Monday, May 23, 2016

Portable Pumps

I recently had a request from a reader to write about portable pumps for the retro-grouchy. I don't have the funds to do a full and thorough comparison, and companies aren't exactly falling over themselves to send me products to review. But I do have a few portable pumps that I've used, and I recently picked up a new one to try, having heard some good things about it.

The pumps I've got include two frame-fit models -- a vintage Silca Impero, and a venerable classic Zefal HP-X, as well as two mini-pumps, a Serfas MP-3, and a Topeak RaceRocket HPX. The Serfas is one I'd bought a couple years ago, but the model is still available today, and the Topeak was the new pump I picked up to try out.

From top: Zefal HP-X, Silca Impero, Topeak Race Rocket HP-X, and Serfas MP-3.
I mostly ride on the road, and these days I tend to prefer tires with a little more width and volume - anywhere between 28 and 35 mm. That almost seems to split the difference between needing a pump to handle high pressure vs. high volume. In comparing the pumps, I tried them out one after the next on my 700 x 33.3 Rivendell Jack Brown tires and counted how many strokes it took to get the tire from "nothing" to "suitable for riding" pressure to simulate the conditions one would have after repairing a flat out on the road. So what exactly is "suitable for riding" pressure? That can depend on what tires a person  is riding, and their own personal preference. On my Rivendell with the Jack Browns, I usually run those at about 70 psi, according to my floor pump. Only one of the portable pumps I compared has a built-in pressure gauge, though, so in most cases one needs to rely on the "thumb-forefinger-squeeze" pressure gauge. I pumped the tire up until the squeeze test said the pressure was about right. Want a more exact test? Read Bicycling.

The Silca Impero: Lightweight, effective, and re-buildable, the Silca is the classic choice for road bikes -- especially vintage style racers. The old Silca has been out of production for a number of years now, but it is still fairly easy to find new old stock examples, or barely-used ones on eBay. I've encountered a few bike shops over the years that had boxes of them stashed away in the back room or basement. If it's a used example, the main parts that need to be replaced are the rubber chuck seal and the leather plunger washer -- and the leather washer usually just needs some fresh grease on it, rather than needing to be replaced. The standard Silca pump head, oval-shaped and made of plastic, works OK, but the chromed steel head by Campagnolo is a nice upgrade. Prices on vintage Silca Imperos vary a lot. A recent look at eBay showed examples ranging anywhere from $25 - $100. Campagnolo heads range from about $25 - $50.

The Campagnolo steel head. This one still has the original blue rubber "feet" but it isn't unusual for those to crack or tear and fall off. Need replacements? They sometimes come up on eBay, but if you aren't a stickler for "authenticity" you can get workable replacements at many hardware stores, but getting them in the right color might be a challenge. Another possibility is to use a product like Plasti Dip, or Loctite Color Guard, either of which come in a variety of colors and are used for coating tool handles.
A potential weak link in the classic Silca. Though it's very easy to disassemble the pump to grease the piston shaft and the leather washer, that fine threading in the thin-walled plastic barrel can give out, ruining the pump for good. Or if the end of the barrel cracks, it will definitely let loose under pressure -- possibly shooting the piston out like a ballistic weapon if one isn't holding on tightly. This one's still holding up fine.

In using the Silca, it's good to wrap a hand around the tire and
hold the head in place. It takes a bit of finesse, but it's effective.
Using the Silca takes a little bit of finesse, but I've always found it to be a decent enough pump anyhow. Because the chuck simply presses onto the valve, it can move around or even slip off while pumping, so a good technique has always been to wrap one hand around the tire and rim, with the fingers wrapped around the pump head to hold it steady. Then pump away. In my little impromptu comparison, I pumped up the 33.3 mm Jack Brown tire to acceptable riding pressure in about 70 strokes. The effort increased some as the pressure increased, but it wasn't unbearable. I wouldn't want to try to take the tire up beyond 100 psi, though. There are frame pumps that have more features and are easier to use, but the Silca does what it's intended to do, and that's good enough for me.

