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How To Choose a Bike Pump

Pump heads come in many different designs including thread-on, dual-he...
Photo: Sean Cronin
Wednesday November 18, 2020
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Cycling is a gear-intensive sport, no doubt. Many modern cyclists can take a pretty long ride down Gear Obsession Lane. Technology, materials, design, ergonomics, all of these things take on athletic and engineering angles that can be tested enthusiastically and debated vehemently.

The bike pump, however, is not one of the sexiest pieces of gear and is less likely to inspire heated debates or impassioned design brainstorming sessions.

And yet, if not for a pump, even the best cyclist would get exactly nowhere.

And if we venture far beyond the world of bicycles, there are many other things in our lives that require tires to be filled with air. Wheelbarrows, soccer balls, inflatable rafts, kiddie pools, air mattresses, exercise balls, roller skis (roller-what?)… the list goes on.

No doubt, you've had an old pump kicking around and used that for years, figuring "air is air, right?" Sure. It's all the same air. But properly (or improperly) pressured tires can seriously make or break (brake?) a ride. And the differences between seemingly similar models can be stunningly hard to parse out.

First, the Good News


Yes, it's true, all the pumps we tested resulted in pumped-up tires, allowing us to go ride our bikes. Bike pumps are relatively similar across brands and the price spectrum — at least in terms of basic utility. Some of you may stop reading here and go choose the cheapest model in this review, knowing it filled our tires. After all, we all know someone using a floor pump they found in the woods or scored at a yard sale, getting by with something that sort of works… some of the time.

But for those of you still reading, if you're tired of that leaky pump full of spiders that topples over with every stroke, you'll be pleased to know that there are several key features of floor pumps that make them worthy of a few extra bucks. Proper tire pressure is a simple, but often overlooked, consideration which ensures the smoothest quality ride on your bike. If you're an avid cyclist, or want to become one, we certainly recommend devoting some time and energy to learning the art of bicycle maintenance — or developing a relationship with your local bike mechanic. It's worth it. But this most easily overlooked detail can likely make your rides more pleasurable than you might realize: it is about precision tire pressure. The right pressure for your tires on the terrain you're riding plays a huge role in the enjoyable smoothness of your ride.

The line-up.
The line-up.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

How to Choose the Best?


To be as organized and unbiased as possible, we assembled five assessment metrics to dive deep into testing and analyzing bike pumps: Ease of Attachment, Stability, Inflation, Accuracy, and Gauge Quality.

Ease of Attachment/Detachment


So…what's up with these different pump heads? A quality pump head allows the user to easily attach and detach the pump to both Schrader and Presta valves. A good tight seal around the valve is imperative. If air is leaking out while you're trying to pump air in, you're wasting energy and will be unable to obtain an accurate pressure reading. Some pumps adjust automatically to accept either Presta or Schrader valves in the same port. Other pumps use a different port for each valve type. Ports may be adjacent to each other, on opposing sides of the chuck, or may require the user to unscrew and flip the head around.

Once the head is placed over the valve, it needs to clamp in place and form a seal so air will go in and not leak out, and also so you can get an accurate reading on the pressure gauge. This part is critical. Some pump heads allow way more air leakage than is convenient or usable — these pumps got low scores overall in our review. Others have issues with the finer details, making the assessment and summation of scores more competitive. This includes clamps and levers which are stiffer and more difficult to operate, or head designs that are easy, simple, and foolproof.

The pump head materials are also important to consider. Metal may stand up to abuse a bit better than plastic and increase the overall durability. Overly stiff mechanisms may cause a cascade of high wear and tear, or may cause other components to be strained and leveraged in awkward directions. We looked for all of these potential angles throughout our testing process.

A valve that adjusts to all your tire valves with no fuss is an...
A valve that adjusts to all your tire valves with no fuss is an absolute benefit in the long run.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Stability


As the pressure within a tire increases with pumping, so too does the effort required to depress the pump's handle. A stable pump will be more efficient than a pump you have to fight to keep upright. A wide base allows the user a generous area to stand on and stabilize the pump; tripod designs tend to be the most stable. Heavier metal bases help ground the pump and make them less prone to tipping. A hefty base also increases stability in pumps that mount the pressure gauge higher on the pump shaft. Though closer to the user's eyes for ease of reading, this can raise the pump's center of gravity, making it less stable.

Tripod-style bases are excellent choices for pump stability
Tripod-style bases are excellent choices for pump stability
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Inflation


When we want to go ride our bikes, we don't want to get caught up in bike maintenance. We want to feel the wind in our hair, not listen to it escaping from a poorly designed pump head. To help us get out the door faster, we want an efficient pump that inflates tires quickly. But this is not the whole story of inflation. We also want to achieve the right tire pressure, and we don't necessarily want to start our ride with an interval workout because pumping our tires up is overly challenging.

In short, we want an efficient bike pump to inflate our tires swiftly and with minimal effort. Duh, right? Turns out that's not as easy as it sounds. There is tremendous variability with the inflation speed, efficiency, and ease among the pumps we tested. While we value efficiency most, we also balance our judgments of the pumps by examining if pumping speed comes at a cost to usability in other ways.

