have to unscrew). That means that the pump is aligned with the inner pin that traps the air in the tube. Now—and this is the one-handed part—keep it aligned. The most effective way I’ve seen is to clamp the outside of the wheel and the back of the pump’s head. Make sure the bike wheel does not move when you press down; if it does, your alignment will be off. If you can’t do this, then try to make sure the valve is perpendicular to the ground so, when you press on the pump head, you’ll really just be pressing down. If you absolutely cannot do it with one hand, get a friend to help. Now just press down on the opening valve and listen to the hushed silence of air racing into the tire. If you hear a screeching Fury coming your way, realign and try again.

It’ll work. If it doesn’t, just go into the bike shop.

Then, relax a bit. Take some time off. Be nice to yourself. Just eat the croissant you’ve been eyeing, and then head to the gym afterward. Read the book you’ve been eyeing, or head out to the party for an hour or so. Take the five-hour nap you’ve been salivating over. Your work will still be there—you’ll just be better equipped to deal with it. 

Contact Angela Zhao at angezhao ‘at’

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