The Silca frame fit pump has a couple of well-known unconventional uses.

Dog Defense Mode: Being chased by a big dog that you can't outrun? Frame-fit pumps excel for dog defense. The Silca has both good and bad going for it in dog defense mode. On one hand, the plastic barrel won't dent, so it's likely to shrug off a good thwack on a pursuing dog's head. On the other hand, if you're overly vigorous with the strike, you can crack the barrel, rendering the pump useless for tire-filling operations, so it's best to strike with the metal sleeve at the chuck end. Multiple strikes on particularly hard-skulled breeds can increase the likelihood of cracking the pump, so it's best to use the Silca as a last resort.

Cheating Italian Mode: Who can forget that heartbreaking scene from Breaking Away when the Colnago-riding Italians of Team Cinzano ditch Dave at the side of the road with a Silca pump jammed in the front wheel? Please don't use your Silca (or any other frame pump) for this purpose. It will probably render the pump useless, and going back to re-claim the pump afterwards could be awkward.

Zefal HP-X: Back in the day, cyclists-in-the-know were typically "Silca guys," or "Zefal guys." Zefal makes (and has made) a number of classic pumps over the years, but the HP-X has long been a good choice -- going back at least to the early '80s (the earlier version, known as just the "HP" goes back to the '70s). And it's still available -- expect to pay about $30. Supposedly one can still get it with the vintage-style silver body with black handles, but the all-black is a lot more common today. The Zefal has an aluminum body which will last a long time - but don't abuse it, as it can dent. It will still work with minor dents in it, but how well I couldn't say.

The Zefal isn't quite as light as the Silca, but it's easier to use and really built to last. It has a locking chuck which gives a good hold on the valve, meaning that one can use the beefy textured grip on the body instead of trying to hold the chuck in place on the valve stem. As I understand it, one can get replacement parts for the Zefal -- another good thing.

One of the unique features of the Zefal HPX is the 2-position spring switch. When set on the "X" setting, the spring can be compressed which allows the pump to fit snugly in the bike frame - either along the seat-tube, or the top-tube if one has a pump peg in place. When it's time to pump, you switch the pump to "HP" mode, which locks out the spring, making the pumping a bit easier. And it is easy. Like the Silca, I got the 33.3 mm tire up to riding pressure in about 70 strokes. However, as the pressure increased, the effort remained easier than on the Silca. If you were insistent on getting a tire up to 100 psi or more, this would definitely be your pump of choice. Am I kidding? Zefal claims it's good for over 170 psi!

Dog Defense Mode: The Zefal is the more durable choice for warding off dogs. Try to strike with the steel chuck-end of the pump, which also has the rubber grip, because a strike on a particularly thick-skulled dog with the aluminum shaft could leave a pretty sizable dent (in the pump, not the dog). As I mentioned, it might still work after that in tire-inflation mode, but will it still be as efficient? I don't know.

Cheating Italian Mode: Again, don't be an @$$hole - but if there were any pump that could be jammed into a bike's spokes and still work afterwards, it's probably the Zefal. But any frame pump is likely to be destroyed under such demanding conditions, so don't count on it.

If you find this one in the shop today, it's likely to be
silver, not black.
Serfas MP-3: This one is typical of a lot of mini pumps, being small enough to fit into some seat-packs, or possibly carried in a jersey pocket. I never carry pumps in a jersey pocket. I got this one a couple of years ago to use with my Bike Friday, at least in part because a true frame-fit pump won't work with that bike's unconventional frame design. The Serfas had a couple things going for it -- mostly aluminum construction, a built-in pressure gauge, and a switch to change it from "High Volume" to "High Pressure" mode. On the 20" wheels of the Bike Friday, the Serfas works just fine. On 700c road wheels, well, let's just say it works.

