Roughly 130 years ago, New Yorker August Schrader and his able son, George, applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect the ownership of their new invention. It was a valve.
"This invention," they wrote, "relates most particularly to air valves of the class wherein a positive closure is made by screwing the valve against the seat, and the invention aims to provide an improved valve of this character which can be tightly closed when desired, and positively and completely opened by ordinary manipulation."
That's right, the Schrader tire valve was born. It was, and is, a thing of enduring beauty and utility. Its simple, robust mechanism spring-loads a closure in a brass stem. It has for many generations allowed the world's bicyclists — and, yes, car owners, motorcyclists and truck drivers — to inflate their tires efficiently and without incident.
As inventions go, it is not quite as big a deal as the wheel itself. But on a scale of pure ubiquity, the Schrader valve is certainly up there with Velcro, non-detaching beverage can pop-tops, and the pneumatic tire itself.
Yet, somehow, some ridiculous percentage of the bicycling world ended up with a piece of junk called a Presta valve, through which they must, with annoying difficulty, inflate their tires. It is everything that the Schrader valve is not — complicated, fickle and fragile. It is also French, by the way.
This is important now because, willy-nilly, the bicycle industry appears to be entering a more reality-based era that could, with any luck, one day relegate the Presta valve to the same trash heap as tubular, "sew-up" tires.
The problem goes back to a time when the bike industry assumed that riders wanted either an upright, cruising, frump-cycle, or they wanted a racing bike. (This was a time when people had only one bike.) So there were a lot of people commuting and generally riding around town on uncomfortably designed frames with thin, hard tires. The case for the Presta valve was that it was a lighter valve that required a smaller hole that better fit narrow racing rims.
It is the rare present-day cyclist who is concerned about the weight of inner tube valves — or is using flimsy, pencil-thin rims. But Prestas persist. And the aggravation is profound and global. The valve stem lock nuts too often unscrew during inflation, flying off into the landscape, never to be found again. Presta tubes require a special adapter to inflate with a gas station pump — and, believe me, the adapters do not always work. Touring riders will tell you that in much of America, Walmarts are the only local bike shops, and they carry only Schrader tubes, not Presta.
We could go on. But to be fair to the Presta valve community, I contacted the Tire and Rim Association, Inc., of Copley, Ohio, the 116-year-old standardizing body for the tire, rim, valve and allied parts industry for the United States, but didn't hear back.
No matter. What's important now is that the biking world is unambiguously awakening to what could be a glorious post-Presta era. Elite international bike racers — including the French, by the way — are employing fatter, softer tires. The architecture of bike frames and the size of tires — road, hybrid, cruiser, mountain — are branching out in wonderfully inventive directions, all of which increasingly balance comfort and utility with performance. Nothing in those trends requires a Presta valve. Its faux justification continues to fade.
Remember the words of August and George Schrader, who advocated a valve that could be "positively and completely opened by ordinary manipulation." Ordinary manipulation! No problems! And remember, too, that anyone with a Presta problem can simply use a 21/64th-inch drill bit to widen the valve hole in their rim to Schrader size, and their own personal post-Presta era can begin. Hallelujah.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week reported that, while fewer people were dying in car crashes, fatalities nationally were rising among pedestrians and bicyclists (and riders of other pedal-powered machines). In 2018, pedestrian deaths increased by 3.4% (to 6,283) and cyclist deaths in the United States increased 6.3% (to 857).
Of note, deeper in the report, were the insights that cyclist deaths often occurred after dark (50% of the time), with some alcohol in the riders' systems (26%), and outside of intersections (60%). In Minnesota, the agency found 121 cyclist deaths between 2004 and 2018 — an average of more than eight deaths each year — with annual totals that ranged from four statewide in 2007 to 14 in 2008. The seven-county metro region accounted for 57 of those 121 deaths over the last 14 years. The deadliest month for cyclists in Minnesota? September.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His column appears twice a month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read archived columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.