Inflate bike tires, not air prices

Practically everyone subscribes to the maxim, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." It's one of life's unshakeable truisms. After all, the phone company never tires of telling us that directory assistance costs $50 million a year. But it's also nice to think that there will remain a few expectations to prove the general rule. Like the after-dinner mints. Or free calendars from your insurance agent.

The evidence is steadily mounting, however, that the days of those rare gratis items are numbered. Over the past decade or so we have seen life's little amenities fast disappearing. When was the last time you found free parking near a public beach? Or were given a free road maps as a courtesy by a gas station?

In these rough economic times, even the air isn't free anymore. At least, not for the bicyclist! The old Norman Rockwell image of the 12-year-old pumping up his tires under the benevolent gaze of the friendly neighborhood mechanic is getting rarer each day. The bike has become anathema at many has stations these days. Kids who bike aren't paying customers. And adults who bike are buying less gas than in the good old days. The energy crisis has created hostilities totally unforeseeable ten years ago.

I drive a car and I like to bike. I know for a fact that I have sent more than one son or daughter of the local mechanic through college. And yet, I recently had a most frustrating time trying to find an air hose that worked. The outside hoses had all been taken down. When I asked to use the inside one, I was abruptly told that it was "broken." I found an amazing number of pumps "broken."

The mere presence of a cyclist, it seems, causes a pump breakdown. How these stations are able to fill up tries they sell remains a mystery. My friends assure me that some stations are beginning to charge 25 cents for a blast of compressed air. That may mean that we'll have to expand out definition of highway robbery.

What can a cyclist do? A few suggestions.

1. Support the passage of the bottle bill. How many times have your tires been slashed by the broken remains of a nonreturnable bottle? There are fewer flats per mile in Brattleboro, Vt., and Portland, Maine, (where bottle bills are in effect) than in Boston or Worcester, Mass.

2. If you find a gas station that has an outside pump that's working and they also wash your front window without you having to ask, then give that station all your automotive business and pass the word to your friends. After all, if they can't maintain a simple pump, what'll they do when they get their hands on your car?

3. If you do use a service station pump, hang it up properly when you're finished and thank the mechanic.

4. Buy your own pump. A bike is a low-cost, reasonably self-sufficient means of transportation, so why get frustrated looking for an air pump at a gas station? It will also save you the necessity of hearing some bungling flapdoodle about the broken pump.

5. Never, never pay for the air. It will set a bad example. Walk home if you have to. If you submit, you might as well sell the bike and use the car for all trips over a hundred yards.

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