Having the right PSI in your bike tires can make a world of difference. However, it would be an oversimplification to say that less air offers a more comfortable ride and more air makes you go faster. While this is true in many instances, the fact of the matter is that proper inflation for optimal performance depends on the individual rider and his or her bike.
Pound Per Square Inch (psi) for Bike Tire Pressure
Every tire has a recommended psi printed on its side close to where it touches the rim. This is usually written as a range (for instance, "90 to 115 psi") since there are reasons why you'd want to be on the higher or lower end, which we'll get into shortly.
Basic rule of thumb if your tires happen to not indicate a recommended pressure: pump them up until they're firm but still slightly squeezable. Alternatively, there are generally-accepted ranges based on bike type:
|Bike tire type
|Kids' bike tires
|Narrow tires / road bikes
|Medium tires / hybrid bikes
|Thick tires / mountain bikes
|30 PSI (off-road)
50 PSI (on-road)
Road bikes and tires are built for speed over smooth surfaces. Higher air pressure lets them roll easier and faster. A typical range for these would be between 80 and 130 psi, although racers can sometimes go as high as 160 psi. Quick tip if you're caught inflating a road tire without a gauge and need to ballpark it: at 100 psi, a tire can barely be compressed with your thumb.
Unlike roadies, mountain bikes are flying over loose, bumpy terrain. Tires with too much air lead to too much bounce, making for a jolty ride. Lower pressure helps with shock absorption while also giving you more traction since more of the tire comes into contact with the ground. MTB manufacturers recommend between 30 and 50 psi on most of their bikes since this is a nice balance between on-road (closer to 50) and off-road (closer to 30) riding.
Hybrid bike tires require pressure levels between those of road and mountain bikes. This is usually in the 50 to 70 psi range. Kids' bikes have the lowest recommended inflation, typically 20 to 40 psi. Keep in mind that these are called "recommendations" for a reason, though. A number of factors go into the inflation process beyond just your style of bike.
Which leads us to…
Other Bike Inflation Factors to Consider
Because nothing in life is ever as simple as it should be, we've included a few more things to ponder when it comes to making sure everyone's tires are in good shape for their next ride.
As a general guideline, more weight = more pressure. Whether you're competing in the Tour de Whatever or shredding up the backcountry, heavier riders should use a higher psi than lighter ones to see the same performance in their tires. For perspective, someone weighing in at 200lbs will probably want to pump in around 20 more psi than someone who's 160. There's no real slide rule for this, so just play around with the pressure and see what feels best for you. Also keep in mind that rear tires tend to carry more weight than those in front, so adjust accordingly as necessary.
We know through physics that temperature affects air pressure. So, all else being equal, people biking in Miami in August are going to have higher pressure in their tires than people biking in Boston in January. In addition to weather, sustained deceleration using rim brakes generates friction that can increase temperatures inside the tube significantly. Fortunately, they also cool off relatively quickly, but it's something to keep an eye on during long descents. It may also be worth mentioning to your burgeoning roadster as he or she is learning the basics of hand braking.
Overinflation vs. Underinflation
In short, don't do either. If you overinflate, you run the risk of blowing the tube either while pumping or while riding due to sudden or constant impact. If underinflated, the low pressure could cause pinch flats. This occurs when the tube becomes squeezed between the rim and tire casing by hitting a bump with an underinflated wheel. Not only does this damage the tire, it can also hurt the rim. Plus, flat tires slow you down and make you pedal harder, which is just no fun.
"How often should I inflate my tires?" is a common question among many casual bikers. The answer depends on how often and how hard you ride. Some people break out the pump every few days, others once a week, and still others even less regularly than that. Even if you or your kids have left your wheels in the garage for months, air tends to seep out slowly, anyway. Therefore, as a bike-safety best practice, just like a car it's certainly never a bad idea to check your tires before each ride. Especially if it's been a while.
Bike Pump Options
The pro's choice, floor pumps do a great job. They are easier to pump and attach, and will pump your tires up much quicker than a hand pump will. Some come with gauges, which eliminate 1) the need to switch back and forth between a pump and standalone gauge, or 2) if you're really lazy, outright guesswork.
However, some expert cyclists are cautious of floor pumps with gauges, as the accuracy of the gauge can svary and may be off by as much as 10 PSI. On the plus side, if the gauge is consistent you can calculate the difference and adjust your target PSI to compensate.
It may be tempting to simply use the air compressor at your neighborhood Exxon, but these are less than accurate and can often overinflate your tires (it's a gas station, they're meant for cars). For serious riders whose circuits take them far from home, a small hand pump can help you change a flat on the fly. Carbon dioxide inflators accomplish the same thing if you're an air-in-the-can kind of guy.
Essential for any enthusiastic cyclist, hand pumps are harder work to fill the tire with, and aren't as quick. But they're transportable, so you always have your pump with you. It's simply foolish to embark on any long distance bike ride without your trusty hand pump and puncture repair kit.
So there you go, we hope this quick guide to bike PSI pressure was useful. To recap: figure out what feels most comfortable based on your particular cycling style. Go with that. Keep an eye on your pressure, and check it before every ride. You'll get a feel for it over time. Like, literally.