Bike Pumps 101
A bike pump is an essential tool for keeping your bike in good shape. Fully intact tires can lose 10 PSI a week, even in storage. Properly inflated tires not only provide a more comfortable ride, they also resist flats better, handle maneuvers more easily, extend the lifespan of your tires, and are safer to use.
For these reasons, we recommend that every rider keep a pump on hand. But bike pumps aren't as simple as you might believe. Before you purchase a pump, there are a few things you need to consider. This guide will go over the basics of pump designs and their various pros and cons.
Know your valves
The first thing you have to consider when buying a pump is the valve compatibility of the pump. Most bicycle tubes use one of two types of valves:
Schrader valves are common on mountain bikes and casual cycles. These valves consist of a small black tube -- about two inches long -- usually with a small black cap that screws into place to protect the valve opening. Schrader valves are common on car tires as well.
Presta valves are found on most road bikes, are narrower than Schrader valves, and are also generally protected by a small black cap that screws onto the top. Presta valves also taper as they extend outwards from the rim of the wheel, whereas Schrader valves do not.
Note that when inflating Presta valves, you first have to remove the black protective cap then loosen the small nut on the top of the valve; otherwise the tire will not inflate. Make sure to retighten this nut after you pump your tire.
Many pumps are made to fit either Presta or Schrader valves, but not both. Other pumps include an adapter or a smart head that allows them to be used with either valve type. Make sure the pump you're getting is compatible with your bike.
There are three main types of bike pumps on the market today, and each is designed for different situations.
The first and most common type of pump out there is the floor pump. These are the upright pumps that function by you standing on foot plates at the bottom of the pump and pulling and pushing a plunger to inflate your tire.
There are a few great things about floor pumps. First, they are easy to use and allow you to quickly and easily reach the high PSIs that road bikes require. But they aren't just for road bikes, as many floor pumps include adapters to be used with both Presta and Schrader valves.
Floor pumps start around $30 and range up over $100. Higher quality pumps include additional features like PSI gauges -- so you know you are filling your tires up to the recommended pressure -- and better construction for reaching high pressures (over 100 PSI).
If you are looking for a middle ground between portability and power, a frame pump is a great option. Frame pumps are named after their ability to nestle along the frame of your bike, usually along the top tube. They are secured in space with straps or via a spring-loaded design that wedges them into place securely.
Full-size frame pumps are generally about twice as long as a mini pump (described below) and generally take half as many pumps to inflate a tire. This power makes them very versatile enough for use both at home and on the road, although frame pumps generally don't include a PSI gauge.
The most common version of the frame pump is the mini pump -- small, portable models generally around 1 foot in length or shorter. These pumps are designed for maximum portability and minimal weight, so they can be easily strapped on your bike or carried in a pocket for every ride.
Mini pumps tend to be fairly inexpensive, with some coming in around $20. These are an excellent choice for bringing with you on every ride but may be frustrating for use around the home; it can take up to 200 pump strokes to inflate a road bike tire. They also generally do not include a PSI gauge.
Combining a mini pump with a floor pump is a great option, giving you the best of both worlds: maximum portability to be prepared for emergencies and maximum power for the weekly chore of keeping tires full up.
If you are a mountain biker, look for a mini pump that is durable and able to handle a few bumps and impacts. You don't want your first crash to break your new pump, so look for a metal body and a strong design.
There are a few other pump styles on the market, such as foot pumps, which are very efficient and inexpensive. Foot pumps generally include a PSI gauge, making them a good alternative to floor pumps. However, most foot pumps are not made for bike tires and require adapters to be used.
For riders looking for maximum inflation speed, such as racers or people who have trouble operating normal pumps, the best option is a CO2 inflator. CO2 inflators utilize small cartridges of compressed carbon dioxide and are attached to the valve of your tires just like a pump. As they often come with pressure gauges, CO2 inflators are accurate as well as fast, but they can be quite expensive and are best suited for more frequent, advanced riders.