Unless you’re very lucky or uncommonly cautious, you must have experienced a flat tire on the road. I have had my fair share, but unlike you, I can get back on the road in a few minutes. Allow me to tell you how by explaining why my bike pump is better than yours.
History and Development of Bike Pumps
First things first: how did bike pumps come to be? The bicycle pump is credited to John Boyd Dunlop, a veterinarian who also invented the pneumatic tire for his son’s tricycle. While this event marked a definitive revolution in bicycles, the pump goes still further back.
Bicycle pumps are part of a broader category of air pumps. Air pumps are devices that help to push air, as in vacuum pumps or compressors. Robert Hooke made the first functional air pump for Robert Boyle in 1658, for use in scientific experiments and research.
Even though the bicycle pump has such an illustrious history, it has mostly remained unchanged throughout history. It has, however, undergone vast improvements and has also seen new types of pumps made.
How Bicycle Pumps Work
Like every other pump, bicycle pumps have a moving part that initiates the movement of air. A one-way valve allows air to accumulate in a cylinder to high pressure with minimal leakage.
To inflate a bicycle tire to the right pressure, you have to overcome the air pressure within the tire first. That is achieved through the use of the tire or tube valve. It is another type of one-way valve that allows air in, but not out.
When the air in the pump exceeds the pressure inside the tire, the valve allows it in. With repeated pumping actions, and depending on the type of pump, you can achieve quite a high pressure.
Here’s a fun fact: You probably know that a bicycle uses a much higher air pressure than a car, but do you know why? The reason is that bicycle tires have much less air capacity, so they need lots of it to provide proper cushioning.
Also, it helps make the area in contact with the road as small as possible to reduce the effort needed to move the bike.
Types of Bicycle Pumps
Bicycle pumps come in all types, sizes, and prices. Despite having the same basic functionality, engineers have come up with all kinds of ideas to achieve it. Some are more effective, let us first look at what types these are.
Also known as stand or floor pumps, they are the most common and most effective type of pump available. Basically, they involve a long upright cylinder and piston, a rubber hose that attaches to the bicycle valves, and a base.
To use a track pump, you just need to stand on the base with your feet for stability and then use the handles on the piston to push it downwards. They usually have an oiled leather washer inside which pushes air on the downward stroke, but prevents it from coming back up on the upstroke.
This one-way action allows track pumps to achieve a high rate of compression and can pump bicycles to very high pressures. While most pumps max out at about 60psi, some high-end ones can go as high as 220psi.
Depending on the size of their cylinders, bicycle pumps inflate tires quite easily. You can get ready from a flat to fully inflated in 10-15 strokes.
Pros and Cons of Track Bicycle Pumps
- They inflate tires fast due to a large cylinder.
- Track pumps can reach very high pressures.
- They are durable and require little maintenance.
- You can use them to inflate various types of bikes like road bikes, mountain bikes, BMX bikes, or even around the house for mattresses.
- Quite cheap to buy.
- Unlimited use cycles.
- Track pumps are heavy and ungainly, so it’s difficult to carry them around.
- If not properly maintained, they are susceptible to issues like base leakage.
No cyclist’s home is complete without one of these classics. However, they vary a lot in quality and pricing. It is always worth your dime to invest in a high quality stand up, especially one with a pressure gauge.
Hand pumps and mini pumps are not the same thing in the strictest sense of the word. Most hand pumps are quite small and are designed for portability. As the name suggests, they are held in the hands when pumping.
There are two main types of hand pumps: integral pumps and tubed pumps. Integral hand pumps connect directly to the tire valve through a hole in the side with a rubber washer. Due to this direct connection, they have less air leakage and compress it to a higher pressure.
However, this metal-to-metal connection runs the risk of shredding the valve or even clean breaking it off. Yes, it happens. As you pump and are trying to get enough leverage for your hands, you can exert too much pressure on the valve.
Tubed hand pumps avoid this direct connection by using a short length of flexible rubber hose connected to the valve. Air then flows from the pump, through the tube, to the valve. It allows you to leverage the pump any way you want without damaging the valve.
This kind of hand pump also lets you interchange between the different types of valves, but we shall look into that in a short while. Low-quality hand pumps can have problems with air leakage because of the added points of connection.
Both types of hand pumps are harder to use because they have a smaller cylinder. They also have no way for you to leverage your body weight properly to ease the pumping process. However, they do have some unique advantages.
Pros and Cons of Hand Pumps
- They can be very small and portable enough to throw into your jersey pocket or saddlebag for emergency use.
- They are reliable to a fault. Thanks to fewer moving parts, they rarely fail.
- Hand pumps can also serve bikes with different types of valves.
- They are lightweight.
- Hand pumps do not achieve as much pressure as track pumps.
- They take a lot of effort and can be inconvenient to use.
Despite their shortcomings, hand pumps are a favorite with road cyclists. They can give you that much-needed boost to get you home in case of a flat or a puncture.
Foot pumps depend on the action of a foot pressing up and down to move the piston, which then fills the tire with air. They can generate a relatively more substantial flow of air.
