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Cycling and Flat Tires:  CO2 or Air?


One thing is certain…  Ride long enough and you will get a flat tire.  Ride far enough, it’s inescapable.  It doesn’t matter how often you change tires or how good your flat protection is.  You. Will. Flat.  

There are three periods there because just one won’t do.

The question is, how do you choose to pump it up after you’re patched up?  This is a personal choice and there are benefits and faults with each.  

I have been afflicted with… let me count them… four or five flats in five years, or an average of one flat every 7,000-8,750 miles.  They’re not common but they do happen enough that you have to be prepared for the inevitable – and the lighter, faster, more expensive equipment you ride, the easier it is to flat.

This is my tool kit that fits perfectly in my center-back pocket:

Open it up, and I have almost everything I could need to keep my bike rolling:

In that little baggie at the top are two MissingLinks, one for a 9 sp (my rain bike) and one for a 10 (The Venge).  Tire levers, inner tube… in the lower half I have plastic gloves, a spoke wrench, a pack of stick on patches, and my tire pump.  I also typically carry $20-50 in there as well, just in case.  Not necessary when I’m stuck on the hamster wheel.

If you’re a noob to cycling, you’re like, “Dude, you can’t fit a tire pump in that bag, dude!” [ED two dudes for emphasis, that’s not a type-o]

Ah, but you can:

The Air Kiss is a premium CO2 pump.  It will fill a 700C x 23-24 mm tire (tyre for the Brits) in about a second to a cool 100 psi (one must pick the proper CO2 canister for one’s weight – the heavier you are, the more CO2 you need). Speed, efficiency, awesome, and in a tiny, lightweight package.  

The ultra small CO2 pumps are not without their flaws though.  First, I only carry one CO2 canister (two on longer rides or big trips).  Once that’s gone, I’m SOL ($#!+ Outta Luck).  This can be a problem if the pump is misused as most of the CO2 can be leaked out in an instant.  The smart thing to do is use the pump at least three times before you actually need it.  This will help you to avoid making a mistake.  Second, CO2 is said to leak out of a tube a little faster than straight up air.  I have no idea if this is a wives tale or not, nor has it mattered.  I do, however, empty the tube and pump it up with a stand up pump once I’ve reached my destination… just in case.  Worse, if you happen to be unlucky enough to get two flats on one ride and you only have one CO2 canister with you….  Well, you’ll get to find out exactly how far you can carry your bike.

As a noob I purchased a Serfas Grifter air pump that can be mounted to a bike frame:

Notice, this little bad boy has a built in pressure gauge and a hose (rather than one of those doohickies that attaches directly to your valve stem).  This is, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect frame pump.  It’s light, can push a great volume of air for its size.  The hose and foot pedal are the serious advantages for this style of pump.  Too often with direct-to-valve stem pumps, if one is not careful as the pumping becomes more labored, one can snap the valve stem off whilst, and at the same time, trying to pump up the tube/tire/tyre.  The Grifter takes all of those worries away, though a special presta adapter may be necessary (they’re cheap, common, and available at any decent bike shop).

There are only two negative issues with the old fashioned air pumps:  Weight and Style.  Call it what you want, vanity, ignorance, pig headed dumbassedness….  I’m not defiling this piece of art with a frickin’ frame pump:

My friends, I would have to kick my own ass for putting a frame pump on that bike.  In some cases, the Velominati Rules must be followed.  This is one of those cases.  Now, I could carry the Serfas pump in my back pocket but my pockets tend to fill up rather quickly with my phone, my on board fuel and arm/knee warmers when shedding them is necessary.

On the plus side of air pumps, you never run out of air if you initially miss the cause of the leak.  Now, I’m rarely, if ever, out on my own where I can’t get by with the CO2 setup.  In fact, I usually ride with enough friends that we have an ample supply of canisters.  

This would be a very different post if I were a commuter or into randonneuring.  If I didn’t have a pile of friends to rely on (and who can clearly rely on me), there’s no way I’d chance a CO2 canister rig.  In that case, the only way to go would be a frame pump… Of course, I surely wouldn’t be riding a Venge for either of those anyway, so the gangly frame pump would be just fine.  Or maybe, ignoring a rule or two could be accepted.  Or not.

