Bicycle Pumps: You Get What You Pay For


Let me start by saying that I’m not just frugal, I’m cheap. I’ve got long underwear from ’90s, camping gear from the ’80s and t-shirts that should have been retired to the rag bag years ago. As much as I love road cycling, I have to admit that I’ve been frustrated by how much money I’ve had to drop into gear the last few years. Multiple pairs of bike shorts, nearly a dozen jerseys, shoes, sunglasses, water bottles, gloves and a bike computer that I absolutely love have taken a nice dent out of my disposable income, never mind the tubes, CO2 cartridges and snacks I burn through over the course of the riding season.

So when I decided I needed a bicycle pump, you can imagine the grimace on my face after seeing options ranging from $19.99 to $54.99 in our Peterborough, NH store. “James,” I said to the bike tech, as if he were a car salesman who’d just offered me an extended warrantee. “What the hell is the difference between a $20 pump and a $60 pump?” (Note that a $54.99 is $60 to me–I told you I’m cheap, right?)  One of the things I love most about James is his uncanny ability to take things in stride. He’s as mellow as my morning cup of coffee. “Well,” he said, “It’s simple really. The more expensive ones are easier pump, their gauges are easier to read and they last longer.” Immediately, I heard my father’s voice in my head imploring me to “always buy quality tools.” I looked at the $20 pump, looked at the $54.99/$60 pump and defiantly informed James that the $20 option was “good enough for me.” I mean, it’s a freaking BICYCLE PUMP. How much tech do I need?

Over the course of the next few weeks, I learned.

Even more important than the effortless pumping, easy to read gauges and durability that James talked about, quality bicycle pumps have burly, metal pump heads that effortlessly attach to your valve stem. No wrestling to attach the plastic head.This is especially important for road bike tubes, the valve stems of which are as fragile as wine glasses–at least they are in my hands. After approximately seven routine tire inflations with my $20 pump, the valve stem of my rear tire started to bend at an unsettling angle before snapping off in my hand before a Saturday morning ride. Two weeks later, I did the same thing to the front tire. Roughly translated, my $20 pump cost me $12 in tubes that I had to replace for no other reason than I was a clumsy cheapskate.

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Since I upgraded to the bike pump I SHOULD have bought, I have not snapped a single valve stem.

I upgraded to the TOPEAK Joe Blow Sprint Floor Pump (fortunately, James wasn’t working that day so I avoided the walk of shame) and I haven’t snapped a valve stem since. I still use my $20 pump to inflate the tires of my mountain bike so it’s not a total loss but suffice to say, I learned an important lesson. A lesson I’m happy to share with other beginner cyclists as a new cycling season gets under way. As tempting as it is to look for bargains in cycling gear, performance and safety HAVE to be your top priorities. Also, when you find a bike tech you trust (like James) it’s always a good idea to take their advice. Chances are, they’re not “trying to sell you anything” other than a better experience on the road or on the trail.

Jim Darroch