However, foot pumps do not reach the high pressure needed for road bikes, so they are mainly used for cars, mountain bikes, and BMX bikes. They are also quite ungainly and inconvenient.
This is the latest technology that has become very popular among professional cyclists. It consists of pressurized carbon dioxide in canisters, much like fire extinguishers except with a bicycle valve.
These canisters offer extremely rapid inflation, which is great for races. The gas inside also protects the rims and metallic components from possible corrosion. However, it tends to leak out of the tire faster than regular air.
Canisters are one-time use only. While they can be refilled and reused, you will have to carry with you as many as you deem necessary for your trip.
Electric pumps are the crown of bicycle pumps. They allow precise pumping, deliver a high rate of air, and are effortless in operation. However, they are only suitable for homes or garages.
The commercial pumps used for cars and motorbikes can also be used to inflate bicycles. Still, you run the very high risk of bursting your tire due to the extremely high rate of air delivered. Some of these have safety measures that do not allow them to exceed a certain threshold, which may be too low for road bikes.
Bicycle Valves: All You Need to Know
I have so far avoided the issue of bicycle valves, but no discussion of pumps would be complete without them. Valves are those little cylindrical metal parts that protrude out of a tire or tube, through which you can pump in air.
There are several types of bicycle valves, but only two are worth your consideration. These are Schrader valves and Presta valves.
Schrader bicycle valves resemble the valve on a car. It is wide with a small spring mechanism inside which keeps it closed. Just like you see in a car, a tiny metal pin depressor at the center allows you to press the valve inward to let air in or out.
Since Schrader valves are wider and stronger, they are preferred in mountain bikes, commuter bikes, and some BMX bikes. The spring pin mechanism keeps the valve closed even if you forget to screw the cap back on.
Presta valves are slimmer, longer, and have a knurled ring on top to unscrew. To Pump in air, you first unscrew the ring until it sits on top, then depress the stalk slightly until a hiss comes out. After that, you just attach the pump and start inflating the tire.
Presta valves are more complicated and dedicated, but they need less effort to pump than Schrader valves. That is because they have no spring-mounted pin to get past. However, because they are thinner and longer, it’s very easy to bend then when pumping in which case it becomes unserviceable.
These have a wide valve stem with a removable plug stem inside. You can identify them by the wide knurled ring holding the valve in place, to which the pump attaches.
Woods valves are also called Dunlop or English valves, and allow you to replace the valve without the need for special tools. The other two may or may not come with the luxury of being removable.
Tubeless Bike Valves
Tubeless bikes can use either a Schrader or a Presta valve. The only difference is that since they aren’t anchored in a tube, they have a broad base covered with rubber. They also have a knurled ring to hold them in place on the rim.
The different types of valves have different widths and mechanisms by which to let it air. This is the reason why pump heads are another essential feature of bike pumps.
Schrader valves require a wide head with a depressant pin. The pin depresses the valve and allows you to pump in air.
A Presta valve has only a rubber chuck at the front that fits snugly around the valve. This way, air can flow into the valve without leaking.
Shrader and Presta heads will usually come with most pumps. Some have interchangeable heads, while more modern ones have a lever that instantly converts the head from Presta to Schrader with a single flip.
You can also purchase a screw-on adapter that lets you pump your bike at the gas station with the air pump used on vehicles. Just be sure to have split-timing reflexes or things can explode.
To to find out the top Bicycle Pumps on the market. Read our reviews for Top 5 Best Bike Pump Reviews – Find Out Which To Buy.
How long do bike pumps last?
A good pump should last you a few years. Always make sure to purchase high-quality brands from reputable manufacturers.
Why do bike tires go flat even without a puncture?
Bicycle tires can go flat in storage even without a puncture, because the seals on the valve are not perfect. Air can also leak between the tire and rim.
Can I put air in my bike without a pump?
Yes, but you would need to have a canister of compressed carbon dioxide. These are single-use only, so it’s always better to have a mini pump on hand.
Can I pump a bike with a Presta valve with a Schrader pump head?
No, the two are not interchangeable. However, you can purchase an adapter or use a Presta valve head.
Can I pump my bike using the air pump at the gas station?
Most bikes have screw-on adapters that allow you to use commercial electric pumps, but it is not advisable to use them. They deliver a very high rate of air that can burst your tire and tube within seconds.
When the pneumatic tire came into being, a pump naturally had to be made. By then, the technology was already in place to develop an effective bike pump. Even today, we use the same basic design.
There are various types of bicycle pumps. They are categorized by size and functionality. The most common is the track or stand pump, loved for its fast and high-pressure capabilities.
Hand or minipumps are more like road pumps, designed to be carried along for use in emergencies. Thus, they are lighter and smaller. The other two, CO2 and electric pumps, are more of specialty pumps.
Now that you know as much as you need about bicycle pumps, you can make more informed decisions about buying them. Bicycle pumps range in size, weight, the material used, and availability of a pressure gauge. Some pumps can also achieve higher pressure than others.
Did I mention that I also have a Silca Superpista pump at home? That, folks, is why my bike pump is better than yours.