Sound off down below.

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38 Comments

  1. unironedman says:

    A mini pump clipped in to the bottle holder on the frame works for me; like you, I have two bottle cages on the bike, and one has a little plastic attachment for a mini pump. No mess, no fuss, and no extra holes on the bike. I take CO2 as well, plus most of the other stuff you carry: chain links, tools, tubes, money, phone… in a way, there is sometimes a thrill to be had to grab the bike and head out for thirty or forty miles with (gasp!) NO stuff whatsoever. Cycling without a safety net! Yeah, I know. I really need to get out more often… 😉

    • bgddyjim says:

      I’ll go without when I forget my stuff, but that’s only once or twice a year (and only when I’m riding with friends). Going without, just for the sake of living on the edge… yeah, I understand it, but I can’t ever get beyond the idea of walking – and I’m that guy. If I tempt fate, it’ll bite me every single time.

      • unironedman says:

        Nah. Maybe just every other time 😉

      • bgddyjim says:

        You’re far braver than I.

      • unironedman says:

        Brave? Foolish perhaps. As you say, you can find out a lot about yourself on these wonderful journeys, including how far you can push your bike!

      • bgddyjim says:

        I like the pushing myself… not so much, the bikes.

        I did an out and back 200k a few years ago, all on my own, in October. I went for stretches of 20+ miles without seeing another living soul. 62-1/2 miles out, then turn around. I was also had driven an additional 60 miles from my house to get to the trail… One of the coolest rides I’ve ever done.

  2. CO2 when I am riding. More often than not, even if I use up my CO2, a buddy will have another cartridge. I always think it’s hilarious to watch a guy use those little pocket or frame pumps!

    I have a few friends that can start a fill using their mouth.

  3. Sue Slaght says:

    I should not write this but I have not had a flat on the road. I carry CO2 cartridges and am typically with Dave or a larger group. Now watch first ride this spring I will be put to the test.

  4. It’s no old wives tale. C02 does indeed leak out of your inner tubes much, much quicker than air does. It’s not an issue on a ride but come back to your bike a day or two later and you’ll find your tyre lacking pressure (but surely you’re checking your pressures before each ride anyway, right?). The main advantage for me at least is getting up and running again so much quicker with gas than pumping up with those teeny pumps and my teeny arms.

    On the TT rig have a micro saddle bag with two canisters, don’t worry about a frame pump for that speed machine. The road bike get’s the same but with a back-up cage mounted pump – ugly but a necessary evil in some cases.

    Your roads must be nicer. The roads back in the UK were rough and strewn with glass, flint and thorns from hedge clippings so 5+ flats a year was not out of the ordinary. I once had a double whammy front AND rear flat, then a third further down the road. That was a shocker…

    • bgddyjim says:

      Yeah, they say the CO2 molecule is smaller than an air molecule but straight up air is O2… I took my last science class 28 years ago and I was too lazy to Google it and learn the science behind why. That said, and like I wrote, I let the CO2 out of my tire and pump it up when I get to my destination. That and I absolutely pump up before every ride… which is the best way to find a slow leak btw.

      I’m intrigued by the UK’s thorn problem! I’ve read about many UK cyclists getting thorn punctures.

      Hey! Maybe we could save a few Billion Dollars at our southern border and just plant thorn bushes instead of building a wall! Chuckle.

      • I dunno, how many Mexicans cross the border by bicycle? Hehe!

        Many of the UK’s country roads and laneways are lined by thorny hedgerows, which have been used as farm boundaries since Roman times. Farmers and the council semi regularly slash them back leaving clipping strewn across the road.

      • bgddyjim says:

        First, man that first one was awesome. I’m still laughing. Second, I didn’t know the hedgerows went back that far. Too cool.

  5. Paul S says:

    Dude! I NEED this post – gonna print up (along with comments) – I just posted a blog post now which talks about my 5 flats in 2 days. I am getting Shwalbe Marathon tires sent up from the States to help me, and I have been directed to tubeless, but not sure I am ready for that right now. But thanks – I have to come back and re-read. I do carry my kit (it’s not as pretty as yours), but I have everything I need to change tube as needed. I ride on the streets and I must pass at least 10-15 piles of glass and other stuff right against the curb. It’s dangerous. I am still learning!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Bontrager AW-1 tires. They’re SLOW but the flat protection is fantastic.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Oh, and thank you Paul, that means a lot brother. Ride on!

