Can you pump your bicycle’s tires with a ball pump?
You know, the kind that looks like a giant syringe. With a metal needle whose tip slides straight into the ball’s air valve. That you hold with one hand and pump with the other?
That’s a good question. And, as with any good question, the long answer short is a resounding, “it depends.” In this post, we will talk about what exactly it depends on, how you can use a ball pump for your bike’s tire, and whether it’s a good idea to do it in the first place.
You can use a ball pump for a bicycle tire, as long as the pump has an extension hose to which you can connect a bike tire valve adapter. Keep in mind that you will need many more pumps than usual to inflate the tire.
Football, basketball, and volleyball balls have tiny, rubber-coated valves that you insert the ball pump’s needle tip into.
Bike tires have two types of valves—Presta valves and Schrader valves—neither of which are compatible with a ball pump’s needle tip.
Presta valves are the thin, pointed valves found only on bicycles; Schrader valves are the same type of valves that’s used on car, motorcycle, and electric bicycle tires.
In addition to a valve adapter, you’re going to need an extension hose.
Most ball pumps are straight, vertical pumps. You use a ball pump by holding it with one hand at a 90° angle to the ball, then pumping air into the ball with the other. You can’t use it this way on a bike tire because of the spokes on the wheel.
The extension cord gives you the leeway you need to use the pump without damaging the spokes of the wheel or the valve that sticks out of (or that’s attached to) the rim.
Ball Pump vs. Bicycle Pump
In their simplest forms, a ball pump and a bicycle pump can look very similar, and yet function very differently.
A ball pump is equipped with a needle tip that’s compatible with the air valve on sports balls. Most ball pumps are vertical pumps; you hold them against the ball at a straight angle, the needle tip pointing down, to pump air into it.
A bicycle pump has a Presta and/or Schrader valve that’s compatible with the air valves on bike tires. Some pumps are hand-operated, and others are foot-operated. Some bike pumps are horizontal, and others are vertical.
In both cases, bicycle pumps are designed to give you leeway when in use so that you don’t damage the spokes on the wheel or the valve on the wheel (in the case of clincher and tubular tires, the valve’s part of the tire; in the case of tubular tires, the valve’s attached to the rim.)
Ball pumps and bicycle pumps are designed to inflate objects at different air pressure. While sports balls are inflated at a pressure of 8 to 12 PSI, bicycle tires can be inflated at a pressure of 30 PSI to 120 PSI, depending on the type of tire and the purpose of the bicycle.
So if you use a ball pump to inflate or top up a bicycle tire, you will have to pump much more and put in considerably more elbow grease than if you use a bike pump. (Not that this matters when it’s your only option!)
Last but not least, few ball pumps have a tire pressure gage, whereas most bicycle pumps—at least the good ones—have one. Ball pressure is important when you’re playing sports, don’t get me wrong, but tire pressure is even more important on a bicycle.
Though experienced cyclists can approximate if their tires are topped up to a relatively good tire pressure just by giving them a squeeze, beginner cyclists can’t. So a pump with a tire pressure gage can be a real boon when you most need it.
How to Use a Ball Pump on a Bicycle Tire
If a ball pump (with an extension cord and a valve adapter) is all you have, follow the steps below to inflate your bike’s tire properly:
- Connect the extension cord to the bike pump.
- Attach the valve adapter to the end of the extension cord.
- Unscrew the tire’s valve cap and put it in a safe place.
- Secure the bike pump’s extension cord to the valve.
- Start pumping, pausing every few pumps to check the tire pressure or, if you don’t have a tire pressure gage, to feel the tire by squeezing it.
- When the tire reaches 90% of the maximum tire pressure recommended by the manufacturer on the sidewall, stop pumping.
- Remove the pump and screw the cap back on.
How many pumps you’re going to need depends on how much air the tire has lost.
Air permeates rubber, so all bike tires slowly but surely lose air, even if they’re brand new. This is why many cyclists check the tire pressure before every ride. Even those that aren’t as prudent do so once or twice every 1-2 weeks because bike tires will eventually go flat from sitting.
What’s the Best Tire Pressure?
Bike tires come in one shape—a hollow circle—but the differences between them end there.
Road bike tires inflate to a high pressure, typically between 90-120 PSI, to fly over asphalt roads with minimal rolling resistance and glide inertly whenever you’re not peddling.
Hybrid, commuter, and utility bicycle tires usually inflate to 50-70 PSI. Whether yours should be on the higher or lower end depends on what kind of terrain you use them on. Smooth, paved roads in the city call for higher pressure; rough, unpaved roads in rural areas call for lower tire pressure.
Mountain bike tires have plenty of rubber for grip and puncture protection. They’re used on all kinds of extreme terrain and, as such, require the lowest tire pressure of all other bike tires. It’s not unusual for mountain bikers to inflate their tires to 30-50 PSI, oftentimes lower.
Yes, you can use a ball pump on a bike tire, but only if you have an extension cord with a Presta or Schrader valve attachment. Filling the tire with air will take a lot of pumping and work on your end with such a pump. But when it’s the only thing you have, you use it.