No Stupid Questions: Tyre Pumps, Wheel Size, Tubed Vs Tubeless, & More

A reader writes:

I hope this email finds you happy and well. Here are my unanswered questions:

  1. Air pumps. What’s the best size? Differences between high volume and high pressure pumps — which one should I get for a bike where the tires are inflated to 50 psi? 70 psi? 90 psi? Which pumps don’t require me to have the strength of Hercules to inflate my tires to the desired pressure? Where to store the pump on the bike? What about CO2 cartridges?
  2. Tire repair. When you get a flat do you replace the tube with a good tube and then fix the tube with a hole in it later on or do you patch it immediately and use it?
  3. Wheel/tire width. What is the most common sized wheel used for long distance touring on a bicycle? What is the most common size width tire used for long distance touring on a bicycle?
  4. Tubeless vs tubed tires. What are the pros/cons? How do you fix a flat on a tubeless tire if I go that direction?
  5. Hygiene. It’s been a long day on the bike. It’s been hot and humid. I’m drenched in sweat. Now stopping to camp for the night, but there are no showers, lakes, rivers nearby. How do I clean up before climbing into my tent?

Thanks for the questions! Let’s take them one at a time. Forgive me if I simplify each question into a neater, easier-to-read heading!

How To Choose A Portable Tyre Pump For A Cycle Tour?

It sounds like you’ve already noticed that portable, hand-operated tyre pumps for bicycles come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, and you’re trying to find the best pump for a variety of cycle touring and bikepacking scenarios.

One common distinction still made by retailers in this market is between road and mountain-bike pumps. Road bike tyres are typically inflated to a higher air pressure than fat mountain bike tyres, so “road” pumps are comfortable to use up to higher maximum pressures. Mountain bike tyres are rarely run higher than about 50–60 psi (often lower), whereas road tyres might be inflated at up to 100–120 psi or higher. It’s worth mentioning that almost all pumps are switchable between different valve types (Schrader/Presta), regardless of target market.

All-purpose touring tyres are often pressurised to a figure somewhere in the middle. The range is broad – maybe 50–90 psi, depending on a host of factors. This is why I usually recommend road-oriented pumps: they’re designed to inflate tyres to a wider range of pressures, and this gives you options. Fully loaded on good roads? Higher pressures will make riding more efficient. Lightweight on dirt or gravel? Drop the pressure for traction and comfort, as I recently wrote about in a previous edition of this series.

The smaller and more compact the pump, the less efficient it’ll be, as a smaller amount of air will be displaced with each stroke. Tiny pumps appeal to weight weenies who don’t mind spending longer pumping and have only a rear pocket to carry them in, but tourers can typically afford to include a longer and more efficient pump as part of their fix-anything cycle touring toolkit.

(I usually keep mine in the upper part of my double-tiered frame bag, or else slid down the inside of a rear pannier. It’s tempting to mount them on the frame, but equally tempting for thieves.)

Quality does matter. Cheap, plasticky pumps will soon fail under regular use. Premium, aluminium-bodied pumps are more durable. On a tour, bring a couple of extra O‑rings (the internal seal that keeps the air pressurised as you pump), as they’re usually the first point of failure. Pre-lubricate them with rubber grease for extra points.

I got through countless pumps before I bought a Topeak Road Morph G (no affiliation) a few years ago. For me, this pump strikes a good balance between size and efficiency, is rated up to 160 psi (far in excess of what I’d use), features an inline pressure gauge, and has a fold-out mini footplate so it can be used in the style of a track pump (aka: floor pump). It’s lasted for thousands of kilometres of touring so far with no sign of stopping. (Granted, the gauge does not deliver pinpoint accuracy, but it’s a lot better than the old squeezing-the-tyre routine!)

You mentioned CO₂ pumps. As far as I know, these are typically used for seating tubeless tyres, or else for rapid inflation during races and other time-limited events. This, plus the disposable nature of their cartridges, tempt me to advise you to steer clear of them for touring unless you have a very specific reason.