    • jbucky1 says:

      Get some continental gatorskins

      • bgddyjim says:

        I had problems with Conti’s… A broken belt and two flats. I do have a set that came with my tandem and they’ve been much better.

      • Paul S says:

        Someone else mentioned those too. I am gonna check them out too. I have the Shwalbe Marathons on their way, but I am always on the lookout for others to try (I am thinking of getting another bike – a fixed speed – so will need tires for that too). Cheers!

      • jbucky1 says:

        I have had good luck with Conti gatorskins and Michelin Pro Endurance. The Gatorskins are more durable, but the Michelins ride nicer. I use the Gators on my commuter bike. And I use the Michelins on road bike longer rides at times of year when there is still rubbish at the sides of the road. Typically just after winter season into spring.

      • Paul S says:

        This is great – thank you so much for this. I am going to print this all up for future reference, especially considering the seasonal changes.

      • buckyrides says:

        For me it all has to do with season which in turn defines road condition and trash on the road. In the peak of summer where I live the roads are clean, the winter rubbish has gone and I can use the nicest riding tyres without risk of punctures (vittoria evo cx) , winter time, I use the most durable but quite often these are not the best “ride feel” but it’s much better than getting a lot of punctures. So in short I have 3 types of tyres just depending when in the year.

      • bgddyjim says:

        I use Specialized S-Works during the season and Turbo Pro’s for spring and fall. I had great luck with Bontrager SW-1 tires as well but they kill a mile an hour from your average speed.

  6. jbucky1 says:

    Great post, but unless im racing i never use the air cartridges, lessons learned, bad cartridges, not very eco and expense. Last few years i have been carrying a very well designed and very efficient hand pump. small, light and reliable much better solution than cartridges, especially if you adventure more or solo ride more.

  7. browney237 says:

    I started the New Year with flat!
    As a mainly suburban rider, hills at he weekend, it’s not unusual to get 4 or 5 flats a year.
    I have both CO2, 2 cartridges plus those of my riding buddies, and also carry a pump. The belt and braces approach. I also don’t patch up tubes as I’ve found that parched tube s is courting disaster!

  8. Anon says:

    Leak rate has a lot to do with viscosity (I did a project on leak testing recently), and Carbon Dioxide has a lower viscosity than air so leaks at a higher rate. Really they ought to offer canisters of Nitrogen, which is pretty much the same as air (which is 79% Nitrogen) and also lighter than Carbon Dioxide. Or they could try Argon, lighter still and with quite a high viscosity.

  9. Not a speedster, though I still manage downhills far too fast. But here we have roads full of hedge cuttings, stones, muck from tractors etc. Many of us have had flats, especially over the winter. I have had over 20 in the last year. So for me 2 tubes and a pump every time, and a repaired kit for extra. I have had to help folk who have just used CO2 and have needed extra. Some now carry a pump for backup as well. Our rides into the nearby hills are out of range of phone signals and have little traffic so it makes sense to me to try to be as self sufficient as possible, so I probably carry a bit too much at times. But other folk have benefited so all is well.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I don’t think you carry too much at all… There’s a pattern forming, and it isn’t surprising (due to a bit of ignorance on my part). Those who ride in areas where flats are common carry a pump – and those hedgerows seem to be a major culprit.

  10. I’ve even been looking at solid tyres as they seem to be getting better, and rides wouldn’t be interrupted, no need to carry tubes, pumps etc. Still checking it out.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I’ve heard they’re getting a lot better lately myself. If you find a good one, I’ll be watching for the post!

    • bgddyjim says:

      By the way, I love the header image for your site! Normally I visit your page through my WP app browser so I don’t get the full context of the blog shells… I just clicked over to make sure I hadn’t missed any of your posts recently from my laptop so I got to see the whole page as it was meant to be seen. Very nicely done.

  11. I’ve been looking at the Tannus tyres, seems (as with everything) there are advantages & drawbacks. Plenty of reviews online.

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