The Artisan – Is SILCA “Douching Up The Sport”?

Silica Gauge

On $450 tire pumps, similarly priced sunglasses, and the value of things that don’t explode in transition areas. Josh Poertner clears the air on the SILCA philosophy

“Wow. Thanks for douching up one of icons of the sport. I’ve been using my old Silca just about every day since I got it in the mid 80’s. It is perfect minimalist functional elegance. It is a pump. It compresses air. It lasts forever. It is what it does – nothing more or less. No longer. Now it’s a ****ing fashion accessory well beyond the means of anyone who would actually USE the damn thing. Now it’s the perfect must-have for all the trendoid uber-turds to have in a photo sitting next to their custom Pegorettis, D2SHOEs, and Rapha kits when they Snapchat each other.”

That’s just the opening to Josh Poertner’s favorite piece of hate mail. It gets a lot better. And there are more where that one comes from. Like this one:

“No one on their right mind would pay $450.00 for a pump unless they have more money than sense (I am sure you are counting on that).  Unless it blows more than tires. You have turned an icon of this sport into a disgusting symbol of everything that is going wrong with society and the ***holes who out to ruin it all for the rest of us.”

There aren’t too many brands that can claim that sort of notoriety (or infamy, if you prefer). There aren’t too many brands that sell a bike tire pump for $450, though.

Why someone would think it reasonable to send a page-length polemic at a company over a tire pump seems as mysterious as why the recipient of the message would think it reasonable to put that kind of a price tag on it in the first place. As it turns out, each situation solves the mystery of the other. Both Poertner and those who hate him as the new owner of SILCA are inspired by passion. That’s a word that people in the cycling world love to use—some as an invocation to the sport’s muse, others as a hashtag. As countless business publications have hailed cycling as “the new golf,” those of cycling’s church fear a wave of Silicon Valley apostates flush with cash but short on sincerity. To them, Poertner is a heretic chopping one of the holy relics into pieces and auctioning them off to the highest bidders. But the pumps he makes are a great metaphor for the company he runs and the marketspace he occupies. If all you look at is the price, you’re missing most of the story.

We’ve all seen enough 45-year-old real estate agents with the body composition and complexion of the Pillsbury doughboy riding $15,000 Speed Concepts to know that triathlon is an extremely image-focused sport with a substantial boutique market. No one could hardly blame Poertner if he wanted to make a “Platinum Edition” of SILCA’s Ultimate pump and charge another $150 to attach a cigar cutter to the rosewood handle. But they’d be wrong if they thought he’d make money on them. Poertner himself made that observation long ago and realized that trying to be boutique would actually guarantee failure. There are a lot of factors that drive the price’s on SILCA’s pumps. Image isn’t one of them.

“People always seem to be willing to spend more for something that others will see. $400 sunglasses and cycling shorts are not uncommon anymore. I don’t think anybody is sending hatemail to Oakley or Assos. Pumps and tools on the other hand are items for that the industry has worked tirelessly to drive the price down on, and now we are in the opposite situation. People only talk about pumps and tools to lament how poor they’ve become. I’ve never heard of somebody’s sunglasses exploding in the transition area of a triathlon minutes before the start. I hear all the time how pumps do that to people ” Sunglasses can therefore be expensive because there is actually a demand for expensive sunglasses. But what about things like non-exploding tire pumps? According to Poertner, if you build it, they will come.

Silica floor pump“I bought my first SILCA pump in 1990. It was the only brand the shop I worked in sold. I remember the owner, a great mentor of mine, telling me that ‘if you buy the best, you only cry once. I didn’t understand at the time, but I learned. I’ve seen so many pumps crack on the side of the road during stages of pro races and in other bad situations. I’ve personally thrown dozens of pumps in the dumpster in various bike shops I’ve worked. Mine has a dent in it from where a friend ran it over with his Volvo in Crested Butte. It has stickers on it. My kids use it on their bikes. My entire cycling career is wrapped up in that one object.”

Poertner bought that pump for $90, which would be equivalent to $165 today. He also remembers that the most expensive bike his shop sold was a top-of-the-line titanium model with Campagnolo Record assemblies for $2700. Today’s top-end bikes can hold on for five figures before rolling out the door, yet tire pump brands have managed to hold their price point to less than $100. Silca was always a more expensive brand, yet the move from the Lira to the Euro in the late 1990’s drove prices dramatically higher. This led to the company trying to cheapen the components of the pump through increased use of plastics which led to failures and diminished reputation, yet they still couldn’t compete on price with pumps from China.

