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I’ve often cycled past gas stations and wondered whether it would be possible to fill up my bike tires using the air compressors that you see on every forecourt. So I decided to do some research to see if it could be done.
The quick answer? Yes. But it comes with a large health warning attached. Why? Well, those air compressors aren’t regulated in the same way (or at all, in fact) like gas pumps are. So, unlike with gasoline, when you pump air using one of those compressors you can never be entirely sure how much air you’re going to get with each pull of the trigger. That’s fine if you’ve got a big car tire to inflate, but when you’ve got a more delicate bicycle inner tube then it can be very easy to pop it. If you’ve ever popped an inner tube through over-inflation you’ll know that it can give you quite a shock, both from the initial bang and then the lengthy walk home pushing your bike with the flat tire.
So, if you are stuck away from home with a deflated tire and your only option is to use a gas station pump, then first check that the attendant is happy for you to use it, and second, proceed with extreme caution. Remember that an under-filled tire is always better than a popped tire.
We’ll take a look at the methods of inflating tires with Schrader and Presta valves in a moment. We’ll then look at a couple of far superior options to ensure that you never have to risk using a gas station pump.
How to use a bike pump Schrader valve
First up, you need to determine what type of valve your bike tires have. The valve is the metal tube that pokes through the wheel rim towards the center of the wheel. There are two main types: Schrader and Presta. Schrader valves are the same type as you get on car tires. Presta valves are longer and thinner and have a locking nut towards the tip. You’ll often see Schrader valves on mountain bikes and Presta valves on road bikes.
If you have Schrader valves then it is a much simpler process to inflate your tires using a gas station pump as the nozzle of the air hose will fit your bike tires:
- Unscrew the dust cap and put in a safe place
- Fit the nozzle of the air hose to the tire valve and push on
- Inflate the tire in short bursts and check the pressure frequently to ensure you don’t over-inflate (remember that this can cause your inner tubes to blow)
- Fit the dust cap back on to the valve
Presta valve gas station?
Gas station air hoses are all designed to fit on to Schrader valves as this is what car tires have. If you have Presta valves on your bike tires you will need to use an adapter to sit between the air nozzle and the valve to give an airtight seal. These adapters are not expensive, however, you will need to purchase one in advance as they are unlikely to be available for sale at the gas station when you need it.
Buy one of these Presta valve adapters now.
Then keep it safe and ready to use, in one of your jersey pockets or tucked inside your bike saddlebag.
How to inflate Presta valve with adapter
These adapters are very easy to use. Just unscrew the dust cap, loosen the Presta valve locking nut and screw the adapter on over the tip of the valve. You’re then ready to connect the air hose nozzle and (very carefully) inflate your tire. When you’re done, remove the adapter (putting it back in its safe place), tighten the valve locking nut, and screw the dust cap back on.
Better alternatives to gas station air pumps
We’ve seen that, with care, you can use gas station air pumps to inflate your bicycle tires. The trouble is that sometimes gas stations are few and far between. If you can’t rely on having a handy gas station when you need to inflate your tires, what should you do?
The simple answer is to take a pump with you. There are lots of different bike pumps available and many are very small and powerful. We’ll take a look at two of my favorite options now. One requires some manual labor. One uses the magic of an air compressor packed into a tiny travel size. Let’s take a look.
Topeak Road Morph Pump with Gauge
Back in the day, bike pumps used to be huge things that never seemed to blow out more than an asthmatic puff of air at a time. Thankfully those days are gone and we have fantastic bike pumps like this one.
It fits onto your bike frame with the included mounting system, so you’ll never forget to take it out with you. When you need it, it works with both Presta and Schrader valves and can inflate tires up to 140 PSI. Yes, that will take some work, and you’ll probably need a Coffee ‘n’ Cake stop shortly after to recover, but then you’ll be back on the road. One clever feature of the pump is its fold-out foot and handgrip – these make it comfortable and stable to use.
This is my absolute favorite piece of bike kit (possibly more than the bike itself…) This pump uses compressed cartridges of CO2 (available online or at local bike shops). These are used to blow air through the nozzle into your tires. One cartridge will inflate 1-2 tires fully, so I tend to take two cartridges and the nozzle when I go out on the bike. The kit is so tiny that you’ll forget you’ve got it with you (until you need it) and it won’t interfere with the snack-carrying capacity of your jersey pockets.
The air nozzle is easy to use and works with both Presta and Schrader style valves and replacement cartridges are easy and cheap to source online. Before I got one of these I wondered how good they would actually be. Earlier this year as I was inflating a tire in the middle of a mud bath in the midge-infested Scottish Highlands, I congratulated myself again for buying one of these. Inflation took a few seconds, there was no tiresome pumping, and I was away again pedaling to escape the flying beasties.
How to pump a bike tire at a gas station
So, we’ve seen that, yes, it’s possible to pump up bike tires using a gas station air pump. I wouldn’t advise it though, because of the risks, so use it only as a last resort.
If you’ve got Schrader valves, then you’re good to go as these are the same valves as car tires have. If you’ve got Presta valves then you will need to buy an adapter beforehand.
There are better alternatives to gas station air pumps though. Ones that you can use on the many miles of road where there isn’t a gas station to be found for miles. These are designed to be used on bike tires so are safer to use.
If you’d like more detail on the difference between Schrader and Presta valves and a look at how the Presta adapters fit, then check out this video: