How Does a Bicycle Pump Work?

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Any bicyclist can attest to the importance of a bicycle pump. The level of pressure within your tires affects your bike’s performance and your riding experience. But how does a bicycle pump actually work?

This ingenious mechanism comes in several forms to meet the requirements and preferences of riders of all kinds. 

The common goal of all bicycle pumps is to inflate your tires. There are a few methods by which this is done and countless products that help cyclists achieve this. 

If you are looking for a bike pump, we have made our top picks for best bike pump for you.

What is a Bicycle Pump?

A bicycle pump is designed to force air into a tire to fill it to the desired pressure. This can be done manually or by using a compressed air system. 

Manual bike pumps are easy to use and require no electricity. These include floor pumps and hand (or mini) pumps. Alternatively, a pump that uses compressed air involves CO2 or some other gas cartridge that can quickly inflate your tires.  

The most popular type of bike pump is the floor pump, although it is good to be familiar with all kinds of pumps so that you’ll be prepared for circumstances that require you to use whatever is available. Flat tires never happen at a convenient time.

Bike Pump Mechanics

Most bicycle pumps operate by the same principle. In the case of manual pumps, essentially, what we have here is an air piston. A piston is usually a cylindrical tube meant to draw air and forcefully release it in a controlled direction. Pistons appear in many mechanical systems, notably in automotive engines. 

When the handle of a pump is raised, the air is pulled into the cylinder through an intake valve. A valve is a one-way street for gas. Air enters but is unable to leak out. The pump handle is attached to a plunger within the cylinder. When lowered, the plunger pushes air out of the cylinder through an output valve or hose opposite the intake valve forcing it into the tire.

Types of Bicycle Pumps

There are a few styles of bicycle pumps. Each may be more or less appropriate under different circumstances or according to the needs of the rider. 

Floor pumps are usually the most efficient and accurate. These are the tall, upright pumps shaped like the letter “I” with handles up top and feet at the base. This design allows the cyclist to hold the pump in place with their feet and pull up and down on the handle to control airflow. 

Hand pumps are more compact and great for when you’re out on the road. These are often used as a supplement or in a pinch until a floor pump is available. 

A compressed air pump simply spares you the effort of drawing air in and out of the piston by using a prefilled gas cartridge. However, once a cartridge is exhausted, it needs to be replaced, whereas, with a manual pump, there’s no ongoing expense of buying replacement cartridges.

Quality pumps will have a gauge that indicates when the proper pressure has been reached. Some pumps can connect wirelessly to a smartphone app to give you a precise pressure gauge. 

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Types of Valves

The output valve on your air pump should correspond to the fill valve on the bike wheel. There are a few different valve types to be aware of. The most common are Schrader and Presta. 

Schrader 

Schrader valves are usually found on mountain bikes and beach cruisers. They have the same circumference all the way down and are typically rubber-coated with the threading exposed at the end. A spring-loaded pin in the center can be pressed to add or release air. 

Tires with Schrader valves can be filled with the pumps found at gas stations. 

Presta 

Presta valves are long, narrow, and tapered towards the top. Threading runs from the tip to base. There is a nut at the opening that must be unscrewed to attach the pump. These are usually found on road and performance bikes since they hold higher pressure for less road resistance.  

Nowadays, many pump heads (where the pump’s hose attaches to the tire valve) can accommodate both valves. Some have adaptors for other inflatable items like pool toys. These convertible pumps come in different styles.

  • Twin heads have both ports, either side by side or one atop another.  
  • Swappable pumps come with interchangeable adaptors or a reversible head. 
  • Adjustable heads can self-adjust according to whatever valve you attach them to. 

How Much Pressure Should You Add?

Pressure is measured in pounds per square inch (psi). The appropriate psi will vary but is determined mainly by the tire type, the terrain, and the rider’s preferences.

Most of the time, the recommended pressure range is printed right on the side of the tire. But within that range, you may want to use more or less pressure. 

High pressure makes for firmer tires with less rolling resistance. Riders who want to prioritize speed may prefer more pressure in their tires. A higher psi is great when traveling on smooth trails and paved roads. Narrow tires usually perform better with filled at a higher pressure. 

Lower pressure allows the tires to hold a better grip and grants better shock absorption. Riders looking for a more comfortable ride and are fine doing so at the expense of speed may find a lower psi to be ideal. 

For most bicyclists, the right balance between comfort, speed, grip, and resistance usually lies somewhere in the middle of the recommended psi range. Of course, every rider, every bike, and every trail is different. Realizing the optimal psi may take some experimenting and may vary from ride to ride. 

Summary

A reliable pump is a must-have for any serious bicyclist. Many choose a quality floor pump for its efficiency and ease of use. It is often a good idea to have more than one; a go-to floor pump as well as a more compact hand pump for when you’re on the go.

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