“We found a SILCA pump from 1968 on eBay that still works. We bought it and put it in a display case in the office. But if you look at pumps the company made in the early 2000’s, they’ve got lots of problems. They were going with cheaper parts made from plastics or low cost castings and the company was dealing with a lot of returns. There’s just this belief in the industry that a pump should still be $90, and that resistance to pump inflation caused a gradual decline in quality.

In short, a lot of people were crying twice. When SILCA decided to sell out, Poertner seized on the opportunity to fix the problem. Several problems, actually. There were no major plans for pump redesigns in the early days of SILCA’s rebirth. “We didn’t have the capital to just start large scale pump production, so we started small with little things like our CO2 inflator and replacement parts.”

What others considered a weakness Poertner turned into a strength. “You can’t out-Chinese the Chinese. They’re going to beat you with cheaper labor and materials. So we got out of that game. We researched what it would take to make a great pump and it was going to be an extra $100. So we decided ‘hey, if we’re going to be an extra hundred over, let’s make it beautiful.’” He even went so far as to ensure that the new designs use parts that are compatible with the older SILCA pumps. Don’t want to pay Poertner’s $450 or give up the object that signifies your whole cycling career? No problem. Just order the Italian leather plunger that goes in the new pump and pop it in your own. It was a decision taken deliberately with the understanding that it’s not just about valuing new customers or old ones, but the heritage of the brand itself.

Poertner calls his approach “the Tesla approach.” If you can’t build a million cars for the masses like Ford, build very high-quality few that will attract hardcore customers that will pay for it and then use the profits to develop a wider base of products that are both higher quality and more affordable. That doesn’t necessarily translate to “boutique” in Poertner’s mind. Instead of high-fashion, he thinks of his SILCA pumps as high-craftsmanship. He wants people to get the same satisfaction from using his pump that they would using a really well-designed hex key or torque wrench. To many, that’s a rare and short-lived experience not worth the price. But if that wasn’t a type of satisfaction you were seeking, then you were never his customer to begin with. “My customer is a tool guy (or girl) who enjoys working with their bike. Somebody who takes the long view and would rather buy the best and cry once rather than buy something that gets you by and needs to be replaced every few years. My customer also enjoys using a tool like this. There’s something to be said for using an excellent tool, the way it feels, the way it functions. That’s what our customer is looking for..

For now, Poertner has succeeded in proving that market exists on a scale sufficient to give SILCA a heartbeat again. His next big challenge will be in getting his message across to the next generation of cyclists. Marketing such intrinsic value to a cohort that’s come up on Twitter and Tumblr won’t be easy. At the same Interbike convention in which SILCA won the award for best new product, Poertner was approached by a young shop employee who scoffed that “that’s a lot of money to pay for stuff nobody will ever see.”

Silica frame pump

It’s a lot of money to ask whether you see it or not. At $235 the new SuperPista pump is still a little steep. Poertner isn’t arguing price. He’s talking about value. So long as people only see the former, he expects the hate mail to continue rolling in. What he’s hoping for SILCA is not only to advance his company’s success, but to offer people who value good stuff a physical exhibit of their arguments. He’s got a long haul in front of him to win over the younger generation who never saw the same quality he did. But Poertner and SILCA have both managed to stay in an industry where careers have shorter lifespans than cheap tire pumps. The pump in his garage embodies a memorable 25 years since his days of working in a shop. SILCA itself turns 100 next year. Another 25 years isn’t out of the realm of possibility

There’s a good lesson to be learned about the bike industry in Poertner’s story. There are brands out there who manufacture demand and price. Their business is fashion and image. Then there are other brands, like Poertner’s reincarnated SILCA, that manufacture products and value. His business is to make a quality product and let requirements drive the price. That the former sort of brand has such a rooted existence in triathlon speaks to how image-focused the sport is. But that so many people would lambaste the latter type of brand with hate mail asks if that focus on image has gone too far. What happens when too many people forget that beauty is only skin deep and quality costs more than a few bones? What’s the state of the sport, and how is it driving the industry that supports it?

[Editor’s note: TRS Triathlon has no business relationship with SILCA, Oakley, Assos, Tesla, or China.]

photo credit:
Silca pump guage via photopin (license)
epl113_5213883 via photopin (license)
Colnago Super (1971) via photopin (license)

About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.