Again and again I hear from experienced riders who have trouble with their bike pumps, or have long-held (but ineffective) beliefs around the ritual of filling their tires.
The trail of bent nubbins, valve stems torn away from the tube and broken ride dreams is evidence that an intervention is in order. So I’ve put together a series of tips that can help any rider get better performance out of pumps and tubes.
Myth: You don’t really need a pump with a gauge. You can guess-timate how much air is in the tire.
Fact: Most of us are very bad at approximating how much air is in the tire, so we end up either over or under inflating — making the ride either harsh or slow. Either way, you’ll lose efficiency on the road. Gauge’s are very standard, so that’s the way to go.
Myth: Facing the valve stem up (at the six-o-clock position, closest to the floor) is the best place to get the pump head on and off.
Fact: You have more control the farther the valve stem is away from the floor. Using the floor as resistance is a bad idea because you’ll be inclined to wiggle the pump head forcing the stem into a compromised position.
Always make sure to start with the valve stem as close to the 12 o’clock on the wheel as possible. That means facing down towards the floor, not up towards the ceiling. Contrary to what most of our Dads showed us as kids, this gives you the best control over the wheel, stem and pump.
Myth: Holding the pump with one hand and the wheel or pump head with the other while you inflate is stable and efficient, especially using short pump strokes.
Fact: Both hands should be on the handle and both feet should be on the base for maximum stability and efficiency. Using the full stroke of the pump is the quickest and easiest way to inflate.
Many people are afraid to let go of the wheel (if it has been removed from the bike) or pump head while they are inflating, so they end up with only one hand (and no feet) on the pump. Lean the wheel against your leg or stand your bike up against a stable surface so you can use the pump properly.
Myth: The easiest way to remove the pump head is to release the clamp, wiggle it back and forth and pull hard down and to the side off the stem.
Myth: You’ll always lose air from the tube removing the pump, so add extra.
Fact: After inflating, place your hands on either side of the wheel, with your thumbs firmly up against the face of the pump head (the side with the hole in it). The outsides of your thumbs should be up against the valve, with the pad of your thumb against the head.
After flipping the hose clamp to the open position, push lightly straight down towards the hub. The air trapped in the hose will force the pump head off without damaging your valve or loosing any air from the tube. You’ll hear a very short burst of air, then the hose will be disconnected. If you hear more air (more than half a second’s worth) you either incorrectly removed the stem or your pump head is worn out.
Myth: The washer provided for presta valve stems helps hold the valve steady.
Fact: When you get a flat fixed at a bike shop, there’s a reason it rarely comes back with this washer. If you’re using proper technique (see above) you won’t need it. When you do use it, you either have to tighten it down so much for it to grab that it often tears the valve stem off the tube over time, or leave it loose and put up with the rickety-racket chatter of vibration your whole ride. Instead, just lose it completely.
Myth: The cap on my valve stem helps keep the air in and dirt out. It is essential and I have to be careful not to misplace it in the process!
Fact: Caps don’t help hold any air in, and even in the worst mud I’ve never seen a valve stem too dirty to take in more air. They are not functional, but aesthetic. If you think they look tight, keep them. Otherwise, they are unnecessary.
Tori Bortman is a bike mechanic, educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench.