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Family Biking: A tire pumping primer

Posted by on March 19th, 2019 at 9:58 am

Bike maintenance with kids is fun! (And takes twice as long.)
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

Shout out to all the fair-weather family bikers! Rumor has it the gorgeous weather won’t last, but it’s lovely out right now and my kids’ bikes have lots of new company at the school bike racks.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

Have you ever excitedly greeted your dusty, neglected bike in the garage on the first nice day of the year only to find it has two flat tires? Fortunately your tires don’t need repairing — rubber is porous and as soon as you pump air back in, your bike will be ready to roll. Keeping the right amount of air in your tires is a relatively easy task, and it’s incredibly empowering to be able to keep your family’s fleet functional. Yeah, plenty of other things can go wrong with bikes, but flat tires are the most common woe. Plus, kids can help, and — if yours are like mine — they’re probably already familiar with your bike pump, having shot air into their mouths, noses, and down their pants.

Here are some basic tire-pumping tips…

Get a floor pump
I love having a floor pump at home. Unlike a handheld pump, it has a wide bar for grip and flat plates for my feet so it doesn’t wobble around. I also have a small pump I keep on my bike for out and about use, but the ease — both speed and not having to bend over as much — of a floor pump can’t be beat. They run about $50-$100 at shops. If that’s too steep, ask to borrow one from a neighbor.

Note: If there’s no pump of any sort to be found, it won’t harm your bike to walk it to a bike shop on flat tires. You shouldn’t ride a bike with flat tires though, because you’ll damage your rims. However, if you must carry a small kid to find your source of air, and you have wider tires, that’s probably not enough weight to do damage.

Tire pressure

This tire has a maximum of 110 psi (pounds per square inch).

Your bike will tell you how much air it wants! All bike tires have either a range or maximum air pressure printed on their sides. Some will list several units, but I just look for psi (pounds per square inch). In general, hybrid bike medium-width tires take 50-70 psi, knobby mountain bike tires 30-50 psi, skinny road bike tires 80-130 psi, and fat bike tires (over four inches wide) 15-25 psi. Since I carry a lot of weight on my bike, I always pump it up to the maximum. I’m also not great at checking my tires often so they don’t get noticeably low as quickly when I pump them up to the max. We pumped the little road bike pictured above to the 110 psi max, but a bike mechanic friend suggested to stick to 80 psi for a more cushiony ride given its light rider who doesn’t carry extra gear on the bike.

Kids help: Tire pressure numbers can be so small! Let younger eyes search the sides of your tires for the numbers.


Presta valve left, Schrader valve right.

Valve types
There are two main valve types: Presta and Schrader.

Presta-to-Schrader valve adapters at my local shop.

Schrader valves are the wider ones that are exactly like the valves on car tires (I remember which is which because sChrAdeR has the letters c-a-r in it) and Presta valves are the narrow ones that I’m really good at breaking. My floor pump nozzle goes on either valve type, but my portable pump has a removable chuck at the end that screws to the pump in different orientations depending on the valve type. Some pumps have two different holes. I find Schrader valves harder to get my pump onto, but Presta valves require an extra step of unscrewing the little lock nut. Both valve types might have black plastic caps protecting them you must unscrew before attaching your pump. Those little caps are really easy to lose during the course of pumping up tires (especially if you’re distracted by kid helpers), but don’t worry — it’s not that big a deal if you leave them off.

If you happen to have a bike with Presta tubes and a pump only for Schrader valves, you can buy an adapter for about a buck, usually found on your local bike shop counter. These were more useful to have back in the days of free air at gas stations.

Kids help: I like to have the job take twice as long by involving the kids, so after I’ve got the pump attached to the valve, I have them pump the air until they get too tired to finish the job.

Eight easy steps:
(As seen in my book Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living)

1. Find the valve. For a floor pump, spin your wheel to place the valve at the bottom (6 o’clock). For a very small pump, unless it has a foldout foot rest, spin your wheel to get the valve to the top (12 o’clock) so you don’t have to bend over so far.

2. Remove valve cap. For Presta valves, untwist the lock nut to open the valve — don’t try to pull it all the way off, just untwist to the top of the pin — that will allow the pin to depress once the pump is in place. Tap the top of the pin; you should hear air hiss out. This tapping of the pin also ensures that it’s not stuck in place before you secure the pump.

3. Attach the pump head. For pump heads with levers: flip the lever into the down position, push the head onto the valve as deep as it easily goes, and then flip the lever into the up position to lock it in place. For pumps that screw into place: twist the piece at the end of the pump several times so the pump is well sealed to your valve.

4. Pump. When pumping, pull the pump all the way up and push all the way down. You shouldn’t hear air escaping out the side of the head. If you do hear air escaping, you probably haven’t attached the pump well enough, although it also might be a sign of a faulty pump head. Re-attach and try again.

5. Check the tire pressure. The tire pressure is the number the pump settles at once you’ve stopped pushing down on the pump, not the highest number the pin hits while you’re in the action of pumping.

6. Carefully remove the pump head. Unscrew your pump head (or close down the lever and remove) at a nice straight angle so you don’t bend the valve or pull off the Presta valve’s pin with the lock nut. Note: the hiss of air you hear when you remove the pump is coming from the pump, not the tire; your tire pressure is still right where you left it.

7. Retighten Presta lock nut.

8. Replace the valve cap. Feel around on the ground or dig around in your pocket for where you left your valve cap and screw it back on to your valve.

Squeeze your fully-inflated tires
Hey, now that you’ve got the right amount of air in your tires, give them a squeeze so you know what they should feel like. Remember, tubes and tires are porous so they’ll lose air over time. Very diligent people check their tires every single time they use their bikes. I try to check our tires every week. I actually check our tires every few weeks. Granted, wider tires with lower psi are going to hold onto their air longer so our bikes (other than the pictured little road bike) are built for less diligent squeezers.

Kids help: Kids love putting their hands all over the dirtiest parts of their bikes! Have them get a feel for squishy versus full-inflated tires.

Snake bite!
So what’s wrong with riding on low tires anyway, you’re wondering? Well, in addition to making it much harder to push your bike along, you run the risk of getting a pinch flat — when you hit a bump or pothole and your under-inflated tube is pinched against the rim. This usually makes two small holes, thus the name “snake bite.”

Slow leaks
If you’re finding your bike tire is low more than every few weeks, you’ve got a slow leak. This is usually the result of a number of minuscule holes that are impossible to find and patch and you’ll need to get a new tube. However, if you’re very stubborn you can pump that tire every time you use the bike (been there, done that).

Solid tires
Is all this pumping and pressure talk making your head spin? There are solid tires out there. I first saw foam rubber tires on Strider balance bikes, but I’ve experienced them first-hand on dockless bikeshare bikes in Seattle. It’s hard to know whether to blame the heavy bikes or the foam tires (or both!) for their clunkiness, but I wasn’t worried about flats!

Have you any tire advice to add — maybe you have experience with tubeless or Slime? Thanks for reading!

Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if it sounds like fun to you. I’d especially like to feature families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in sharing their stories. And as always, feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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TDavid HampstenAndrew KrepsTGB_PDXChris Anderson Recent comment authors
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Phil Richman

Great article Madi! I have a tendency to forget flat tires are such a common obstacle to casual riders using their bikes. Part of my complacency is because the bikes I ride almost never get flat tires. Here are some tips and thoughts on avoiding flat tires all together.

On my primary bike, a Big Dummy, I’ve used the Green Slime. With it I think I’ve had 1 flat tire in over 5 years. The Slime holds air in so I really only need to pump more air in just a few times a year. The downside being it does add weight. On the Big Dummy I’m not overly weight sensitive since it has e-assist and like you I typically add max pressure to accommodate for additional weight and efficiency.

I use Tubeless on my MTB and have discovered having a valve core tool is key. Valve core tools IMO are extremely useful and most newer tubes have removable valves. Being able to remove the valve core allows you to add fluid directly into the tire without having to deal with the mounting issues that can be a struggle with tubeless tires (or tubeless conversions). With tubeless I’ve had problems with compatibility using Continental Tires & Stan’s No Tube Mix (fluid bleeds out), which led me to using Continental’s tube mix. It’s been smooth sailing since this discovery.

Tubeless is perfect for changing tire pressure for the conditions. For instance, at times like last Summer when I rode the Cascades to Palouse Trail I’d drop pressure to soften the ride on gravel, then pump more in for paved sections. This could help at Sandy Ridge too! One caveat being have a hand pump that works well and preferably has a functional PSI gauge. Most hand pumps are great until you have to use them so be careful about going cheap on a hand pump especially for longer rides.

Another hack with tubeless mix is it works perfectly well in tubes too. As a matter of fact I’ve put tube mix into many of my tubed tires because the mix will still function as a sealant in the event of a small puncture in your tube. This can be helpful for kids bikes too when they ride through thorns or glass.

Johnny Bye Carter
Johnny Bye Carter

The problem I’ve had with younger kids helping is that they don’t weigh enough to get a high PSI into the tires. So although they might not be tired, they just don’t have the power to pump it full.

David Hampsten

For those of us who are a bit older, do you remember fixing flats in the 80s and 90s? Do you remember how the patch glue burned your fingers a bit, but the patch stayed on no matter what? Have you tried to fix a flat these days? The glue don’t stick, does it? I’ve had too many patches just peel right off after applying the glue.

Andrew Kreps
Andrew Kreps

Another technology available to help with flats (although it is quite expensive) are Cush Cores. I’m setting up a bike with them now, the claim that you can all but eliminate burps and when you do go flat, you can ride them home without damaging the rims.

David Hampsten

If you have to use a frame pump, get one with both a flexible hose and a gauge. Topeak makes several models, all excellent.

Mick O
Mick O

I don’t like to shill for products…. but allow me to shill for a product. 🙂

I was averaging 2-3 flats per month due to debris on our platinum streets. Some Mr Tuffy tube liners changed everything. Haven’t had a flat since using them. Weighs less than the slime, I believe.

Off-topic: Riding to work in the brilliant sunshine today brought me incredible joy for some reason. More than usual. I hope you all get some spring fever 🙂

Eric in Seattle
Eric in Seattle

Great article, Maddi. The only nit I have to pick is the valve location. I like having the valve near 12 o’clock for any type of pump. Makes it easier (for me at least) to get the pump head on the valve, and I don’t have to bend down as far. Just want to point out that people should feel free to experiment.

Racer X
Racer X

Great article. Don’t be an “air enabler”…like I have been…I used to pump up all my family’s bike tires to make them always ready to ride…until I started going on long business trips and then found our familial transport system broke down, as a my spouse – a once daily bike rider – stopped riding when her/ his tires ran flat-ish. Let them struggle with soft tires on their own…its tough love…until they get used to using a floor pump. 😉

Tony Thayer
Tony Thayer

Some pumps have a “switch hitter” head that doesn’t care which valve you’re attaching it to. I’ve been using one of these for the past 18 years without having to rebuild the head or anything weird like that:


“Slow leaks” can be found for patching by putting a bit of air in the tube (removed from the tire) and submerging it in water. I use my kitchen sink and rotate the tire through it.

Tuffy liners mentioned above are pretty helpful but can be difficult to install correctly. Schwalbe makes the marathon plus tire which is nearly as good as a liner and arguably easier to install.


3 solutions to avoid flats:

1) Put on the widest tire your bike will fit. This allows you to run a lower pressure which gives a plusher ride and is less likely to flat.

2) schwalbe marathon plus tires. Yes, they are comparatively heavy. Yes, they can be comparatively expensive. But I ride these tires 5 days a week, I pump them up maybe every 3 months, and after 3 yrs on the same set of tires, I’ve had 0 flats. The sidewalls are so stout that the psi in a 700×38 tire will drop to 30psi and I still don’t get pinch flats. I was previously a believer in continental gatorskins, but I would still get 1-2 flats every year w those. The schwalbes have been flat-Free.

3) tubeless. While a dream-ride w supple sidewall tires once set up properly, the frustrations of tires seating, burping, sealant-tire compatability, proper rim tape, periodically removing dried up sealant and re-seating the tires, and potentially needing an air compressor or air burst canister and valve core tool and extra sealant, make this less appealing for most of us than just running a “flat-proof” tire like the schwalbe.

In summary: just put in the widest schwalbe marathon plus tire your bike will fit and pump it up at the turn of every season. You can carry a pump and spare tube if you want to, but if you don’t, it’ll probably be ok.


I believe almost devoutly in the Berto Tire Pressure app, always using the “Obsessive/custom” (much more detailed) settings. Much smoother, less jarring ride for us lightweights at considerably lower pressures.


I’ve been riding many years. Can’t even remember the number of tube patch kits that have been purchased.
Problem is: You open that little tube of glue, use it once and then months later when you need it’s dried up. 🙁 So I noticed that there were lots of patches around but no glue.

Started doing my web homework and many others have this problem. Posters have suggested trying “rubber cement” … nope doesn’t work. It needs to be vulcanizing.

Checked my local auto parts store … you can get a 4 oz. (lifetime supply) of “vulcanizing cement” in a resealable metal can/container with the application brush for $6. I now have enough tire repair kit to last the rest of my riding days 🙂