A rambling journey through the history of bicycle tyre valves to pump nirvana - By Steve Yates
When I was a kid there were three kinds of valves used on bike tyres. Most of the bikes I came across had a valve like small car tyre valve. These are called “Woods” or “Dunlop” valves and are British in origin, but at the time they were just normal. A few bikes had actual car tyre, or “Schrader”, valves, which seemed like a practical option as it allowed you to pump them at a service station. If you were brave enough to risk an exploding tyre! A few strange bikes ridden by odd types with shaved legs had a third type of valve. These were as thin and exotic and alluring as their mystical name: “Presta”.
Five decades later, incredibly, there are the same three types of valves being used on bikes. The only significant change is that Schraders are now the most common valve and Woods valves have become rarities. I have not seen one for a long time but apparently they persist on Dutch bikes and in some Asian countries.
While researching this piece I learned that the Presta valve was invented in 1880 by the guy who founded the French company Zéfal. It’s a tragedy of modern cycling that their classic frame-fit pumps have been sideline by the diversity of modern frame shapes. Their website still optimistically states that the Z-HPX “spring locking system fits any frame without the need for straps or secondary fixings”, but I suspect it’s really a case of doesn’t quite fit anything. Luckily I have a classic steel framed single speed to mount mine on. It’s also still my travel pump of choice as no other hand pump I’ve seen comes as close to track pump performance in a lightweight package.
The Presta was designed specifically for bikes, with the thinner profile requiring a smaller hole in the rim having less impact on strength. They are also lighter than Schraders and so create less of an imbalance on lightweight wheels. So far so good, but they have one fundamental flaw in the design. The thread you can use to attach your pump chuck to the valve is the same thread you use to remove the valve core. This means that it’s possible to accidentally unscrew the core when unscrewing the chuck. Rapid deflation and equally rapid frustration are the natural result.
For a long time my track pump was a classic Silca. The design harked back to an age when most of the components of a mechanical device could be found at the hardware store, so the first time it stopped working the only special part I needed was the leather washer. The rest was standard metal nuts and washers. I guess they were a bit harder on the leather than the original plastic nut, so the repair only lasted a year or so.
I’d grown weary of the slowly degrading seal inevitable with the rubber grommets found in typical chucks that grip the valve by squeezing the grommet with a lever action clamp. It seemed obvious that a thread-on chuck had to provide better and more consistent performance, and I had always been a bit bemused that so few pumps offered this option. The good old plastic pumps with the hose in the handle for your Woods valve all worked that way!
After looking around a bit I settled on a Lezyne high pressure track pump fitted with their “ABS flip chuck”. This was the second version of the flip chuck which, like a lot of chucks, accommodated both Presta and Schrader valves by being unscrewed, flipped around, and re-attached.
The “ABS” bit sounds like something that will stop you from crashing, but in Lezyne it stands for “Air Bleed System” and refers to a button added to the chuck that allows you to bleed the pressurised air that builds up between the pump and a Presta valve. This makes the chuck easier to remove and reduces the likelihood of the valve core coming off with it.
I was pretty happy with this setup, though certain brands of tubes I won’t name here were still particularly inclined to lose their cores despite the ABS. The only real problem with the design was that while the chuck was supposed to rotate on the end of the hose, it often didn’t do this well, leading to annoying twists in the hose.
Then one day some tiny part inside the chuck broke and the ABS button flew off and disappeared on the lawn. This was disappointing and left me wondering if I should replace the chuck or the whole pump, so it was interesting to find that Lezyne had a whole new version of the chuck for me to contemplate. The original flip chuck had been a small piece of silver machined aluminium, the ABS flip chuck was anodised gold with a black button, and the new ABS-1 Pro was a gaudy combination of gold, black and red. Well I guess I wasn’t going to be taking it out anywhere so I took a punt and ordered one.
As well as being garish it’s big and L-shaped and looks like it belongs in a dentist’s toolbox, but after a few months use I have to say it makes every other pump chuck I’ve seen seem like a toy. The right-angle allows the chuck head to engage the valve without any bend in the hose, making attachment and removal very easy. The part that threads on to the valve rotates smoothly at the right-angle so there is no possibility of twisting the hose, and the trusty ABS button is there to help out.
So if like me you think the thread on a valve core has more to do in life than secure a dust cap, I cannot recommend the Lezyne ABS-1 Pro chuck highly enough. My only complaint is that the chunky elbow shape will not snap into the chuck holder on my old pump, but it’s small price to pay for turning the onerous job of pumping up my tyres into a pleasant few minutes with a precision instrument. Now all we need is for someone to redesign the valve so the chuck doesn’t have to thread onto the valve core.