Puncture Repairs On Tour: Patch Or Replace The Inner Tube?

I usually patch the punctured tube on the spot and keep the new tube stashed until it’s really needed. This may or may not be the “best” way to go about things, but it works for me.

What’s The Most Common Touring Bike Wheel Size?

This is an almost impossible question to answer categorically. So I’m going to answer it in three alternative ways:

The most common-sized wheels for long distance cycle touring have rims (not tyres!) of either 559 or 622mm in diameter. These numbers correspond to what most laypeople (and bike retailers!) refer to as 26-inch or 700C/28-inch/29-inch (yes, all of these tyre sizes sit on 622mm-diameter rims). The reasons to choose one or the other are varied, but the most fundamental is to complement bike frame geometry. In general, shorter riders benefit from smaller wheels, taller riders benefit from bigger wheels, and those in the middle can get away with either.

Another way to answer the question is to look at the typical wheel sizes of bicycles designed and marketed for long distance touring. Some manufacturers offer either 559mm (26-inch) wheels or 622mm (700C/28-inch/29-inch) wheels for the same model, and others offer only one wheel size across all frame sizes. In the past it was more common to find a clear distinction between road touring bikes, typically with 622mm rims and 700C tyres, and expedition/off-road touring bikes, typically with 559mm rims and 26-inch tyres. The line is much blurrier these days, particularly when you start looking at lightweight off-road bikepacking rigs with wheel sizes all over the place. For reference, you can find my database of bikes built for long-distance touring here (42 and counting), together with the available wheel sizes for each model.

A final way to answer the question is to look at the data about what people are actually using. I know it’s hardly empirical, but I’m not currently aware of a better reference than Tim Moss’s Long Distance Cycle Journeys Database (of 339 10,000km+ bike tours and counting). As of the time of writing, it showed 62.5% of riders using 559mm (aka: 26-inch) wheels, 37.2% using 622mm (aka: 700C/28-inch/29-inch) wheels, and 0.3% using wheels of another size.

I hope that answers the question, though I’m not sure how much use it’ll be. I have written a much longer post on the question of wheel size choice for touring bikes, which might be more helpful if you’re actually trying to make this decision yourself.

What Are The Pros & Cons Of Tubeless Tyres For Cycle Touring?

Having never owned a bike with tubeless tyres, I’m not well qualified to comment! But in general, good touring bike design relies on tried and tested principles. For me, that means tyres and tubes in globally available sizes, fixed simply with common tools and techniques. If there’s a huge advantage to using tubeless tyres on a touring bike, I’m yet to hear it!

How To Wash Without A Shower While Camping On A Cycle Tour?

Wet wipes, later responsibly disposed of.

Comments (skip to respond)

3 responses to “No Stupid Questions: Tyre Pumps, Wheel Size, Tubed Vs Tubeless, & More”

  1. Hi Tom! I’m wondering how do your 26x1.75 tires perform off road after so many kilometres? Currently I have Marathon Plus Tours in size 26x2.0, but they are so heavy and roll poorly compared to regular Pluses in size 28x1.37. I’m thinking of changing them to new Marathon Green 26x1.75, but still not sure if they would roll any better and still be okay off road…

    1. The Marathon Plus excels at what it’s sold as: an extremely long-lasting and puncture-resistant all-round and touring tyre. I see as many of them on city and commuter bikes as on tourers. That’s why I don’t think it should be expected to be the best choice for either low road rolling resistance or off-road comfort and traction, regardless of the size you choose – it’s always going to be a compromise in these departments, and there’s little tread to speak of, so they’ll always have limited traction on mud, grass and slippery rock. Personally I’m happy with the 26×1.75s – there’s enough volume to deflate them on bumpy/gravel roads and have more rubber in contact with the ground, then reinflate them to be nice and solid for good asphalt. I’d say tyre pressure is a greater variable here than an extra 1/4‑inch of diameter.

  2. Excellent reading as allways Tom!
    I allways look forward to a fresh post on here.

Something to add?