Plenty of hose means no squatting required.
Plenty of hose means no squatting required.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Accuracy


Truth be told, we grew up on the old "squeeze test." When we were kids, before jumping on our bikes, we would squeeze the tires: Firm? Good enough! Let's go!

As GearLab pros (and adults), we have become a bit more nuanced, okay picky, about our tire pressure. After hours and hours on wheels on a variety of surfaces, we've been rattled and bucked enough to appreciate the smoothest ride we can get. Accurate tire pressures to match the ratings of the tires, paired correctly with the surface we're riding, makes a huge difference on our aging bones. To check the accuracy of our pumps, we used a separate digital pressure gauge that can bleed off air to our desired pressure. For this review, we used it for double-checking the accuracy of each gauge and for seeing if the pump loses much air when detaching the head.

The newly upgraded giant gauge of the Steel Floor Drive.
The newly upgraded giant gauge of the Steel Floor Drive.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Gauge


Different types of bikes (and tires) run very different tire pressures. A tubeless mountain bike tire is often ridden at 25psi, whereas a skinny road bike tire can be upwards of 130psi. Some gauges on the pumps we tested went up to 220psi. On many floor pumps, the lowest pressures registered by the gauge are in the ideal range for a mountain bike, making it critical to be able to reliably tell the difference between 22 and 24psi. Gauges that have tiny numbers or mark intervals of 10psi can make this challenging.

The size, font, and color of the gauge can affect the overall readability. We found this to be entirely subjective and something you should take into account before purchasing a pump. Some users may find it easier to read a gauge that is mounted higher on the pumps towards the handle rather than lower down by the base. We found chronograph style gauges to be useful for landing the needle on the desired pressure. Look for gauges with brightly colored, adjustable guides or arrows that can be set at your goal pressure so you can pump swiftly to that spot on the gauge. If you don't have too many different bikes that need different tire pressures, a large gauge with clear numbers may be less critical for you — that dial can just sit at 95psi forever, and you'll get a smooth ride every time.

The chronograph style gauge on the ToPeak JoeBlow Sport III is one...
The chronograph style gauge on the ToPeak JoeBlow Sport III is one of the best.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Other Considerations


A few other factors are important to consider when narrowing down your selection.

Durability


In our minds, this is another crucial attribute for a floor pump. A pump needs to be dependable. While a bike pump is not the most expensive piece of equipment you'll buy, it is important to consider it as an investment in the enjoyment of your rides. If you plan to travel with your pump at all, or if you tend to be rougher on your tools, you'll want to make sure you invest in a more durable model. In most cases, you get what you pay for in terms of durability and solid construction. In general, look for burlier materials like metal and wood in places of high wear. Plastic is lighter, nice for travel-friendly models, but if it is poorly placed, it could fail and leave you underinflated on the side of the road.

This plastic base is only minimally capable of keeping the pump...
This plastic base is only minimally capable of keeping the pump standing.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Comfort


You may not always notice right away if your floor pump has uncomfortable handles, but once you've felt comfortable ones, it's hard to go back. Comfort will also ultimately affect the pump's overall ease of use and inflation speed. It's a lot easier to push down repeatedly on something wide, padded, and molded to your palms — you'll pump harder without realizing it, and the job will be done in a snap!

A lovely wooden handle feels great in the palms.
A lovely wooden handle feels great in the palms.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Appearance/Design


While not necessary for high performance, using equipment with an attractive overall design will enhance the experience of its use. If you're going to invest in a floor pump, all other factors being equal, why not get one that's good looking? A nice mix of form and function can be a beautiful thing. For those who live in apartments with all of their gear essentially on display, it can be fun to consider the aesthetics of your gear as a sort of sporty home decor.

When the Lezyne Steel Floor Drive isn't in use, consider displaying...
When the Lezyne Steel Floor Drive isn't in use, consider displaying it as an art piece.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Portability


The testers here at GearLab are movers and shakers, and we know you are too. Road trips, family vacations, bike races — you'll need to take a bike pump with you sometimes, and it's worthwhile to give due consideration to each pump's portability.

The folding feet of the Rennkompressor's base
The folding feet of the Rennkompressor's base
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Extras


Several of the pumps we reviewed included a needle for inflating things like soccer balls and footballs, as well as a plastic conical attachment used to inflate rafts, beach balls, air mattresses, etc. While these attachments can easily be picked up for a couple of bucks, it's a nice touch to have them included. Tiny pieces like these are often easily lost, but some pumps have clever storage spots for these helpful extras.

We love a secret compartment.
We love a secret compartment.
Photo: Mark Schanzenbach

Alternatives to Floor Pumps



Lezyne Pressure Drive Hand Pump
Frame Pumps

These are not nearly as convenient as floor pumps but much better for bringing along on the road; they are more compact and can be less expensive. If you only have one bike and limited storage, you may just want to have a hand pump. That said, they take about ten times longer to inflate a tire, especially a larger mountain bike tire.

Portable air compressor pump
Portable Air Compressors
These plug into an AC outlet or your car. If you have Presta tires, it can be a hassle to buy the right adapter. The upside is they will inflate just about anything: car tires, rafts, air mattresses, etc.

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