Beginner’s guide: how to pump up a road bike tyre

Struggling to get your head round all the bike jargon? Here's our handy guide to pumps, inflators and how to pump your tyres up

While the majority of you will almost certainly know how to inflate the tyres on your bike, it’s another of those simple tasks, like changing an inner tube or using clipless pedals, that can seem pretty confusing to a beginner.

There are plenty of different types of pumps, inflators, valves, tubes and tyres – and all that can be a real nightmare if you’re coming to it for the first time.

If you ride a road bike, the Presta valve (above) is pretty much the only type of valve you’ll need to worry about dealing with

So here’s a handy guide to all things tyre inflation that’ll help to clear up any ambiguity surrounding the subject and have you fully inflated and ready to ride in no time…

Valve types

The best place to start is what type of valves your inner tube (or tyres, if you’re running tubulars) have. There are two basic types of valves that you’ll find on bikes: Presta and Schrader. For the most part, inner tubes and tubulars on road bikes will use Presta valves, and mountain bikes will use Schrader valves.

The visual differences between the two are obvious, with the Presta (pictured above) being slimmer, lighter and having a lock nut to close that you can see on the top. Schrader valves are wider, more robust and have a spring mechanism on the inside to keep the valve closed, rather than a screwable top section.

Because the widths (or diameters if you prefer, seeing as they’re both cylindrical) are different, they’re not easily interchangeable in wheels that are designed to accept one type.

Schrader valves are too thick to fit through the tube hole in a road rim, and Presta valves will need adapters or shims (or an awful lot of electrical tape) to fit on an MTB rim. Plus, in really narrow road tyres, there might not even be space for the large Schrader valve to fit between the beads.

As they have no spring in the valve, Presta valves are easier to pump up than Schrader, especially so with small capacity hand pumps, and it also means small pumps don’t need an in-built device to depress the spring in a Schrader valve.

One of the smart parts of Presta valve design is that even when the top section is open, it won’t leak air unless it’s pressed down. That means even if you forget to rescrew after you’ve pumped the tyre up, you shouldn’t find yourself with a flat again 500 metres down the road.

Pump heads

Because the two valve types are different, they require two different types of head on a pump – or, as is often the case, an interchangeable head.

In other words, you can’t use a Schrader-headed pump to inflate a Presta valve tube without an adapter, and the opposite operation won’t work at all.

Fortunately, most modern floor pumps have a very simple answer for this: a pump head with dual attachments. And that’s even better if you ride both road and mountain bikes, because it means you only need the one pump for both jobs.

The Birzman pump (left) is set up for Presta valves in the picture, but to inflate a Schrader valve you have to unscrew and remove the gold section. But on the PRO pump (right) it’s much easier as there’s a dual head with an ‘s’ at on one side and ‘p’ on the other

Some are very obvious (like the PRO pump on the right of the picture) as there are literally two different attachments on the end of the hose but others (like the Birzman pump pictured left) require you to unscrew the end to reveal the Schrader adapter, or in some cases even flip the valve end over.

It’s still a simple operation but one that can seem completely confusing if you’re just standing there with the valve hose in your hands trying to figure it out.

Types of pump

When it comes to actually pumping up your tyres, there are a few different types of pump/ways to do it. The first and most common of these is the track pump. Track pumps are one of those essentials that every cyclist should own.

They’re usually around two feet high, have a fairly large capacity and are capable of inflating tyres to high pressures – usually much higher than required. For example, my track pump can inflate to 160psi which is far higher than I’d ever want my tyres.

Track pumps are quite large and generally kept in the garage (or wherever you keep your bike in the house) to pump up tyres before you ride.

The main bonus is that because of their high capacity, they make inflating tyres to high pressure comparatively easy – you can inflate a tyre all the way up to 100psi in 10-15 strokes easily (depending on pump capacity).

Track pumps are quite large, comparatively, but they’re the best and easiest option to pump your tyres up before a ride

Then there’s the mini pump. Mini pumps are ideal to stick in your jersey pocket in case of a mid-ride puncture. Most are capable of inflating tyres to a reasonably high pressure (though not as high as a track pump), but it’s a longer and occasionally more frustrating experience.

However, no matter how frustrating it’s vastly preferable to being stuck 40 miles from home with a flat and no way of pumping it up.

Mini pumps come in various varieties – some more ‘mini’ than others – and most will have a tube that extends and packs back into the end of the pump in order to add a bit of flexibility without which it would be very easy to snap off the end of a Presta valve. You may laugh, but it can happen.

Mini pumps are ideal for mid-ride puctures. Most have a rubber tube that you can pull out of the pump to add some flexibility and make it easier to inflate tyres on the go

The third common option isn’t strictly a pump, it’s a mini inflator. These use a small valve ending and inflate using disposable CO2 canisters.

The bonus of these is that they inflate incredibly quickly and, depending on the capacity of the canister, can pump a tyre all the way up to around 200psi – not that you’d need to go that high.

The down side is that each canister is single use only, so it’s only as good for as many as you’re prepared to take with you. The SKS Airboy CO2 combines a mini pump and CO2 inflator in one handy unit, which solves that problem.

Mini inflators are a great option for mid-ride punctures. They’re made of two parts – the gas cylinder (on the left) and the head unit (right). But each cylinder is single use only, so you’ll need to carry multiple if you want to be able to inflate more than one tube or tyre

There is one final option, and that’s an air compressor. However, they’re pretty expensive and almost exclusively used by pro team mechanics.

They do make the process an awful lot simpler, and they can also make it easier to hit a desired psi if you have a strong preference. It also saves the pro mechanics from having to pump up 18 individual tyres on the bikes and all the spares every morning at a big race like the Tour de France.

Inflating the tyre

The first step is unscrewing the Presta valve head. It unscrews anti-clockwise and you’ll be able to see it moving upwards along the small central spindle. Make sure it’s open all the way.

Next, attach the pump end to the valve head. As I mentioned earlier, make sure you’re using the Presta attachment on the pump, not the Schrader as otherwise you’ll get precisely nowhere.

Also, you need to ensure the pump head is securely fastened onto the valve otherwise the air won’t go into the tube properly. It needs to be a sealed system to be most effective. How you create that seal depends on the pump. A lot will have a lever you flick up to secure the pump head, some will have a chuck to screw on.

Keep an eye on your track pump’s pressure gauge while you inflate your tyres. If you go over the recommended maximum pressure the results can be drastic, explosive and expensive

After that simply pump up the tyre, keeping an eye on the pump’s pressure gauge, and make sure you don’t over-inflate the tyre (most tyres will have written on the side the suggested pressure range).

While you might fancy going a little under the bottom number to cushion the ride or add a little more grip, going over the top one could cause the tyre to explode off the rim, potentially writing off the tyre, tube and rim.

Generally you can find a happy medium between the two through experimentation, and depending on your weight, where you ride, and how much cushioning you want the tyre to provide.

And that’s that. Now you’re ready to roll. Simple, right?


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