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30-11-2023 | Frank Jansen

CO2 vs hand pump

Canon versus Nikon, Italy versus France, front-wheel drive versus rear-wheel drive, Campagnolo versus Shimano, helmet or no helmet? The CO2 versus old-fashioned hand pump debate also fits into this list. Let's delve deeper into it.

Starting at the basics, there's no inherently wrong choice. Both CO2 and hand pumps will eventually fill your tire, allowing you to resume cycling. So, there's no definitive "best" choice; each system has its own pros and cons.

CO2 or hand pump
Both CO2 systems and pumps are compact these days

The noble hand pump

Pumps have evolved significantly over the years, becoming smaller and lighter. Today, there are pumps that can be easily attached to the valve using a tube. Some pumps come with a pressure gauge, and there are even pumps with Bluetooth capabilities. Rarely do you spot the old-fashioned Zefal pump clamped under the top tube, as time has progressed.

A pump, theoretically, has almost only advantages. It's reusable indefinitely, environmentally friendly, and only one is needed for a group of cyclists. Flying with it poses no problem, and there's no need to reinflate your tire at home. The lightest pumps weigh less than a CO2 system and are also more compact. In the long run, a pump is generally more cost-effective. So, few reasons to choose CO2 so far.

However, pumps come with their drawbacks. Especially with small pumps, considerable effort is required to pressurize the tire effectively. Despite claims of effortlessly reaching 8 bar, in practice, you may barely hit 4 bar after a few hundred pumps. With most pumps, keeping them on the valve can be a challenge. Some pumps work with a tube but function optimally only on threaded valves. Unscrewing them may result in the valve core coming along (been there, done that).

While small, some pumps are quite long, making them unfit for a small saddlebag. They either have to be mounted to the frame (which isn't aesthetically pleasing) or carried in the back of the shirt, which can be inconvenient in case of falls and increases the risk of forgetting the pump.

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CO2

A CO2 system operates with cartridges, available online for about 1 euro each (if you search carefully). There are two sizes: 16 grams for road bikes and 25 grams for MTB or gravel bikes. In addition to a cartridge, a pump head is required. There's considerable variation in pump heads, and with some, dosing is not possible—connecting results in instant inflation. This might not be useful if you want to pre-pump your inner tube for easier mounting or if you intend to use controlled inflation on the way.

The major advantage of CO2 lies in its convenience. Screw in the cartridge, place the head on the valve, and inflation occurs within a second. CO2 cartridges are made of aluminum or plastic, both environmentally harmful materials. Proper disposal in the PMD bin for recycling is recommended, though production and transportation also contribute to a carbon footprint. If sustainability is a priority, opting for a pump is a more environmentally friendly choice, although the impact can be questioned if you only use it a few times a season.

As mentioned, a small pump is smaller and lighter than a pump head and two cartridges. However, a CO2 system is much shorter, making it a perfect fit for a small saddlebag. Choosing this option virtually eliminates the risk of forgetting. With a CO2 system, you are constrained by the number of cartridges you carry. Therefore, in a group ride, everyone must bring their own cartridges. When riding alone, theoretically, if you get a flat tire, you might be left without a cartridge if you use the first two. However, such situations are rare, and you'll likely carry two new tubes or patches as well.

To use a CO2 system, some level of skill is required, and in case of a mishap, the cartridge is gone, and you'll need to have a spare. However, practice can make you proficient in handling it.

CO2 cartridges used to be prohibited on airplanes, but that is no longer the case. One drawback of a CO2 system is that CO2 escapes fairly quickly, requiring reinflation the next day or, preferably, deflating the entire tire and reinflating it with a floor pump.

So?

There is no wrong choice. The hand pump has many advantages but also some disadvantages. The same applies to CO2. If you want to combine the best of both worlds, hybrid systems are available, combining CO2 with a hand pump. However, these systems, while offering advantages, also come with the combined drawbacks—they are not small and lightweight.

What would you choose? Let us know in the comments.

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