Even the world’s greatest tires lose air over time, so a big concern of mine was, “What Type of Pump do You Need for a Road Bike?” This is actually a two part answer. You need a good floor pump for home use and an effective portable bike pump to take with you on the road. And, to definitively answer this question you need to look to the bike and tires that you are using and under what condition you ride.
There is more than meets the eye when looking at a tire pump. One pump will not meet the needs of all bikes or tires. You need to know what pressure the tire requires, how much volume of air the tire holds, how accurate the gauge is that you are using, what type of valve is attached to the tire, where you are going to use the pump, and how long of a lifetime do you expect from the pump.
The pressure needed is extremely important. If your tires need 100 psi and your pump only provides up to 70 psi it will never get the job done. As a general rule a road bike needs from 80-130 psi. A bike with a comfortable ride needs from 35-70 psi. And a mountain bike takes from 30-60 psi. These are general rules, so what you really need to do is look on the sidewall of your tire and see what range your bike fall under. My Schwalbe Marathon Racer on my Brompton folding bike displays 65-110 psi (4.5-7.5 bar).
Sit on the bike and there should only be a slight bulge to the tire above where it contacts the ground. Since your seat is above the back tire it stands to reason that your back tire will have a higher tire pressure than your front tire for the best riding experience. Just keep it within the standards set by the tire manufacturer and put on the sidewall of the tire.
The advantage of a high volume pump is that it takes less time to fill the tire with air. However, a large volume air pump may not be able to reach the higher air pressures needed in road bikes. Therefore high volume air pumps are more suited to mountain bikes and bikes that have wider tires.
You are going to want to either get a pump with a gauge already attached or buy a separate gauge. Either way, your tire pressure rating should fall in the middle of the gauge that you are using for best accuracy.
Separate gauges fall into three categories: Stick or Pencil, Dial, and Digital Gauges.
- The stick gauges look like a pencil and will even have a clip so you can clip them to your pocket or car visor. They are also the simplest and cheapest of the bike tire gauges. You press one end against the valve and a rod comes out the other end showing the tire pressure, much like a thermometer. Make sure your stick gauge is made for the valve that you use, Schrader or Presta. Also, make sure you are getting a bicycle tire gauge as a auto tire gauge will not cover the psi that you need for a bike.
- The second type of gauge is a dial gauge, much like a tachometer. These will be easier to read and more accurate than a stick gauge. The dial gauges may have double fittings that would allow you to use on both the Schrader and Presta valves. More expensive dial gauges will hold the tire pressure position after removing the gauge from the tire to make it easier for you to see the tire pressure.
- The last type of gauge is the digital gauge. The digital gauge has an electronic sensor and an LCD readout. Will you be riding in the dark? You might want to see if the gauge has a backlit display, as well.
Pump Heads and Valve Types
There are a variety of different pump heads that cater to different valve types. Some will only have either a Schrader or Presta head. Some will have a dual head system that will support both the Schrader and Presta head. Others will have a system that will automatically adjust to either the Schrader or Presta valve. There is also a thread-on head that gives a better fit, but one must be careful not to unscrew the valve when you are finished inflating the tire.
The size of air pumps goes from three foot long floor pumps to CO2 pumps you can fit in your pocket. The biggest determining factor is where to use this particular pump. Is it for home or garage use? will you attach it to the bike frame or put in a bike bag? Do you want to carry it in a vest pocket? The answer to these questions will reduce the number of pump options you have available.
Weight, Construction, and Serviceability
The selection of the pump on weight is similar to the selection by size. The question is where and how will you use the pump. Another factor to consider with weight, though, is the quality of the material used in it. A plastic pump may be lighter, but it will probably not last near as long as a metal pump.
Some of the higher end pumps are more modular and allow for you to replace component parts as they age or no longer work properly. You will not have to replace the entire pump then but rather just replace the gauge or head or rings for the pump.
Types of Pumps
Floor (Track) Pump
One of the most basic pumps that all bike riders should own is a floor pump. You can use this every time you are getting ready to go out for a ride or at least, once a week or month to keep your air pressure the same. Floor pumps give high-capacity air-filling power, with some going up to 220 psi. Most have a gauge as part of the pump but reading is showing the pressure at the pump and not necessarily the pressure of the tire. The pumps have large handles for comfort and a place to stand on them for stability. One of the last things the bike shop did when I bought my Brompton folding bike was use a floor pump to top off the tires.
A frame pump like the name implies is a pump that fits on the frame of the bike. Due to the size and build of folding bikes, a frame pump may not fit on a typical folding bike. Frame pumps are either spring loaded to fit between frames or come with brackets to mount on the frame. Frame pumps can be used for road cyclists as their psi reaches up to 160.
Mini or Hand Pump
Mini or hand pumps main purpose is to put air in a tire when you’ve had a flat on the road or trail. Since they are smaller than frame pumps they will take that much more effort to pump up a tire. Additionally, because most of these pumps do not have a hose or have a very short hose there is the danger that they will damage the valve stem from all of the pumping motions while airing up the tire. Be sure that the mini pump you purchase will get you to the air pressure that you need for your tires.
Many gas stations and garages have air compressors for filling up or topping off automobile tires. Gas station compressors only work with Schrader valves since that is how all car tires are fitted.
Care must be taken when using a gas station compressor because they are made for car tires that have a much larger volume of air and are much slower to reach their desired pressure. Bikes, on the other hand, are low volume tires and can be easily over inflated by these heavy duty air compressors. At a minimum you should be ready with your own air gauge to frequently check the tire pressure.
CO2 cartridges are best for use in competitions where the cyclists needs to fix the flat quickly and get back in the race. There is no time spent on pumping up the tire so this makes it a quick operation. The bad thing is that most of these are a one use only cartridge, so if you have a second flat and only one cartridge you are out of luck.
Once you get back to a location that has a regular pump you should exchange the CO2 for regular air. CO2 escapes the tire much more quickly than air does so it is only a temporary fix to get the biker up and running quickly.
I did not realize there was so much to learn about bike pumps! What we have learned is that we want to have a good solid floor pump for regular home use and the biggest portable bike pump we can easily take with us for flats on the go.
I wrote more on purchasing pumps here.