The pump has a head that accommodates both presta and schraeder valves (there are two holes - one for each), and there is a locking switch to hold it on the valve. With the switch on HV (high volume) mode, the little pump does seem to push a decent amount of air for such a small package. But as the pressure climbs, the effort climbs to the point of being an arm-breaking workout. I got about 70 strokes out of it and gave up when my biceps started throbbing, and the tire was still well below my preferred pressure according to the pinch test. What about the built-in pressure gauge? Well, it's very difficult to read when pumping, so it wasn't as useful as I'd have liked. But I think I got up to about 20 - 30 psi.

On HP (high pressure) mode, the effort didn't rise to arm-busting levels, but I got up to about 200 strokes and I still wasn't up to the desired pressure. Panting from the workout, I gave up with the tire still a bit squishy in the pinch test. The best way to use this stubby mini-pump is to start on HV mode, get as much air into the tire as you can muscle in (60 - 70 strokes for me) then flip the switch to HP and try to get the pressure up to an acceptable level. In my little test, that still took another 100 strokes, and the pressure gauge on the pump still wasn't rising above 30 psi (though I don't know how accurate it is) but the pinch test told me it was enough to ride home on.

Overall, I think the pump works better for lower pressures - so for the Bike Friday, or maybe even for mountain bike tires, it might be a decent choice. Expect to pay about $30.

Dog Defense Mode: No mini pump is going to work as well as a frame pump in dog defense mode, but the Serfas is pretty solid and chunky. I suppose you could throw it at a dog if you're confident in your aim.

Cheating Italian Mode: I wouldn't bother trying. By the time you got close enough to the spokes with this stubby little thing, you'd run as much risk of getting your hand in the wheel as the pump. So I'd say No Go.

Topeak RaceRocket HPX: This was the pump I recently acquired after hearing some good things about it. At about 10-inches, and rated for up to 160 psi, the HPX is supposed to be optimized for road bike tires. It may be slightly long for pocket-carrying -- one could carry it that way, but it will stick out pretty far in most jersey pockets. (And I don't carry any more than I need to in my jersey pockets) or it will fit into most larger saddlebags (like most Carradice bags) or handlebar bags. It also has a clip that lets it mount right next to a water bottle cage. All aluminum with a nice rubber grip on the handle, it's a decent looking pump. Carried on the frame, it is small enough and nice enough that it wouldn't be an eyesore, even on a classic steel frame (though an all-silver version might be a nice touch). It also seems to be well made. By the way, there is another version of the RaceRocket (non HPX) that is slightly smaller, at about 7-inches, rated for 120 psi, but otherwise pretty similar in style and apparently available in more colors.  Expect to pay about $40 for the HPX, or $25 for the smaller non-HPX version.

One of the interesting features of the Topeak is that it has a retractable hose, kind of like the old-fashioned frame pumps one used to find on old Raleigh roadsters. On a mini-pump like this, that hose feature makes the pump easier to handle without putting stress on the valve stem. Unlike some of the other mini pumps with hoses, this one slides inside the handle but does not detach, so it won't get lost. The hose is useable with either Schraeder or Presta valves with its unique 2-position extending chuck.
In my test, the little Topeak took about 150 strokes to get my 33.3 mm tire up to riding pressure -- roughly double the number of strokes compared to the Zefal frame pump, but the effort was pretty consistent from start to finish, and the action of the pump was very smooth. Also, it didn't seem to get hot as the pressure increased, as mini pumps can sometimes do. Overall, I was impressed by the way the little pump worked. Having the hose attachment meant that I could get a good grip on the two ends of the pump, and didn't have to worry about the valve getting damaged from excess movement. Is it as efficient as a full-size frame pump? Of course not, but the smooth action and ease of use, combined with the small stow-able size make it a decent trade-off.

Dog Defense Mode: I don't think it has one. Pedal really really fast.

Cheating Italian Mode: Fully extended, maybe -- but with this pump, one might just have to win honestly.

