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I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to inflate my bicycle tires at a gas station with the air pumps that you get there. So I check out the facts to see if it was something you could do.
Here’s the quick answer.
Yes, it’s possible. Would I recommend it? No, not unless you had no other choice.
Is there a better alternative? Let’s take a look now.
Car tire pumps and bike inner tubes
It turns out that those air pumps aren’t subject to the same tests and regulations as gas pumps are. That means that, in contrast to gasoline, when you press the trigger on one of those air pumps, you don’t really know what volume of air you’ll get. Whilst that might not be an issue if you’ve got a big old car tire to blow up, if you have a thin rubber bike inner tube then it can be quite easy to over-inflate it and make it go ‘pop’.
When that happens, you’ll get a shock because (a) it’s loud, and (b) you’ll have a long walk back home.
If you’re stuck with a flat a long way from home, then first speak to the gas station manager to check you can use the pump for your tire. Secondly, go real slow and delicate with the trigger. You might be able to cycle home with an under-inflated bike tire, but you definitely won’t if you burst it by over-filling.
We’re going to look at three things in this article:
- Inflating bike tires with Schrader valves
- How to inflate Presta valve with adapter
- (Better) Alternatives to gas station air pumps
How to use a bike pump Schrader valve
The first thing you need to do is find out what type of valve your bike tires have got. The tire valve is the tube that you see poking through the metal rim of the wheel pointing towards the wheel hub. Take a look at your bike and you’ll find that it has one of the two main varieties of valve: Schrader or Presta.
Schrader valves will look familiar as they’re the same ones as you get on car tires. They’re quite short and stubby. By comparison, Presta valves are much longer and slimmer. Underneath the dust cap, they will also have a locking nut at the top. If you have a mountain bike you’ll often have Schrader valves and, with road bikes, you generally have Presta.
It’s a simple process with Schrader valves to pump your tires using a pump at the gas station because the air hose nozzle will fit directly onto the bike tire valve. Use this process:
- Unscrew the tire dust cap and keep it in a safe place
- Fit the air hose nozzle to the valve and push it into place
- Blow up the tire using short bursts of the trigger, frequently checking the pressure to make sure you don’t over-inflate (if you need to deflate the tube slightly, take off the air hose and press the pinhead that you’ll see in the top opening of the Schrader valve)
- Put the tube dust cap back on
Presta valve gas station?
With Presta valves on your bicycle tires then you’ll need to buy and use an adapter to join the Schrader air hose nozzle and to your tube valve. These are cheap, but you’ll need to buy one before you need it. They’re not likely to be sold at the gas station when you need it.
So, I’d recommend you buy one of these now and pop it in a jersey pocket or pannier bag. There for when you need to use it.
How to inflate Presta valve with adapter
Thankfully, the Presta adapters are really simple to use. All you have to do is:
- Take off the valve dust cap
- Loosen (by unscrewing it a couple of turns) the valve lock nut at the tip
- Screw the adapter on over the tip of the valve (don’t over-tighten)
- You can then fit the air hose nozzle on and carefully start inflating the tire
- When it’s at the correct pressure, just remove the air hose nozzle, unscrew the adapter (remember to put it back in a safe place), tighten the lock nut, and put the dust cap back on
But, is there a better alternative to a gas station air pump?
Yes! The thing is that, sadly, gas stations can be few and far between. And certainly not there when you’ve got a flat tire. So, you need to be prepared.
The best alternative is to take your own pump with you when you go out for a bike ride. There’s lots of great pumps and many are super-small and very powerful. Here are two of my favorites. One requires a little manual effort and the other uses compressed CO2. Let’s look and see.
When I was a kid, bike tire pumps used to be huge and not very effective at inflating tires. But, thankfully, those days are over and we’ve not got great little pumps like this from Vibrelli.
It comes with a bracket so that you can keep it fitted to your bike and never be without it on a bike ride. It fits on both Presta and Schrader valves and will blow tires up to 120 PSI. A useful feature of the pump is that you can swap between high volume and high pressure. That allows you to start inflating at high volume when the tire is flat (to get air in fast) and then swap to a higher pressure to get it fully topped up when the going starts gets a bit tougher.
I love this.
It’s a tire pump that makes use of compressed CO2 cartridges to inflate your tires. I find that a single cartridge will be good for around 1-2 tires. So I’ll normally take a couple of cartridges and the nozzle when I go out for a ride. It’s so tiny that you’ll probably forget you even have it with you and it certainly won’t tire out your arms when you use it.
The pump nozzle has a simple push-fit mechanism to fit on to your tire valves and works with Presta and Schrader. Replacement cartridges are easy to find online and very cheap.
How to pump a bike tire at a gas station
So, it’s possible to pump tires using an air pump at a gas station. But it’s not something I’d advise, so use it only as a last resort and always ask permission from the gas station manager first.
If your tires have got Schrader valves, then the air pump nozzle will fit straight on. With Presta valves, you’ll need to get an adapter beforehand.
I think there are much better alternatives to though. Designed for bike tires and usable even when there’s no gas station for miles.
If you’d like to get some more details on the differences between Presta and Schrader, and a quick look at how the Presta adapters fit on, then take a look at this video:
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