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What Makes A Bike Pump Worth $450?


If you happen to be thinking about buying a new bicycle pump, you'll soon see a floor pump priced at a whopping $450. The brand name is Silca. It's an Italian company that's been sold to an American bicycle engineer. Silca's production now happens in Indianapolis and NPR's Noah Adams went there to find out what could be so pricey about a pump.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: The new CEO is Josh Poertner. When he talks with bike people who are more than 40 years old and tells them he's bought the Silca brand, they get excited. However...

JOSH POERTNER: If you're new to the sport or if you're under 30, you look at me completely incredulous and say, what - I've never even heard of that before?

ADAMS: But Silca is long-established worldwide and Poertner's company is already shipping pumps overseas.

POERTNER: 25 to Switzerland, 40 to England, five to Malaysia, 10 to Austria, 50 to Eurasia.

ADAMS: Josh Poertner - as a teenager, he was racing bikes in Europe. He went to Vanderbilt for an engineering degree, joined the tech team for Zipp racing wheels and last year he flew off to Italy and had dinner with Claudio Sacchi, the grandson of Silca's founder. Poertner offered to buy the company, promising to honor the name, said he would move everything to Indiana. Mr. Sacchi said yes.

The new operation is in a small brick building on the north side of Indianapolis. When you walk in, you'll see one of the all new Silca pumps, U.S. designed and made. It sits on a pedestal like a piece of sculpture. Josh Poertner loves to show it off, starting with the base, which is made from zinc and finished with brushed nickel.

POERTNER: Pump bases need to be large so that they are stable when you're pumping and you don't knock them over. You know, the number one cause of death for a pump is getting knocked over in your garage.

ADAMS: The new Silca base itself weighs about the same as an ordinary complete pump. The red dial pressure gauge is on the bottom to keep it safe. The pump handle, rosewood and stainless steel, was inspired by Japanese cooking knives. And the air hose is a high-pressure brake line from a race car.

POERTNER: It's a three millimeter inner diameter Teflon tube over-braided in stainless steel and then outer-jacketed in a beautiful red polyurethane.

ADAMS: I also got to meet Josh Poertner's wife, Bobbi Byrne. She's been helping out on weekends assembling parts. Dr. Byrne is a pediatrician and often works late in neonatal intensive care units.

BOBBI BYRNE: I'll come home and Josh is you know, sleeping at night and he's in bed with the pump, you know, holding the pump.

ADAMS: That's true?

BYRNE: It's actually really not true. Usually it's my kids that are in bed with him and not the pump, but he really takes pride in the pump.

ADAMS: (Sounds of plastic wrap being stretched). This is plastic packing wrap. It's being quickly wound around stacks of Silca boxes on a pallet, getting them ready for the truck. We're not really in a factory here, it's simply a place where the pumps are assembled. There's about 60 components. Many of the suppliers are right in town, including a machine shop that's only a bike ride away.

Poertner has four employees now with more to come soon. He says some of the suppliers are adding workers to fill his orders. He likes everything local and high-quality and figures his pump, at $450, would still be pretty expensive if he had the work done offshore.

POERTNER: We've received a lot of Internet vitriol (laughter) about the price of the new pump, which is hard to read. It's hard to read people saying terrible things about you.

ADAMS: So who buys this pump, at 450? Poertner says the target customer is the passionate cycling enthusiast and the racers in the ProMechanics. And he calls the pump at this price an experiment, says he wanted to define the ultimate. He's now thinking about other models at lower prices.

Josh Poertner paid $90 for his first Silca. He was only 15 years old. The bike shop in St. Paul, Minnesota refused to carry any other brand. That first pump is still in the Poertner garage.

POERTNER: My kids use it to pump their tires. I've pumped my tires with it before every ride. It's a fixture within our family. Everybody uses it. It's black with hot pink Silca letters.

ADAMS: Josh Poertner, describing his 1989 Silca pump. Earlier this month in Las Vegas at the Interbike trade convention, his 2014 model won Best in Show for new products.

Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noah Adams, long-time co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, brings more than three decades of radio experience to his current job as a contributing correspondent for NPR's National Desk., focusing on the low-wage workforce, farm issues, and the Katrina aftermath. Now based in Ohio, he travels extensively for his reporting assignments, a position he's held since 2003.
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