Of the four pumps I tried, the Zefal is probably the best choice for a fully-functional frame-fit pump. +1 if you can find it in the more traditional silver finish. It's solid, efficient, and built to last. The vintage Silca is still a decent traditional choice if someone wants a no-frills frame fit pump and doesn't mind its quirks -- especially if the pump will be used on a vintage race bike. Although it isn't exactly a "retro-grouchy" choice, the Topeak is a good little pump that can be carried inconspicuously inside a saddlebag, making it suitable no matter what kind of bike you're on. Mounted on the frame, it also looks decent enough that it wouldn't spoil the looks of a classic ride, anyhow, as long as you weren't riding something like Eroica.


  1. The best saddlebag pumps I've used are Lezynes; the "Road Drive" for -- really! -- relatively easy 90 psi in skinny tires, and a wider one, forget model, for soft, fat tires; for example, getting a 50+ mm 29er tire up to 25 psi. But I opted for an Impero with the Campy head for my newest bike, just for the look (and because I don't have to get more than 25 psi into the 50 mm Furious Freds).

  2. The Zefal HPX also has head with inner parts reversible for use on both Presta & Schrader valves.

    1. Yes, that's true. Forgot to mention it. Thanks!

  3. I ended up buying one of the Topeak hybridrockets - looks similar to the one tested here but can also use a CO2 canister.

    Funny thing is, two gas containers weigh more than the pump by itself, and the pump is about the same weight as my old tired full sized frame pump.

  4. You forgot to mention one important thing in the review: how do these pumps treat weak presta valves. Most of my flat woes on the road were just from that: heavy biceps action at pressures higher than 30 PSI bends presta heads so they start to leak air. I avoid using compact pumps without flexible hoses.

    1. I guess I didn't emphasize it, but I think I touched on that with the Topeak mini-pump that has the hose attached -- that it puts less stress on the presta stem. I think it's somewhat less of an issue with the larger pumps than the smaller ones. But thanks for bringing it up!

  5. I have a few Zefals, since they were going for $5 used at a local bike shop a few years back.

    They are great frame pumps.

    But for pumps to toss into a bag, I'm really enjoying the Topeak morph series. It's one of those clever little gadgets that converts, transformer-style, into a miniature floor pump. Comes into two flavors that I'm aware of - a road version and a mountain version. The difference is that the road version is optimized for pressure, the mountain version is optimized for volume. Definitely out of place on a retro bike (even though they do come with a holder that will steal the place of a water bottle cage), but well done.

    Speaking of out-of-place, the minimalist CO2 nozzle heads aren't bad for high pressure tires, but their single use application rather worries me on any trip where I'm not near a bus line.

    1. Jesse--That's one of the reasons I don't use CO2. Also, I try not to use disposable things in general.

  6. Second the comment on Topeak Road Morph.Best portable pump that I have used, and I have used many.

  7. I still like Zefal HPX pumps, or even the HPs. I've flatted in the middle of nowhere, and it is nice to have a pump that can get you up to riding pressure!

    Back when I was racing on a Colnago, I used to have a chrome-finish Silca pump. It worked reasonably well with the sew-up tires I was riding. Still, I think the Zefal is better if you don't want to look for the next gas station as you're riding.

    As for compact pumps: I've tried a few, but none are as good as frame-fit pumps. If I were going to buy one today, I'd probably go with the Topeak Race Rocket for the reasons mentioned in the post.

  8. I'd suggest the Topeak Road MasterBlaster. It's a long frame pump that comes in four sizes so it can be held on different frames (and yes, it does have a strong spring to keep it snug against the frame),and it's got the padded handle, the aluminum body, the reversible head for different valves, and is rugged enough to be used as a defensive weapon as well.

    I have a Topeak Mini Morph I bought used, which is pretty much a half-size Masterblaster. Its previous owner sold it 'as is' thinking it was broken. I was able to service it, and have been using it for years with not a single problem.